We hate memes, pass it on…
Posted by gregdowney on June 12, 2008
Vaughn at Mind Hacks has a short post, Memes exist: tell your friends (clever, Vaughn, very clever), which links to a couple of meme-related talks at TED. Daniel linked to a lot of the TED talks back in April (TED: Ideas Worth Spreading), but Vaughn focuses on videos of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, both of whom are ardent meme advocates.
I’ve watched both talks, more than a half hour of my finite lifespan that I will never get back (okay, I’ve wasted part of my finite life doing worse… I think), so I need to unburden myself. 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. Let me just make this perfectly clear: I teach about evolutionary theory. I like Charles Darwin. I have casts of hominid skulls in my office. I still think ‘memetics’ is nonsense on stilts on skates on thin ice on borrowed time (apologies to Bentham), as deserving of the designation ‘science’ as astrology, phrenology, or economic forecasting.
What’s hard for me to understand is that I LIKE some of Daniel Dennett’s work, and I can’t cite Dennett’s other work confidently when he has picked up a ‘meme franchise,’ and is plugging away with the ‘meme’ meme, making it appear that I’m down with this later material. Blackmore, on the other hand, is a reformed para-psychologist, so she’s, at worst, made a lateral move in terms of respectability. I get particularly irritated during her talk because I think she does an enormous disservice to Darwin’s Origin of Species, but I will try not to late my irritation show too much (even though our regular readers know I won’t be able to manage). I wasn’t going to really heap scorn on Blackmore until I read her own account of TED on the Guardian’s website; gloves are now off.
But I digress, back to the content of the concept and Vaughn’s comments…
Vaughn argues that:
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.
As a critic of memes, I agree with Vaughn to some degree; for example, even Bruce Edmonds argued that memetics had produced limited empirical research in the last edition of the Journal of Memetics before it went into a deep sleep (from which someone is trying to awaken it. Shhh… let it sleep…).
But I would suggest that Vaughn’s single reason for critics’ annoyance severely under-represents the many, varied, and significant reasons that some of us loathe ‘memetics’ (I speak here only for myself, not for Daniel, who may not have the same severe twitch I develop around talk of ‘memes’). Worst of all, memetics sucks the air out of the room for a serious consideration of the ways that culture, knowledge, technology, and human evolution might be interrelated. That is, 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. Memeticists often, perhaps intentionally, seem to generate confusion between what they are doing and what Gerald Edelman christened ‘neural Darwinism,’ a very different discussion of the physiology of neural conditioning; it’s unfortunate guilt by association for the latter, which seems to be grounded in actual evidence.
So, why do I hate the concept of ‘ideas replicating from brain to brain.’ After all, I work on physical education and imitative learning; shouldn’t I be happy that memetic theory places such a premium on imitative learning? What is my problem!? Ah, let me count the problems… I’ll just give you 10 Problems with Memetics to keep it manageable.
1) Reifying the activity of brains
In spite of what some undergrad writers seem to think, the subject of a sentence matters, as does the verb. So when one says, like Blackmore, that ‘ideas replicate from brain to brain,’ we have to ask about the implications of this sentence. Is it plausible, controversial, or just plain daffy? To argue that ‘ideas’ are an agent that ‘replicates’ suggests several layers of reification that I think are profoundly crippling to memetic theory.
If ‘culture’ is already a bit of a reification (treating as a ‘thing’ a complex of heterogeneous behaviors or concepts), ‘meme’ is a kind of mondo-reification. It is attributing to a human behavior, not just a thing-like status, but causal thing-like status (‘the meme made me think that’ or ‘the meme made me do this’). If I come to you and say, ‘The doing made me do something,’ you’d look at me like I was a bloody idiot. But that’s what a ‘meme’ is; a reification of a human behavior posited as the cause of human behavior. Sure, there’s a loopy, pseudo-existentialist ring to arguing that the ‘doing made me do’ something, but it’s hardly a solid place to start a supposedly ‘scientific’ theory.
