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FAQ: Memetics
« on: 2003-05-06 09:59:00 »
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FAQ: Memetics

URL: http://virus.lucifer.com/bbs/index.php?board=31;action=display;threadid=28393

Authors: Rhinoceros

Revision:  0.1B

Editor’s notes for revision: This message was (with minor editing by Hermit), originally posted to the mail list of the Church of Virus on 2003-05-06 under the subject "Memetics - a science yet?." The FAQ comprises the original post, and a supplementary article, also by Rhinoceros (Reply 1 on the same thread).

Status
Undergoing editing and awaiting comment. Please post suggestions, comments and replies to the original thread at [ Rhinoceros, "Memetics - a science yet?", 2003-05-06 ]

Abbreviated Copyright Notice
Copyright (C) The Church of Virus, 2002. All rights reserved. Unlimited distribution permitted in accordance with the terms of the Full copyright notice below.

Abstract
Reference to a series of selected articles providing a broad overview of the development of the concept of memetics, reflecting on the interpretations of 'memetics' by various disciplines, and culminating in an article which introduces a proposed empirical methodology which it is suggested may provide an appropriate falsifiable theoretical model which will potentially permit the classification of memetics as a science. Archive copies of the referenced articles are provided in replies to this thread in the FAQ section of the BBS.

Intended Audience
Those interested in topical issues in memetics, or in the development of memetics as a viable science.

Table of Contents
    Title
    Authors
    Revision
    Author’s notes for revision
    Status
    Abbreviated Copyright Notice
    Abstract
    Intended Audience
    Table of Contents

      FAQ: Memetics - a science yet?
      Memetics role in science
      Challenges to the idea of memetics as a science
      What is needed for memetics to become a science
      A proposed theoretical model

    Full copyright notice
    Acknowledgements
    Bibliography
    References
    Authors’ addresses


FAQ: Memetics

After all these years, there is still no universal agreement about what a meme is or what memetics is supposed to do. Aunger has attempted to bring together memeticists and memologists from different scientific disciplines. Refer, e.g. Robert Aunger,"A Report On The Conference 'Do Memes Account For Culture?' Held At King's College, Cambridge", 1999

Scientists coming from Evolutionary Biology, Psychology, and Social Sciences see memetics as something addressing different questions in different ways. Aunger compiled a book, Robert Aunger, "Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics As a Science", 2001, ISBN 0192632442 based on this. Here is a presentation including sample chapters from the book. Robert Aunger, "Darwinizing Culture", 1999.

As Daniel Dennett pointed out in the Foreword of that book:
Quote:
Good ideas can go extinct and bad ideas can infect whole societies. The future prospects of the meme idea are uncertain on both counts, and the point of this book is not to ensure that the meme meme flourishes, but to ensure that if it does, it ought to.
Daniel Dennett, "Foreword to "Darwinizing Culture", 2000

Daniel Dennett, generally regarded as a leading authority on memetics has written a number of useful background articles, but is skeptical of much of what is claimed for it.
Quote:
Currently the internet blooms with dozens of websites proclaiming the birth of the new science of memetics. Most of this is simply awful, but that should not surprise us. As Sturgeon's Law reminds us, 95% of everything is crap.
The hard part--especially during these early days of proto-memetics--is to identify the 5% that is actually good. Sturgeon's Law also suggests, of course, that 95% of the criticism of memes and memetics is also crap, so we needn't waste our time rebutting every silly, anxiety-driven objection.
Daniel Dennett, "Memes: Myths, Misunderstandings and Misgivings", 1998

In the above article Dennett argues against Pinker and specifically against the idea that cultural evolution is Lamarckian (i.e. that traits acquired during one's lifetime are inherited). Dennett says that cultural evolution is in fact a kind of Darwinian "artificial selection" as in breeding. I find it a very convoluted argument, but evaluate it for yourselves. Another interesting article by Dennett is Daniel Dennett, "The Evolution of Culture", 1999

Following on this, Bruce Edmonds issued a challenge to memeticists in the Journal of Memetics:
Quote:
In my opinion, memetics has reached a crunch point. If, in the near future, it does not demonstrate that it can be more than merely a conceptual framework, it will be selected out. While it is true that many successful paradigms started out as such a framework and later moved on to become pivotal theories, it also true that many more have simply faded away. A framework for thinking about phenomena can be useful if it delivers new insights but, ultimately, if there are no usable results academics will look elsewhere.

Such frameworks have considerable power over those that hold them for these people will see the world through these `theoretical spectacles' (Kuhn 1969) - to the converted the framework appears necessary. The converted are ambitious to demonstrate the universality of their way of seeing things; more mundane but demonstrable examples seem to them as simply obvious. However such frameworks will not continue to persuade new academics if it does not provide them with any substantial explanatory or predictive `leverage'. Memetics is no exception to this pattern.

For this reason I am challenging the memetic community of academics to achieve the following three tasks of different types:

- a conclusive case-study;
- a theory for when memetic models are appropriate;
- and a simulation of the emergence of a memetic process.

<snip>

"Stop talking about Memetics and start doing it."

<snip>

Challenge 1: A conclusive case study
Challenge 2: A theoretical model for when it is more appropriate to use a memetic model
Challenge 3: A simulation model showing the true emergence of a memetic process

<end snip>
Bruce Edmonds, "Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics"

David Dirlam has responded to this, making an attempt at clarifying how and where the meme concept is used and goes on to propose a possible falsifiable theoretical model.
Quote:
Abstract
Aunger (2000) and Edmonds (2002) argue that memetics is a theory without a methodology, in imminent danger of dying from lack of novel interpretations and empirical work. Edmonds challenges memeticists to conduct empirical tests. This article presents Competing Memes Analysis, an empirical methodology that can readily be applied to significant social problems. The methodology is implemented in three steps. Step 1 identifies the organization of memes within an activity. Each activity is assumed to exhibit numerous small groups of memes where each meme within a group competes with all other memes in the group and can be combined with any meme from any other group. The succession of memes that occurs with increasing experience can be a powerful clue to identifying competing memes. Step 2 collects records of activities and codes them for the presence or absence of each meme identified in Step 1. Any activity that people acquire from each other by imitation can be readily coded for the presence or absence of competing memes. Step 3 analyzes changing frequencies of each coded meme over time or space. Models of these changes can give useful clues to suggest empirical studies that will provide important social and scientific results. Ecology’s Lotka-Volterra model of competing species illustrates the usefulness to memetics of population models.
David Dirlam, "Competing Memes Analysis", 2003

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Acknowledgements
<<Acknowledgements Here>>

Bibliography
Robert Aunger, "Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics As a Science", 2001, ISBN 0192632442

References:
Robert Aunger,"A Report On The Conference 'Do Memes Account For Culture?' Held At King's College, Cambridge", 1999
Robert Aunger, "Darwinizing Culture", 1999
Daniel Dennett, "Foreword to "Darwinizing Culture", 2000
Daniel Dennett, "Memes: Myths, Misunderstandings and Misgivings", 1998
Daniel Dennett, "The Evolution of Culture", 1999
Bruce Edmonds, "Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics"
David Dirlam, "Competing Memes Analysis", 2003


Authors’ addresses: rhinoceros@freemail.gr

Appendices

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Re:FAQ: Memetics
« Reply #1 on: 2003-05-06 10:11:05 »
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A Report On The Conference "Do Memes Account For Culture?" Held At King's College, Cambridge

Source: Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
Authors: Robert Aungerrva20@cam.ac.uk
Dated: 1999
Noticed By: Rhinoceros

The following report summarizes the issues which arose in the workshops associated with the King's College conference on memes held in June 1999. It is organized along the general lines of academic disciplines, since that is the way in which the workshops were arranged. Details of a forthcoming book deriving from the conference (including a chapter by Boyd and Richerson) can be found at http://www.cus.cam.ac.uk/~rva20/Darwin.html.


1 Evolutionary Biology
Given its origin in the work of the zoologist and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, the memetics literature has continued to exhibit a strong flavor of evolutionary biology. Many of the problems with pursuing this line of research therefore tended to arise from consideration of memes as analogous to genes -- that is, as cultural replicators.

Where are memes? It was generally agreed that the concept of memes should not be restricted to being only thoughts or behaviors or artifacts, but should be generally conceived (i.e., substrate neutral) for now. The possibility that it is behaviors rather than ideas which replicate was not specifically considered, although that is a position adopted by others within the memetics community (e.g., Derek Gatherer, William Benson). David Hull forcefully argued, however, that definitional uncertainties should not stand in the way of progress; it certainly did not in the case of genetics during the first part of this century.

The relationship of memes and genes: It was argued that memes can certainly influence genetic evolution. One need only think of lactose intolerance (an example discussed by Kevin Laland), where cultural practices (such as drinking milk) influence gene frequencies in a group. Likewise, genes may determine meme frequencies, if indirectly, through psychological biases against the adoption of some kinds of beliefs or values. The general consensus was that both replicators should be seen as coevolving in potentially complex ways. It has been a failure of some work in memetics to believe that memes operate without constraint.

Mention was also made of the immune system as another replicator system, acting at a different temporal and spatial scale (within the lifetime of a single organism, and confined to that body). The implication is that we need not rely only on the gene analogy to understand cultural replication; a variety of replicator systems exist, the investigation of each of which can provide insights and heuristic principles for memetics, as well as a general awareness that there is likely to be more than one way to accomplish any evolutionary goal.

A major problem -- which many adherents admit to troubling over for a long time -- is establishing how the genotype/phenotype distinction might work for memes. This functional difference in the genetic system has been generalized by Dawkins and Hull as the replicator/interactor distinction. Although it is possible for a replicator to serve both as replicator and interactor (as in the case of a ribosome, for instance), it it is generally considered unlikely to persist, if only because replicators and interactors have fundamentally different roles to play in the evolutionary drama (as store of information and as survivor/transmitter, respectively). It is usually inefficient for the same entity to play both roles, so a competitor system with greater specialization would almost certainly win out in an evolutionary race, if only because a more specialized replicator would likely be more robust in its ability to duplicate itself. So it seems memeticists must develop a notion of a memetic phenotype, or "phemotype." While there are a number of contenders for this role, none has achieved a widespread tip of the hat.

Part of the problem with developing a rigorous notion of a memetic interactor is coming up with a criterion which surely identifies it as distinct from its progenitor, the memetic replicator. A related example is the prion: is this protein a replicator or interactor (or both)? David Hull put forward one criterion for making this distinction, which is generalizable regardless of substrate and replicator system (and thus a candidate for Universal Darwinism): the relative difficulty of reconstituting the replicator from an interactor. This is a generalization of the Weismannian notion that you can't go "backwards" from protein to gene. This inability arises because there tends to be some slop in the production of phenotypes: genes don't code for one phenotype, they code for a reaction norm, thanks to the impact of environmental conditions on development. So the relationship between replicators and their material instantiations is not simple (i.e., not one-to-one). This implies that information will be lost in the translation from meme to phemotype. It is this loss of information which makes the project of "reverse engineering" (or inferring the instructions from the product, as Susan Blackmore puts it) so difficult.

If one allows that memes can be present in artifacts, then memes such as ink on paper can be replicated with very high fidelity: using photocopiers, we have direct replicator-replicator reproduction, and consequently no loss of information. However, many memetic replication cycles seem to involve stages of translation from one form to another, and hence some information leakage. In particular, more "traditional" memetic life cycles involve brains. If a meme must pass through someone's head, the general inability of bits of brain to duplicate themselves directly means that they must travel between hosts to replicate. But to do this, they must be translated into another form for social transmission -- for example, as bits of speech -- since bits of brain don't themselves make the journey from one head to another.

The first aspect of the problem is that, per the above argument, such phemotypes are compromised as message carriers. This information loss means there must be a reconstitution of the message by its receiver: this is the famous Chomskian "poverty of the stimulus" argument concerning linguistic message-passing. But if there is significant reconstruction of the informational content of a meme by each host brain, then the likelihood of message replication is low, thanks to the vagaries of how each brain processes in-coming information (due to the different background information individuals have acquired, the inferencing algorithms they use, etc.).

One way out of this problem, suggested by Dan Sperber (who also brought this problem to our attention), would be for the brain to have a general decoder -- a utility enabling it to reliably infer the intention of the sender, and hence the substance of the message. In fact, this is what the much-lauded "theory of mind" module is likely to be for (although this, in itself, is contentious; most cognitive scientists believe agents reason upon others' minds as a special application of "instrumental reasoning" with special application to social world, rather than granting such a capacity a special modular status). In this view, brains have evolved filters to assess the utility of information coming in from the social environment to keep us from rapidly being swamped with bad information (i.e., duped into stupid behaviors by people with ulterior motives). This normalizing inferential machine might also ensure the replication of memetic material during social transmission. However, its operation is unlikely to be perfect, so a high mutation rate remains a potential problem.

The need to communicate memes between brains also introduces another problem. If such psychological normalization of memetic inputs is important for communication to be successful, then memetic information is not, strictly speaking, inherited because it is not passed from person A to B. Instead, the similarity of socially-acquired information between individuals has another cause: inherently structured inferential processing by the brain. These reconstructive processes depend on a long history of genetic selection on the human cortex, not the passing of information from person to person in cultural lines of descent. In effect, the cause of the similarity between the information in A's and B's brains is thanks to evolutionary psychology, not memetics. Since the causes are different, one can expect the population-level dynamics (e.g., rates of mutation, types of selection) to also be different. This creates a fundamental problem for memetics as an inheritance process (the most general view on memetics).

Dan Dennett pointed out, however, that the memetic process -- even if dependent on error-correction routines in the brain to produce cultural similarity of beliefs and values -- still confers an evolutionary advantage. This is because the same information is acquired through transmission-plus-correction more efficiently and cost effectively than individual learning through trial-and-error could have done. Further, error correction is an important aspect of genetic inheritance as well, so replicator systems can operate with such assistance without having to be called something else.

It was also noted by Susan Blackmore that Dan Sperber's reasoning leads to the expectation that, if there is a cultural replicator, there should also be selection for improved mechanisms for its transmission over time. In this way, the reliance on reconstituting information from local resources each iteration would be reduced and the proportion of information actually being transmitted increased. Her presumption is that this is indeed what has happened during the major transitions in cultural evolution, such as language, writing, and computer-based communication. But whether these have increased the transmissability of memes, or merely their copying fidelity, remains to be determined.

A somewhat different view of memetics was presented by Liane Gabora. She takes her cue from neuroscience and complexity theory. More particularly, her critique of the replicator perspective is that memes do not function in isolation, but as parts of a complex conceptual network or worldview; this should be the basic level at which cultural evolution is analyzed. In Gabora's vision, the tendency to see memes as discrete, identifiable units is problematic. As parts of the brain, memes are intimately involved in highly distributed, highly structured and interconnected networks of neurons. Therefore, the means by which they are stored and evoked are highly contextualized. So, memes spend most of their time as parts of streams of thought which are continuously renewing, revising, and reassessing the constituent memes. It is the analysis of these more holistic streams of information which should be our primary focus. This can be accomplished, Gabora argues, along lines she has pursued in her own work.

Initally, Richard Dawkins argued it was important to consider the evolution of memeplexes such as religious doctrines. What happens if some component of the complex is missing? Does its ability to function degrade significantly? Memeplexes are another instance of a transition in evolutionary complexity, which should be approachable using "major transition theory" as it is being developed by Eoers Szathmary, John Maynard Smith, Richard Michod and others.

2 Psychology
Another major set of issues concerns the psychology of memes. The question which dominated discussion in this workshop is whether memetics can proceed without a clear idea of what kinds of transformations memes undergo during storage and retrieval by brains. Can memetics leave the brain as a black box, and deal only with social transmission aspects? The virtue of ignoring psychology is that we can simply talk about inheritance processes at the population level and not worry about something we don't know too much about anyway: how the brain processes information. On the other hand, if memetics disregards psychology, and there are major transformative processes at work in the brain, then memetics is only explaining part of the cultural evolutionary process, and may therefore "get it wrong." It was felt by some (particularly Rosaria Conte) that no social theory, including memetics, can succeed without a proper psychological underpinning.

Related to this question is the relationship of memetics to imitation. Two interconnected questions pop up here: First, Does imitation require a complicated brain to do? This issue is important because it determines who gets to have memes: only complex intentional agents like people, or more lowly creatures without cortices, such as birds? Many (including Henry Plotkin) argue that there is no consensus concerning the psychological mechanisms of imitation. This is significant because, as Rosaria Conte says, you cannot define imitation without reference to the mental abilities involved, because using behavior as the sole criterion leads to confounds. For example, automatic contagion (such as yawning) is direct phenotypic copying without the inferencing of mental contents. Counting contagion as a kind of imitation suggests that agents don't need to correctly infer another's intention (plus her beliefs and needs, etc.) in order to adopt or imitate her behaviors. What psychological resources imitation demands remains an open question.

Second, Should memetic transmission be restricted to imitation? Susan Blackmore restricts memetics to cases of imitative behavior because, she asserts, only imitation serves as a direct copying process, and if memetics is to be founded on replication events, then only imitation can be counted as a memetic mechanism. But as we have just seen, the jury is still out on whether imitation is behavior copying or mental state inferencing (as assumed in the "theory of mind" literature). This leaves Blackmore's contention somewhat up in the air.

Because of the general discontent with imitation (due to its problematic psychological status), a satisfactory resolution of these interlocking issues was not achieved. However, it was generally felt that all social learning, rather than imitation alone, is a better psychological foundation for the cultural evolutionary process. The famous example of milk bottle-top opening by birds was presented as evidence. The pecking of bottle-tops has now gone on for many bird-generations, and spread through several European countries. Since it is generally felt that birds learn this bit of cleverness not by observing others, but by seeing opened bottle-tops, which inspires their own creativity (a process psychologists call "stimulus enhancement"), it seemed a pity to exclude such an example from the purview of memetics by limiting it to imitation-based diffusion.

However, if this liberal position on social learning is adopted, many repercussions ensue. For example, the phylogenetic history of memes suddenly becomes considerably longer, with birds and perhaps even more "primitive" creatures being allowed to have meme-based "protocultures." If so, then what distinguishes human culture from non-human culture? In addition, it means that direct contact between hosts is no longer required for memetic transmission, since the source of a meme (such as the tit which pecked a bottle-top) can be absent when a new, naive tit arrives on the doorstep. It is the artifact left behind -- that is, the pecked bottle-top itself -- which serves as the proximate stimulus for transmission of the pecking meme to the new arrival. This implies, in turn, that memetics must account for artifact production, since memes can be associated with these constructions, and not just brains. Such implications were not discussed at the meeting.

