Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Meme skepticism

"Meme" is a word coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.  It's used as an analogy between biological evolution, and the evolution of ideas.  The genes that survive are those that are best able to replicate themselves.  The ideas that survive are also those that are best able to replicate themselves.

It's a useful analogy, helpful for a basic understanding of both biological evolution and culture.  It powerfully conveys the truism that ideas can't survive without winning new minds.  It demonstrates that the basic process of natural selection is just an abstract principle that can apply to many things that replicate.

But I think people are too enamored with the analogy (Daniel Dennett in particular). Does it really work as a theory of social interaction?  The source of the idea also rings skeptical bells.  Just as I don't expect new revolutionary physics to first be published in a book written by an engineer and marketed to popular audiences, I don't expect a new revolutionary theory of social science to first be published in a popular science book about evolutionary biology written by an evolutionary biologist.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  And perhaps, when you're an evolutionary biologist, everything looks like natural selection.  And since I'm a skeptical blogger, everything looks to me like a claim to be questioned.

I can't really speak to the expert criticisms of meme theory (though a cursory glance at Wikipedia indicates that there are many), but there's at least one flaw in the meme/gene analogy that jumps out at me.  What is the origin of a meme?  While ideas aren't created in a vacuum, it's difficult to describe them as "descendants" of other ideas.  Many ideas just have no traceable source, or they look completely different from their source. As far as biological evolution is concerned, it's extremely important that the offspring look at least a little like their parents.  The traits that improve survivability need to be consistently heritable for evolution to go anywhere.

And many ideas come from more than one source.  There's hardly any speciation of memes, they all just mix and cross-hybridize.  Even in religion (a common example of a meme), syncretism is absolutely commonplace.  Imagine if this were the case in evolutionary biology, we'd have crocodiles reproducing with ducks!

I know I've written a lot of posts expressing idiosyncratic disagreements with Dawkins, Harris, and other prominent atheists.  But that's not even what's going on here.  Based on things I've heard Dawkins say, I fully agree with him.  Take this interview from 2004:
When Dawkins introduced the meme concept a couple of decades ago, hopes were raised that the evolution of culture, or even of the human mind, might be explained as a sort of Darwinian competition among memes. But little has come of this project, even if the word "meme" does continue to get tossed around quite a bit by pretentious intellectuals. I asked Dawkins if he had cooled on the meme idea over the years.

"My enthusiasm for it was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture," he said. "It was always intended to be a way of dramatizing the idea that a Darwinian replicator doesn't have to be a gene. It can be a computer virus. Or a meme. The point is that a good replicator is just a replicator that spreads, regardless of its material form."
Well, yeah!  Memetic evolution is a powerful tool to explain evolutionary biology to popular audiences.  It's not actually meant to contribute to the study of human culture.  I mean, isn't that what the social sciences are for?  I know we all like to hate on the squishy social sciences, but to take memetic evolution seriously does not strike me as an improvement.


Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

I dunno. I go both ways on this.

On one hand, the whole "meme" concept is just too fuzzy to be scientifically useful. On the other hand, I find very compelling the idea that there's some sort of real, substantive evolution going on in social and political development over time.

I tend to contrast an evolutionary model with an idealistic model, i.e. that there is some inherent quality of ideas themselves that drives their development in human minds. Given the general implausibility of that kind of Platonic or Hegelian idealism, some sort of evolutionary theory seems plausible, if only by default.

drransom said...

I agree that "meme" isn't about to become a scientifically useful concept any time soon. I see Dawkins's central insight as a way of frame-switching: we can turn the normal way of interpreting idea-movement around and see humans as the vectors through which ideas (and other "memes") propagate themselves. It's more of a humanities-type insight than a scientific one.

c boswell said...

I don’t believe ideas survive because they best replicate themselves. For examples, in the business world, the best ideas are those which do not replicate themselves. They are those which enable a business to produce a service or a product to satisfy the needs (known or yet-to-be-discovered) of the people or to eliminate a problem people are experiencing. A recent visible example is the bankruptcy of Blockbuster which rents movies via its brick-and-mortar store while Netflix rents movies through the mail. In addition, Netflix set out to eliminate the pain of Blockbuster’s customers who were frustrated with the late-fees. Netflix’s idea of late-fee elimination and rent-movies-through-mail were not a replicate of anything Blockbuster was doing. In fact, if it were a replicate, Netflix would not have succeeded while Blockbuster failed.
In the spiritual world, the ideas of Christianity are not replicate of any other religion but they have survived for over 2000 years. They survive in this case because they are the truths.

miller said...

I think a meme theorist would say that Netflix's idea doesn't need to come from blockbuster. It could come from anywhere. For instance, from other internet business models.

Also, a successful business model is not the same as a successful meme. A successful meme is just one that persists, not necessarily one that helps the people or businesses which adopt it. I may not like meme theory, but I know enough about it to know you're doing it wrong.

Lastly, I think we can all agree that arguing for the truth of an idea based solely on its persistence is silly.