Memetics

mind-virus

Memetics [meh-met-iks] is a controversial theory of mental content (e.g. thoughts, concepts, memories, emotions, percepts, intentions) based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene.’ It purports to be an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer. The meme, analogous to a gene, was conceived as a ‘unit of culture’ (an idea, belief, pattern of behavior, etc.) which is ‘hosted’ in one or more individual minds, and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind.

Thus what would otherwise be regarded as one individual influencing another to adopt a belief is seen—when adopting the intentional stance—as an idea-replicator reproducing itself in a new host. As with genetics, particularly under a Dawkinsian interpretation, a meme’s success may be due to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host. Memetics is also notable for sidestepping the traditional concern with the truth of ideas and beliefs. Instead, it is interested in their success. The Usenet newsgroup alt.memetics was started in 1993.

A meme-complex (sometimes abbreviated memeplex) is a collection or grouping of memes that have evolved into a mutually supportive or symbiotic relationship. Simply put, a meme-complex is a set of ideas that reinforce each other. Meme-complexes are roughly analogous to the symbiotic collection of individual genes that make up the genetic codes of biological organisms. An example of a memeplex would be a religion. A memeoid is a neologism for people who have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential. Examples include kamikazes, suicide bombers, and cult members who commit mass suicide. The term was apparently coined by H. Keith Henson in ‘Memes, L5 and the Religion of the Space Colonies’ in 1985. In a strict sense, all people are essentially memeoid, since no distinction can be made if one uses language, or memes use their host. In ‘The Electronic Revolution’ William S. Burroughs writes: ‘the word has not been recognized as a virus because it has achieved a state of stable symbiosis with the host.’ Memetic Equilibrium refers to the cultural equivalent of species biological equilibrium. It is that which humans strive for in terms of personal value with respect to cultural artifacts and ideas.

In his book ‘The Selfish Gene,’ evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins used the term meme to describe a unit of human cultural transmission analogous to the gene, arguing that replication also happens in culture, albeit in a different sense. In his book, Dawkins contended that the meme is a unit of information residing in the brain and is the mutating replicator in human cultural evolution. It is a pattern that can influence its surroundings – that is, it has causal agency – and can propagate. This created great debate among sociologists, biologists, and scientists of other disciplines, because Dawkins himself did not provide a sufficient explanation of how the replication of units of information in the brain controls human behavior and ultimately culture, since the principal topic of the book was genetics. Dawkins apparently did not intend to present a comprehensive theory of memetics, but rather coined the term meme in a speculative spirit. Accordingly, the term ‘unit of information’ came to be defined in different ways by many scientists.

The modern memetics movement dates from the mid 1980s. A 1983 ‘Metamagical Themas’ column by Douglas Hofstadter, in ‘Scientific American,’ was influential as was his 1985 book of the same name. ‘Memeticist’ was coined as analogous to ‘geneticist’ originally in ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Later Arel Lucas suggested that the discipline that studies memes and their connections to human and other carriers of them be known as memetics by analogy with ‘genetics.’ Another stimulus was the publication in 1991 of ‘Consciousness Explained’ by Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, which incorporated the meme concept into a theory of the mind. In his 1991 essay ‘Viruses of the Mind,’ Richard Dawkins used memetics to explain the phenomenon of religious belief and the various characteristics of organized religions. By then, memetics had also become a theme appearing in fiction (e.g. Neal Stephenson’s ‘Snow Crash’).

However, the foundation of memetics in full modern incarnation originates in the publication in 1996 of two books by authors outside the academic mainstream: ‘Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme’ by former Microsoft executive turned motivational speaker and professional poker player, Richard Brodie, and ‘Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society’ by Aaron Lynch, a mathematician and philosopher who worked for many years as an engineer at Fermilab. Lynch claimed to have conceived his theory totally independently of any contact with academics in the cultural evolutionary sphere, and apparently was not even aware of Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’ until his book was very close to publication.

Around the same time as the publication of the books by Lynch and Brodie the e-journal ‘Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission’ appeared on the web. It was first hosted by the Centre for Policy Modelling at Manchester Metropolitan University but later taken over by Francis Heylighen of the CLEA research institute at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. The e-journal soon became the central point for publication and debate within the nascent memeticist community. In 1999, Susan Blackmore, a psychologist at the University of the West of England, published ‘The Meme Machine,’ which more fully worked out the ideas of Dennett, Lynch, and Brodie and attempted to compare and contrast them with various approaches from the cultural evolutionary mainstream, as well as providing novel, and controversial, memetic-based theories for the evolution of language and the human sense of individual selfhood.

The memetics movement split almost immediately into two. The first group were those who wanted to stick to Dawkins’ definition of a meme as ‘a unit of cultural transmission.’ Gibran Burchett, another memeticist responsible for helping to research and co-coin the term ‘memetic engineering,’ along with Leveious Rolando and Larry Lottman, has stated that a meme can be defined, more precisely, as ‘a unit of cultural information that can be copied, located in the brain.’ This thinking is more in line with Dawkins’ second definition of the meme in his book ‘The Extended Phenotype.’ The second group wants to redefine memes as observable cultural artifacts and behaviors. However, in contrast to those two positions, Blackmore does not reject either concept of external or internal memes.

These two schools became known as the ‘internalists’ and the ‘externalists.’ Prominent internalists included both Lynch and Brodie; the most vocal externalists included Derek Gatherer, a geneticist from Liverpool John Moores University, and William Benzon, a writer on cultural evolution and music. The main rationale for externalism was that internal brain entities are not observable, and memetics cannot advance as a science, especially a quantitative science, unless it moves its emphasis onto the directly quantifiable aspects of culture. Internalists countered with various arguments: that brain states will eventually be directly observable with advanced technology, that most cultural anthropologists agree that culture is about beliefs and not artifacts, or that artifacts cannot be replicators in the same sense as mental entities (or DNA) are replicators. The debate became so heated that a 1998 ‘Symposium on Memetics,’ organized as part of the 15th ‘International Conference on Cybernetics,’ passed a motion calling for an end to definitional debates. McNamara demonstrated in 2011 that functional connectivity profiling using neuroimaging tools enables the observation of the processing of internal memes (i-memes) in response to external e-memes.