A second major point of contention was whether the memetic dynamic can be extended into the brain. Can we call individual learning a selection process just like the social transmission process? This proposal met with some disdain, and Henry Plotkin noted that at least among academic psychologists, this is definitely a minority position. Susan Blackmore argued that whatever is happening inside the head should not be considered part of the memetic process; if it is in fact selectionist, it still should be recognized as an independent replicator system. Others argued that including selection among alternative mental representations was crucial to a successful memetics. Two benefits were seen to result from this move by proponents. First, only through an analysis of mental properties and processes can good models of transmission mechanisms, such as imitation, be understood. Second, by extending the Darwinian process into the brain, the confusion of calling thinking --the manipulation of memes -- "directed," "intentionalist" or "Lamarkian" could be avoided. It was felt that the unpopularity of a selectionist psychology may be largely due to the appearance it gives of there being no room for human agency or decision-making, that all human psychology is merely a random selection process among alternative behavioral choices. Of course, the abandonment of intentionality and free will was hailed as a victory for memetics by the mental selectionists. But no consensus was reached on this issue either.

3 Social Science
From the perspective of this group, memetics is largely a promise at present, with no real results to show for itself. As such, the question is whether it will contribute anything new. It was felt that a quasi-epidemiological approach similar to memetics is already in widespread use in the social sciences. The idea that some cultures are more stable, or produce a higher quality of life because certain ideas spread better than others, has long been around.

What memeticists don't recognize, these critics argue, is that one can have a theory of cultural change which is not memetic because it does not involve social learning or the spread of particulate bits of information. For example, evolutionary psychology explains cultural change simply by invoking variation in what the environment stimulates people to recall. All the information for cultural processes is considered by evolutionary psychologists to be already in place in people's heads; the inheritance of these bits of information is genetic. What remains to be explained is not social transmission dynamics, but recall dynamics: what kinds of responses do different environments cause to arise? Thus, existing explanations of diffusion and spread exist which do not invoke memes. Memeticists miss this "Big Picture" because they are largely unaware of the comprehensive literature which has accumulated in anthropology on cultural change, or the actual history of earlier views (e.g., the cultural diffusionists of the early twentieth century). This leads them to reinvent old wheels and postulate new terms for rejected ideas. Memeticists do not even recognize that the concept of culture -- the thing which memetics intends to explain -- is itself sufficiently problematic that some social scientists advocate its abandonment. The notion simply covers too complex and varied a set of processes to be useful in their view. (What exactly would replace the concept of culture, or what sub-concepts it should be divided into, is not obvious, however.)

What remains unclear to this group is the central claim of memetics: whether there is a novel replicator-based process underlying the population-level, epidemiological dynamic that is culture change. The primary problem of memetics, therefore, is whether there is a new entity on the horizon in whose interests things can be said to happen (the "meme's eye view"). This would be a new kind of function which a social institution might serve: that of the memes. As such, it would represent a real and novel alternative to group-level functionalism, or the various flavors of structuralist thought current in the social sciences. Unfortunately, this central claim has not yet been proven.

In sum, memetics is seen as simply another case of those from outside the discipline, in this case largely biologists, "having a go at explaining culture," but without taking into account many of the complexities this project is widely recognized by contemporary social scientists to entail. The meme critics are happy with the general notion that cultural change involves the diffusion of some vaguely characterized entity, but not with an explanation couched solely in terms of the selection, variation and inheritance of a particulate replicator.

It was also remarked that there is a problem of circularity in the way memetics is generally conducted. Memeticists only study things which seem likely to follow a memetic process, like fashions and fads (e.g., the infamous backward baseball cap). The perceived success of such empirical adventures leads memeticists to self-congratulation. But many aspects of culture aren't small, isolatable bits of information or practices that readily diffuse in observable time. Take the example of language, which permeates every aspect of culture. How does memetics expect to explain these more fundamental components of culture?

The word "meme" itself has problems. Its close parallel to "gene" may lead memetics astray, if in fact memes are not the same kind of thing. It also produces a "revulsion factor" among those who would otherwise be friendly to the Darwinian cause. Memetics is perceived from outside as an arrogant usurper, making extreme, unwarranted claims. This only serves to put memetics in the same basket with a related attempt at explaining human social life, sociobiology, which was widely seen as what Dan Dennett calls "greedily reductionist." Sociobiology left no ground for social scientists to stand on, and all the interesting questions were subsumed under a single algorithm: the maximization of biological fitness. This is unpalatable to social scientists not just because of territoriality disputes, but because such a greedy reduction is bound to failure. Can all social processes really be reduced to selection and transmission? The box of concepts available from Darwinism doesn't impress this group. It seems a very small toolkit when so many theoretical alternatives are already available and there is so much complexity to explain. In fact, theory abounds in the social sciences. What is lacking is insight into real social processes. Explaining these seems a goal quite far removed from the concerns of most memeticists, who are laboring much further down the organizational hierarchy, worrying about replicators. An uphill battle against a wide variety of other approaches therefore lies ahead for memetics in the social realm.

4 Final Remarks
Many participants observed that despite the shared belief that an evolutionary approach to culture was necessary, significant barriers to communication remained between those from different disciplines. This perhaps derived from the varying histories these disciplines have with evolutionary approaches. In particular, social anthropology has a long history of such thought, which has generally not proven successful. Indeed, a common refrain among those social anthropologists participating in the meeting was "been there, done that." It was difficult for "believers" in memes to convince these historically mindful and hence reticent social scientists that this time around things might be different. Similarly, it was difficult for the anthropologists to explain exactly what went wrong previously, or specifically how the memetic perpsective was likely to go wrong itself, even if given a clear run at explaining culture.

This incommensurability of ethos led to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction on both sides. One side seemed to feel that having to address the concerns of "non-believers" kept progress back, while the opposite side felt that the believers "just weren't getting it." Nevertheless, most agreed that bringing both sides together decreased the likelihood that proponents would engage in unchecked, hubristic claims about having explained culture (along with other conundrums such as consciousness), or that social anthropologists would continue to ignore the memetic alternative. Nevertheless, while I don't think anyone was persuaded to jump from one camp to the other, both sides did go away with a lot to think about, and increased respect for those who disagree with them.

A general disappointment was the lack of discussion about what might be called "applied memetics." More time certainly needs to be devoted in future to thinking of ways to do memetics. This should include discussion of existing empirical studies that don't go under the banner of memetics but which could be interpreted as falling within the general purview of this incipient discipline, as well as the development of methodologies for conducting specifically memetic studies in the future. This is because the ultimate test -- which would preempt theoretical objections -- is whether memetics can produce novel empirical work or insightful interpretations of previous results. Everyone agreed it has not yet done so, but must do so in the near future, given the extensive theoretical work already accomplished and the high level of current interest in the subject. Otherwise, it is likely that memetics will soon be perceived to be a failure. This might be considered unlikely if only because, as one participant remarked, just being able to assemble such an eminent, multidisciplinary group to discuss the topic underlines how these ideas are coming to have real force in contemporary intellectual discourse.

Workshop Participants
Dr. Robert Aunger King's College Cambridge CB2 1ST

Dr. Michael Best Media Laboratory E15-325 MIT 20 Ames Street Cambridge, MA 02139 USA

Professor Susan Blackmore Department of Psychology University of the West of England St Matthias College Bristol BS16 2JP

Professor Maurice Bloch Department of Anthropology London School of Economics Houghton Street London WC2A 2AE

Professor Robert Boyd Department of Anthropology University of California 405 Hilgard Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90024 USA

Professor Rosaria Conte Division "AI, Cognitive and Interaction Modelling" PSS (Project on Social Simulation) IP/Cnr, V.LE Marx 15 - 00137 Roma, Italia

Professor Richard Dawkins Department of Animal Behaviour University of Oxford

Professor Daniel C. Dennett Center for Cognitive Studies Tufts University Medford, MA 02155-7059 USA

Professor James E. Doran University of Essex Department of Computer Science Wivenhoe Park Colchester, Essex CO4 3SQ

Liane M. Gabora Center Leo Apostel Brussels Free University Krijgskundestraat 33, B-1160 Brussels, Belgium

Professor David Hull Department of Philosophy Northwestern University Evanston, Illinois 60208 USA

Professor Nicholas Humphrey Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science (CPNSS) Tymes Court Building London School of Economics Houghton Street London WC2A 2AE

Professor Adam Kuper Department of Human Sciences Brunel University Uxbridge, Middlesex UB8 3PH

Dr. Mark Lake Institute of Archaeology University College London 31-34 Gordon Square London, WC1H 0PY

Dr. Kevin Laland Royal Society University Research Fellow Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour University of Cambridge Madingley, Cambridge CB3 8AA United Kingdom

Dr. Neil Manson Fellow in Philosophy King's College Cambridge CB2 1ST

Professor John Odling-Smee Institute of Biological Anthropology University of Oxford 58 Banbury Road Oxford OX2 6QS

Professor Henry Plotkin Department of Psychology University College London London WC1E 6BT, U.K.

Lord W.G. Runciman Trinity College University of Cambridge Cambridge CB2 1TQ

Professor Stephen Shennan Insitute of Archaeology University College London 31-34 Gordon Sq. London WC1H 0PY

Hans-Cees Speel School of Systems Engineering, Policy Analysis and Management Technical University Delft Jaffalaan 5 2600 GA Delft PO Box 5015 The Netherlands

Professor Dan Sperber Centre de Recherche en Epistémologie Appliquée Ecole Polytechnique 1, rue Descartes 75005 Paris, France

Dr. Richard Webb Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science (CPNSS) Tymes Court Building London School of Economics Houghton Street London WC2A 2AE

Acknowledgements
Thanks to Rosaria Conte, Liane Gabora, David Hull and Henry Plotkin for feedback on this report.
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Re:FAQ: Memetics
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Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics As a Science

Source: AungerNet
Authors: Robert Aunger , rva20@cam.ac.uk
Dated: 2000-01-19
Noticed By: Rhinoceros


From the reviews:

"This is a book to be read by anybody with a serious interest in the future of the subject. . .Darwinizing Culture is to my knowledge the first book to attempt a thorough critical appraisal of the potential of the subject. It is essential reading for anyone contemplating a first exploration of the area, and I hope it will be read and taken to heart by all those enthusiasts who gaily promulgate the internet discussions [of memes]. Nine content chapters by an eminent team of contributors are sandwiched between very able introductory and concluding editorial chapters, and although they run the full range from enthusiasm to condemnation, they give memetics a pretty rough ride overall. Indeed, it is a tribute to Robert Aunger that, for an editor who must have some leanings towards the charms of memetics, a selection of contributors has been chosen in such a way as to provide a rich, interdisciplinary set of critical analyses that pull no punches. Whatever headway memetics makes in future, it will not be for want of having both its strengths and weaknesses rigorously exposed and weighed at this juncture." -- Andrew Whiten, Times Higher Education Supplement for May 18, 2001

"It is hard to criticize a book that criticizes itself so fully; indeed, despite my disagreements with individual authors, Aunger's strength is to bring together a diversity of views so that most points are fully addressed . . .[The book ] is to be applauded for the refreshing, conservative approach to a field that lends itself to speculation and exaggeration." -- Simon Reader, Trends in Cognitive Sciences 5:8:365-366


Prominent academics such as Dan Dennett and Gary Cziko have recently argued that we are entering the age of Universal Darwinism. Testimony to this arrival comes from the burgeoning of fields such as evolutionary ecology, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary linguistics and literary theory, evolutionary epistemology, evolutionary computational science, evolutionary medicine and psychiatry -- even evolutionary (so-called combinatorial) chemistry and evolutionary cosmology. Such developments certainly suggest that Darwin's star is rising ever higher as the next millennium approaches.

What unifies these approaches, despite being concerned with such varied topics? Dan Dennett has argued that Darwin's "dangerous idea" is an abstract algorithm, often called the "replicator dynamic." This dynamic consists of repeated iterations of selection from among randomly mutating replicators according to some criterion. Replicators, in turn, are units of information with the ability to reproduce themselves using resources from some material substrate. Couched in these terms, such a process is obviously quite general. For example, this dynamic, when played out on biological material such as DNA, is called natural selection. But Dennett suggests there are essentially no limits to the phenomena which can be treated in such a fashion, although there will be variation in the degree to which such treatment leads to productive insights.

The primary hold-out from "Darwinization" using this algorithm, it seems, is the social sciences. Over twenty years have now passed since the biologist Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a meme, or culturally-shared idea, into the scholastic lexicon. However, the lack of subsequent development of the meme concept has been conspicuous. In particular, there has been no extensive intellectual campaign to produce a general theory of cultural replicators. Dawkins himself has suggested that the meme:gene analogy "can be taken too far if we are not careful." Others (such as virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier) believe the analogy is deceptive because it appears a closer fit than it really is: the meme concept is thus Dawkins' dangerous idea. In fact, a number of prominent researchers have mounted well-developed attacks on the idea that memetics can ever become a full-fledged science. All of these arguments necessarily boil down to claims that memes fail to count as proper replicators in one way or another. For example, Dan Sperber argues they are too mutable to form the foundation of cultural traditions.

However, such internecine arguments belie a more general debate in the social sciences: whether culture can be treated strictly as socially-transmitted information in the first place. While the idea that culture is somehow cognitive, or inside the head, is now generally accepted, it it not universal. And even among those who accept cognitivism in principle, some argue there are aspects of culture which lie outside any individual head -- for example, that emergent social-structural qualities or material artifacts should be included in the definition. Thus, the question arises: Is culture a thing amenable to scientific investigation, and if so, is a selectionist viewpoint the most productive or congenial one to adopt? While assiduously eschewing the "Social Darwinist" heritage, contemporary strains of evolutionary social theorizing nevertheless speak of "optimality" and "adaptation," which some see as disturbingly close to a panegyric for the status quo. As Dennett suggests, perhaps a cultural replicator dynamics produces more heat than light.

In fact, disputes rage at three levels: first, whether culture is properly seen as composed of independently transmitted information units; second, whether these so-called memes have the necessary qualifications to serve as replicators; and third, whether a Darwinian or selectionist approach such as memetics is the most feasible or desirable form for a science of culture to take. The objective of the proposed book is to bring together the main contenders on this nested series of questions, both pro and con. The resulting dialogue establishes the areas of common ground and highlights the points of remaining contention. Unlike most edited volumes, which may address a range of topics in a variety of styles, all of the chapters in this book are unified in accepting the same general framework and addressing the same central question: the desirability of an evolutionary approach to culture. The book is therefore designed to represent the state of debate on the utility of memes as the foundation for the study of culture, and should form the locus classicus for future debates about the possibility of a Darwinian science of culture.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Foreward: Dan Dennett
CHAPTER 1: "Introduction" Robert Aunger
CHAPTER 2: "Can memes get off the leash?" Susan Blackmore
CHAPTER 3: "The evolution of the meme" Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee
CHAPTER 4: "Taking memetics seriously: Memetics will be what we make it" David Hull
CHAPTER 5: "Memes: universal acid, or a better mouse trap?" Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson
CHAPTER 6: "Culture and psychological mechanisms in memetics" Henry Plotkin
CHAPTER 7: "Memes through (social) minds" Rosaria Conte
CHAPTER 8: "Why memes won't do" Dan Sperber
CHAPTER 9: "If memes are the answer, what is the question?" Adam Kuper
CHAPTER 10: "A well-disposed social anthropologist's problems with memes" Maurice Bloch
CHAPTER 11: "Conclusion" Robert Aunger

CHAPTER SUMMARIES

Foreward
Dan Dennett

CHAPTER 1: "Introduction"
Robert Aunger (King's College, Cambridge)

This chapter introduces the notion of memes, briefly sets out the history of the nascent discipline of memetics, and reviews the basic issues which remain contested. It concludes with a short summary of the chapters to follow, which range from high enthusiasm to considerable disdain for the possibility of a real science of culture based on the notion of memes.

[b]CHAPTER 2: "Can memes get off the leash?"

Susan Blackmore (Psychology, University of the West of England)

Robert Aunger challenged us either to provide an existence proof for memes, or to come up with supported, unique predictions from meme theory. I suggest that no existence proof is required because memes are defined as information that is copied from person to person. So, as long as you admit that imitation occurs, they must exist. We should therefore concentrate on whether meme theory is of any use.

I believe that it is, not just because I am enjoying the new view of the world that memetics provides (one in which memes succeed simply because they can, and not necessarily because they benefit either the genes or the people who copy them), but because memetics provides new solutions to old problems. These include the spread of false ideas and doctrines; the origins of human altruism; and the nature of self and consciousness, but I want to concentrate on the effects of gene-meme co-evolution.

As soon as early humans became capable of imitation a second replicator appeared. Since then the replicator power of the memes has driven the production of ever better and better copying machinery for their own replication. One result of this process is an enormous human brain designed especially for the propagation of those memes that have succeeded in the memetic competition. This includes its design for using spoken language. I reject the usual assumption that the human brain and language were designed by evolution for the benefit of the genes and suggest instead that they were designed for the benefit of both genes and memes.

Since I first proposed this argument many colleagues and critics have raised objections, which I tackle here. First, there are the reasons why I have put so much emphasis on imitation. Second is the mechanism by which the brain comes to be not only big, but specially structured and highly selective. Third, the brain undoubtedly has advantages for the genes as well as the memes. This last point leads to a comparison between the human brain and the immune system; the brain being designed to recognise which memes are useful and which not - something like the way the immune system has to recognise self from invader. Human intelligence is, in this view, all about the selection of memes.

Finally can the memes really get off the genetic leash? It has not yet happened but, if we treat the memes as truly a replicator in their own right, then the answer must be yes.

