Memes and the Evolution of Culture

Wednesday, April 20, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

I bet that when most people hear the word ‘meme’ they think of the Internet and the viral spread of things like planking.  Or maybe new expressions like LOL, or Gangnam style or the Harlem shake.  This week's program may touch on that stuff, but that’s mostly not what we want to discuss. We want to discuss a serious scientific hypothesis about the evolution of human culture -- the idea that memes are to cultural evolution as genes are to biological evolution. 

Now genes, I get.  They’re self-replicating packets of biological information.  All that genes “want,” figuratively speaking, is to replicate themselves. The competitive process of natural selection determines which ones will.  The winners -– the most “fit” ones -- proliferate.  The losers die off. 

Same with memes.  Memes are self-replicating too.  But what they encode is not instructions for building proteins in our bodies, but instructions for building behaviors, beliefs, and emotions into our brains.  Like genes they compete with each other.  The memes that win survive. The memes that lose, die off. 

But there’s a huge difference between the way genes spread and the way ideas spread.  Genes make actual physical copies of themselves.  Ideas don’t.  We  pass actual physical copies of our genes onto our offspring.  We don't do that with ideas.  My ideas are just my ideas.  They’re forever confined to my head. 

Or maybe we're being too literal.  Think about how culture is passed on to the next generation.  It’s no accident that most people grow up, at least initially, believing the religion and  speaking the language of their parents.  That’s a form of non-genetic inheritance. That’s the kind of thing that memes can help explain.  

Now, we couldn't deny that people get ideas and beliefs from other people.  Most of what we know, we learn from other people.  But does that mean that ideas literally replicate themselves in our heads?  Suppose you have an idea for how to do something.  Maybe I like your idea.  Maybe I even decide to adopt it.  Or try to improve upon it somehow.  None of that is the idea’s doing; it’s my doing.  It’s not that ideas actively replicate themselves. I actively adopt some ideas and not others.  

On this view, it's the person, or the mind, or the self that's in the driver’s seat.  You might call this view outmoded -- this picture of a person kind of rationally weighing the pros and cons of various ideas, and then autonomously deciding which ideas to adopt and which ideas to discard.  But Isn’t that what we do in philosophy all the time?  Don’t we do it in  science too?  We consciously put our ideas under scrutiny. We keep the ones that survive the scrutiny and reject the ones that don’t. 

But most of the time our ideas aren’t the product of rigorous scientific experimentation or philosophical thinking.  If they were, our heads wouldn’t be filled with so many awful, even pernicious ideas (and philosophy and science can act as antidotes to bad thinking).  But for most of us, most of the time, acquiring an idea from another person is more like catching a cold.  In other words, ideas are like viruses of the mind that spread through a contagion-like process.  Wich would make our brains the virally-infected hosts, which self-replicating ideas use to get more of their kind into existence. 

Of course, viruses can be quite detrimental to their hosts, and so can memes.  Memes don’t replicate for our benefit, they replicate for their own benefit.  Just as Richard Dawkins first spoke of the selfish gene, now we have the selfish meme.  Our guest, Susan Blackmore, goes so far as to call us humans the "meme machines."  Tune in to hear more of her views on the memetic theory of cultural evolution.

Comments (10)


MJA's picture

MJA

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I think truth One day truth

I think truth One day truth will infect every One and mankind will finally reunite with Nature and just be, "free at last." =

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, August 27, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

in the audio i thought i head

in the audio i thought i head someoen state that the self wasnt an element of christianity?? is that correct?? would teh verse so as a man thinketh.....counter that??

