My Memetic Misunderstandings

My Memetic Misunderstandings

A transcript of the above talk

Hi, I'm Tim Tyler, and today I'll be discussing some of the misunderstandings of cultural evolution which I once laboured under.

This is, essentially, a confession video, where I publicly parade the history of my own confusion.

My motivations are mostly:

  • I want to publish my misunderstandings - so that others may avoid them;

  • I want to record my misunderstandings, while I can still remember them, so I have a record of them which might help me to avoid similar problems in the future;

Firstly, a brief history: my introduction to cultural evolution came with reading The Selfish Gene - in 1985.

The next major injection of such material was Gary Cziko's book entitled: Without Miracles. I liked Without Miracles enough to write a review of it in 2002 - a compliment which I rarely pay a book.

It was more of an excuse to grind my own axe on the subject than a review - I put forward the idea that Gary had things backwards - and that:

Rather than attempt to shoehorn science and technology into the straitjacket of Darwinian selection, I would prefer that the reverse approach be taken - namely that Darwinian selection should be seen as a backwards and degenerate case of the search for knowledge - which exists because it is prebiotically plausible, and can "get off the ground" easily.
After writing this essay, it sat on my web site for six years. In January 2008, I had reason to refer to it - and I reread it - to see if it needed editing before I cited it. At the time, I thought it stood up reasonably well. However, I noticed that the idea I quoted above was one which was interesting and seemed to be under-appreciated.

I thought about expanding on the theme - wrote the teaser for A New Kind Of Evolution - and began researching the existing literature on cultural evolution.

Somewhat to my surprise, my views underwent a fairly dramatic paradigm shift as I looked into the issue - and instead of converging on a more orthodox view, as my understanding deepened, my opinions seemed to become increasingly unorthodox. It wasn't just me who hadn't previously grasped this material - almost everyone I discussed the matter with seemed to be in the dark about it - and there was practically no mention of it in most textbooks on evolution.

Though I had been interested in evolutionary biology for decades, it hadn't previously occurred to me to consider cultural evolution very deeply - and it turned out that I had several fairly major misunderstandings of the phenomenon. What I was looking at turned out to be significantly more exciting and revolutionary than I had previously imagined it to be.

Next, on to my misunderstandings:

  • Evolutionary epistemology is associated with the discredited work of Karl Popper

    I reasoned something like:

    Evolutionary epistemology is closely associated with the work of Karl Popper; Popper's work is a poor represention of how science works; therefore evolutionary epistemology is wrong.

    Enthusiasts of cultural evolution often do seem to favour the work of Karl Popper - who presented an evolutionary epistemology of science in his book The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

    He suggested that scientific theories evolve, and sometimes go extinct - through a process he called falsification.

    However, few these days accept Popper's picture of science. Theories have associated probabilities. Falsification is not much like death - theories that do not conform to the data can be resurrected if that data turns out to have been fabricated. "Dead" theories - such as the idea of the luminiferous aether and the phlogiston theory of fire live a zombie existence in the history books - and still play some role in guiding scientific investigations from there.

    I thought these issues reflected poorly on theories of cultural evolution - since they represented a mismatch between how things work in classical Darwinian evolution, and how they work in the evolution of scientific theorise. They do reflect poorly on the version of cultural evolution I had in mind at the time - but that view turned out to be rather naive and simplistic.

    My aha! moment on this issue came when I imagined the fate of the information representing a scientific theory. I saw that falsification was not the end of this information, and so the theory was still alive, at least while it remained recorded in the history books. Falsification was not a fatal blow to the associated meme - but was better thought of as being a sticky label attached to it, reading, "this theory is false".

  • Culture is not really "selected"

    I reasoned that memes - like genes must be selected - or chosen. However, ideas do not necessarily perpetuate themselves through being chosen. So, ideas are not like genes in that respect.

    This was another of my early problems with the idea of cultural evolution. To illustrate it with an example:

    A scientist might see from experimental results which include the values of a function at 1, 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9 and that 5 is likely to be the actual optimum value of that function. That is not conclusion that involves a "selection" made from the previous trials - whereas selection - in the form of a choice from proffered alternatives - is a fundamental principle in traditional evolution.

    I resolved this issue by deciding that choice from proffered alternatives was not as fundamental to Darwinian evolution as I had originally thought. Evolution does something more like rating organisms than "choosing" them - since organisms can have multiple offspring. Also, in sexual selection many organisms are not really "chosen" rather they are the choosers.

    David Hull attemped to deal with this issue by a radical redefinition of the term "selection". I do not approve of that resolution - in my view, it is better to taboo the term "selection" (in this context) than to give the term an esoteric technical meaning that conflicts with what it says in the dictionary.

  • Memes are replicators - but you can have evolution without replicators

    I reasoned: memes are defined as being replicators; replicators are unnecessary for evolution; and so you can have cultural evolution without memes.

    It turns out that I was not alone in observing this - it was one of the five reasons cited by Henrich, Boyd and Richerson for rejecting memetics in a 2002 paper, entitled " Five Misunderstandings about Cultural Evolution".

    The problem is with the premise: that memes are defined as being replicators. Some people define memes as being replicators - just as they define genes as being replicators.

    "Replicator" has strong implications of high-fidelity informaion transmission. However, the condition required for an evolutionary process is the sustained persistence of information via copying. This need not necessarily be via high-fidelity copying - as illustrated by John von Neumann's paper relating to the synthesis of reliable organisms from unreliable components.

    Since in practice, most genes and memes are replicators, this is a rather abstract theoretical issue.

    My solution is simply not to define genes and memes as being replicators. Rather they consist of Shannon mutual information that survives across multiple generations by copying.

  • Meme evolution is not part of biological evolution

    I covered this issue in the "Misunderstood memetics" video. To recap, if you consider evolution to be changes in the heritable traits of a population over time, then according to that definition, cultural evolution is part of biological evolution. Inheritance via behavioural imitation is still inheritance. Having a bone through your nose is still a trait.

    For some reason, I didn't get this basic and fundamental point originally. I thought of biological and cultural evolution as largely separate, though linked, processes - with quite different dynamics.

    The memetics perpective is that they are a single process operating on different types of replicator, which themselves have different properties and propensities.

  • My embrace of memetics

    An anecdote to close with:

    After properly embracing cultural evolution, I kept memetics at arm's length for a while, while considering my views on it. The main bad things about it were, from my perspective:

    • The definition of a meme is mired in confusion - due to the issue of whether genes only exist in brains or not. Having to repeatedly explain my take on this issue whenever I mentioned memes seemed likely to become tedious.

    • Also, I thought that the terminology was not really necessary. If you use an information-theory definition of the term "gene" it's quite possible to simply use "gene" and "genetics" to describe memetic phenomena - and for some time I considered doing just that.

    However, there are some benefits for having a single neat term for a viral idea. I could hardly adopt Boyd and Richerson's "cultural variant" terminology - that's simply a word-salad.

    Also, I figured that if I did use the term "gene" to refer to concepts, I would still frequently have to do a lot of explaining before anyone understood what I was talking about - since the information-theory definition of "gene" is not what most people think of when you use the term. Whereas if I simply used the term "concept", then any implied link biology would be lost.

    So, at the end of the day - in the competition for the relevant niche in my brain - the term "meme" eventually made it.

    Here ends my list of my memetic misunderstandings. Enjoy!


    1. Tim Tyler - Universal selection;

  • Tim Tyler | Contact |