CHAPTER 3: "The evolution of the meme"
Kevin Laland (Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge) and John Odling-Smee (Biological Anthropology, University of Oxford)

All organisms modify their environments, a process that we refer to as niche construction. In doing so, organisms change sources of natural selection pressures in their environments, often greatly affecting their own, and other species, evolution. Humans have a suite of knowledge-gaining processes that are expressed in niche construction, and a capacity for acquiring and transmitting memes is one such process. Many animals too are capable of social learning and can be said to have memes. We describe how animal proto-culture might have evolved into human culture through meme-based niche construction. We argue that the success of a meme depends of its infectiousness, on the susceptibility of the host, and the on the social environment. Cultural evolution and gene-culture coevolutionary theory constitute a branch of theoretical population genetics that assumes that culture can be broken down into meme-like chunks that are subject to independent evolution at the cultural level. These models can be regarded as the basis for a formal theory of memetics.

CHAPTER 4: "Taking memetics seriously: Memetics will be what we make it"
David Hull (Philosophy, Northwestern University)

Memetics as a research program will be evaluated the same way that other research programs are. If one views memetics as getting its start a dozen years or so ago, it looks very much like a Lakatosian progressive research program. The bottom line is "Am I willing to devote my career to it?" Quite a few young workers from a variety of disciplines have answered this question in the affirmative. If memetics is going to remain progressive, its fundamental terms must be clarified, not in advance, but in the process of generating and testing general views about memetics. One suggestion is to view memetics, not as an analog to genetics, but as an instance of a more general process -- a selection process. A second suggestion is that selection processes should be defined in terms of their constituent processes, not in terms of entities. Selection is a process in which environmental interaction results in replication being differential. On some analyses of selection, the connection between replication and environmental interaction is limited to development. On others it is so general that no mechanism at all is implied. We will have to wait to discover which of these analyses turns out to be couched at the right level of generality.

Many of the objections to memetics result from an unreal view of genetics. According to some critics, the genetic material can be divided into discrete particles all of which are fundamentally the same. Since similar observations do not hold for memes, memetics must fail, as any armchair philosopher could have told advocates of this research program even before it began. One need not know very much about genes -- Mendelian, molecular or evolutionary -- to realize that the preceding characterization of genes is extremely simplistic. Once interpreted realistically, genes do not differ all that much from memes. Nor is memetic change in the least "Lamarckian." Lamarckian inheritance requires the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In memetics, memes are the analogs of genes. What one is to call the inheritance of acquired memes, I cannot say. Finally, the chief problem confronting advocates of memetics is the proper distinction between transcription and translation. In replication information is transmitted largely in tact. One area in need of further work is the notion of "information." Translation requires testing through environmental interaction. A second area that needs much more work is the nature of this interface.

CHAPTER 5: "Memes: universal acid, or a better mouse trap?"
Robert Boyd (Anthropology, UCLA) and Peter J. Richerson (Center for Population Biology, University of California, Davis)

Because ideas seem to replicate as they spread from one individual to the next by teaching and imitation, Dawkins (1976, 1982), Dennett (1992), and others have argued that, like genes, ideas are subject to natural selection. To understand the course of cultural evolution, these authors argue, we need to understand why some ideas, or "memes," replicate more rapidly than others. Here, we argue that population thinking, not natural selection, is the key to conceptualizing culture in terms of material causes. Much culture is information stored in human brains -- information that got into those brains by various mechanisms of social learning. It follows that to explain the distribution of information stored in the brains of the members of current generation, we will have to account for the cultural information in the brains of the previous generation, and how this information, together with genes, and environmental contingencies caused the present generation to acquire the cultural information that it did. Thus it will be useful to model cultural change as a population process. It does not follow, however, that natural selection will be the only, or even the most significant process determining which kinds of cultural information predominate. It may be cultural information is not replicated, but rather is transformed during transmission and storage. Such transformations can introduce processes of directional change that are not selective, and if such processes are important, natural selection alone will not be sufficient to understand cultural evolution. Whether or not such not selective processes are important is an empirical question which at present is unanswered. However, in either case, the population approach will illuminate the process by which the cultural information that is stored in a population of brains is transformed from one generation to the next.

We also argue that population thinking can play an important, constructive role in the human sciences. Population models of culture are useful for two reasons: First, they serve to connect the rich models of behavior based on individual action developed in economics, psychology, and evolutionary biology with the data and insights of the cultural sciences, anthropology, archaeology, and sociology. In doing so, we think that it can help shed light on important unsolved problems in the social sciences. Second, population thinking is useful because it offers a way to build a mathematical theory of human behavior that captures the important role of culture in human affairs. Population thinking is not a universal acid that will dissolve existing social science. But, it is a better mousetrap, providing useful new tools that can help solve outstanding problems in the human sciences.

CHAPTER 6: "Culture and psychological mechanisms in memetics"
Henry Plotkin (Psychology, UCL)

If memetics is to mature into a successful science, it will have to be rooted in a causal explanatory framework of proper psychological mechanisms. I argue that memes are not a single entity based upon a single psychological mechanism. Rather they are a complex of entities, layers of information, each layer being the outcome of different psychological mechanisms, and transmitted at different rates. Memetics must also come to terms with the complex interleaving of information contained in the minds of individuals making up a culture, and the world outside of each individual. Above all, memetics must not simplify what is possibly the most complex phenomenon on Earth, that is, human culture.

CHAPTER 7: "Memes through (social) minds"
Rosaria Conte (Italian National Research Council, Rome)

In cognitive terms, a memetic theory accounts for cultural transmission as long as it also accounts for (a) how memes operate through and across the minds of the agents; (b) how minds operate on memes; (c) what a memetic mind is, or what are therequirements of a memetic mind. I also anticipate that, in my view, a memetic mind is a social one. I will try to illustrate what I mean by a social mind.

In the first section of this paper, some known advantages of memetics (foundational, evolutionary, interdisciplinary, computation and simulation-oriented, etc.) are discussed. In particular, memetics is argued to represent a good occasion for the development of a branch of the social, cognitive and artificial sciences, ie. social intelligence. To accept or reject others' beliefs is argued to be a decision-based socially inputed action. Analogously, to deliver or retain one's beliefs is a social action (often mediated by cultural and social norms which establish what can be revealed and to whom, and what cannot be revealed). Therefore, it is arguedthat it is impossible to produce a scientific solid and falsifiable theory of memetic processes without developing a formal, computational and/or simulation-based theory of social intelligence. In even stronger terms, a special evolutionary role of sociality is discussed as an intermediate step in the evolution of mental capacities. Most of the emphasis laid by evolutionary psychologists (cf.Donald, 1995), philosophers of the mind (Dennett, 1995), etc. on language and linguistic capacity should instead be put on the development of social capacity.

In the second section, some weak or missed points of memetics are addressed, e.g., a want of operational (cognitive) models, allowing memetic processes (e.g., the spread of rumors) and non-memetic ones (e.g., automatic social contagion) to be distinguished; a poor understanding of the mental implementatton of memes, often equalized to "storing".

In the third section, and mainly for the sake of clarity, a translation of memetic concepts into cognitive terms is attempted. Some crucial properties of memetic processes and agents are proposed. In this section, memes are said to replicate memetically (as opposed to, say, epidemically) when they propagate (a) thanks to the agents' social competence, and (b) across their minds, from one mind to another. In order for a meme to propagate memetically, it must undergo a social cognitive process: autonomous agents must be social enough as to perceive external candidate representations, filter them according to their internal criteria, and re-implement them into their behaviours, thereby contributing to the replication of a given (set of) memes, or perhaps to a memeplex.

In the fourth section, a list of phenomena of social propagation is discussed. The list, which is far from exhaustive, is aimed to illustrate an incremental notion of social propagation. The examples presented range from non-memetic to memetic processes depending on whether and to what extent agents' social competence enters and mediates the mechanisms of propagation.

CHAPTER 8: "Why memes won't do"
Dan Sperber (CNRS, Paris)

Memetics is one possible evolutionary approach to the study of culture. Boyd and Richerson's models, or my epidemiology of representations, are among other possible evolutionary approaches inspired in various ways by Darwin. Memetics however, is, by its very simplicity, particularly attractive. The question is whether it is true.

The idea of a meme, combined with the Darwinian model of selection, could in principle provide a powerful framework to explain culture, provided that culture was made up of memes. This, however, is far from being the case. A meme, as defined by Dawkins -- there are many looser uses of the term that amount to little more than a new name for the old idea of a cultural trait -- is a cultural replicator, just as a gene is a biological replicator. A replicator, I argue, is defined not just by the combination of a causal link and a relative identity of relevant properties between replicator and replica, but by the fact that the information that determines the properties of the replica is wholly derived from the replicator, or nearly so. The issue here is not the relative faithfulness of the copying process. It is whether the replica, perfect or imperfect, is in fact produced by a copying process. When a non-negligible part of the information realised in the replica originates from sources other than the replicator itself, so that its properties, even if identical with the alleged replicator, are not derived from it, then one is not dealing with a true replicator -- in the cultural case, not with a true meme. Few cultural items are true memes, or even are "memish" enough for the meme model to apply. In such cases of partial inheritance (which is compatible with identity of properties, I insist), an important part of the explanatory weight has to be carried by mechanisms other than replication, variation, and selection. These mechanisms may well be biological adaptations, so that the overall account may well remain squarely within the Darwinian framework.

CHAPTER 9: "If memes are the answer, what is the question?"
Adam Kuper (Social Anthropology, Brunel University)

Dawkins rejected the claims made by sociobiologists that human cultural traits could be explained in terms of genetic programmes or pay-offs. He insisted that the "evolution" of "culture" should be treated as an independent phenomenon. But if culture was not driven by genes, the units of culture, memes, propagate ideas in ways that are analogous to the processes of genetic transmission. I argue in this paper that this central analogy is misleading in all sorts of ways. In particular, the idea that cultural traits operate as independent units is dismissed. Moreover, handicapped by a striking lack of knowledge of the social sciences, and particularly of anthropology, disciplines that have been engaged with analogous issues for over a centry, the memes literature deploys simplistic notions of "culture" and "cultural evolution", and the examples that are discussed are typically empirically weak. The conclusion is that the idea of "memes" is not well adapted to the study of cultural processes. Moreover, the meme literature does not make any contribution to the established research programmes in neo-Darwininan anthropology.

CHAPTER 10: "A well-disposed social anthropologist's problems with memes"
Maurice Bloch (Social Anthropology, LSE)

Social and cultural anthropologists have problems with evolutionist approaches. Some of the problems are unjustifiable prejudices, but some are reasonable and have to do with the history of Darwinian and Functionalist programs in the subject. Proponents of an evolutionary approach to culture should try to learn about these problems in order to convince their social science colleagues that they are not simply ignorant, and in order to devise a new theoretical position which does not fall again into the tempting traps which tripped up the older anthropological writers. Anthropologists such as myself, who are well disposed to such a project for fundamental epistemological reasons, are on the look out for such a new theory.

Is memetics such a theory? No. I shall argue that: 1) part of the theory just repeats what has always been the core of anthropology, 2) that many (though not all) formulations of the theory fall headlong into the old traps, and 3) that the only aspect of the theory which is really new -- viz. the idea that, like genes in the Dawkins formulation, memes are selected in terms of their own reproductive fitness -- is of no use because memes are not distinguishable units and the ontological status of memes is incomprehensible.

These last two points explain why such an approach has, so far, not convincingly enlightened us about any significant cultural phenomena actually inhabiting the human minds of people that are living, or have lived, on earth, even though this sort of explanation must be the goal of an evolutionary approach to anthropology.

CHAPTER 11: "Conclusion"
Robert Aunger (King's College, Cambridge)

In this chapter, I seek to establish whether any substantive concensus can be reached on the outstanding issues that lie ahead for any meme-based cultural science. To accomplish this goal, I first present a summary of the points of agreement in evidence from the previous chapters. I also attempt to account for the remaining disputes by searching for a "higher ground" (not restricted to the viewpoint of any of the contestants' individual disciplines) from which the points of contention might be placed in a common framework. The chapter concludes with some suggestions for the way forward, particularly with respect to the means by which empirical research in this area might be undertaken. In this way, I earmark those areas in which further work needs to be done to make memetics a mature, responsible citizen in intellectual society.
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Re:FAQ: Memetics
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Foreword to Darwinizing Culture

Source: http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/aungerfore.pen.htm
Authors: Daniel Dennett
Dated: 2000-08-11
Noticed By: Rhinoceros

Foreword

If there is one proposition that would-be memeticists agree on, it is that the flourishing of an idea-its success at replicating through a population of minds-and the value of an idea-its truth, its scientific or political or ethical excellence-are only contingently and imperfectly related. Good ideas can go extinct and bad ideas can infect whole societies. The future prospects of the meme idea are uncertain on both counts, and the point of this book is not to ensure that the meme meme flourishes, but to ensure that if it does, it ought to. It works toward this worthy end by creating a landmark, a fixed point not of doctrine but of evidence and methods, some shared acknowledgment among some leading proponents and critics about how the issues ought to be addressed.

The annual Superbowl of American football draws a huge television audience, and as a result attracts advertisers who are willing to pay more than a million dollars for half a minute of the viewers' distracted attention. In the last few years, an interesting subspecies of Superbowl advertiser has sprung up: the fledgling "dot.com" Internet companies that pour a substantial portion of their initial capitalization into a single make-or-break Superbowl debut, hoping that this brief exposure will launch them safely into the competitive future. Why don't they just advertise on the Internet, their chosen field of battle? A similar question was raised a few years earlier about Wired, the (traditional, printed-on-paper, on-sale-at-newsstands) magazine of the Internet. What do these traditional media offer that is not (yet) available on the Internet? For one thing, they offer the guarantee of shared attention. When you watch an ad during the Superbowl, you know that you are seeing the same ad, at the same time, as millions of other viewers, and you know that they know this as well. When you see stacks of the same magazine at every newsstand, you know when you read it that you are not alone in reading it; many, many others will read or have already read the very sentences you are reading. These evanescent communities of shared-and knowingly shared-attention play a crucial role in engendering hard-to-achieve confidence in the message, however trivial the topic. They do this by promising a plethora of paths for coordinating distributed intelligence, making it possible for people to compare notes, pool their knowledge, confirm or disconfirm their individual opinions. It's not that people recognize this promise and reflect on it-and of course they almost never act on it, pursuing those paths of inquiry-but they just somehow feel better, knowing that they are part of a large audience, and this is why they are in fact right to feel better: it is harder to get away with telling a lie in such a public arena. If you stumble upon a tempting but improbable claim during the Superbowl program, you may be skeptical, but at least you will realize (probably subliminally, without articulating it) that the advertiser has risked a contagion of disbelief by broadcasting, instead of narrowcasting, this message. A website may reach five million people, but they all engage, in effect, in five million private communications. We may all be getting the same message, but unless we know this, and the advertiser knows we know this, and we know the advertiser knows this, we won't reap the benefits of truly shared intelligence. As the idiom goes, it helps to know that we are all on the same page.

The advertising that goes on everywhere in science-all those vigorous campaigns mounted on behalf of theories or hypotheses-avoids degenerating into mere propagandizing because the academy creates structured networks of knowingly shared attention and mutual knowledge, so that more or less everybody can be on the same page. It is not enough that a thousand clever thinkers have read many of the same books and articles and come to similar conclusions about them; they must know that this is so. There needs to be a scientific community.

Within such a community controversy can reign without rancor and constructive disagreement can prosper, because approximately all the accumulated knowledge of the participants can be brought to bear on a few focal points, a competitive but also concerted effort. Now that there more than a handful of serious contenders in the form of partisan proposals (see the bibliographies of the chapters), it is time to start sorting them out. A start is all. I am not entirely persuaded by any of the chapters in this book, but this foreword is not the time and place for me to take issue with them. This foreword is the time and place for me to applaud the fact that serious consideration of the meme meme is now underway at last, after several decades of relatively ineffectual campaigns by proponents and critics. The workshop from which this volume springs was heated but constructive, and now a wider audience can get on the same page. It will be the first of many, I predict.

Skeptics may be tempted to think that my foreword itself demonstrates the futility of the idea of memetics, by emphasizing the underlying rationality, the intentionality, of the purported "vectors" of the meme meme. How can mindless Darwinian algorithms cope with such mindful culture-makers, subliminally sensitive to such issues as whether or not the environment includes many paths for coordinating distributed intelligence? But in fact, evolutionary approaches to such underlying conditions of rationality have been leading the way, illuminating the background conditions for communication, cooperation, the establishment of norms and customs, and other phenomena familiar to students of culture. The open question is not whether there will be a Darwinian theory of culture but what shape such a Darwinian theory will take.

It is obvious that there are patterns of cultural change-evolution in the neutral sense-and any theory of cultural change worth more than a moment's consideration will have to be Darwinian in the minimal sense of being consistent with the theory of evolution by natural selection of Homo sapiens. The demands of this minimal Darwinism are far from trivial, and the ferocity with which Darwinian accounts of the evolution of language and sociality are attacked by some critics from the humanities and social sciences shows that in some influential quarters, mere consistency with evolutionary theory is not yet the accepted constraint it ought to be. This is a fact of life that we must deal with: fear of the thin edge of the wedge misleads many who hate the idea of a strong Darwinian theory of cultural evolution to resist conceding even consistency with evolutionary theory as the obvious requirement it is. In this volume, minimal Darwinism is taken for granted; no skyhooks are sought within its pages. But there are still plenty of grounds on offer in criticism of various versions of the strong Darwinian thesis of memetics. It will be most interesting to see what settles out of this new exploration.
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Memes: Myths, Misunderstandings and Misgivings

Source: http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/MEMEMYTH.FIN.htm
Authors: Daniel Dennett
Dated: 1998-10 DRAFT. for Chapel Hill
Noticed By: Rhinoceros

Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, and the reception for many years was chilly. Then, recently, thanks in part to some energetic campaigning by me on behalf of the meme meme (mainly in Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea), the friends of memes began to come out of the woodwork, and a number of books and articles about memes (of varying quality) have begun attracting a second look. Currently the internet blooms with dozens of websites proclaiming the birth of the new science of memetics. Most of this is simply awful, but that should not surprise us. As Sturgeon's Law reminds us, 95% of everything is crap. The hard part--especially during these early days of proto-memetics--is to identify the 5% that is actually good. Sturgeon's Law also suggests, of course, that 95% of the criticism of memes and memetics is also crap, so we needn't waste our time rebutting every silly, anxiety-driven objection. My talk will be an attempt to focus on some of the more attention-worthy issues.

