People, Not Memes, Are the Medium!

And that’s the message!

Susan Blackmore is up to her usual shenanigans, promoting memes like the red in her hair, following fashion when it’s just not good science.

She has an essay over at the New York Times, The Third Replicator, and will also be engaged in debate with other folks at On the Human, the online project of the National Humanities Center. The entire essay and further discussion are available there at Temes: An Emerging Third Replicator.

Blackmore’s basic argument is that information is multiplying, and the resulting evolutionary process – due to variation, inheritance, and internet success – is best understood through the concepts of “memes” and “temes”:

All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever increasing pace. New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace…

It is perhaps rather obvious to attribute this to the evolutionary algorithm or Darwinian process, as I will do, but I wish to emphasize one part of this process — copying. The reason information can increase like this is that, if the necessary raw materials are available, copying creates more information. Of course it is not new information, but if the copies vary (which they will if only by virtue of copying errors), and if not all variants survive to be copied again (which is inevitable given limited resources), then we have the complete three-step process of natural selection (Dennett, 1995). From here novel designs and truly new information emerge…

When our ancestors began to imitate they let loose a new evolutionary process based not on genes but on a second replicator, memes. Genes and memes then coevolved, transforming us into better and better meme machines…

[I]n the early 21st century, we are seeing the emergence of a third replicator. I call these temes (short for technological memes, though I have considered other names). They are digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines. We humans like to think we are the designers, creators and controllers of this newly emerging world but really we are stepping stones from one replicator to the next.

The basic analysis is two-step: (a) like so many spectacular failures before, slot humans into a reductive evolutionary analysis – eugenics, selfish-gene sociobiology, and now the memes/temes team (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do good evolutionary analysis!); (b) come up with a categorical concept and apply it everywhere – the replicator (genes, memes, and temes) – even after the complexities of actual genetic “copying” reveal a dynamic and incomplete process, not a prime mover and essentialist causal force (and damn, it makes me mad because this really hampers people’s understanding of how to do neural/anthropolological analysis!).

The great advantage of this is that most people can follow a two-step analysis, a one-two punch, a back-and-forth dance move. It’s easy, often appealing, and doesn’t require a lot of practice or skill to ape.

Let me go back to my initial play on words, off McLuhan’s “the medium is the message.” Here’s a part of the Wikipedia entry on just that phrase which reveals the immediate downfall to Blackmore:

McLuhan describes the “content” of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time. As the society’s values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium. These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of.

The content of “memes” or “temes,” the simplistic juicy idea, really distracts us from two messages: what the social implications of Ms. Blackmore’s ideas are (and she sure has plenty to say there, and does so often), and how technology actually drives wholesale transformations in ways that makes the the concept of “temes” seem so inadequate, so antiquated. Why are a search engine, a social connector, and a video uploader the three top sites in the world? It’s not because of temes – it’s because people use them.

I could go on and on, but there’s not much point. I’ll let Greg speak for me in his post, We Hate Memes, Pass It On:

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.

Greg starts with (1) Reifying the activity of brains, (2) Attributing personality to the reification of ideas, (3) Doesn’t ‘self-replicating’ mean replicating by one’s self?, (4) The term ‘meme’ applied to divergent phenomena, and another six gems for you.

In the meantime, here is someone who actually does work on YouTube and other Internet phenomena, anthropologist Michael Wesch.

Darwin, US Children, and Morals

The United States recently ranked 20th out of 21 rich countries in a UNICEF study of child well-being. The effects of childhood can last a life-time. Darcia Narvaez, writing with Jaak Panksepp and Allan Schore, argue in their post The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense:

American culture may be deviating increasingly from traditional social practices that emerged in our ancestral “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA). Empathy, the backbone of compassionate moral behavior, is decreasing…

In fact, the way we raise our children it seems that the USA is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well being and a moral sense.

Together Narvaez and Panksepp are organizing a conference on Human Nature and Early Experience: Addressing the “Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness”, where Schore will be one of the featured speakers.

Charles Darwin had high hopes for humanity. He pointed to the unique way that human evolution was driven in part by a “moral sense.” Its key evolutionary features are the social instincts, taking pleasure in the company of others, and feeling sympathy for fellow humans. It was promoted by intellectual abilities, such as memory for the past and the ability to contrast one’s desires with the intentions of others, leading to conscience development, and, after language acquisition, concern for the opinion of others and the community at large…

What Darwin considered the moral-engine of positive human thriving may be under threat. Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become normalized without much fanfare, such as the common use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms, the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby is spoiling it, the placing of infants in impersonal daycare, and so on. We recommend that scientists and citizens step back from and reexamine these common culturally accepted practices and pay attention to potential life-time effects on people. It is an ethical issue.

Link to The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense

Squirrels as Models for Human Behavior? Indeed!

A delightful article on squirrel behavior, biology, and sociality today highlights just how great a model squirrels can be for some true comparative research. Here’s another species with phenomenal elasticity, good learning and sociality, and even specialized brain and body parts!

Behind the squirrel’s success lies a phenomenal elasticity of body, brain and behavior. Squirrels can leap a span 10 times the length of their body, roughly double what the best human long jumper can manage. They can rotate their ankles 180 degrees, and so keep a grip while climbing no matter which way they’re facing. Squirrels can learn by watching others — cross-phyletically, if need be.

In the acuity of their visual system, the sensitivity and deftness with which they can manipulate objects, their sociability, chattiness and willingness to deceive, squirrels turn out to be surprisingly similar to primates. They nest communally as multigenerational, matrilineal clans, and at the end of a hard day’s forage, they greet each other with a mutual nuzzling of cheek and lip glands that looks decidedly like a kiss.