2) Attributing personality to the reification of ideas
This reification issue with memes turns into a full-blown hare-brained robot conspiracy theory by the end of Blackmore’s talk because of the characteristics she attributes to memes; that is, it’s one thing to reify a concept, it’s another thing to start attributing it a whole complex personality, drives, desires, and levels of different reification. For example, Blackmore says the following about ‘temes’ (technological memes, a new type of replicator even scarier than memes):
But it’s dangerous: temes are selfish replicators, they use us to suck up more resources to produce more computers and more things. Don’t think we created the Internet, that’s how it seems to us.
Uhhhh… Susan, so we didn’t create the Internet? ummmm… who did? While mildly problematic to reify memes, now she’s attributing the cause of concrete, observable things (networks of information flow through fibre optic cable with a very clear history) to a dubious second-order abstraction (not even the memes, but the temes of the memes). Worse still, is Blackmore suggesting that the Internet created us or that it threatens to take control of us? If so, then we are truly in the realm of daft, science fiction free-association, beyond simply the silliness of mistaking a metaphor for a reality. Now she’s afraid of her own metaphors.
3) Doesn’t ‘self-replicating’ mean replicating by one’s self?
There are problems with defining even a gene as a ‘self-replicating’ structure, like, if DNA is so self-replicating, why is it so chemically inert? In actuality, the reason we can pull DNA from old bones is because, in the absence of complex cellular mechanisms, DNA just sits there, kind of doing nothing. Oh, okay so it’s not soooo ‘self-replicating’ that it can actually, well, replicate by its, err…. self….
If defining gene as ‘self-replicating’ is playing a little free with the details, defining meme, as ‘self-replicating’ beggars the imagination it’s so stupid. That’s right, the ditty that you keep singing is really replicating itself in your brain…. Arguing this reveals so little understanding of how brains work, especially how hard it is for ANY pattern to repeat completely. That is, even repetitive action typically involves constant changes in patterns of neural activation; maintaining consistency requires constantly shifting neural resources, even slightly, to take account to changes even in the organism itself.
Moreover, ‘self-replicating’ means, by definition, replicating by itself. Has anyone, ever, anywhere, seen an idea ‘replicate’ itSELF? Although this may seem like a semantic point, I think it’s a bigger logical problem with reifying culture as ‘memes’ and then attributing agentive power to the memes (which, by the way, is a concept created by a person, Richard Dawkins, in spite of Dennett’s assertion that the meme has autonomy).
4) The term ‘meme’ applied to divergent phenomena
Calling an idea a ‘meme’ gets around the enormous problem of incommensurate phenomena in the same category. For example, during Dennett’s talk, he refers to the following as ‘memes': very abstract general concepts (‘justice,’ ‘freedom’ — note: I’m not sure we’d even agree on the definitions of these), political-economic philosophies (‘communism’ — note: you couldn’t even get proponents to agree on a definition), even whole religions (Islam, Catholicism — note: again, you couldn’t even get all adherents to agree on what these are). In addition, in other sources, we’ve seen memeticists refer to single ideas, strings of idea, melodies, and a host of other things as ‘memes.’ Even the most cursory glance reveals serious problems of scale; is a meme a single idea, a chain of ideas, a system of ideas, or an entire worldview? Fortunately, if you just keeping saying ‘meme’ you might be able to ignore the fact that not everyone in the room agrees what you’re on about.
Blackmore tries to finess this problem: memetics is a ‘much maligned science’ (*cough* … science? errr… ‘theory,’ maybe…). A meme isn’t an idea, she says. No, it’s ‘that which is replicated.’ If the definition of ‘gene’ were this circular, would be in deep shit in terms of genetic medical research. Blackmore goes on to use the example of the way a chap in the audience has his glasses hung around his neck; IF he copied it from someone else, it’s a meme. (And if he didn’t copy it, it’s not a ‘meme’?) Then there’s a brilliant moment when she ‘can’t seen any interesting memes’ in the audience… but I thought memes were everywhere, that we were swimming in a sea of memes.