1. Perspectives on Cultural Evolution(1)

When one says that cultures evolve, this can be taken as a truism, or as asserting one or another controversial, speculative, unconfirmed theory. Consider a cultural inventory at time t: it includes all the languages, practices, ceremonies, edifices, methods, tools, myths, music, art, and so forth, that compose a culture. Over time, the inventory changes. Some items disappear, some multiply, some merge, some change. (When I say some change, I mean to be neutral at this point about whether this amounts to their being replaced by similar items, or their undergoing a transformation.) A verbatim record of this history would not be science; it would be a data base. That is the truism: cultures evolve over time. Now the question remains: how are we to explain the patterns found in that data base? Are there any good theories or models of cultural evolution?

The traditional model to be found in most accounts by historians and anthropologists treats culture as composed of goods, possessions of the people, who husband them in various ways, wisely or foolishly. They carefully preserve their traditions of fire-lighting, house-building, speaking, counting, justice, etc. They trade cultural items as they trade other goods. And of course some cultural items (wagons, pasta, recipes for chocolate cake, etc.) are definitely goods, and we can plot their trajectories using the tools of economics. The people, on this model, are seen as having an autonomous or independent rationality; deprive a person of his goods, and he stands there, naked but rational and full of informed desires. When he clothes himself and arms himself and equips himself with goods, he increases his powers, complicates his desires, etc.

On this way of thinking, the relative "replicative" power of various cultural goods is measured in the marketplace of cost-benefit calculations performed by the people. If Coca Cola bottles proliferate around the world, it is because more and more people prefer to buy a Coke. Advertising may fool them. But then we look to the advertisers, or those who have hired them, to find the relevant loci of values for our calculations. Cui bono? Who benefits? The purveyors of the goods, and those they hire to help them.

Biologists, too, can often make sense of the evolution (in the neutral sense) of features by treating them as goods: one's food, one's nest, one's burrow, one's territory, one's mate[s], one's time and energy. Cost-benefit analyses shed light on the husbandry engaged in by the members of the different species inhabiting some shared environment.(2) Not every "possession" is considered a good, however; one's accompanying flies and fleas, the dirt and grime that accumulates on one's body, are of no value, or of negative value, for instance. One's symbionts are not normally considered as goods by biologists, except when the benefits derived from them (by whom?) are manifest.

This perspective is not uniformly illuminating, nor is it obligatory. I would like to suggest that both biologists and economists (and other social scientists) can benefit from adopting a different vantage point on some of these phenomena, one which quite properly gives pride of place to the Cui bono question, which can provide alternative answers that are often overlooked. This is Dawkins' meme's-eye point of view, which recognizes--and takes seriously--the possibility that cultural entities may evolve according to selectional regimes that make sense only when the answer to the Cui bono question is that it is the cultural items themselves that benefit from the adaptations they exhibit.(3)

Dawkins' theory of memes, as briefly sketched in a single chapter of The Selfish Gene (1976, but see also Dawkins, 1993), is hardly a theory at all, especially compared to the models of cultural evolution developed by other biologists, such as Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981), Lumsden and Wilson (1981), and Boyd and Richerson (1985). Unlike these others, Dawkins offers no formal development, no mathematical models, no quantitative predictions, no systematic survey of relevant empirical findings. But Dawkins does present an idea that is overlooked by all the others, and it is, I think, a most important idea. It is the key to understanding how we can be not just guardians and transmitters of culture, but cultural entities ourselves--all the way in.

Whenever costs and benefits are the issue we need to ask Cui bono? A benefit by itself is not explanatory; a benefit in a vacuum is indeed a sort of mystery; until it can be shown how the benefit actually redounds to enhance the replicative power of a replicator, it just sits there, alluring, perhaps, but incapable of explaining anything.

We see an ant laboriously climbing up a stalk of grass. Why is it doing that? Why is that adaptive? What good accrues to the ant by doing that? That is the wrong question to ask. No good accrues to the ant; its brain has been invaded by a fluke (Dicrocoelium dendriticum), one of a gang of tiny parasites that need to get themselves into the intestines of a sheep in order to reproduce (Ridley, 1995, p258). (Salmon swim up stream, these parasitic worms drive ants up grass stalks, to improve their chances of being ingested by a passing sheep.) The benefit is not to the reproductive prospects of the ant but the reproductive prospects of the fluke.(4)

Dawkins points out that we can think of cultural items, memes, as parasites, too. Actually, they are more like a simple virus than a worm. Memes are supposed to be analogous to genes, the replicating entities of the cultural media, but they also have vehicles, or phenotypes; they are like not-so-naked genes. They are like viruses (Dawkins, 1993). As with viruses, there is a phenotype/genotype distinction, but just barely. Basically, a virus is just a string of DNA (or RNA) with attitude. And similarly, a meme is an information-packet (the information, not the vehicle) with attitude--with some phenotypic clothing that has differential effects in the world that thereby influence its chances of getting replicated.

And in the domain of memes, the ultimate beneficiary, the beneficiary in terms of which the final cost-benefit calculations must apply is: the meme itself, not its carriers. This is not to be read as itself a bold empirical claim, ruling out (for instance) the role of individual human agents in devising, appreciating and securing the spread and prolongation of cultural items. It is rather a proposal that we adopt a perspective or point of view, from which a wide variety of different empirical claims can be compared, and the evidence for them considered in a neutral setting, a setting that does not prejudge these hot-button questions.

In the analogy with the fluke, we are invited to consider a meme as like a parasite which commandeers an organism for its own replicative benefit, but we should remember that symbionts can be classified into three fundamental categories:
    parasites, whose presence lowers the fitness of their host;
    commensals, whose presence is neutral (though, as the etymology reminds us, they "share the same table"); and
    mutualists, whose presence enhances the fitness of both host and guest.


Since these varieties are arrayed along a continuum, the boundaries between them need not be too finely drawn; just where benefit drops to zero or turns to harm is not something to be directly measured by any practical test, though we can explore the consequences of these turning points in models.

The main point to note is that we should expect memes to come in all three varieties, too. This means, for instance, that it is a mistake to assume that the "cultural selection" of a cultural trait is always "for cause"--always because of some perceived (or even misperceived) benefit it provides to the host. We can always ask if the hosts, the human agents that are the vectors, perceive some benefit and (for that reason, good or bad) assist in the preservation and replication of the cultural item in question, but we must be prepared to entertain the answer that they do not. In other words, we must consider as a real possibility the hypothesis that the human hosts are, individually or as a group, either oblivious to, or agnostic about, or even positively dead set against, some cultural item, which nevertheless is able to exploit its hosts as vectors.

The most familiar cases of cultural transmission and evolution discussed are innovations that are obviously of some direct or indirect benefit to the Darwinian--that is, genetic--fitness of the host. A better fishhook catches more fish, feeds more bellies, makes for more surviving grandchildren, etc. The only difference between stronger arms and a better fishhook in the (imagined) calculation of impact on fitness is that the stronger arms might be--might be--passed on quite directly through the germ line, while the fishhook definitely must be culturally transmitted. (The stronger arms could be culturally transmitted as well, of course. A tradition of body-building, for instance, could explain why there was very low [genetic] heritability for strong adult arms, and yet a very high rate of strong adult arms in a population.) But however it might be that strong arms or fishhooks are transmitted, they are typically supposed to be a good bargain from the perspective of genetic fitness. The bargain might, however, be myopic--only good in the short run. After all, even agriculture, in the long run, may be a dubious bargain if what you are taking as your summum bonum is Darwinian fitness (see Diamond, 1997, for fascinating reflections on the uncertain benefits of abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle). What alternatives are there?

First, we need to note that in the short run (evolutionarily speaking--that is, from the perspective of a few centuries or even millennia) something might flourish independently of whether it was of actual benefit to genetic fitness, but strongly linked to whether it was of apparent benefit to genetic fitness. Even if you think that Darwinian fitness enhancement is the principle driving engine of cultural evolution, you have to posit some swifter, more immediate mechanism of retention and transmission. It's not hard to find one. Cultural items may exploit machinery that had earned its keep in the past by embodying a fitness-enhancing set of preferences. We are genetically endowed with a quality space in which some things feel good and some things don't, and we tend to live by the rule: if it feels good, keep it. This rough and ready rule can be tricked, of course. The sweet tooth is a standard example. The explosion of cultural items--artifacts, practices, recipes, patterns of agriculture, trade routes--that depend quite directly on the exploitation of the sweet tooth has probably had a considerable net negative effect on human genetic fitness. Notice that explaining the emergence of these cultural items by citing their "apparent" benefit to genetic fitness does not in any way commit us to the (preposterous) claim that people think (mistakenly) that they are enhancing their genetic fitness by acquiring and consuming sugar. The rationale is not theirs, but Mother Nature's. They just go with what they like.

Still, given what they like, they choose rationally, and indeed ingeniously and often with impressive foresight, how to obtain what they like. This is still the traditional model of cultural evolution, with agents husbanding their goods in order to maximize what they prefer--and getting their preferences quite directly from their genetic heritage. A more interesting possibility is acquiring new preferences that are themselves culturally transmitted symbionts of one sort or another. Each will have to bootstrap itself into the memosphere by exploiting some pre-established preference, but this recursive process, which can proceed at breakneck speed relative to the glacial pace of genetic evolution, can transform human agents indefinitely far away from their genetic beginnings. In an oft-quoted passage, E. O. Wilson claimed otherwise:
Quote:
The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.
(Wilson, 1978, p167)

This leash, I am claiming, is indefinitely long, in the sense that the constraints Wilson speaks of can be so co-opted, exploited, and obtunded in a recursive cascade of cultural products and meta-products that it is not clear that there are any points in imaginable cultural design space that could not, in principle, be occupied by some product that could ultimately be traced back, via Wilson's leash of historical processes, to the genes. Many of these imaginable points would no doubt be genetic culs-de-sac (H. sapiens would sooner or later go extinct as a result of occupying those points), but this is no barrier to their evolving in the swift time of cultural history.(5)

Not only can we acquire tastes; we can acquire meta-tastes. That is, we can discover in the culture, and thereupon adopt, a taste for "cultivating" further acquired tastes, and so forth. At each stage we can anticipate finding parasites, commensals and mutualists--but we can classify these only by asking the Cui bono? question against a new background and making one local determination or another. One person's scholarly connoisseurship is another person's addiction to trash. Meta-memes for "traveling" or "being a collector" or "having a hobby" or "educating oneself" can themselves be viewed as either exploiters or enhancers of the pre-established personal (no longer genetic) preferences. It is interesting that in common parlance we often call our preferences "weaknesses,"--as in "I have a weakness for strong cheese (or puns or redheads)"--deftly implying a standard to which in the same breath we deny any personal allegiance.

And this, then, is the main point I wanted to emphasize in Dawkins' vision. The memes that proliferate will be the memes that replicate by hook or by crook. Think of them as entering the brains of culture members, making phenotypic alterations thereupon, and then submitting themselves to the great selection tournament--not the Darwinian genetic fitness tournament (life is too short for that) but the Dawkinsian meme-fitness tournament. It is their fitness as memes that is on the line, not their host's genetic fitness, and the environments that embody the selective pressures that determine their fitness are composed in large measure of other memes.

Why do their hosts put up with this? Why should the overhead costs of establishing a whole new system of differential reproduction be borne by members of H. sapiens? Note that the question to be asked and answered here is parallel to the question we ask about any symbiont-host relationship: why do the hosts put up with it? And the short answer is that it is too costly to eradicate, but this just means that the benefits accruing to the machinery that is being exploited by the parasites are so great that keeping the machinery and tolerating the parasites (to the extent that they are tolerated) has so far been the best deal available. And whether or not in the long run (millions of years) this infestation will be viewed as mutualism or commensalism or parasitism, in the short run (the last few millennia) the results have been spectacular: the creation of a new biological type of entity: a person.

I like to compare this development to the arrival of the eukaryotes more than a billion years ago. Relatively simple prokaryotes got invaded by some of their neighbors, and the resulting endosymbiotic teams were more fit, and prospered, enabling a biological revolution. The eukaryotes, living alongside their prokaryotic cousins, but enormously more complex, versatile and competent, opened up the design space of multi-cellular organisms. Similarly, the emergence of culture-infected hominids has opened up yet another region of hitherto unoccupied and untraversable design space. We live alongside our animal cousins, but we are enormously more complex, versatile and competent. And by joining forces with our memes, we create new candidates for the locus of benefit, new answers to Cui bono?

2. Two all too standard Objections

One often hears it said that the ways in which cultural entities evolve are profoundly un-Darwinian. Two claims in particular, are often presented as if they carried the day: cultural evolution, unlike Darwinian evolution, is "Lamarckian," and cultural evolution, unlike Darwinian evolution, is replete with "horizontal transmission"--that is to say, design elements can hop freely from lineage to lineage, not bound by the requirements of heredity. Once reptiles and mammals have gone their separate ways, reptile innovations cannot jump to mammals, but only to descendant reptiles, but this restriction does not exist in cultural evolution. I have sometimes wondered why we don't hear more about a third disanalogy: cultural ideas don't reproduce sexually--mama and papa ideas getting it on to make little baby ideas of both genders. Probably we don't hear it because it would wear its disingenousness on its sleeve--a lazy (or desperate) stab at something that would excuse one from having to think further about the prospects of a Darwinian account of culture. Sexual reproduction is not, after all, an obligatory element of Darwinian evolution; surely 99% of all the Darwinian evolution that has ever occurred on this planet was among asexually reproducing replicators, and however large sexuality looms now, it is itself an evolved feature, not a precondition for Darwinian evolution. So the absence of sexual reproduction in the memosphere is no challenge to neo-Darwinian explanation. But exactly the same point can be made about the purported disanalogies of Lamarckianism and horizontal transmission or anastomosis (lineage-joining).

Let's consider Lamarckianism first. Neo-Darwinian orthodoxy, since Weissman, declares that characteristics acquired through use cannot be transmitted genetically to one's progeny. Darwin himself, notoriously, was quite happy to countenance this feature of Lamarckianism, but he has long been deemed in error. Weissman's distinction between germ line--roughly, eggs and sperm-- and somatic line cells--all the rest--has proven itself over and over, and the doctrine that there are no avenues by which somatic line innovations could enter the germ line is indeed a textbook verity, although various exotic possibilities have been seriously discussed in the literature, and arguably exist in some restricted quarters. But notice that this, the orthodox, way of identifying Lamarckian phenomena (as things that don't happen) applies crisply only to multi-cellular organisms. What counts as a Lamarckian phenomenon in the world of bacteria, archaea, or in the world of viruses? In the case of a virus, which I have described as just a string of DNA with attitude, the line between soma and germ line is non-existent. Something that changes the structure of an individual virus string can be called a genotypic change--a mutation--if it is passed on in replication, and otherwise a mere phenotypic change. It is not that such a line can't be drawn, but it becomes a line that prohibits nothing. The claim that Lamarckianism has been vindicated in the world of viral evolution would thus be Pickwickian. And since memes are no more multicellular than they are sexual, the fact that there is no clear way---no "principled" way, as they used to say at MIT--of distinguishing mutations from phenotypic acquisitions hardly shows that they are disqualified from a neo-Darwinian treatment.(6) Most--much more than 99%-- of the life forms on this planet have evolved under just such a regime, and neo-Darwinism certainly covers their evolution handily.

And the same verdict applies to anastomosis, although this is a recent and ill-appreciated discovery: there is lots of horizontal transmission in protist and bacterial evolution--a fact that plays hob with attempts to define separate bacterial lineages in a "principled" way--and once again, the bulk of the evolution on the planet has been amongst just such tiny bits. Once we shift our focus away from our own multicellular, sexually reproducing lineages to the more numerous lineages on the planet, these standard objections lose much if not all their force. Memes are indeed not very much like elephant genomes, but so what?


3. But what about human reason--and creativity? (7)

A confusion that misdirects the imagination of theorists in another direction derives, I suspect, from a subtle misreading of Darwin's original use of artificial selection (deliberate animal breeding) and "unconscious" selection (the unwitting promotion of favored offspring of domesticated animals) as bridges to his concept of natural selection. While it is true that Darwin wished to contrast the utter lack of foresight or intention in natural selection with the deliberate goal-seeking of the artificial selectors, in order to show how the natural process could in principle proceed without any mentality at all, he did not thereby establish (as many seem to have supposed) that deliberate, goal-directed, intentional selection is not a subvariety of natural selection! The short legs of dachshunds, and the huge udders of Holsteins are just as much products of natural selection as the wings of the eagle; they just evolved in an environment that included a particularly well-focussed selective pressure consisting of human agents. These phenotypes fall under the same laws of transmission genetics, the same replicator dynamics, as any others--as special and extreme cases in which the default "randomness" or noisiness of selective pressure has been greatly reduced.

Applied to cultural evolution, the implication is this: There is no conflict between the claim that artifacts (including abstract artifacts--memes) are the products of natural selection, and the claim that they are (often) the foreseen, designed products of intentional human activity. It appears that some thinkers in the newly emerging school of evolutionary archeology have made this mistake. According to a critique by Boone and Smith (1998), at least some evolutionary archeologists think that the only way to be hardheaded and scientific about the Darwinian evolution of culture is to deny all intention, all rationality, on the part of human culture-makers. They opt for "selection rather than decision-making" [p11]. That is simply a mistake, for the same reason it would be a mistake to say that the fancy plumage of prize pigeons is the result of decision-making rather than selection. But Boone and Smith fall in the same trap, in their discussion of the interesting phenomenon of the spread of snowmobiles among the Cree in northern Canada. They are surely right that the adoption of snowmobiles by the Cree cannot be accounted for in terms of the differential biological replication of the snowmobile users, but they misread the more interesting meme's-eye view perspective. They say:
Quote:
The alterative that 'snowmobile memes' were transmitted more effectively than 'snowshoe memes' to non-descendant Cree (as well as offspring), while plausible, is not natural selection [emphasis added]; more significantly, it requires precisely the kind of adaptive decision-making that EA [evolutionary archeology] is dedicated to eliminating from archeological explanation.
[Boone and Smith (1998) ms p12]

On the contrary, if you adopt the meme's-eye perspective, in which the snowmobile meme is seen as the replicator, with its own fitness, then cultural evolution can be seen to be due to "adaptive decision-making" while also a variety of natural selection. Consider the fitness of the domesticated horses that spread so quickly among the Native Americans after their introduction, but then more recently, after the advent of the automobile, have dwindled sharply. These fluctuations in genetic fitness have been due to changes in the selective forces arrayed in the various environments in which the horses have existed, of course, and the fact that conscious, foresightful human agents form the key component in those selective environments does nothing to remove the phenomena from the domain of standard genetic evolution by natural selection.