The gray squirrel is diurnal and has the keen eyesight to match. “Its primary visual cortex is huge,” said Jon H. Kaas, a comparative neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, A squirrel’s peripheral vision is as sharp as its focal eyesight, which means it can see what’s above and beside it without moving its head.

“We’ve seen seeds that were recached as many as five times,” said Dr. Steele. The squirrels recache to deter theft, lest another squirrel spied the burial the first X times. Reporting in the journal Animal Behaviour, the Steele team showed that when squirrels are certain that they are being watched, they will actively seek to deceive the would-be thieves. They’ll dig a hole, pretend to push an acorn in, and then cover it over, all the while keeping the prized seed hidden in their mouth. “Deceptive caching involves some pretty serious decision making,” Dr. Steele said. “It meets the criteria of tactical deception, which previously was thought to only occur in primates.”

Link to Natalie Angier’s Nut? What Nut? The Squirrel Outwits to Survive article

Richard Dawkins on ‘Elders’

I haven’t been blogging for a while because I’ve just finished organizing the national meeting of the Australian Anthropological Society and my wife, Tonia, got kicked by our (soon-to-be-former-) stallion. But I had to put down some thoughts having watched a lengthy interview with Richard Dawkins, recently retired Oxford professor, the other night. Andrew Denton, one of the more skillful interviewers on Australia’s ABC, tried to get Prof. Dawkins to talk about a range of issues, personal insights, and life lessons as part of ‘Elders’, a series of interviews with older individuals who might theoretically offer some sort of insight from their longer and accomplished lives.

You can watch the video in three parts on YouTube, starting with this segment:

Dawkins discussed, among other subjects, his childhood in Africa, Wikipedia, the influence of his parents on his scientific worldview, his sense of wonder in the face of evolution and the natural world, as well as his feeling that the belief in a divine creator actually belittles our sense of the universe. Dawkins expressed again his views on human problems with perceiving beyond a humanist scale, a topic he had done at greater length in his talk on the ‘queer’ universe at TEDs. You can also watch the ‘Elders’ video and video extras on the ABC website, or read the transcript.

The interview was painful toward the end, I found (I’m not alone — see the discussion on Reddit). Dawkins is brittle and prickly at his best, and when he doesn’t like the way things are going, he can be positively obtuse and testy. Denton, in contrast, can be gentle and funny when someone is working with him, but he doesn’t hold up well, it seems, with such a challenging subject. There were moments when it felt like a soft-focus celebrity interview of a high-functioning but affectively flat android (note: to all the Dawkins fans, this is a metaphor, I don’t actually think Dawkins was grown in a vat of nutrient fluid). In other words, I’m not sure this was a shining moment for either of them, although it definitely starts out better than it ends.

Continue reading “Richard Dawkins on ‘Elders’”

Sympathy for Creationists

Jesus! vs Darwin!
Jesus! vs Darwin!
Creationists suffer the kind of derision from the scientific community usually reserved for flat earth proponents, faith healers and those who do not appreciate Star Trek. Well, that’s not entirely true; detractors of Star Trek are probably more deeply reviled.

In the spirit of stirring the pot though, I recently gave a presentation ‘Sympathy for Creationists, and Other Thoughts from a Sceptical Anthropologist,’ and thought that I might do an online version. I want to suggest that many ‘believers’ in evolutionary theory share some of the intellectual errors evidenced by Creationists. You know the general principle: try to irritate everyone in your audience so that you at least know they have a pulse.

Many thanks to the Macquarie University Sceptics’ Society for their kind invitation. The Sceptics were a great audience, and I only regret that there was no way to audiotape the lecture — well, actually, I’m probably not half as funny as I like to remember myself being, so maybe it’s a good thing. In addition, I can’t post all the slides because they are, as usual in my lectures, filled with the flotsam and jetsam of the Interwebs, including unlicensed cartoons, pilfered photographs, swiped graphics and other materials. Although it’s one thing to use these sorts of images in a non-commercial presentation, I don’t feel comfortable pinning them up on

So although this post will not follow my lecture point-for-point, nor will it have the excellent questions that the audience presented (which my failing memory is already turning into my ‘own’ thoughts in an act of cerebral self-aggrandizement), this should be fun, and it will allow me to link to evolution-related stuff all over the place.

Continue reading “Sympathy for Creationists”

Sex on the brain & neuroanthropology on sex

brainonsexI promised my Human Evolution students that I would compile a sort of ‘collected works’ posting on our discussions of sex and evolution here at I’m a bit frightened to see just how much we talk about it, but here goes anyway…

Over our time at, there have been a few of posts on abuses of ‘evolutionary psychology’ in its popular incarnations. I suspect that these would be among the most relevant for my students in ‘Human evolution and diversity’: Chicks dig jerks?: Evolutionary psych on sex #1, Girls gone guilty: Evolutionary psych on sex #2, along with Bad brain science: Boobs caused subprime crisis.

Lecture yesterday and tutorial today covered quite a bit about sexual dimorphism and, at the same time, the homologies between men and women. For one take on this, and on how culture can affect the physiological development of gender traits, check our Throwing like a girl(’s brain).

A while ago, probably under the influence of last year’s lecture, I also posted a sprawling piece Neurosexism, size dimorphism and not-so-’hard-wiring’.

If you still haven’t had enough about sex, check out Daniel’s compilation of all sorts of links: The Sex Round Up.

Paul Mason provides a discussion of the Sex and Gender distinction along with a whole series of relevant online resources.

And our most recent discussion of a most egregious attempt to do research on slash fan fiction, alleging that these works exposed the ‘evolutionary roots’ of sexuality. The series has run onto three posts so far: Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail, SurveyFail redax: Downey adds to Lende, and Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue.