Memetic Sophistry

Over at the Psychology Today blog complex, Joseph Carroll is taking Norman Holland to task on remarks that Holland made concerning the relationship between the reader of a literary text and the text itself. Though I disagree with Carroll on many matters, I agree with him on this one particular issue. Beyond that, I think his critique of Holland can also be applied to Susan Blackmore’s equivocations on memes. Here’s what Carroll says about Holland:

This whole way of thinking is a form of scholastic sophistry, useless and sterile. It produces verbal arguments that consist only in fabricated and unnecessary confusions, confusions like that which you produce as your conclusion in the passage you cited from your book: “the reader constructs everything” (p. 176). This conclusion seems plausible because it slyly blends two separate meanings of the word “constructs.” One meaning is that our brains assemble percepts into mental images. That meaning is correct. The other meaning is that our brains assemble percepts that are not radically constrained by the signals produced in the book. That meaning is incorrect. Once you have this kind of ambiguity at work for you, you can shuffle back and forth between the two meanings, sometimes suggesting the quite radical notion that books don’t “impose” any constraints—any meanings—on readers; and sometimes retreating into the safety of the correct meaning: that our brains assemble percepts.

Blackmore equivocates in a similar fashion on the question of whether or not memes are active agents. Here’s a snippet from a TED talk she gave last year:

The way to think about memes, though, is to think, why do they spread? They’re selfish information, they get copied if they can. But some of them will be copied because they’re good, or true, or useful, or beautiful. Some of them will be copied even though they’re not. Some, it’s quite hard to tell why.

Here she talks of memes as though they are agents of some kind, they’re selfish and they try to get copied. A bit later she says:

So think of it this way. Imagine a world full of brains and far more memes than can possibly find homes. The memes are trying to get copied, trying, in inverted commas, i.e., that’s the shorthand for, if they can get copied they will. They’re using you and me as their propagating copying machinery, and we are the meme machines.

Here memes are using us as machines for propagating themselves. And then we have this passage where she talks about a war between memes and genes:

So you get an arms race between the genes which are trying to get the humans to have small economical brains and not waste their time copying all this stuff, and the memes themselves, like the sounds that people made and copied – in other words, what turned out to be language – competing to get the brains to get bigger and bigger. So the big brain on this theory of driven by the memes.

The term “meme,” as we know, was coined by Richard Dawkins, who is also responsible for anthropomorphizing genes as selfish agents in biological evolution. Dawkins knows perfectly well that genes aren’t agents, and is quite capable of explicating that selfishness in terms that eliminate the anthropomorphism, which is but a useful shorthand, albeit a shorthand that has caused a great deal of mischief.

Continue reading “Memetic Sophistry”

Where Are Memes?

This is more a public note to myself than anything else. It’s likely to seem a bit odd to those who haven’t been following my thinking on memes. Cross-posted at New Savanna.

Back in 1996 I published a long article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (link to downloadable PDF), in the, alas, now defunct, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems. In that article I introduced the notion of units of cultural inheritance with these paragraphs:

Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.

What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren’t of much use to people who don’t know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural “programs”. Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist’s phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities which are the substance of culture.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the term “meme” for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer “psychological trait”, or just “trait”, as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing.

I have maintained that position until quite recently, say a week or two ago. I am now considering abandoning that conception. But first, a little more about how I further developed it.

In my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I developed that idea with respect to music, arguing that the neural ‘trace’ (trajectory in neural state space) of musical performances is a cultural phenotype while the memes are those aspects of musical sound around which individuals coordinate their music-making activities. I further developed this idea only a few weeks ago in a series of posts I wrote as background to a post I did for the National Humanities Center on cultural evolution.

Continue reading “Where Are Memes?”

Guns, Germs and Predictable Reviews

If, like me, you generally like the Guardian’s science features, then please avoid reading Tim Radford‘s book club discussion of Jared Diamond‘s Guns, Germs and Steel. Ever since I noticed this book was on the Guardian’s reading list, it’s been an ongoing curiosity of mine as to how they will tackle the subject. Mainly because Diamond’s book, along with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, urged me to move into studying evolution. Sadly, and perhaps not very surprisingly, you get little from the discussion bar an unequivocal acceptance of Diamond’s central thesis: that of environmental determinism.

Nowhere is there a mention of ideas that stand somewhat in opposition to Diamond’s, such as those in the 10,000 Year Explosion. Namely, the consequences of agriculture on recent human evolution, and the growing mountain of evidence supporting the contention that different human populations have adapted to their local environments.

And just to be clear: I think Diamond’s book is a well-written, scholarly account of human history, and it’s influence is not to be understated. But I also think he overlooked a large portion of the argument.

Dawkins and his army of mildy irritating atheists

As many of my friends will know, I’m quite a big fan of Richard Dawkins. But for some reason his website seems to spawn an army of what can only be described as mildly irritating atheists. A particular aspect I frequently bemoan is the necessity of some members to contort a fairly innocuous article into some anti-religious rant. Honestly, it’s unceasing. Take for example this article discussing Neanderthals. Just scroll down to the comments and you’ll be greeted with:

It all just gets you thinking about why the Neanderthals died out. I’ll theorize that their bigger brains found our ancestors’ ravings about our divine origins totally hysterical — and the resulting campaign of genocide simply took the poor buggers off guard.

Funny, yes? Well, no, not when the same joke/theme/structure is applied over and over again. I’ll throw out some more, as I don’t want to single out one individual:

I like to imagine science as a massive guillotine, with creationists frantically trying to stick objects to stop it’s progress. Science may be moving somewhat slowly, but nothing can really stop its progress. (From an article about RNA as a precursor for life on Earth.)

At least one commenter was honest enough to give up any pretence of being interested in the article itself:

When you look at the big picture, Obama has a tough road ahead of him and needs to harvest the support of everyone in America, even that large swath of intolerant, evangelical America, who are Americans none the less. I can’t say that I agree with the choice but I understand it. ( About, um, Quantum computing…)

Maybe it’s a running joke? Or perhaps it’s what you should expect from a website run by Richard Dawkins? Personally, I find these comments serve as an effective cure for insomnia: their repetitive nature will guarantee instant sleep, plus you’ll probably learn something new (from the articles at least). Oh, and one more thing, what’s with Dawkins’ dvd covers:

Does this make your skin crawl?
The serene sea, the steely gaze, the god-like pose. Yes, it makes my skin crawl too.