Among those who have overlooked this fact is Steven Pinker, who dismisses models of cultural evolution in a brief passage in How the Mind Works (1997):
Quote:
Stop being so literal-minded! respond the fans of cultural evolution. Of course cultural evolution is not an exact replica of the Darwinian version. In cultural evolution, the mutations are directed and the acquired characteristics are inherited. Lamarck, while being wrong about biological evolution, turned out to be right about cultural evolution. . .To say that cultural evolution is Lamarckian is to confess that one has no idea how it works. The striking features of cultural products, namely their ingenuity, beauty, and truth (analogous to organisms' complex adaptive design), come from the mental computations that "direct"--that is, invent--the "mutations," and that "acquire"--that is, understand--the "characteristics."
(1997, p209)

Pinker has imputed the wrong parallel; it is not Lamarck's model, but Darwin's model of artificial selection (as a special case of natural selection) that accommodates the phenomena he draws to our attention in this passage. And it is ironic that Pinker overlooks this, since the cultural phenomena he himself has highlighted as examples of evolution-designed systems, linguistic phenomena, are almost certainly not the products of foresightful, ingenious, deliberate human invention. Some designed features of human languages are no doubt genetically transmitted, but many others--such as changes in pronunciation, for instance--are surely culturally transmitted, and hence products of cultural, not genetic, evolution.

Some memes are like domesticated animals; they are prized for their benefits, and their replication is closely fostered and relatively well understood by their human owners. Some memes are more like rats; they thrive in the human environment in spite of being positively selected against--ineffectually--by their unwilling hosts. And some are more like bacteria or other viruses, commandeering aspects of human behavior (provoking sneezing, for instance) in their "efforts" to propagate from host to host. There is artificial selection of "good" memes--like the memes of arithmetic and writing, which are carefully taught to each new generation. And there is unconscious selection of memes of all sorts--like the subtle mutations in pronunciation that spread through linguistic groups, presumably with some efficiency advantage, but perhaps just hitchhiking on some quirk of human preference. And there is unconscious selection of memes that are positively a menace, but which prey on flaws in the human decision-making apparatus, as provided for in the genome and enhanced and adjusted by other cultural innovations--such as the abducted-by-aliens meme, which makes perfect sense when its own fitness as a cultural replicator is considered. Only the meme's-eye perspective unites all these possibilities under one view.(

Finally, one of the most persistent sources of discomfort about memes is the dread suspicion that an account of human minds in terms of brains being parasitized by memes will undermine the precious traditions of human creativity. On the contrary, I think it is clear that only an account of creativity in terms of memes has much of a chance of giving us any way to identify with the products of our own minds. We human beings extrude other products, on a daily basis, but after infancy, at any rate, we don't tend to view our feces with the pride of an author or artist. These are mere biological byproducts, and although they have their own modest individuality and idosyncracy, it is not anything we cherish. How could we justify viewing the secretions of our poor infected brains with any more pride? Because we identify with some subset of the memes we harbor. Why? Because among the memes we harbor are those that put a premium on identifying with just such a subset of memes! Lacking that meme-borne attitude, we would be mere loci of interaction, but we have such memes--that is who we are.

4. Conclusion

This spectrum of possibilities, from the unwitting, unconscious hosting of culture-borne viruses (of all "attitudes") to the foresightful design and promulgation of inventions and creations that intelligently and artfully draw upon well-understood cultural resources, must be viewable under a single, unifying perspective. It is only from such a perspective that we can make sense of the trajectories that have taken us--and only us--beyond the horizons of our selfish genes, by creating new environments of selection--persons and their projects--that in turn create utterly unprecedented answers to the Cui bono? question. Such a view of cultural evolution doesn't deny the possibility of moving to what might be called a mind's-eye perspective of evaluation; it is precisely what makes such a transition--without any help from skyhooks--possible.

References

Boone, James L, and Eric Alden Smith, 1998, "A Critique of Evolutionary Archeology," Current Anthropology. [special issue, supplement, June, 1998]
Boyd, Robert, and Richerson, Peter J., 1985, Culture and the Evolutionary Process, Chicago and London: Chicago University Press.
Boyd, Robert, and Richerson, Peter J., 1992, "Punishment Allows the Evolution of Cooperation (or Anything Else) in Sizable Groups," Ethology and Sociobiology, 13, pp171-95.
Cavalli-Sforza, Luca, and Feldman, Marcus, 1981, Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Dawkins, Richard, 1976, The Selfish Gene, (2nd edition, 1989), Oxford: Oxford University Press.
------ 1993, "Viruses of the Mind," in Bo Dahlbom, ed., Dennett and his Critics, Oxford: Blackwell.
Dennett, Daniel C. 1998, "Snowmobiles, horses, rats, and memes," (a comment on "A Critique of Evolutionary Archeology," by James L. Boone and Eric Alden Smith) Current Anthropology, [special issue, supplement, June 1998]
---------- forthcoming, "The Evolution of Evaluators" in a volume of the Siena workshop on evolutionary economics.
Diamond, Jared, 1997, Guns, Germs and Steel,
Lumsden, C. and Wilson, E. O. 1981, Genes, Mind and Culture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pinker, Steven, 1997, How the Mind Works, New York: Norton.
Ridley, Mark, 1995, Animal Behaviour (2nd edn), Boston: Blackwell Science.
Sober, Elliott and Wilson, David Sloan, 1998, Unto Others: The Evolution of Unselfish Behavior, Harvard University Press.
Wilson, E. O., 1978, On Human Nature, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Notes

1. Parts of this section are adapted from Dennett, forthcoming.

2. Such organisms need not be deemed to be making conscious decisions, of course, but the rationality, such as it is, of the "decisions" they make is typically anchored to the expected benefit to the individual organism. See Sober and Wilson (1998) for important discussions of gene, individual, and group benefits of such decision-making.

3. Sober and Wilson (1998) note that there is a gap in their model of cultural evolution: "We can say that functionless [relative to human individual and group fitness] behavior should be more common in humans than other species, but we cannot explain why a particular functionless behavior has evolved in a particular culture. That kind of understanding probably requires detailed historical knowledge of the culture, and it may turn out that some behaviors evolved mainly by chance." p171.

4. Strictly speaking, to the reproductive prospects of the fluke's genes (or the fluke's "group"'s genes), for as Sober and Wilson (1998) point out (p18) in their use of D. dendriticum as an example of altruistic behavior, the fluke that actually does the driving in the brain is a sort of kamikaze pilot, who dies without any chance of passing on its own genes, benefiting its [asexually reproduced] near-clones in other parts of the ant.

5. Boyd and Richerson (1992) show that "Virtually any behavior can become stable within a social group if it is sufficiently buttressed by social norms." (Sober and Wilson, 1998, p.152)

6. In fact in most of the brief, shallow discussions of the Lamarckian nature of cultural evolution that I have seen, it is never made clear which entities were deemed capable of transmitting acquired characteristics. Sometimes, I suspect, the objector had dimly in mind the strictly irrelevant fact that human hosts can transmit to other human hosts cultural items that they themselves had acquired during their lifetimes. That is not Lamarckianism at all.

7. This section is adapted from Dennett, 1998.

8. The meme's-eye perspective offers many other points of theoretical leverage, but those are topics for another occasion.
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The Evolution of Culture

Source: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dennett/dennett_p2.html
Authors: Daniel Dennett
Dated: 1999-02-17 The Charles Simonyi Lecture, Oxford University
Noticed By: Rhinoceros

Cultures evolve. In one sense, this is a truism; in other senses, it asserts one or another controversial, speculative, unconfirmed theory of culture. Consider a cultural inventory of some culture at some time--say 1900AD. It should include all the languages, practices, ceremonies, edifices, methods, tools, myths, music, art, and so forth, that compose that culture. Over time, that inventory changes. Today, a hundred years later, some items will have disappeared, some multiplied, some merged, some changed, and many new elements will appear for the first time. A verbatim record of this changing inventory through history would not be science; it would be a data base. That is the truism: cultures evolve over time. Everybody agrees about that. Now let's turn to the controversial question: how are we to explain the patterns to be found in that data base? Are there any good theories or models of cultural evolution?

1. Science or Narrative?

One possibility is that the only patterns to be found in cultural evolution defy scientific explanation. They are, some might want to say, narrative patterns, not scientific patterns. There is clearly something to this, but it won't do as it stands, for many scientific patterns are also historical patterns, and hence are revealed and explained in narratives--of sorts. Cosmology, geology, and biology are all historical sciences. The great biologist D'Arcy Thompson once said:

Everything is the way it is because it got that way.

If he is right--if everything is the way it is because it got that way--then every science must be, in part, a historical science. But not all history--all recounting of events in temporal sequence-- is narrative, some might want to say. Human history is unique in that the patterns it exhibits require a different form of understanding: hermeneutical understanding or Verstehen, or--you can count on the Germans to have lots of words for claims like this--Geisteswissenschaft (approximately: spiritual science). I think this too is partly right; there is a particular sort of understanding that is used to make sense of narratives about human agents. It is also true that the mark of a good story is that its episodes unfold not as the predicted consequences of general laws and initial conditions, but in delightfully surprising ways. These important facts do not show, however, that cultural evolution escapes the clutches of science and must be addressed in some other realm of inquiry. Quite the contrary; the humanistic comprehension of narratives and the scientific explanation of life processes, for all their differences of style and emphasis, have the same logical backbone. We can see this by examining the special form of understanding we use when following--and creating--good narratives.

Mediocre narratives are either a pointless series of episodes in temporal order--just "one damn thing after another"--or else so utterly predictable as to be boring. Between randomness and routine lie the good stories, whose surprising moments make sense in retrospect, in the framework provided by the unsurprising moments. The perspective from which we can understand these narratives is what I have called the intentional stance: the strategy of analyzing the flux of events into agents and their (rational) actions and reactions. Such agents--people, in this case--do things for reasons, and can be predicted--up to a point--by cataloguing their reasons, their beliefs and desires, and calculating what, given those reasons, the most rational course of action for each agent would be. Sometimes the most rational course is flat obvious, so while the narrative is predictive (or true), it is uninteresting and unenlightening. To take a usefully simple case, a particular game of chess is interesting to the extent that we are surprised by either the brilliant moves that outstrip our own calculations of what it would be rational to do, or the blunders, which we thought too sub-optimal to predict.

In the wider world of human activity, the same holds true. We don't find the tale of Jane going to the supermarket on her way home from work interesting precisely because it all unfolds so predictably from the intentional stance; today she never encountered any interesting options, given her circumstances. Other times, however, the most rational thing for an agent to do is far from obvious, and maybe practically incalculable. When we encounter these narratives, we are surprised (and sometimes delighted, sometimes appalled) by the actual outcome. It makes sense in retrospect, but who'd have guessed that she'd decide to do that? The vast mass of routinely rational human behavior doesn't make good novels, but it is just such humdrum rational narrative that provides the background pattern that permits us to make sense, retrospectively, of the intriguing vagaries we encounter, and to anticipate the complications that will arise when the trains of events they put in motion collide.

The traditional model used by historians and anthropologists to try to explain cultural evolution uses the intentional stance as its explanatory framework. These theorists treat culture as composed of goods, possessions of the people, who husband them in various ways, wisely or foolishly. People carefully preserve their traditions of fire-lighting, house-building, speaking, counting, justice, etc. They trade cultural items as they trade other goods. And of course some cultural items (wagons, pasta, recipes for chocolate cake, etc.) are definitely goods, and so we can plot their trajectories using the tools of economics. It is clear from this perspective that highly prized cultural entities will be protected at the expense of less favored cultural entities, and there will be a competitive market where agents both "buy" and "sell" cultural wares. If a new method of house-building or farming or a new style of music sweeps through the culture, it will be because people perceive advantages to these novelties.

The people, on this model, are seen as having an autonomous rationality: deprive a person of his goods, and he stands there, naked but rational and full of informed desires. When he clothes himself and arms himself and equips himself with goods, he increases his powers, complicates his desires. If Coca Cola bottles proliferate around the world, it is because more and more people prefer to buy a Coke. Advertising may fool them. But then we look to the advertisers, or those who have hired them, to find the relevant agents whose desires fix the values for our cost-benefit calculations. Cui bono? Who benefits? The purveyors of the goods, and those they hire to help them. etc. On this way of thinking, then, the relative "replicative" power of various cultural goods--whether Coke bottles, building styles or religious creeds--is measured in the marketplace of cost-benefit calculations performed by the people.

Biologists , too, can often make sense of the evolution (in the neutral sense) of features of the natural world by treating them as goods belonging to various members of various species: one's food, one's nest, one's burrow, one's territory, one's mate[s], one's time and energy. Cost-benefit analyses shed light on the husbandry engaged in by the members of the different species inhabiting some shared environment.[1] Not every "possession" is considered a good, however. The dirt and grime that accumulates on one's body, to say nothing of the accompanying flies and fleas, are of no value, or of negative value, for instance. These hitchhikers are not normally considered as goods by biologists, except when the benefits derived from them (by whom?) are manifest.

This traditional perspective can obviously explain many features of cultural and biological evolution, but it is not uniformly illuminating, nor is it obligatory. I want to show how theorists of culture--historians, anthropologists, economists, psychologists, and others--can benefit from adopting a different vantage point on these phenomena. It is a different application of the intentional stance, one which still quite properly gives pride of place to the Cui bono question, but which can provide alternative answers that are often overlooked. The perspective I am talking about is Richard Dawkins' meme's-eye point of view, which recognizes--and takes seriously--the possibility that cultural entities may evolve according to selectional regimes that make sense only when the answer to the Cui bono question is that it is the cultural items themselves that benefit from the adaptations they exhibit. [2]


2. Memes as Cultural Viruses

Whenever costs and benefits are the issue we need to ask Cui bono? A benefit by itself is not explanatory; a benefit in a vacuum is indeed a sort of mystery; until it can be shown how the benefit actually redounds to enhance the replicative power of a replicator, it just sits there, alluring, perhaps, but incapable of explaining anything.

We see an ant laboriously climbing up a stalk of grass. Why is it doing that? Why is that adaptive? What good accrues to the ant by doing that? That is the wrong question to ask. No good at all accrues to the ant. Is it just a fluke, then? In fact, that's exactly what it is: a fluke! Its brain has been invaded by a fluke (Dicrocoelium dendriticum), one of a gang of tiny parasites that need to get themselves into the intestines of a sheep in order to reproduce (Ridley, 1995, p258). (Salmon swim up stream, these parasitic worms drive ants up grass stalks, to improve their chances of being ingested by a passing sheep.) The benefit is not to the reproductive prospects of the ant but the reproductive prospects of the fluke. [3]

Dawkins points out that we can think of cultural items, memes, as parasites, too. Actually, they are more like a simple virus than a worm. Memes are supposed to be analogous to genes, the replicating entities of the cultural media, but they also have vehicles, or phenotypes; they are like not-so-naked genes. They are like viruses (Dawkins, 1993). Basically, a virus is just a string of nucleic acid with attitude--and a protein overcoat. A viroid is an even more naked gene. And similarly, a meme is an information-packet with attitude--with some phenotypic clothing that has differential effects in the world that thereby influence its chances of getting replicated. (What is a meme made of? It is made of information, which can be carried in any physical medium. More on this later.)

And in the domain of memes, the ultimate beneficiary, the beneficiary in terms of which the final cost-benefit calculations must apply is: the meme itself, not its carriers. This is not to be heard as a bold empirical claim, ruling out (for instance) the role of individual human agents in devising, appreciating and securing the spread and prolongation of cultural items. As I have already noted, the traditional perspective on cultural evolution handsomely explains many of the patterns to be observed. My proposal is rather that we adopt a perspective or point of view from which a wide variety of different empirical claims can be compared, including the traditional claims, and the evidence for them considered in a neutral setting, a setting that does not prejudge these hot-button questions.

In the analogy with the fluke, we are invited to consider a meme to be like a parasite which commandeers an organism for its own replicative benefit, but we should remember that such hitchhikers or symbionts can be classified into three fundamental categories:
    parasites, whose presence lowers the fitness of their host;

    commensals, whose presence is neutral (though, as the etymology reminds us, they "share the same table"); and

    mutualists, whose presence enhances the fitness of both host and guest.

Since these varieties are arrayed along a continuum, the boundaries between them need not be too finely drawn; just where benefit drops to zero or turns to harm is not something to be directly measured by any practical test, though we can explore the consequences of these turning points in models.

We should expect memes to come in all three varieties, too. This means, for instance, that it is a mistake to assume that the "cultural selection" of a cultural trait is always "for cause"--always because of some perceived (or even misperceived) benefit it provides to the host. We can always ask if the hosts, the human agents that are the vectors, perceive some benefit and (for that reason, good or bad) assist in the preservation and replication of the cultural item in question, but we must be prepared to entertain the answer that they do not. In other words, we must consider as a real possibility the hypothesis that the human hosts are, individually or as a group, either oblivious to, or agnostic about, or even positively dead set against, some cultural item, which nevertheless is able to exploit its hosts as vectors.

The most familiar cases of cultural transmission and evolution--the cases that tend to be in the spotlight--are innovations that are obviously of some direct or indirect benefit to the genetic fitness of the host. A better fishhook catches more fish, feeds more bellies, makes for more surviving grandchildren, etc. The only difference between stronger arms and a better fishhook in the (imagined) calculation of impact on fitness is that the stronger arms might be passed on quite directly through the germ line, while the fishhook definitely must be culturally transmitted. (The stronger arms could be culturally transmitted as well. A tradition of body-building, for instance, could explain why there was very low [genetic] heritability for strong adult arms, and yet a very high rate of strong adult arms in a population.) But however it might be that strong arms or fishhooks are transmitted, they are typically supposed to be a good bargain from the perspective of genetic fitness. The bargain might, however, be myopic--only good in the short run. After all, even agriculture, in the long run, may be a dubious bargain if what you are taking as your summum bonum is Darwinian fitness (see Diamond, 1997, for fascinating reflections on the uncertain benefits of abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle). What alternatives are there?