5) Could memes transfer stably?
If Blackmore actually studied cultural reproduction, that is, where culture is being taught, learned, and corrected, she might be more sensitive to the fact that transmission is fraught with ‘transcription’ errors (I hesitate to use the term ‘transcription’ because it dignifies the whole ‘meme=DNA’ metaphor which memeticists are abusing like a borrowed mule). Even teaching might demonstrate how utterly improbable it is that ANYTHING gets copied accurately (my wife is marking final exams as I speak, and trust me, she doesn’t think of humans as perfect idea-copying machines). Sure, my daughter may sing the Kraft Vegemite jingle after she sees the commercial, but is she really getting the melody right? We all know myriad examples of even songs and melodies winding up with garbled lyrics.
Without stable transmission (and no plausible mechanism of meme transmission to match DNA transcription), meme transmission would be a chaotic process, with no certainty that ‘successful’ memes would be transmitted stably. As Blackmore herself argues, for natural selection to work, you need heredity, and it’s not at all clear that cultural materials are ‘inherited’ with integrity. In fact, one could plausibly argue that one of the most difficult choke points for memes is transmission itself; almost like a form of ‘sexual selection,’ cultural, behavioral, or intellectual transfer will impose their own sorts of pressures. For example, if students routinely simplify complex ideas, the memetic transfer has a kind of simplifying drag.
6) A host will not evolve traits in order for parasite to benefit
Over at Ionian Enchantment, Michael Meadon also writes about the Susan Blackmore video, and he offers a number of serious criticisms, including the idea that memes drive brain development. As he writes:
The serious logical error comes in when she argues, amazingly, that humans have big brains in order to copy memes. That is, she argues there is a “memetic drive” favoring brains that are better at copying memes completely independently of genetic evolution. Language, on this view, is a parasite which we only later “adapted to”. How such a process is meant to operate I have no idea. Why would selfish genes altruistically code for proteins that build bigger brains to help selfish memes replicate? I can see how memetic evolution could take off as a by product of increased intelligence brought about by biological evolution; I simply can’t see how memetic evolution could cause larger brains to evolve in the absence of a biological fitness benefit.
That is, unless a trait is beneficial in natural selection to the host, the parasite is not going to get evolution to create a better host for its own benefit. If the meme is truly a parasite, then there’s no way that the human brain is going to grow for the good of the meme.
7) Trivial examples as analogy to ideological change
A recurring problem in memetics theory is triviality being used to explain serious issues. Although she’s attempting to be funny, Blackmore uses the example of folding toilet paper so that the end forms a point as an example of the global spread of a meme. This example is supposed to explain something serious, like the spread of a religion. The same thing with the example of an advertising jingle. These simplistic examples are then argued to be analogous to something like Christian conversion or the spread of capitalism, as if getting a jingle stuck in your head is like undergoing a major religio-ideological or political-economic social transformation.
Dennett compares memes to lancet flukes, a parasite that takes over the brains of ants so that it can use the body of the ant even though the behavior is suicidal for the ant. He then compares this to ‘dying for an idea,’ whether that ‘idea’ be communism, capitalism, justice, freedom, Catholicism, or Islam. Is ‘Catholicism’ really ‘an idea,’ like an advertising jingle or a concept (like ‘memes’), or is it really something a hell of a lot more complex, including a social system of status, a community, behaviours, multiple ideas, desires, modifications of basic emotions, and a host of other things? That is, is Catholicism (or Islam or communism) like a gene? As a Catholic school boy and an avid reader of Marx, I can, with some confidence, say that neither are ‘an idea'; they are a lot of ideas, behaviors, even social relations, with long histories, marked transformations, and whole social worlds connected to them. We talk about ‘dying for an idea,’ but it’s a sloppy metaphor for what is really much more complex.