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I'm pleased that Sir Richard

I'm pleased that Sir Richard gives a newbie thought and consideration in an area he pioneered. Personally, I have to believe his ideas regarding genes, memes and extended phenotypes remain pretty solid, inasmuch as any such ideas are only as provable as anecdotal evidence allows. Cross-disciplinarily, Michael Murphy's book, FUTURE OF THE BODY, deals with these issues, again, anecdotally. So there we are. Good luck to your guest. It is all connected---somehow, and, it we are ever able to figure out WHAT how, we might just get the picture.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, August 28, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I think Ken and John hit the

I think Ken and John hit the nail on the head pretty early on...this "meme" stuff is just contrived way of talking about ideas, intended to force and evolutionary model on it. There is no such thing as a self-replicating idea. To work with Dr. Blackmore's own analogy...if someone makes a picture, and it just lies there and no one ever copies it, what happens? Answer: it just lies there. It is not self-replicating in any way.
This "memetics" stuff is ironic--the atheists who invented it (Richard Dawkins) and promote it (Daniel Dennet, Susan Blackmore) often mock us Christians for seeing God in everything. Memetics is an example of desperately wanting to see evolution in everything. It is no accident that it is promoted by people who are rabidly (even pathetically) anti-religious. And they can't even decide what it is they really believe - on the one hand, we are just helpless blobs of matter being controlled by memes that tell us what to do...on the other, Dr. Blackmore leaps at the idea of us creating memes to change society...we use memes as weapons in some kind of mass thought-control scheme. I don't think one can logically have it both ways.
People have ideas, they share them with each other, sometimes they change them, sometimes they choose not to share them. Slapping a bunch of pseudo-scientific jargon on top of that simple reality does not somehow make it a science - and it certainly does not make it evolution.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, September 2, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Scott, I think the comment

Scott, I think the comment was that neither Christianity nor Judaism proposes that the soul simply inhabits the body like some kind of separate thing, as Dr. Blackmore erroneously believes. She stuttered some at that, then skipped away to Buddhism to try and make her point.
Memetics itself is pure nonsense - a completely invented pseudo-science made up by those hoping to promote evolution by making believe that it is everywhere. There is no such thing as a self-replicating "meme" (just watch a poster to see how often it reproduces itself), in fact there is no such thing as a meme - it is a made-up word to pretend that ideas are like genes, and we are merely helpless hosts thereof. "There is no god but Evolution, and Darwin is its prophet."
For that matter, there really is no such thing as a self-replicating gene...in nature, they never exist outside of living things - once outside of them they are dead matter and don't do anything. This should tell us something.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

I was struck by the

I was struck by the difficulty Ken had with equating memes (and ideas) with genes. He kept getting hung up on the "fact" that genes were self-replicating entities, while memes were not. Of course, genes themselves (stretches of DNA with a certain organization) are *not* self-replicating - they need a host of enzymes and cellular machinery to copy - and they don't "strive" to become more common. Rather, the genes (alleles, actually) that work well in the organisms they inhabit tend to become more common if those organisms survive and reproduce better than the organisms with other versions of the genes. Proliferation of genes is not an "effort" on their part...it just happens when the circumstances are right.
I'd call this difficulty a mistaken effort to place agency with a single entity in the process. Ken shouldn't feel too bad, since Dawkins titled his book "The Selfish Gene," but it is mistaken nonetheless. The real lesson of evolution is that complexity and adaptation to environment happens with no specific agency (perhaps you could argue for agency dispersed between genes, organisms, and environment, including other organisms). Dawkins's great contribution was to point out that we should not ascribe agency solely to organisms, although his reaction is often read as putting all the agency in the genes.
The same argument applies for memes; we should not look for sole agency either in our minds or in the memes. Memes proliferate when the circumstances are right - a meme that our minds want to repeat and copy. Are there tantalizing memes that go viral? Absolutely. Can we decide to close the YouTube window? Well, some of us, some of the time, at least...