First, we need to note that in the short run (evolutionarily speaking--that is, from the perspective of a few centuries or even millennia) something might flourish in a culture independently of whether it was of actual benefit to genetic fitness, but strongly linked to whether it was of apparent benefit to genetic fitness. Even if you think that Darwinian fitness enhancement is the principle driving engine of cultural evolution, you have to posit some swifter, more immediate mechanism of retention and transmission. It's not hard to find one. We are genetically endowed with a biased quality space: some things feel good and some things don't. We tend to live by the rule: if it feels good, keep it. This rough and ready rule can be tricked, of course. The sweet tooth is a standard example. The explosion of cultural items--artifacts, practices, recipes, patterns of agriculture, trade routes--that depend quite directly on the exploitation of the sweet tooth has probably had a considerable net negative effect on human genetic fitness. Notice that explaining the emergence of these cultural items by citing their "apparent" benefit to genetic fitness does not in any way commit us to the claim that people think that they are enhancing their genetic fitness by acquiring and consuming sugar. The rationale is not theirs, but Mother Nature's. They just go with what they like.

Still, given what people innately like, they go on to figure out, ingeniously and often with impressive foresight, how to obtain what they like. This is still the traditional model of cultural evolution, with people husbanding their goods in order to maximize what they prefer--and getting their preferences quite directly from their genetic heritage. But this very process of rational calculation can lead to more interesting possibilities. As such an agent complicates her life, she will almost certainly acquire new preferences that are themselves culturally transmitted symbionts of one sort or another. Her sweet tooth may lead her to buy a cookbook, which inspires her to enroll in a culinary arts program, which turns out to be so poorly organized that she starts a student protest movement, in which she is so successful that she is invited to head an educational reform movement, for which a law degree would be a useful credential, and so on. Each new goal will have to bootstrap itself into the memosphere by exploiting some pre-established preference, but this recursive process, which can proceed at breakneck speed relative to the glacial pace of genetic evolution, can transform human agents indefinitely far away from their genetic beginnings. In an oft-quoted passage, E. O. Wilson claimed otherwise:

The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool. (Wilson, 1978, p167)

But Wilson's leash is indefinitely long and elastic. Consider the huge space of imaginable cultural entities, practices, values. Is there any point in that Vast space that is utterly unreachable? Not that I can see. The constraints Wilson speaks of can be so co-opted, exploited, and blunted in a recursive cascade of cultural products and meta-products that there may well be traversable paths to every point in that space of imaginable possibilities. I am suggesting, that is, that cultural possibility is less constrained than genetic possibility. We can articulate persuasive biological arguments to the effect that certain imaginable species are unlikely in the extreme--flying horses, unicorns, talking trees, carnivorous cows, spiders the size of whales--but neither Wilson nor anybody else to my knowledge has yet offered parallel grounds for believing that there are similar obstacles to trajectories in imaginable cultural design space. Many of these imaginable points in design space would no doubt be genetic cul-de-sacs, in the sense that any lineage of H. sapiens that ever occupied them would eventually go extinct as a result, but this dire prospect is no barrier to the evolution and adoption of such memes in the swift time of cultural history. [4] To combat Wilson's metaphor with one of my own: the genes provide not a leash but a launching pad, from which you can get almost anywhere, by one devious route or another. It is precisely in order to explain the patterns in cultural evolution that are not strongly constrained by genetic forces that we need the memetic approach.

The memes that proliferate will be the memes that replicate one way or another--by hook or by crook. Think of them as entering the brains of culture members, making phenotypic alterations thereupon, and then submitting themselves to the great selection tournament--not the Darwinian genetic fitness tournament (life is too short for that) but the Dawkinsian meme-fitness tournament. It is their fitness as memes that is on the line, not their host's genetic fitness. And the environments that embody the selective pressures that determine their fitness are composed in large measure of other memes.

Why do their hosts put up with this? Why should the overhead costs of establishing a whole new system of differential reproduction be borne by members of H. sapiens? Note that the question to be asked and answered here is parallel to the question we ask about any symbiont-host relationship: why do the hosts put up with it? And the short answer is that it is too costly to eradicate, but this just means that the benefits accruing to the machinery that is being exploited by the parasites are so great that keeping the machinery and tolerating the parasites (to the extent that they are tolerated) has so far been the best deal available. And whether or not in the long run (millions of years) this infestation will be viewed as mutualism or commensalism or parasitism, in the short run (the last few millennia) the results have been spectacular: the creation of a new biological type of entity: a person.

I like to compare this development to the revolution that happened among the bacteria roughly a billion years ago. Relatively simple prokaryotes got invaded by some of their neighbors, and the resulting endosymbiotic teams were more fit than their uninfected cousins, and prospered. These eukaryotes, living alongside their prokaryotic cousins, but enormously more complex, versatile and competent thanks to their hitchhikers, opened up the design space of multi-cellular organisms. Similarly, the emergence of culture-infected hominids has opened up yet another region of hitherto unoccupied and untraversable design space. We live alongside our animal cousins, but we are enormously more complex, versatile and competent. Our brains are bigger, to be sure, but it is mainly due to their infestation by memes that they gain their powers. Joining forces with our own memes, we create new candidates for the locus of benefit, new answers to Cui bono?


3. Darwin's Path to Memetic Engineering

The meme's-eye view doesn't just open up new vistas for the understanding of patterns in culture; it also provides the foundation for answering a question left dangling by the traditional model of cultural evolution. The traditional view presupposes rational self-interested agents, intent on buying and selling, and improving their lot. Where did they come from? The standard background assumption is that they are just animals, whose Cui bono? question is to be dealt with in terms of the impact on genetic fitness, as we have seen. But when people acquire other interests, including interests directly opposed to their genetic interests, they enter a new space of possibilities--something no salmon or fruitfly or bear can do. How could this great river of novelty get started?

Here I think we can get help from Darwin's opening exposition of the theory of natural selection. In the first chapter of Origin of Species, Darwin introduces his great idea of natural selection by an ingenious expository device, an instance of the very gradualism that he was about to discuss. He begins not with natural selection--his destination--but what he calls methodical selection: the deliberate, foresighted, intended "improvement of the breed" by animal and plant breeders. He begins, in short, with familiar and uncontroversial ground that he can expect his readers to share with him.

We cannot suppose that all the breeds were suddenly produced as perfect and as useful as we now see them; indeed, in several cases, we know that this has not been their history. The key is man's power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. [p30, Harvard facsimile edn]

But, he goes on to note, in addition to such methodical selection, there is another process, which lacks the foresight and intention, which he calls unconscious selection:

At the present time, eminent breeders try by methodical selection, with a distinct object in view, to make a new strain or sub-breed, superior to anything existing in the country. But, for our purpose, a kind of Selection, which may be called Unconscious, and which results from every one trying to possess and breed from the best individual animals, is more important. Thus, a man who intends keeping pointers naturally tries to get as good dogs as he can, and afterwards breeds from his own best dogs, but he has no wish or expectation of permanently altering the breed. [p34].

Long before there was deliberate breeding, unconscious selection was the process that created and refined all our domesticated species, and even at the present time, unconscious selection continues. Darwin gives a famous example:

There is reason to believe that King Charles's spaniel has been unconsciously modified to a large extent since the time of that monarch. [p35]

There is no doubt that unconscious selection has been a major force in the evolution of domesticated species. On unconscious selection of both domesticated plants and animals, see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel. In our own time, unconscious selection goes on apace, and one ignores it at our peril. Unconscious selection in bacteria and viruses for resistance to antibiotics is only the most notorious and important example. Consider the "genes for longevity" that have recently been bred into laboratory animals such as mice and rats. It is probably true, however, that much if not all of the effect that has been obtained in these laboratory breeding experiments has simply undone the unconscious selection for short-livedness at the hands of the suppliers of those laboratory animals. The stock the experimenters started with had shorter life expectancy than their wild cousins simply because they had been bred for many generations for early reproductive maturity, and robustness, and short lives came along as an unintended (unconscious) side consequence (Daniel Promislow, personal correspondence).

Darwin pointed out that the line between unconscious and methodical selection was itself a fuzzy, gradual boundary:

The man who first selected a pigeon with a slightly larger tail, never dreamed what the descendants of that pigeon would become through long-continued, partly unconscious and partly methodical selection. [p 39]

And both unconscious and methodical selection, he notes finally, are but special cases of an even more inclusive process, natural selection, in which the role of human intelligence and choice stands at zero. From the perspective of natural selection, changes in lineages due to unconscious or methodical selection are merely changes in which one of the most prominent selective pressures in the environment is human activity. It is not restricted, as we have seen, to domesticated species. White-tailed deer in New England now seldom exhibit the "white flag" of a bobbing tail during headlong flight that was famously observed by early hunters; the arrival of human beings today is much more likely to provoke them to hide silently in underbrush than to flee. Those white flags were too easy a target for hunters with guns, it seems.

This nesting of different processes of natural selection now has a new member: genetic engineering. How does it differ from the methodical selection of Darwin's day? It is just less dependent on the pre-existing variation in the gene pool, and proceeds more directly to new candidate genomes, with less overt and time-consuming trial and error. Darwin had noted that in his day,

Man can hardly select, or only with much difficulty, any deviation of structure excepting such as is externally visible; and indeed he rarely cares for what is internal. [p38].

But today's genetic engineers have carried their insight into the molecular innards of the organisms they are trying to create. There is ever more accurate foresight, but even here, if we look closely at the practices in the laboratory, we will find a large measure of exploratory trial and error in their search of the best combinations of genes.

We can use Darwin's three levels of genetic selection, plus our own fourth level, genetic engineering, as a model for four parallel levels of memetic selection in human culture. In a speculative spirit, I am going to sketch how it might go, using an example that has particularly challenged some Darwinians, and hence been held up as a worthy stumbling block: a cultural treasure untouchable by evolutionists: music. Music is unique to our species, but found in every human culture. It is manifestly complex, intricately designed, an expensive consumer of time, energy and materials. How did music start? What was or is the answer to its Cui bono question? Steven Pinker (1997) is one Darwinian who has recently declared himself baffled about the possible evolutionary origins and survival of music, but that is because he has been looking at music in the old-fashioned way, looking for music to have some contribution to make to the genetic fitness of those who make and participate in the proliferation of music. [5] There may well be some such effect that is important, but I want to make the case that there might also be a purely memetic explanation of the origin of music. Here, then, is my Just-so Story, working gradually up Darwin's hierarchy of kinds of selection.

Natural selection of musical memes.

One day one of our distant hominid ancestors sitting on a fallen log happened to start banging on with a stick--boom boom boom. For no good reason at all. This was just idle diddling, a byproduct, perhaps, of a slightly out-of-balance endocrine system. This was, you might say, mere nervous fidgeting, but the repetitive sounds striking his ears just happened to feel to him like a slight improvement on silence. A feedback loop was closed, and the repetition--boom boom boom--was "rewarding". If we leave this individual all by himself, drumming away on his log, then we would say that he had simply developed a habit, possibly therapeutic in that it "relieved anxiety," but just as possibly a bad habit--a habit that did him and his genes no good at all, but just exploited a wrinkle that happened to exist in his nervous system, creating a feedback loop that tended to lead to individual replications of drumming by him under various circumstances. No musical appreciation, no insight, no goal or ideal or project need be imputed to our solitary drummer.

Now introduce some other ancestors who happen to see and hear this drummer. They might pay no attention, or be irritated enough to make him stop or drive him away, or they might, again for no reason, find their imitator-circuits tickled into action; they might feel an urge to drum along with musical Adam. What are these imitator circuits I've postulated? Just whatever it takes to make it somewhat more likely than not that some activities by conspecifics are imitated, a mere reflex if you like--of which we may see a fossil trace when spectators at a football match cannot help making shadow kicking motions more or less in unison with the players on the field. One can postulate reasons why having some such imitative talents built-in would be a valuable adaptation--one that enhances one's genetic fitness--but while this is both plausible and widely accepted, it is strictly speaking unnecessary for my Just-so Story. The imitative urge might just as well be a functionless byproduct of some other adaptive feature of the human nervous system. Suppose, then, that for no good reason at all, the drumming habit is infectious. When one hominid starts drumming, soon others start drumming along in imitation. This could happen. A perfectly pointless practice, of no utility or fitness-enhancing benefit at all, could become established in a community. It might be positively detrimental: the drumming scares away the food, or uses up lots of precious energy. It would then be just like a disease, spreading simply because it could spread, and lasting as long as it could find hosts to infect. If it was detrimental in this way, variant habits that were less detrimental--less virulent--would tend to evolve to replace it, other things being equal, for they would tend to find more available healthy hosts to migrate to. And of course such a habit might even provide a positive benefit to its hosts (enhancing their reproductive chances--a familiar dream of musicians everywhere, and it might be true, or have been true in the past). But providing a genetic benefit of this sort is only one of the paths such a habit might pursue in its mindless quest for immortality. Habits--good, bad and indifferent--could persist and replicate, unappreciated and unrecognized, for an indefinite period of time, provided only that the replicative and dispersal machinery is provided for them. The drumming virus is born.

Let me pause to ask the question: what is such a habit made of? What gets passed from individual to individual when a habit is copied? Not stuff, not packets of material, but pure information, the information that generates the pattern of behavior that replicates. A cultural virus, unlike a biological virus, is not tethered to any particular physical medium of transmission. [6]

Unconscious selection of memes.

On with our Just-so Story. Some of the drummers begin to hum, and of all the different hums, a few are more infectious than the restx, and those hominids who happen to start the humming in these ways become the focus of attention, as sources of humming. A competition between different humming patterns emerges. Here we can begin to see the gradual transition to unconscious selection. Suppose that being such a focus of humming happens to feel good--whether or not it enhances one's genetic fitness slightly (it might, of course; perhaps the females tend to be more receptive to those who start the winning hums). The same transition to unconscious selection can be seen among viruses and other pathogens, by the way. If scratching an itch feels good, and also has the side effect of keeping a ready supply of viral emigrés on one's fingertips, the part of the body most likely to come in contact with another host, one is unconsciously selecting for just such a mode of transmission by one's myopic and uncomprehending preference for scratching when one itches--and this does not depend on scratching having any fitness-enhancing benefits for you: it may be, like the ant's hankering for the top of the grass stem, a desire that benefits the parasite, not the host. Similarly, if varying tempo and pitch of one's hums feels good, and also happens to create a ready supply of more attention-holding noises for spreading to conspecifics, one's primitive aesthetic preference can begin to shape, unconsciously, the lineages of humming habit that spread through one's community.

Brains in the community begin to be infected by a variety of these memes. Competition for time and space in these brains becomes more severe. The infected brains begin to take on a structure, as the memes that enter "learn" to cooperate on the task of turning a brain into a proper meme-nest, with lots of opportunities for entrance and exit (and hence replication). [7] Meanwhile, any memes out there "looking for" hosts, will have to compete for available space therein. Just like germs.

Methodical Selection of memes.

As the structure grows, it begins to take on a more active role in selecting. That is to say, the brains of the hosts, like the brains of the owners of domesticated animals, become ever more potent and discerning selective agencies--still largely unwitting, but nevertheless having a powerful influence. Some people, it turns out, are better at this than others. As Darwin says of animal breeders,

Not one man in a thousand has accuracy of eye and judgment sufficient to become an eminent breeder. p32

We honor Bach, the artistic genius, but he was no "natural" doodler, an intuitive genius just "playing by ear". He was the master musical technologist of his day, the inheritor of musical instruments that had had their designs honed over several millennia, as well as some relatively recent additions to the music-maker's toolbox--a fine system of musical notation, keyboard instruments that permitted the musician to play many notes at once, and an explicit, codified, rationalized theory of counterpoint. These mind-tools were revolutionary in the way they opened up musical design space for Bach and his successors.

And Bach, like the one man in a thousand who has the discernment to be an eminent animal breeder, knew how to breed new strains of music from old. Consider, for instance, his hugely successful chorale cantatas. Bach shrewdly chose, for his breeding stock, chorales--hymn melodies that had already proven themselves to be robust inhabitors of their human hosts, already domesticated tunes his audiences had been humming for generations, building up associations and memories, memes that had already sunk their hooks deeply into the emotional habits and triggers of the brains where they had been replicating for years. Then he used his technology to create variations on these memes, seeking to strengthen their strengths and damp their weaknesses, putting them in new environments, inducing new hybrids.

Memetic Engineering.

What about memetic engineering? Was Bach, in virtue of his highly sophisticated approach to the design of replicable musical memes, not just a meme-breeder but a memetic engineer? In the light of Darwin's admiring comment on the rare skill--the genius--of the good breeder, it is interesting to note how sharply our prevailing attitudes distinguish between our honoring the "art" of selective breeding and our deep suspicion and disapproval of the "technology" of gene-splicing. Let's hear it for art, but not for technology, we say, forgetting that the words share a common ancestor, techné, the Greek word for art, skill, or craft in any work. We retreat in horror from genetically engineered tomatoes, and turn up our noses at "artificial" fibers in our clothing, while extolling such "organic" and "natural" products as whole grain flour or cotton and wool, forgetting that grains and cotton plants and sheep are themselves products of human technology, of skillful hybridization and rearing techniques. He who would clothe himself in fibers unimproved by technology and live on food from non-domesticated sources is going to be cold and hungry indeed.

Besides, just as genetic engineers, for all their foresight and insight into the innards of things, are still at the mercy of natural selection when it comes to the fate of their creations (that is why, after all, we are so cautious about letting them release their brainchildren on the outside world), so too the memetic engineer, no matter how sophisticated, still has to contend with the daunting task of winning the replication tournaments in the memosphere. One of the most sophisticated musical memetic engineers of the age, Leonard Bernstein, wryly noted this in a wonderful piece he published in 1955 entitled:

"Why don't you run upstairs and write a nice Gershwin tune?"
(New York Times, April 1955 Reprinted in The Joy of Music, 1959, pp52-62)

Bernstein had credentials and academic honors aplenty in 1955, but no songs on the Hit Parade.

A few weeks ago a serious composer-friend and I . . . got boiling mad about it. Why shouldn't we be able to come up with a hit, we said, if the standard is as low as it seems to be? We decided that all we had to do was to put ourselves into the mental state of an idiot and write a ridiculous hillbilly tune.

They failed--and not for lack of trying. As Bernstein wistfully remarked,

"It's just that it would be nice to hear someone accidentally whistle something of mine, somewhere, just once." [p54]

His wish came true, of course, a few years later in 1961, when West Side Story burst into the memosphere.