Susan Blackmore (2002) re-stated the definition of meme as: ‘whatever is copied from one person to another person, whether habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information.’ Furthermore, memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods. The copies are not perfect: memes are copied with variation; moreover, they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Only some of the variants can survive. The combination of these three elements (copies, variation, competition for survival) forms precisely the condition for Darwinian evolution, and so memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes. In her definition, the way that a meme replicates is through imitation. This requires brain capacity to generally imitate a model or selectively imitate the model. Since the process of social learning varies from one person to another, the imitation process cannot be said to be completely imitated. The sameness of an idea may be expressed with different memes supporting it. This is to say that the mutation rate in memetic evolution is extremely high, and mutations are even possible within each and every interaction of the imitation process. It becomes very interesting when we see that a social system composed of a complex network of microinteractions exists, but at the macro level an order emerges to create culture.

Luis Benitez-Bribiesca, a critic of memetics, calls it ‘a pseudoscientific dogma’ and ‘a dangerous idea that poses a threat to the serious study of consciousness and cultural evolution’ among other things. As factual criticism, he refers to the lack of a code script for memes, as the DNA is for genes, and to the fact that the meme mutation mechanism (i.e., an idea going from one brain to another) is too unstable (low replication accuracy and high mutation rate), which would render the evolutionary process chaotic. Another criticism comes from semiotics, stating that the concept of meme is a primitivized concept of Sign. Mary Midgley criticizes memetics for at least two reasons: One, culture is not best understood by examining its smallest parts, as culture is pattern-like, comparable to an ocean current. Many more factors, historical and others, should be taken into account than only whatever particle culture is built from. Two, if memes are not thoughts (and thus not cognitive phenomena), as Daniel C. Dennett insists in ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,’ then their ontological status is open to question, and memeticists (who are also reductionists) may be challenged whether memes even exist. Questions can extend to whether the idea of ‘meme’ is itself a meme, or is a true concept.

Dawkins responds in ‘A Devil’s Chaplain’ that there are actually two different types of memetic processes (controversial and informative). The first is a type of cultural idea, action, or expression, which does have high variance; for instance, a student of his who had inherited some of the mannerisms of Wittgenstein. However, he also describes a self-correcting meme, highly resistant to mutation. As an example of this, he gives origami patterns in elementary schools – except in rare cases, the meme is either passed on in the exact sequence of instructions, or (in the case of a forgetful child) terminates. This type of meme tends not to evolve, and to experience profound mutations in the rare event that it does. Some memeticists, however, see this as more of a continuum of meme strength, rather than two types of memes.

Another definition, given by Hokky Situngkir, tried to offer a more rigorous formalism for the meme, memeplexes, and the deme (a local population of organisms of one species that actively interbreed with one another and share a distinct gene pool), seeing the meme as a cultural unit in a cultural complex system. It is based on the Darwinian genetic algorithm with some modifications to account for the different patterns of evolution seen in genes and memes. In the method of memetics as the way to see culture as a complex adaptive system, he describes a way to see memetics as an alternative methodology of cultural evolution. However, there are as many possible definitions that are credited to the word ‘meme.’ For example, in the sense of computer simulation the term ‘memetic algorithm’ is used to define a particular computational viewpoint.

Memetics can be simply understood as a method for scientific analysis of cultural evolution. However, Keith Henson who wrote ‘Memetics and the Modular-Mind’ (1987) makes the case that memetics needs to incorporate evolutionary psychology to understand the psychological traits of a meme’s host. This is especially true of time-varying, meme-amplification host-traits, such as those leading to wars.

Recently, Christopher diCarlo has developed the idea of ‘memetic equilibrium’ to describe a cultural compatible state with biological equilibrium. In ‘Problem Solving and Neurotransmission in the Upper Paleolithic,’ diCarlo argues that as human consciousness evolved and developed, so too did our ancestors’ capacity to consider and attempt to solve environmental problems in more conceptually sophisticated ways. Understood in this way, problem solving amongst a particular group, when considered satisfactory, often produces a feeling of environmental control, stability, in short—memetic equilibrium. But the pay-off is not merely practical, providing purely functional utility—it is biochemical and it comes in the form of neurotransmitters. The relationship between a gradually emerging conscious awareness and sophisticated languages in which to formulate representations combined with the desire to maintain biological equilibrium, generated the necessity for memetic equilibrium to fill in conceptual gaps in terms of understanding three very important aspects in the Upper Paleolithic: causality, morality, and mortality. The desire to explain phenomena in relation to maintaining survival and reproductive stasis, generated a normative stance in the minds of our ancestors—Survival/Reproductive Value (or S-R Value).

The application of memetics to a difficult complex social system problem, environmental sustainability, has recently been attempted at thwink.org. Using meme types and memetic infection in several stock and flow simulation models, Jack Harich has demonstrated several interesting phenomena that are best, and perhaps only, explained by memes. One model, ‘The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace,’ argues that the fundamental reason corruption is the norm in politics is due to an inherent structural advantage of one feedback loop pitted against another. Another model, ‘The Memetic Evolution of Solutions to Difficult Problems,’ uses memes, the evolutionary algorithm, and the scientific method to show how complex solutions evolve over time and how that process can be improved. The insights gained from these models are being used to engineer memetic solution elements to the sustainability problem.

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