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Memes: Imitated Behavior.


Memes: Imitated Behavior.
Greg Downey, the author, doesn't like the idea and is pretty blunt.

"I think "memetics" is one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades, hiding in the shadow of respectable evolutionary theory, suggesting that anyone who doesn"t immediately concede to the "awesome-ness" of meme-ness is somehow afraid of evolutionary theory."

Downey is not hostile to natural selection. He teaches evolutionary theory. But he has some strange ideas about memes. But he's criticizing a version of memetics that is popular but not correct in my view.

Let me quote (somebody Vaughn from Downey's article.

"The concept of memes is controversial, not least because it"s hard to see exactly what empirical predictions follow from the theory. Rather than a set of specific hypothesis, it"s really a different framework with which we can re-interpret aspects of culture. What particularly annoys the critics is the idea that cultural ideas are subject to a Darwinian-style process of selection and (presumably) evolution."

I've argued against that idea myself. It is, as Downey says,
" like a theory of humours and vapors in illness, it provides pseudo-explanations in place of just getting the hell out of the way of serious thought. "

One thing he is confused about is the idea of replication.
Blackmore has said, "ideas replicate from brain to brain" which is pretty uncontroversial if you understand that replicate in this context merely means that one person with a brain is imitating another person with a brain."

That's not Downey's take.
"To argue that "ideas" are an agent that "replicates" suggests several layers of reification that I think are profoundly crippling to memetic theory."

Memes are not agents. If you think of them as agents the idea is crazy. First off - the whole idea of an agent or agency is exactly the sort of pseudo-explanation he's talking about but it's not the idea of meme that I (and Blackmore and Dennett and Dawkins) hold

When people talk about memes they do use a common metaphor when they say a meme 'wants' something, but this is not like the meme wanting anything like you or I do. It's wanting in the sense that a cancer virus wants to get into our cells whether we want it or not.

Downey seems determined to misunderstand this stuff. I'm going down his list of 10 reasons why memes are a crazy idea. Number 3 is a whine about the use of self-replicating. I wouldn't use that term in reference to memes or as he says even DNA. Living things don't self replicate. They produce replicants who are therefore not self-replicators.

At number 4 he complains that the word meme gets applied to many divergent phenomena. Well - hem hem - that is very true. I'll mention that below. But his problem is paying attention to the variants of meme that are not viable.

In number 5 he takes speaks about the errors that emerge when people mistakenly say that meme = DNA. Then he kind of gleefully notes that DNA is in the midst of a mechanism that is nearly perfect at preventing transcription errors and a meme can have nothing like that. Memes are like living things in that they evolve in the evolutionary algorithm sense. Even with DNA we need to be way careful about saying how it evolves. What evolves is the fitness a replicator to meet it's selection pressure and DNA is just a component of living things.

But Downey misses an obvious thing about transcription errors Remember that a meme is an imitated behavior. Say the behavior is a new way of making a spear. If you don't imitate correctly then the spear won't work as well as it's model and will be discarded If it works the same then that means no transcription error. And if it works better that will be imitated too and the process of evolution goes on.

Number 6: A host will not evolve traits in order for parasite to benefit.
The evolutionary dance between parasite and host is very complicated. It happens in fact that sometimes that dance ends up with the two becoming symbionts. Lynn Margulis tells us that's where Eukaryotic cells (the sort that make up all multicelled life forms on earth. Two forms of bacteria formed a symbiotic relationship and then merged.

In memetics, the metaphor parasite is used in reference to memes to convey the idea that memes come to us whether it's good for us or not. We may see a smoker and imitate the behavior and then come want to smoke whether it's good for us or not. The idea is to look at how ideas spread through a population and in the proper context memetics helps us understand how that works.

Blackmore and Dennett have been clear about how memes can be a part of the selection pressure that genes face. If a brain that is better at receiving using memes is better at reproducing then whether it is bigger is not relevant until you get to problems with birth canals. But instead of memes going away humans adapted in ways that allowed babies with big brains that could support memes to be born. And some of those adaptations were genetic. And others were memetic - as in learning how to best care for a newborn.

Number 7 is just nasty.
Blackmore in a TED lecture showed an example of a meme that has spread to hotels all over the world It's a way of folding the end of a toilet paper roll. She was using a simple clear example to explain a serious idea. His implication is that is a handwaving way of saying that memes account for (say) religion or ideology.
But its Downey who is handwaving here.
The thinkers about memetics like Dennet and Blackmore have in fact written a lot about the connection between memes and culture. But that connection is very complex and hard to get. But, do you really think you can get all the details of how an ecosystem works by just looking at what the form of the replicators is like? I don't

Number 8 says "Gradual cultural transmission not like infection"
Then he says "OK, maybe I'm mocking the metaphor of infection". Well yeah

Number 9 "Objective "science" inconsistent with normative judgments about memes"
I'm not going to deal with this one. Downey is just incoherent and hostile.

Number 10 "Resistance to memetics is not "anti-Darwinism"; Darwinism not a religion" True that Darwinism (aka Natural Selection or the Evolutionary Algorithm ) is not a religion. It's an essential part of how we understand ourselves and the world we live in. It is possible for Darwinists like Downey to reject memetics by becoming infected by the wrong version of the meme.

The idea of a meme is itself a meme. I once read the idea and it found a place in my structure of understanding and I've even passed it on to others. I've been watching this happen for maybe 30 years ago. Let's recall the evolutionary algorithm: It's a loop involving a replicator of some sort, variation in the replication, and a selection pressure.
When I read Dennett and got the idea of meme from him I call that a replication. I pass on the meme to others as a further replication with variation. Now for me, the idea has a certain meaning that I find very useful when I think of all sorts of other things. It's that very usefulness to me that mitigates the transcription errors that Downey spoke of.

I've also seen other variants of meme. i.e. the attempt to say that a meme is a unit of culture. Or the proximate one that a meme is an incoherent idea :-)

A few years ago I was surprised to learn that this kind of sardonic picture with a bold letter caption across it was a meme. An Internet meme:-)
I was way pleased.
Not only was that a new twist on meme, but it's also quite literally a meme in my own sense too. It's an imitated behavior

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.