4. Conclusions

There is surely much, much more to be said--to be discovered--about the evolution of music. I chose it as my topic because it so nicely illustrates the way the traditional perspective on culture and the evolutionary perspective can join forces, instead of being seen to be in irresolvable conflict. If you believe that music is sui generis, a wonderful, idiosyncratic feature of our species that we prize in spite of the fact that it has not been created to enhance our chances of having more offspring, you may well be right--and if so, there is an evolutionary explanation of how this can be true. You cannot evade the obligation to explain how such an expensive, time-consuming activity came to flourish in this cruel world, and a Darwinian theory of culture is an ally, not an opponent, in this investigation.

While it is true that Darwin wished to contrast the utter lack of foresight or intention in natural selection with the deliberate goal-seeking of the artificial or methodical selectors, in order to show how the natural process could in principle proceed without any mentality at all, he did not thereby establish (as many seem to have supposed) that deliberate, goal-directed, intentional selection is not a subvariety of natural selection! There is no conflict between the claim that artifacts (including abstract artifacts--memes) are the products of natural selection, and the claim that they are (often) the foreseen, designed products of intentional human activity.

Some memes are like domesticated animals; they are prized for their benefits, and their replication is closely fostered and relatively well understood by their human owners. Some memes are more like rats; they thrive in the human environment in spite of being positively selected against--ineffectually--by their unwilling hosts. And some are more like bacteria or viruses, commandeering aspects of human behavior (provoking sneezing, for instance) in their "efforts" to propagate from host to host. There is artificial selection of "good" memes--like the memes of arithmetic and writing, the theory of counterpoint, and Bach's cantatas, which are carefully taught to each new generation. And there is unconscious selection of memes of all sorts--like the subtle mutations in pronunciation that spread through linguistic groups, presumably with some efficiency advantage, but perhaps just hitchhiking on some quirk of human preference. And there is unconscious selection of memes that are positively a menace, but which prey on flaws in the human decision-making apparatus, as provided for in the genome and enhanced and adjusted by other cultural innovations--such as the abducted-by-aliens meme, which makes perfect sense when its own fitness as a cultural replicator is considered. Only the meme's-eye perspective unites all these possibilities under one view.

Finally, one of the most persistent sources of discomfort about memes is the dread suspicion that an account of human minds in terms of brains being parasitized by memes will undermine the precious traditions of human creativity. On the contrary, I think it is clear that only an account of creativity in terms of memes has much of a chance of giving us any way to identify with the products of our own minds. We human beings extrude other products, on a daily basis, but after childhood, we don't tend to view our feces with the pride of an author or artist. These are mere biological byproducts, and although they have their own modest individuality and idiosyncracy, it is not anything we cherish. How could we justify viewing the secretions of our poor infected brains with any more pride? Because we identify with some subset of the memes we harbor. Why? Because among the memes we harbor are those that put a premium on identifying with just such a subset of memes! Lacking that meme-borne attitude, we would be mere loci of interaction, but we have such memes--that is who we are.

Notes

1 Such organisms need not be deemed to be making conscious decisions, of course, but the rationality, such as it is, of the "decisions" they make is typically anchored to the expected benefit to the individual organism. See Sober and Wilson (1998) for important discussions of gene, individual, and group benefits of such decision-making.

2 Sober and Wilson (1998) note that there is a gap in their model of cultural evolution: "We can say that functionless [relative to human individual and group fitness] behavior should be more common in humans than other species, but we cannot explain why a particular functionless behavior has evolved in a particular culture. That kind of understanding probably requires detailed historical knowledge of the culture, and it may turn out that some behaviors evolved mainly by chance." p171. Dawkins' theory of memes, as briefly sketched in a single chapter of The Selfish Gene (1976, but see also Dawkins, 1993), is hardly a theory at all, especially compared to the models of cultural evolution developed by other biologists, such as Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981), Lumsden and Wilson (1981), and Boyd and Richerson (1985). Unlike these others, Dawkins offers no formal development, no mathematical models, no quantitative predictions, no systematic survey of relevant empirical findings. But Dawkins does present an idea that is overlooked by all the others, including Sober and Wilson in this passage, and it is, I think, a most important idea. It is the key to understanding how we can be not just guardians and transmitters of culture, but cultural entities ourselves — all the way in.

3 Strictly speaking, to the reproductive prospects of the fluke's genes (or the fluke's "group"'s genes), for as Sober and Wilson (1998) point out (p18) in their use of D. dendriticum as an example of altruistic behavior, the fluke that actually does the driving in the brain is a sort of kamikaze pilot, who dies without any chance of passing on its own genes, benefiting its [asexually reproduced] near-clones in other parts of the ant.

4 Boyd and Richerson (1992) show that "Virtually any behavior can become stable within a social group if it is sufficiently buttressed by social norms." (Sober and Wilson, 1998, p.152) Our biology strongly biases us to value health, nutritious food, the avoidance of bodily injury, and of course having lots of offspring, so a sheltered theorist might suppose that it is highly unlikely that any human group could ever support a fashion for, say, bodily fragility or bulimia, or the piercing of bodily parts or, or suicide, or celibacy. If even these practices can so readily overturn our innate biases, where can Wilson's leash do any serious constraining?

5 "What benefit could there be to diverting time and energy to the making of plinking noises, or to feeling sad when no one has died? . . . .As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless." (p528) On p538, he contrasts music with the other topics of his book: "I chose them as topics because they show the clearest signs of being adaptations. I chose music because it shows the clearest signs of not being one."

6 This is not the decisive difference some critics of memes have declared. We can readily enough imagine virus-like symbionts that have alternate transmission media — that are (roughly) indifferent to whether they arrive at new hosts by direct transportation (as with regular bacteria, viruses, viroids, fungi . . . ) or by something akin to the messenger-RNA transcription process: they stay in their original hosts, but imprint their information on some messenger element (rather like a prion, we may imagine) that then is broadcast, only to get transcribed in the host into a copy of the "sender." And if there could be two such communication channels, there could be twelve or a hundred, just as there are for transmission of cultural habits.

7 Sober and Wilson (1998) describe circumstances in which individuals of unrelated lineages thrown into group situations can be selected for cooperativity. Just how — if at all — this model can be adapted for memic coalescence is a topic for further research.
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Re:FAQ: Memetics
« Reply #6 on: 2003-05-06 11:37:03 »
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Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics

Source: Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
Authors: Bruce Edmonds, Centre for Policy Modelling, bruce@cfpm.org
Dated: 2002
Noticed By: Rhinoceros

In my opinion, memetics has reached a crunch point. If, in the near future, it does not demonstrate that it can be more than merely a conceptual framework, it will be selected out. While it is true that many successful paradigms started out as such a framework and later moved on to become pivotal theories, it also true that many more have simply faded away. A framework for thinking about phenomena can be useful if it delivers new insights but, ultimately, if there are no usable results academics will look elsewhere.

Such frameworks have considerable power over those that hold them for these people will see the world through these `theoretical spectacles' (Kuhn 1969) - to the converted the framework appears necessary. The converted are ambitious to demonstrate the universality of their way of seeing things; more mundane but demonstrable examples seem to them as simply obvious. However such frameworks will not continue to persuade new academics if it does not provide them with any substantial explanatory or predictive `leverage'. Memetics is no exception to this pattern.

For this reason I am challenging the memetic community of academics to achieve the following three tasks of different types:
  • a conclusive case-study;
  • a theory for when memetic models are appropriate; and
  • a simulation of the emergence of a memetic process.

These are not designed to cover all the cases where a memetic analysis might hold or to in any way indicate the scope of memetics. Thus, for example, although the style of Challenge 1reflects what Gatherer was arguing for in (Gatherer 1998), I am not claiming that only such sorts of cases are memetic, only that to convince people it is in these sorts of cases that we must first establish the field. Great theories are seldom proved in general or for complex cases but the battle ground for establishing scientific credibility is often fought over some pretty mundane territory.
If these challenges are met, memetics will almost certainly survive [note 1], if not then it will not die immediately, just be increasingly ignored until it becomes merely a minor footnote in the history of science. As memeticists you have to decide! Will you stop the over-ambitious theoretical discussion and do some of the mundane foot-work that will actually advance knowledge of memetics processes? As David Hull said at the Cambridge meme conference [note 2]:

"Stop talking about Memetics and start doing it."

Challenge 1: A conclusive case study

The purpose of this is to clearly demonstrate that there is at least one cultural process that is of an evolutionary nature, where `evolutionary' is taken in a narrow sense. This needs to be robust against serious criticism. In my opinion this needs to achieve the following as a minimum.
Exhibit a replicator mechanism - this needs to be something physical and not in the mind. The mechanism must provide a testable cause of the claimed evolutionary process. It must faithfully replicate with a low level of error or change (although there must be some variation). There must be no doubt that particular inheritable patterns have been accurately replicated many times over.

The lineages of the replicator must be unbroken for long enough to allow a process of adaptation to exterior factors to occur. If a meme originates from a few central sources and is only replicated a few times away from these, then this is insufficient. Thus if lots of people copy an idea from a particular book and this does not then take on a replicative momentum of its own then this can not evolve. Even when there is a demonstrable ability to imitate and the population statistics suggest that there is an evolutionary process occurring it can still be the case that no sustained evolution is actually occurring (Edmonds 1989).

Over a long time period the success of a replicated meme must be demonstrably correlated to identifiable comparable advantages of a meme in terms of the mechanism and context of replication. If reasons why one meme is more successful than another are only based on vague plausibility, then this is not enough.

The dynamics need to be numerically consistent with the applicable theories of population genetics, e.g. Price's covariance and selection theorem (Price 1970, 1972).

Such a case study is not likely to be of a highly ambitious nature (e.g. explaining complex human institutions), but of a limited nature about which good quality data is available. There may well be many other memetic processes in the world but the point of this one is that it is inarguably demonstrable. Once one such case study has been established more ambitious cases can be attempted, but more ambitious cases will not be believed until some more straightforward cases are established first.

Possible cases might include some of the following.
    Nursery rhymes. Here there is a demonstrable copying process of infants rote learning rhymes from their parents and school teachers. The rhyming mechanism and regular meter helps ensure the accurate replication across generations, and it might be possible to relate the success of rhymes to its features (e.g. how easy they are to remember). There is some evidence going back hundreds of years to the `chap books' in the first age of popular printing (Opie and Opie, 1997).

    Legal Phrases. Successful legal phrases (i.e. those that succeed in court cases) are repeatedly reused in legal documents such as contracts and articles. They are copied exactly so as not to open the opportunity for a new interpretation by a court. A study of their population dynamics and lineages could be made to show that a substantive evolutionary process occurred as a result.


Challenge 2: A theoretical model for when it is more appropriate to use a memetic model

One of the chief explanatory claims of memetics is that, in some sense, the memes evolve for their own sake more than as simply as a result of a self-interested choice by the `host' individuals. At the extreme some memeticists (e.g. Rose 1998, Blackmore 1999) have claimed that human brains are essentially `nothing but' hosts for such memes - they have no meaningful mental existence without these self-interested memes. However the extent of these claims and the `added-value' over more conventional (i.e. biologically grounded) explanations is unclear. It seems to me almost certainly the case that if hosting memes in general conferred no biological advantage to the individuals that `host' them, then they would not have evolved in this way. The brain is a costly organisation in biological terms and would not have evolved if it was merely for the sake of other individuals (i.e. memes).

It seems clear to me (a memetic agnostic) that some human beliefs are more sensibly considered to be of a non-memetic character. For example, I may gain the information that the number 192 bus leaving Stockport goes to central Manchester, and I may even tell someone else this fact. However, the chains of referral are likely to be very short - that is to say, it is likely that individuals will not rely on obtaining this type of information from long chains of communication due to the likelihood of errors being introduced. Rather they will tend to go back to the original source - the centrally originated timetable. The `fitness' of this information lies not in any intrinsic propensity for being communicated but rather due to its utility in utilising the bus system for personal transport, i.e. its truth.

For other information it may be more appropriate to model a pattern of information as if it had an evolutionary life of its own, separable from the advantage it confers on its `hosts'. For example it may be that the success of nursery rhymes is more strongly correlated with its memorability rather than any utility - that almost any monotonous rhythmic words might be as good as any other for the purposes of getting children to sleep or teaching them language, so that the reason why particular rhymes spread is due to their replicability. In such a case a memetic model might explain the variety and dynamics of rhyme spread in a way that is not possible with models based on individual advantage.

What is needed is some (falsifiable) theory that (under some specified conditions) tells us when a memetic analysis is more helpful than a more traditional one. Such a theory would have to meet the following criteria.
    It would have to make some sort of prediction of when a memetic model was appropriate - i.e. it had explanatory or predictive value - and when not. In other words when it is helpful to model a pattern that has been copied as a self-interested meme.

    The theory would be workable on information that was sometimes possible to obtain, i.e. not based on unobtainable information (e.g. the composition of mental states).

    The theory would have to be understandable in terms of the credibility, appropriateness and clarity of its core mechanism. The assumptions under which the model works would need to be fairly clear and practically determinable.

    The theory would need to be validated against observable phenomena, not just established by the plausibility of its assumptions.
The possible shape of such a theory is not clear to me, but I could imagine a theory that somehow compares the fitness contribution of a meme w.r.t. the meme and its fitness contribution of it w.r.t. the individuals who `hosted' it.

Challenge 3: A simulation model showing the true emergence of a memetic process

The purpose of this is to show that patterns of information could have come about in a believable way. If the key imitation processes are `programmed in' by the simulation designer then it would be unconvincing. Instead the simulation needs to be designed so that others would judge it to be a credible model of a situation that is likely to occur in the real world, but so that an evolutionary process composed of information messages emerges as a result of the interactions between and within individuals.

The criteria that such a simulation model should meet are the following.
    The micro behaviour of the individuals needs to be credible. That is they need to reflect patterns of behaviour that third parties [note 3] would accept as being really possible. Thus behaviour based on strong a priori assumptions (e.g. utility optimisation) or unmodified off-the-shelf algorithms (e.g. Genetic Algorithms) would not be suitable.

    The emergent behaviour must be demonstrably evolutionary in character by the criteria in Challenge 1. That is to say there must be substantial and repeated accurate replication of patterns. Patterns replicative success must be demonstrably due to their characteristics. There must occur long, unbroken lineages for the evolution to act on etc.

    The emergent memetic process must not be directly `designed into' the simulation. This can be a difficult criterion to judge but, at a minimum, there should be: no built-in and inevitable processes of replication or imitation; the emergent evolutionary process should be contingent upon certain conditions and settings; and the behaviour of the individuals not obviously distorted to encourage the evolutionary process to occur (i.e. they retain some descriptive credibility).
    Such a simulation demonstrates the possibility that a memetic process could emerge in a population of credible individuals. The more abstract or less realistic the design of such a simulation, the less convincing it will be. It is unlikely that such a simulation will be over-baroque or very general, but of a more mundane nature.

Such a simulation could be composed of a population of interacting and self-interested individuals that are evolving in a reasonably complex environment. It would need to be shown that a secondary process of, first, imitation and, later, evolution, arose out of their interactions, so that, eventually, the secondary evolutionary process would become substantially self-driven rather than in the direct interest of the individuals (in the sense of Challenge 2). The emergence of a memetic process goes beyond just comparing whether pre-determined genetic or cultural operators won out (or were more effective) - it is the equivalent of exhibiting a simulation of the emergence of life from the interaction of chemicals.

Notes

That is unless subsumed within a new theory that is more general and powerful.

Reported by Andrew Lord, and confirmed in a personal communication with David Hull. For a more prosaic version see Hull's contribution (Hull 2000) to the resulting book.

By "third parties", I mean academics outside the field who have no particular interest in promoting (or, indeed, denigrating) memetics, for example biologists.

References

Blackmore, S. (1999) The Meme Machine. Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press.
Edmonds, B. (1998). On Modelling in Memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://jom-emit.cfpm.org/1998/vol2/edmonds_b.html
Gatherer, D. (1998) Why the Thought Contagion Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://jom-emit.cfpm.org/1998/vol2/gatherer_d.html
Hull, D. (2000) Taking Memetics Seriously: Memetics will be what we make it. In Aunger, R. (ed.), Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, Oxford: Oxford university Press, 43-67.
Kuhn, T. (1969) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Price, G. R. 1970. Selection and covariance. Nature 227: 520-521.
Price, G. R. 1972. Extension of covariance selection mathematics. Annals of Human Genetics 35:485-489.
Rose, N., 1998; Controversies in Meme Theory.Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,2. http://jom-emit.cfpm.org/1998/vol2/rose_n.html
Opie, I. and Opie, P. (eds.) (1997) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press.
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Re:FAQ: Memetics
« Reply #7 on: 2003-05-06 13:59:57 »
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Competing Memes Analysis

Source: Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
Authors: David K. Dirlam, dirlamd@bellsouth.net
Dated: 2003
Noticed By: Rhinoceros


Table of Contents
Abstract
1. The challenge to memetics

    1.1 General and specific memetics
    1.2 Edmonds’ First Challenge: The Case Study
    1.3. Edmonds’ Second Challenge: The falsifiable theory of when to use memetics
2. Competing Memes Analysis

    2.1. Creating multidimensional classifiers from successions of memes
    2.2. Collecting and coding records
    2.3. Modeling frequency changes over time or space
Appendix A: Memetic system for the historical development of developmental research.
Appendix B: Lotka-Volterra competition
References
Acknowledgments


Abstract

Aunger (2000) and Edmonds (2002) argue that memetics is a theory without a methodology, in imminent danger of dying from lack of novel interpretations and empirical work. Edmonds challenges memeticists to conduct empirical tests. This article presents Competing Memes Analysis, an empirical methodology that can readily be applied to significant social problems. The methodology is implemented in three steps. Step 1 identifies the organization of memes within an activity. Each activity is assumed to exhibit numerous small groups of memes where each meme within a group competes with all other memes in the group and can be combined with any meme from any other group. The succession of memes that occurs with increasing experience can be a powerful clue to identifying competing memes. Step 2 collects records of activities and codes them for the presence or absence of each meme identified in Step 1. Any activity that people acquire from each other by imitation can be readily coded for the presence or absence of competing memes. Step 3 analyzes changing frequencies of each coded meme over time or space. Models of these changes can give useful clues to suggest empirical studies that will provide important social and scientific results. Ecology’s Lotka-Volterra model of competing species illustrates the usefulness to memetics of population models.

