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The Problem with Memes

They evolve!

I referred to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memetics
Meme is an idea first developed by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976). He was talking about Darwinian Natural Selection and recognized that that involved an algorithm that was substrate neutral (as Dennett later put it). When you have a replicator whose offspring are the same with some variation and a selection pressure that makes some offspring better at replicating, then over time those replicators will evolve to a form that is better and better at meeting the selection pressure. This algorithm was discovered by Darwin in biology.

Early on the replicator in biology was assumed to be an individual example like a plant or creature that has offspring. Dawkins was writing about how that wasn't quite the case. The actual replicator was DNA (which Darwin knew nothing about) and the arrangement of genes along the double helix. Call this the genotype - a genotype (via various amazing processes) produces a phenotype - the physical form of the plant or animal. He came to see that the phenotype works as an automatic vehicle for the genotype Once the phenotype has grown the genotype has no influence on the outcome - but it's the genotype that evolves as it moves from vehicle to vehicle.

Now this is a very abstract idea - far removed from the nitty gritty of sex and the struggle for existence in nature and far removed from the details of the phenotype.

So he was like - hmmm - is biology the only sphere that the evolutionary algorithm operates in? (EA) He observed that human behaviors could be seen as replicators and wondered what would happen if he applied the EA to those behaviors.
The damn thing worked!!!
The behaviors evolved in a way that is parallel to the way things evolve in nature.

I've read that mathematicians have studied things like those notorious "nigerian letters" evolved and found a statistical similarity to the way organisms evolve. Dawkins coined the term "meme" for these replicating behaviors. And the idea was expanded and developed by people like Dennett and Susan Blackmore. It's still around surviving pretty well I think :-)

But a problem emerged because the meaning of meme evolved and not all of those ideas work very well. There is a process similar to speciation that happened.

For instance one thread saw memes as 'units of culture' and I never thought that worked very well. There is a category problem: a culture is not really in the same category as a phenotype and memes don't seem to relate to culture the same way that genes relate to phenotypes at all. Mary Midgley puts it like this ". . . .culture is not best understood by examining its smallest parts, as culture is pattern-like, comparable to an ocean current. Many more factors, historical and others, should be taken into account than only whatever particle culture is built from. "

One similarity between memes and genes is that each exists symbiotically with many other memes and genes Genes don't work in isolation. They are part of genomes that are pretty big. Similarly, memes don't exist in isolation - they are often parts of big mutually reinforcing sets of memes called memeplexes. Science, religions, conspiracy theories are all examples of memeplexes

Some people have misunderstood the idea of memes to mean there must be some sort of structural similarity between memes and genes and memes have nothing like a genetic code. That just misses that the similarity between genes and memes is at the abstract level of the EA.

Dennett famously spoke of memes being infectious. I think the terminology is a bit of a problem, as if a meme was dangerous in the way a virus is. But people can pick up memes from other people if the meme fits their structure of understanding. And you can see memes sweeping through a population in much the same way a pandemic does - without purpose and only because it can.

Memetics is used a lot on a practical level without calling it that. It's sort of like animal breeders worked with evolution for thousands of years without knowing about genetics. Marketing, public relations, propaganda, are all like that: explicitly so. They all use focus groups to test variations of ideas to see which is

I like the way memetics increases my understanding of society and people. I don't think all of human behavior is based on memetics - I have an appetite problem that makes it hard to eat. That's not a meme. As Jimmy Buffett sang: "It's my own damn fault" :-)

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.