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, September 3, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

One question that came up was

One question that came up was whether memetics would make testable predictions. One (analogous with evolution) would be that memes (or ideas) have a history with continuity from parents to offspring over time. A really powerful prediction of evolution is that we should see a hierarchical arrangement of species diversity (this is usually pictured in evolutionary trees called phylogenies), with traits distributed as if they are inherited from common ancestors in the past. This is in contrast with a non-evolutionary view, which could, for example, involve the simultaneous creation of organisms with no trace of common ancestry. Of course, the evidence from living things and fossils is much better explained by the evolutionary account.
If memetics is real, memes (or ideas) should also have a history understandable as they are passed from one person or culture to another. This is so obviously true that it's hard to imagine the alternative - that memes/ideas are independent and spring up randomly, are not picked up from others, and don't spread per se. The fact that we can trace the history of ideas is itself a powerful argument for memetics.
Both of these cases are so intuitive that we forget how tied to an evolutionary mechanism they are. I often ask my students why they don't see squirrels with crab claws. They look confused (not having entertained the possibility) until I explain that evolution from common ancestors would prevent that possibility (i.e. crab claws evolved after crustaceans and vertebrates were separate groups). Perhaps I should also ask why the Incas did not know about Aristotle's elements and qualities while I'm at it!

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 12, 2013 -- 5:00 PM

Dawkins also wrote a little

Dawkins also wrote a little treatise regarding something called extended phenotypes---things or characteristics that appear to be passed through generations exclusive of genetic inducements. Other gurus have asserted that our genes know what we don't know. Maybe so; maybe no... BUT, I will tell you this: I seem to know how to do things I did not learn in school (even when I was paying attention.) I attribute much of this cosmic knowledge to my parents and grandparents. Or, maybe I just know how to do stuff? So---how do I know, hmmmm?
As the great TV talk vocalist used to say: ain't that interestin'? Sure.
The Doctor.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, April 21, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

No new comments here yet? OK,

No new comments here yet? OK, I'll start the multi-logue:
?It is instructive, I think, how those who are so certain of their views, vis-a-vis religion and such like, are also doubly certain that some newer concepts of reality are just wrong. They feel this way, seemingly because the ideas are foreign to their own ways (s) of regarding things, or perhaps more specifically, the idea(s) is/are new and were not thought of 2000 years ago. Memes seem to arouse this sort of hostility among those who are pretty set in their ways and beliefs. I like to be open to new ideas and am not bound by views encased in concrete. As to memes and memetics (that word which would signify a study of memes does not sit well with spell check), I am now thinking they are partially interchangeable with Dawkins' notion of the extended phenotype, the difference being (if we are correct) that whereas useless memes may not survive evolutionary tests, extended phenotypes generally do. So they are at least cousins, if not siblings.
It is incumbent upon us to be inquisitive. I have wondered for some time why it is that some among us appear to just know how things work. Without years of formal study and practice. Without having been taught by experts. In these later years since retiring from what my father used to call Public Work, I have found this propensity within myself. It used to bother me because it made no sense as far as I could tell. Now, I simply accept the gift, with a continuing sense of wonder, or as Dawkins himself has written, an Appetite for same.
I do not believe God is angry with me for this. But, even if God were angry, It would have to just get over it.
Spell check does not like vis-a-vis either. Well, spell check will just have to get over that. Some things are measurable-some are not. Some will never be. We always should be careful what we wish for.
Your partner in crime,
HGN.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, April 24, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

Do things come out right in

Do things come out right in the end? Or do we just create a narrative that portrays it so? If so, how do we disenthrall ourselves of it? The world is such a glibly familiar understanding we have of it it is hard to see how we can be doing philosophy at all without breaking through that crust of conviction to the stranger within it. Rhetoric is not a set of tricks to be mastered, but the enemy of reason, to be overthrown by it. The world envelops us with conditioning terms that promise our knowing it without effort of any kind. It is an inhibition against reason. We can make a fetish of it and attempt to manipulate it to our gain, but deepening its entrapping others. A claim of some sort of objective realness or social benefit is question begging. That is, it refers to its premise as its proof. The evidence belies it. That is, how is it that we can be naturalized to what is supposed to be "in our social genes"? Clearly, the world is not something that creates us, but something we create. But why? To save an extensive explanation I will simply state it: we know we are not sufficient to be the totality of meaning for each other, and so we get out of each other's way and let something called "world" get posited so we can be more complete without pretense to defining each other to each other. It is our fundamental need that others be free that we let a world come between us.

 
 
 

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