Keywords: memetic methodology, meme, drawing, writing, scientific research, Lotka-Volterra, competition

1. The challenge to memetics

Aunger (2000) contains several arguments that memetics is a theory without a methodology. He concludes (p. 230) "The ultimate test—which would preempt theoretical objections—is whether memetics can produce novel empirical work or insightful interpretations of previous results. It has not yet done so, but must do so in the near future. Otherwise, it is likely that memetics will be perceived to be a misguided enterprise. The clock is ticking."

Edmonds (2002) extends Aunger’s argument by specifying three challenges for memetics. His first challenge is for a conclusive case study which shows a cultural process that (a) exhibits faithful replication where the replication process is transferred to many sources and (b) passes through a large enough quantity of such transfers to show adaptation resulting from verifiable advantages and consistent with current population-genetics models. He suggests nursery rhymes and legal phrases as appropriate test cases. Edmonds’ second challenge is for a falsifiable theory that identifies when a memetics interpretation is appropriate and necessary. Edmonds’ third challenge is for a credible simulation of an emergent (not "designed in") memetic process, analogous to "exhibiting a simulation of the emergence of life from the interaction of chemicals."

This paper describes methodological techniques for meeting Edmonds’ case-study and memetics-interpretation challenges. Before describing the methodology it would be helpful to clarify a few aspects of the memetics challenge.

1.1 General and specific memetics

A significant source of potential confusion about memetics resembles the confusion within scientific history that occurred with Kuhn’s (1969) initial conception of "paradigm." A paradigm referred both to (a) "the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques and so on shared by members of a given community" and also to (b) "the concrete puzzle-solutions which…replace explicit rules as a basis for the solution of the remaining puzzles of normal science." Note that the second, specific conception enables the former general conception and thus is the deeper of the two.

Similarly, memetics is used in both a general and a specific manner. Specifically, we have the model of actions or artifacts that can be imitated with fidelity, fecundity and durability. Generally, we have the conception of memes as actions or artifacts that evolve independently of the people producing them. The specific conception enables the general one and is the deeper. But just like there are a host of biological studies that rely on but do not discuss evolutionary processes, there are also a host of possible memetics studies that rely on but do not discuss evolutionary processes. Furthermore, the methods used in general memetics studies may be directly applicable to the fundamental questions raised within the specific conception. This occurs especially when studies have a methodological rather than a theoretical focus. Thus, a vast array of ecological, geological and genetic models depends on genetic evolution without addressing it and many mathematical models in these fields preceded evolutionary models by decades. The power of evolutionary thinking was due as much to the remarkable convergence of knowledge that supported it as to its own models. It seems likely that a future principle of the memetics of science will be that converging knowledge is a necessary predecessor to the dominance of any scientific system.

1.2 Edmonds’ First Challenge: The Case Study

Critical to Edmonds’ argument is that passing his challenges would show the "usability" of memetics. Edmonds’ suggestion of nursery rhymes and legal phrases as apt test cases was based on the assumption that the examples were "of a limited nature about which good quality data is available." More ambitious studies would not be believed until such "straightforward" examples had been established.

Case studies are certainly essential, but Edmonds’ suggested topics can be improved. Unambitious content by no means guarantees straightforward conduct and interpretation of any study. The failure of attempts to program translation, transcription, and even textual search belie the straightforwardness of any natural language task. Especially at this early point in memetics research, the methodology and interpretation of all studies will be questioned. The critical factor for the future of memetics is not straightforward conduct and interpretation. Rather, the critical factor is whether the questions lead the scientific community to ignore or use and debate the results. The potential for use and debate, rather than obscurity, varies directly with the author’s skill, the author’s community support and the significance of the topic. Furthermore, the dynamics of the transmission of memes will be affected by the importance of the topic. Observing natural memetic transmission and adaptation is likely to be far more difficult for small niche topics, like those Edmonds suggested, than for topics that have more urgent and widespread social content. A primary goal of this paper is to show that although the quick-fix case study does not exist, there are methods that make the consequential studies no more difficult than those with minimal importance.

1.3 Edmonds’ Second Challenge: The falsifiable theory of when to use memetics

In his challenge for a falsifiable theory of when to use memetics, Edmonds rightly argues for a biological advantage of large brains independent to the hosting of memes. The issue of deciding when to apply memetics arguments, however, might be better conceived as methodological than theoretical. Though a theory might be easier to apply to ongoing social change, researchers would benefit more from operational definitions. Once several operational definitions have become established, the common elements would point to the needed theory.

The ideal, operational definition would involve direct observation of imitation. Short of that ideal, indirect studies could use situations involving developmental or historical change that (a) minimize the influence of intra-individual processes and (b) allow for a high level of opportunity for imitation. One way of precluding intra-individual processes is to study only a single record per person. A high level of opportunity for imitation occurs by examining situations that contain a high probability of frequent contact between persons being studied.

2. Competing Memes Analysis

Competing Memes Analysis is a method that makes studies of consequential topics no more difficult than those with minimal importance. It is a three step process that
    (1) organizes activities into groups of competing memes that often emerge in developmental successions,
    (2) codes records of activities for the presence or absence of each meme, and
    (3) constructs models of the changing frequencies of the memes.
The methodology has been constructed through studies of the ontogenetic development of drawing (Dirlam, 1996, contains a preliminary analysis), writing (Dirlam, 1982), and the historical development of research methods in developmental psychology (Dirlam, Gamble, and Lloyd, 1999). The purpose of the drawing and writing studies was to design objective pedagogical alternatives to educational testing that could be used with natural products of classroom activities. The purpose of the study of research methods was to determine whether the analytical models that fit the ontogeny of drawing and writing also fit historical development.

2.1. Creating multidimensional classifiers from successions of memes

The first step in the Competing Memes Analysis of an activity is to create multidimensional classifiers of competing memes (Dirlam, 1980). Each activity is assumed to exhibit numerous small groups of memes each of which comprises a dimension. A group of memes is a dimension when each meme within the group competes with all other memes in it and can be combined with any meme from any other group (see Appendix A for an example). The succession of memes that occurs with increasing experience can be a powerful clue to identifying competing groups. A memetic classifier for an activity consists of several dimensions of memes.

Memetic classifiers can be readily constructed by anyone with modest expertise in a topic. A straight forward approach is to observe differences between people performing the activity who have various levels of experience. When one approach to the activity is commonly replaced by another, the two approaches are competing memes. Sometimes the later appearing memes contain earlier appearing ones. In any case, since the memes can be defined to be mutually exclusive, each succession becomes a dimension.

Dimensions can and should be defined as exhaustive by generalizing to includeall other cases in the definition of one meme within each dimension. Thus, every record of an activity being investigated is assigned to one meme within each group of competing memes. When an emerging meme becomes frequent enough to separate from a generalized meme, it will be necessary to redefine and recode the dimension. Analysis of large collections of records might also reveal that some memes are so rare that they should be logically combined with others.

Experts in an activity can help to construct definitions of each meme so that coders can reliably distinguish which is being used. For most important activities, there is theoretical literature that suggests a rich variety of memes. For example, more than half of the dimensions of competing memes used in the study of developmental research methods mentioned above were based on concepts from Danziger (1990). The memetic classifier for the study is presented in Appendix A. The study involved coding 912 articles written from 1930 to 1992 for the presence or absence of each meme in the classifier.

The number of dimensions in a competing memes analysis is a matter of researcher choice and depends on the state of knowledge in the subject at the time of the study. It should be noted, however, that gathering and examining records is usually much harder than coding them. Therefore, studies with several dimensions require considerably less resources per dimension than single-dimension studies. The memes themselves are like fractals—they can apply to content as fine-grained as words, lines and study locations or as general as complete discourses, complete drawings and complete research articles.

2.2. Collecting and coding records

The second step in Competing Memes Analysis is to systematically collect and code records of memes. In order to permit the construction of testable models, the records should be drawn from a corpus that contains a meaningful point in time or space for all samples. For example, time points for the studies of drawing and writing were the age of each participant and time points for the developmental research study were the publication years of the articles. Studying the spread of memes from their spatial points of origin should also generate rich, useful results.

Drawings are self-contained records of the actions of those who made them. Similarly, writing samples record the actions of writers and research reports record the actions of researchers. Audio and video tapes are also records of memetic activity. Because memes are imitated, any user of a meme and many non-users can identify uses of it by others. This means that discrete samples can be reliably coded for the presence or absence of a meme. If a ten-dimensional system has been defined (as in section 2.1 above), each record will contain ten memes.

One clear implication of memetics is that humans are uniquely capable of identifying memes. The only rival species, apes and parrots, are readily surpassed in speed, variety and complexity of imitation by preschool children. Examining the diversity of memes in the three studies that have used Competing Memes Analysis reveals that the complexity or importance of memes did not affect our ability to identify them. Hence, consequential studies are no more difficult than those with minimal importance.

2.3. Modeling frequency changes over time or space

Once records have been coded, it is possible to count the uses of memes in situations with important consequences, whether they be economic (e.g., the use of a new product), social (e.g., the spread of juvenile crime), political (e.g., the repetition of a candidate’s message), educational (e.g., the way students and programs are evaluated) or scientific (e.g., the spread of a methodology). For example in the study of developmental research methods, the model projected that the growth of difference statistics was so fast that if a competitor did not emerge in the next few decades, data analysis would consume so much of available resources (i.e. social acceptance) that it would implode (see Figure 1). During the 1930-1992 study period, data modeling was too rare to analyze separately from difference statistics. But since it is a valued and slow-growing alternative, it is a possible solution to the collapse of the analysis dimension.


Figure 1. Best fitting Lotka-Volterra model for competing data analysis memes.

Memetics skeptics would most readily accept studies that operationally define their memetic nature by setting up situations for observing imitation. However, imitation can be inferred rather than directly observed, and can be interpreted broadly as reproduction. This opens up the potential to use archival data (e.g. research reports, crime incident reports, corporate audits and so forth). A dramatic memetics success would occur if memes were discovered that effectively competed with such practices as crime among low income juveniles, self and community destructiveness among religious fundamentalists and fraud among corporate CEOs faced with poor results. Key evidence for successful competition would come from changing frequencies of memes over time or space.

Beyond identifying memes, Competing Memes Analysis may involve a search for
    (1) the path of succession from one meme to the next,
    (2) the resources required,
    (3) the growth rate and
    (4) the competitive strength of such practices.
Results of these types of studies may help us to understand such issues as
    (a) how memes that are seen as "weeds" contribute to general survival and
    (b) how the harmful effects of overgrowth of such memes can be controlled.
An example of (a) would be marketing processes that make it possible to establish products in extremely competitive markets, but permit monopoly-like overgrowth in noncompetitive markets. Examples of(b)would be finding competitors to the emergence of monopolies ranging from antitrust laws to innovations that disrupt them. The problems solved while undertaking a rich variety of such studies could provide the sort of clarity needed to meet Edmonds’ challenge for a falsifiable theory of when to use memetics.

Definitive answers to questions about resources, growth rate and competitive strength may be difficult to obtain without detailed experimental studies. However, once hundreds of records of memes have been systematically collected from a population, placed within a meaningful distribution of time or space, coded and counted, it is possible to develop models of the frequency changes. Such models can reveal characteristics of memes that are difficult to observe directly. They also make detailed, testable predictions.

A model that influenced the competing memes analysis, proposed here, is the Lotka-Volterra model of species competition (see Appendix B). This model describes the population of species that compete within an ecosystem as depending on four parameters: the initial population, the maximum sustainable population, the growth rate, and the competitive strength. Given these parameter values, at least four life cycles of memes can be identified (see Appendix A). Rapid growth rate is high enough to create chaotic fluctuations in a noncompetitive environment. Data analysis modeled in Figure 1 is an example. High competitive strength reduces the rapid growth of competitors to moderate levels or less.

......Parameter values...
Life cyclesInitial prevalenceGrowth rateCompetitive strength
DefaultHighNear ZeroNear Zero
NicheLowSlowHigh
PioneeringLowRapidLow
DominantLowModerateHigh


Table 1. Lotka-Volterra values for four memetic life cycles.

Once such vital statistics of a group of memes have been worked out, scientifically significant and socially valuable experiments can be conducted to determine the factors that influence the long-term vitality of particular memes. For example, revisiting the species analogy, we note that pioneering species are often those that adapt to the presence of many predators by growing very rapidly. If such species find an environment where the predators are absent, their populations can grow so rapidly that they consume too much for the environment to sustain them. The formerly adaptive high growth results in a local extinction. It takes little imagination to realize what powerful social consequences would occur when the analogous process operates mimetically. Pioneering growth may be as essential to responding to social threats or establishing new products as it is to establish species in predatory environments. But planners need to be aware of the social or economic danger that these new responses or products pose if their memetic competitors were to suddenly vanish.

In conclusion, Competing Memes Analysis provides memetics with a method for conducting precise studies of memetic processes found in any human activity. It can be summarized as a 3 step process. Step 1identifies the organization of memes within an activity. Each activity is assumed to exhibit numerous small groups of memes where each meme within a group competes with all other memes in the group and can be combined with any meme from any other group. The succession of memes that occurs with increasing experience can be a powerful clue to identifying competing groups. Step 2 collects records of activities and codes them for the presence or absence of each meme identified in Step 1. Step 3 analyzes changing frequencies of each coded meme over time or space. Models of these changes can give useful clues to suggest empirical studies that will provide important social and scientific results.

Appendix A: Memetic system for the historical development of developmental research

.................................Life cycles (see Table 1 for explanation of life cycles)











DimensionsDefaultNichePioneeringDominant
DEPENDENT VARIABLES. What was measured in the study?Limited Behaviors Easily counted, or Categorized Coded free behaviorSummed or Enumerated Standardized tests or sums of ratings of loosely connected items)NACategorized and Other coded free behavior combined with a second dependent variable
DATA ANALYSIS. What kind of statistics were used?NADescriptive Statistics like counts, means or correlationsDifference Statistics t-tests, ANOVAs non-parametric difference tests or modelingNA
DESIGNS. How often were comparable measurements taken?One Session Per TaskMicro-longitudinal Repeated measurements taken weeks apart
Longitudinal Repeated measurements taken years apartNA
AGE. Was it used to measure time or to assign people to groups?Single Age GroupDependent Variable Using age as a measure of how long it takes to developNAMultiple Age Groups
SOCIAL CONTEXT. Who was present with the people being studied?NASignificant Other Alone or With TestTest Alone or With ExperimenterNA
LOCATION. Where was the study done?UnspecifiedSchool, Home, Other, Lab, or MultipleNANA
BACKGROUND. How many fields used as sources?NANAInterdisciplinaryDisciplinary. Only one.
APPLICATIONS Who benefited from the study?Researchers Only
NANAOthers Professionals or individuals

Table 2. The life-cycles and dimensions of a Competing Memes Analysis for developmental research methods.

Appendix B: Lotka-Volterra competition

Lotka (1925) and Volterra (1926) independently formulated competition between species in an ecosystem. The basic idea is an expansion of Verhulst’s logistic law of a century earlier, which in turn built on Malthus’ concept of exponential growth, where the population at a particular moment in time equals the population at the preceding moment multiplied times one plus the growth rate.

(1) x’ = x * (1+r)

Populations do not grow beyond the available resources, but rather either stabilize at an equilibrium that depends on the resources or collapse after exhausting the resources. Letting k denote the equilibrium population, Verhulst corrected Malthus’ notion by reducing the growth rate as the population approached the equilibrium.

(2) x’ = x * [1+ r*(1-x/k)]

When the population x equals the equilibrium population k, the growth rate will be 0. The result for slow or moderate growth rates is the well known S-curve that reaches an asymptote at the equilibrium. Also, this is the equation that produces wild fluctuations with very high growth rates. Its age, simplicity and practical usefulness have made it a favorite of chaos theorists.

Lotka and Volterra further refined Verhulst’s equation by reasoning that a competing species would further reduce the growth rate. They argued that the effect of each competing species would depend on its population, y, multiplied by a characteristic competitive strength factor, c. Of course, each competing species would reduce the population of the target species.

(3) x’ = x * [1+ r*(1-x/k)] - &#931;ciyi

Since, the model is commonly applied to discreet breeding cycles, it is easy to develop a spreadsheet program where the populations at a particular point of time are found in a single row and are used to calculate the populations in the successive moment in the following row. Further details of applying the model to developmental and historical data can be found in Dirlam, Gamble, and Lloyd (1999).

References

Aunger, R (2000). Conclusions. In R. Aunger (ed.), Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 205-232.
Danziger, K. (1990). Constructing the Subject: Historical Origins of Psychological Research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dirlam, D. K. (1980). Classifiers and cognitive development. In S. & C. Modgil (Eds.), Toward a Theory of Psychological Development. Windsor, England: NFER Publishing, 465-498.
Dirlam, D. K. (1982). Theoretical Framework. In NE NY Board of Cooperative Educational Services, The Second R. Bureau of English Education, New York State Educational Department.
Dirlam, D. K. (1996). Macrodevelopmental analysis: From open fields to culture via genres of art and developmental research. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3, 270-289.
Dirlam, D. K., Gamble, K. L., & Lloyd, H. S. (1999). Modeling historical development: Fitting a competing practices system to coded archival data.Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences, 3, 93-111.
Edmonds, B. (2002). Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 6. http://jom-emit.cfpm.org/2002/vol6/edmonds_b_letter.html
Kuhn, T. (1969) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Lowenfeld, V. (1957). Creative and Mental Growth(3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
Moffett, J. (1968). Teaching the Universe of Discourse. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1967). The Child's Conception of Space. New York: Norton.

Acknowledgments

Most of the integrating work for this paper was accomplished in 1997-1998 while I was a James McKeen Cattell Fellow at the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition of the University of California San Diego. I would like to thank Michael Cole for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript and for his extensive advice and counsel over the last seven years of this project. Kurt Danziger, James Moffett, and Jerry Balzano also provided important theoretical insights on the road to refining Competing Memes Analysis. The readability and usefulness of this article was greatly improved by the careful editorial commentary of Martin De Jong. Paul Marsden also offered numerous very useful suggestions. Especially, the treatment of pioneering growth was more balanced as a result of his involvement.
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