8 ) Gradual cultural transmission not like infection
The metaphor of ‘infection’ is another one that gets used in memes, as it is clear that memes must have some sort of Lamarkian dimenions. Dennett, for example, argues that ideas, like the lancet fluke, are infectious. Is Dennett saying that the jingle from the Kraft Vegemite commercial has really taken over my brain and is forcing me to do its bidding? And if the Kraft Vegemite jingle has my brain, does that mean that it has eradicated the other memes trying to seize my brain? And will I commit suicide to reproduce the Kraft Vegemite jingle? Or will my exploding brain infect other people with the Kraft Vegemite jingle like some virulent melodic ebola virus?
Okay, maybe I’m mocking the metaphor of infection, but I think that the hooky jingle that gets stuck in our brain is actually a pretty rare phenomenon (in addition, usually a fair bit of creativity and craft has gone into producing that jingle). Most ideas don’t reverberate inside our heads like the unstoppable Kraft Vegemite jingle; usually, a single exposure to an idea is not adequate for it to become firmly lodged in our brains and perfectly reproduced. Religious conversion, for example, is not often an instantaneous event, like a bolt on the road to Damascus or a viral infection; rather, it is a gradual change, often in stages. Why? Because a religion is not a ‘single idea’ like an ideological gene. But given this gradual establishment of ideas, then all sorts of other factors are going to affect whether or not we end up accepting and reproducing ideas.
9) Objective ‘science’ inconsistent with normative judgments about memes
If memes are successful at reproducting in our brains, than how can they be abused or misused, as Dennett worries about in his talk. Can an ant ‘misuse’ a lancet fluke? If a meme were really like a gene, it wouldn’t matter which variant of the idea got reproduced (in part because, aside from transcription errors and mutations, genes transfer stably). There’s this strong stream of judgment in both Dennett and Blackmore that’s inconsistent with evolutionary theory.
Dennett, for example, argues that ‘toxic ideas’ are like the pathogens brought be explorers to the New World. He suggests radio stations are ‘memes’ (but aren’t melodies memes, so wouldn’t stations be like dirty door knobs?), and that Western memes are wiping out indigenous ideas around the world. It’s memes versus memes, not changed economic systems, uneven access to technology and media, and forms of symbolic domination. Dennett argues that ‘we’ (presumably all those attending TED or watching the podcasts) have an ‘immunity’ to all the ‘junk’ that ‘lies around the edges of our culture'; pornography ‘for us’ is a ‘like a minor cold,’ but for people without ‘immunity,’ pornography is potentially fatal.
Dennett asks, How do we tell the ‘good memes’ from the ‘bad memes’? We don’t have to worry because memetics, the ‘science of memes,’ is ‘morally neutral.’ Ideas are like the HIV virus; the way to deal with it is to do science, to understand how and why ideas spread. We should encourage the spread of ‘relatively benign’ versions of the most toxic memes… I find the account incoherent, fluctuating between supposed ‘scientific’ neutrality and extreme normativity. The problem is that, without any sort of social or political theory (it’s just memes versus memes out there), there’s really no logical ground for Dennett or Blackmore to make the judgments about good and bad memes that they seem so likely to make. It’s one reason that Blackmore’s critique becomes completely mad at the end of the talk — she has a sense of moral outrage, but she singles out robot ‘temes’ that might eradicate us as the great threat. In a world of profound economic inequality, inadequate educational systems, massive health problems, ecological dangers, and the like, her fear would be comical, if I weren’t livid.
The end of Blackmore’s talk descends into a chaos of wild ideas — self-replicating ‘temes’ (technological memes), life on other planets, robot replicators taking over for humans. The bizarre turn might appear unusual if you assumed Blackmore was a rational evolutionary theorist or psychologist, but remember, she started off as a para-psychologist.
10) Resistance to memetics is not ‘anti-Darwinism'; Darwinism not a religion
Finally, I resent the argument that Dennett makes, that all those who resist memetics are ‘anti-Darwinist’ or afraid of the implications of Darwin’s ideas. I’m more than comfortable with Darwin’s contribution to evolutionary theory, especially natural selection, and I think his works (not just Origin of Species) were remarkable, but I don’t adhere to ‘Darwinism’ as if it were a scholastic faith.
