Sunday, 3 January 2010

Dawkins discusses memes

Richard Dawkins talks to Thunderf00t about memes.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

New "memetic takeover" article

The article is titled:

"Synthetic Existence - We'll live on... not through our genes but through our memes."

This is a rather weak blog post, full of pictures and short on substance - but it indicates that the idea of a modern memetic takeover may be gradually becoming more mainstream.

Cultural diffusion

One complaint some anthropologists have made about memetics is that practitioners ignored previous work on the topic.

To quote from Engaging anthropology: the case for a public presence By Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Anthropologists have noted, with some irritation that none of the leading advocates of memetics discuss earlier work on cultural diffusion, which is very considerable.

The accusation is probably correct. So, a few brief words from me about cultural diffusion.

First a couple of popular articles on the subject - to provide some context:

To a certain extent, the issue is one of terminology.

Memetics replaces the concept of cultural diffusion with cultural epidemiology - the idea that ideas spread contagiously - like mind viruses - and that epidemiology is a more appropriate metaphor than diffusion was.

On the positive side, terminology based on epidemiology captures the ideas of cultural immunity, vectors, resistance, rapid evolution and pathogenic infections well. On the other hand, it is hard to spell, and tends to suggest ideas are more pathogenic than they are beneficial symbionts - which is not necessarily accurate.

Diffusion tends to conjur up the idea of physical diffusion processes (such as gas diffusion) more. It fails to capture the dynamic, biological side of the process. There is no hint that the ideas might evolve. On a more positive note, it is more neutral about whether the culture is beneficial or harmful to the DNA it coexists with.

I don't think there is much of a contest really. The memetics terminology is much better. The anthropological terminology seems to have been largely abandoned by anthropologists since then as well.

So: the idea of cultural diffusion was a rather weak one - let it die off naturally.

Susan Blackmore video from 2005

Susan Blackmore video on "The Future of Memetics" - which is all about memes - from 2005:

Susan Blackmore (2005) PopTech Pop!Cast from PopTech.

There's a Q&A at the end of this talk - which is available as audio only here - but there is not much about memes in it.

More memes on YouTube

fishingmemes is a new YouTube channel, with armchair philosophy about memetics. Not very advanced - but not too bad. 6 videos on the subject so far. Perhaps start with the introduction:

Dual Inheritance Theory

For an introduction to "Dual Inheritance Theory" (DIT), see the page on Wikipedia titled Dual inheritance theory.

This is basically Memetics without the "M" word from my perspective - and since one of the primary points of memetics is to provide some nice terminology for those who study cultural evolution, I think that sucks.

The page contains a list of differences between DIT and memetics.

It claims memetics focuses on replicators, while DIT allows looser forms of cultural transmission. A complete theory of cultural evolution should obviously include those systems with low-fidelity transmission. They are evidently capable of cumulative adaptations, if used in conjunction with error correction.

However, IMO, memetics doesn't insist on high fidelity transmission, any more than genetics does. Rather what is needed for cumulative adaptations is Shannon mutual information between ancestors and distant descendants. High mutation rates don't invalidate evolutionary theory. They are just high mutation rates. That is true for both genetic and cultural evolution - for both genetics and memetics.

The idea that memetics is concerned with high fidelity replicators probably comes from Richard Dawkins - since he says things rather like that.

The idea that genetics is concerned with high fidelity replicators probably comes from the idea that genetics is the study of DNA - which is usually a high-fidelity replicator in biology. However, I take a broader perspective. Biology is the study of life - but that doesn't just include organisms made of DNA. It includes all living things, everywhere - including aliens, and virtual life, and future synthetic life. Genetics is the study of inheritance in living things. That need not necessarily involve high fidelity transmission of data - though it had better involve high fidelity transmission of information, or cumulative adaptations (and life) are impossible.

So, the idea that memetics is tied to the notion of high fidelity replicators comes from a fundamental misconception people have about the nature of biology and genetics.

Genetics shouldn't necessarily imply high fidelity data replication - and so neither should memetics, which is just genetics applied to culture.

DIT is mostly a rechristening of memetics, minus its widespread terminology, and supposed connotations of high-fidelity transmission.

Update: I revisit this Wikipedia article here.