It’s not ‘Darwinism’ that I support, like it’s a cult or a form of thought that I must follow religiously; I believe that ‘Darwinism’ is only useful in that it is a theory that provides hypotheses to be tested, a powerful explanatory framework that explains some (though not all) phenomena. That is, when Dennett argues that some people are insufficiently Darwinist because they don’t want to apply ‘Darwinism’ to the world-wide web or Hoover Dam, I feel like he’s treating ‘Darwinism’ as a one-size-fits-all über-explanation. That’s not science — that’s a cult. In fact, most people who study evolution argue that there a LOT of things that must be added to ‘Darwinism’ to get modern evolutionary theory (like, say, ooooh, genes…). So for Dennett to argue that it’s sufficiently ‘Darwinist’ to believe in memes, he’s stuck with a massive problem; a) Darwin didn’t know about genes, and b) Darwin certainly never mentioned ‘memes.’ So, then, Darwin wasn’t sufficiently ‘Darwinist’?
But worse, does Blackmore really believe in ‘Universal Darwinism’ as she argues? Is she even listening to herself? Does Darwinism explain the culinary arts? Fractals? Astrophysics? The development of animation? Royal marriages? Reality TV? Which direction water goes down the toilet? I’m not just being facetious — Blackmore’s position is simply incoherent.
Even the notion that Darwin had the ‘best idea anyone every had’ (Blackmore’s line, not mine), that the idea ‘explains all design in the universe’ (again, NOT my line — the word ‘design’ alone makes me cringe), suggests that Darwin’s insight was a kind of creation or invention when I think it’s better to describe it as a perception, or an analysis, or an insight. Darwin’s discussion of natural selection was not just a ‘great idea'; it was a ‘great observation.’ Darwin was a scientist. That’s what made his thinking great. He observed closely and fit theories to data, accepting when observations required overturning accepting ways of thinking. In fact, ‘Creation’ was a ‘great idea,’ too. Sucks that it doesn’t line up with observable facts. But that’s the way the creationist cookie crumbles.
Susan Blackmore: an irony-free blogger
One irony in all this is that Susan Blackmore, a veritable fountain of fuzzy-headed ideas, goes after Jill Bolte Taylor for some bits in her account of surviving a stroke and paralysis on Blackmore’s own blog account of TED. (Daniel liked to some material on Jill Bolte Taylor by Leslie Kaufman in Wednesday Round Up #13.) Blackmore thinks Jill Bolte Taylor’s ideas… errrr, memes, are not good ones, but she’s worried that they’ve escaped into the congenial environment of the internet, where they’ll have an undeserved additional lease on life. She writes:
The disquiet I feel about this is, I think, that scientific ideas must compete to be accepted. Within science, and at scientific conferences, the valid ones win by experiment and peer review, and the false ones are weeded out. In the great wide word of the web, and with easy access to podcasts, false ideas may thrive because of fine presentation or moving emotional manipulation. Taylor’s was precisely that.
Obviously, Blackmore’s irony meter is on the blink; the Journal of Memetics declared its own demise in 2005, including a number of obituaries for the whole concept (note: the JoMemetics site currently has all of its links broken). As Blackmore herself says, sometimes even the critique of experiment and peer review isn’t enough to put to rest a lousy idea. Jill Bolte Taylor’s account is a personal reflection on an experience, in contrast; we can be forgiven if we cut her some semiotic slack, especially talking about such an intensely personal experience. In contrast, Blackmore calls for the scientific review which has repeatedly found the meme concept wanting. I’d say it’s sort of like the pot calling the fruit bowl, ‘black.’
Cartoon by the very funny, and very generous, Hugh MacLeod, gaping void cartoons, from the back of a business card, and he offers them under a Creative Commons license. This cartoon, ‘The Hughtrain,’ is great, but I’ll try to post some more over the coming weeks.