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The Validity of Memes and Memetics

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I propose that "meme" duplicates "idea" and so should not be used.

Susan Blackmore's case for memes given in chapters 1 and 2 of the

There are 3 ways of learning

  1. Classical conditioning - associative learning, nearly all animals can do this
  2. Operant conditioning - Skinnerian trail and error with reward, some animals can do this
  3. Imitating - to copy a meme, only humans do this (not mere mimicry)

Meme is defined as that which is copied. Examples given are: idea, instruction, recipe, behavior, piece of information, tunes, catch-phrases, clothing fashions, ways of making pots and building arches. Examples of what memes are not: perceptions, sensations, emotions.

Universal Darwinism - the explanation of evolution as an algorithmic process. Algorithms are substrate neutral, and this algorithm must occur given a replicator, variation in reproduction, selection, retention of variation in reproduction. The unit of evolution is the replicator. Examples given for evolutionary processes and their replicators are:

Biology - genes

Linguistics - words and pronounciations

Immunology - subpopulations of T-cells

Culture - memes

My criticism is that memes are just ideas. Ideas can be expressed in words or in artifacts. Universal Darwinism is correct, and can be said to apply to ideas. Blackmore does not mention epistemology at all, and seems to think only scientists care about the truth or falsehood status of particular memes. The truth or validity of an idea apparently can be abstracted away as just another factor that will determine its reproductive fitness. Ideas are artifacts in the sense they are man-made and not metaphysically given, so it is unclear that any lessons learned about natural selection apply to the artificial selection of memes. I am not convinced that memes and memetics are necessary concepts. If ideas are regarded as floating abstractions and ends in themselves, then a culture of rationalists would perhaps have a use for memetics.

I think Rand's Razor should apply here.

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Classical conditioning - associative learning, nearly all animals can do this

Operant conditioning - Skinnerian trail and error with reward, some animals can do this

Imitating - to copy a meme, only humans do this (not mere mimicry)

I disagree that humans learn in only these 3 ways. I would argue that the most important way we learn is by reconfiguring our knowledge to form to connections and concepts. The integration of our ideas with other ideas leads to a great deal of new information, to the individual learner, certainly, and often to the totality of human knowledge.

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I think the essential distinction memes and ideas, and mind you I don't agree that it is a valid distinction, is that memes are believed by some to have a 'life' of their own. They 'propagate themselves' as a form of 'idea survival'. Self-replicating ideas? Yea.. right.

Edited by RationalBiker
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I think it depends on how you view the model. I'm not necessarily bought into the idea that a meme is some sort of entity beyond an idea, but to think of ideas as transmittable elements that affect the survival characteristics of the animals they inhabit might have some interesting ways of looking at them.

I think where the model breaks down is that ideas are not inherently programmed into any physical thing such as our cells, so while they are transmitable they arent congruent. I haven't decided if thinking about ideas as having natural selection implications is helpful, but it has helped me thing of the differences between natural selection and Objectivism as a life-based philosophy. Too many people want to link up the two in "solid state" form, i.e. that Objectivism must be derived from principles of natural selection, which is erroneous.

BTW, as described above, I think the Blackmore characterization is crap, or at least incomplete. ;)

Edited by KendallJ
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I don't believe the meme is supposed to necessarily have survival value for the organism (i.e., person) that holds it. It just has to spread to other persons effectively, presumably by affecting the behavior of the holder (or "carrier.").

A religion is a perfect example of a meme--it contains ideas that make it difficult for the person to give it up (the biggest sin is apostasy), and other ideas that make it imperative to spread it (commandments to proselytize, you don't want your loved ones to burn in Hell, etc.) In fact Christianity makes holding the faith of Christianity the primary virtue; belief is more important than any act you might perform. It matters more to God that you believe in him than that you do anything else. (Sounds like God has some pretty f***ed up priorities if you ask me.) But the *idea* that belief is the most important thing itself helps the idea spread to others and makes people who hold it more resistant to giving it up.

It's an interesting way to model the spread of ideas throughout a culture, and the analogy to genetic natural selection is certainly made plain; I don't believe it has any "deeper" meaning (and it certainly does not mean that ideas exist outside of human minds in some sort of ideal plane).

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I have come to the conclusion that the idea "meme" does have a minor purpose, the one for which it was originally invented.

Richard Dawkins introduced the term "meme" in his book The Selfish Gene.

Of course the title is mere hype, genes do not have intentionality or even reactions and so cannot be selfish. Dawkins was equivocating efficient causation and final causation to be clever. The cleverness was purposeful, it had the pedagogical goal of drawing attention to the fact that the unit of evolution is the gene, not the individual animal or species. It is worth emphasising, genes do all of the evolving and are fundamental, animals and species are derivative phenomena. The entirety of The Selfish Gene is about properly understanding evolution, so correctly identifying the unit of evolution is central to the book's success.

Pointing out the algorithmic nature of evolution was another goal. It would be easier to form the concept 'evolution' as a type of algorithm if there were another instance of it, then one could bring the two instances together and drop the specifics, and abstract evolution out of its biological origin. The coinage of the term meme to parallel the term gene in both function and the very form of the word is a good trick because it effectively aids the formation of the concept "evolution" as an instance of the genus "algorithm".

However, having arrived at the destination there is no need to retain the pedagogical device "meme" if it merely duplicates or is subsumed within the concept "idea". In fact the term "meme" because of its strong parallel with "gene" encourages inappropriate attempts to apply knowledge from the field of genetics to memetics; for example to find analogs of genotypes and phenotypes in memetics, where there are none. Blackmore has to spend a chapter and parts of others re-explaining how memes are not genes. Retaining the word "idea" to designate our mental replicators avoids these problems by dropping the inappropriate genetic context entirely.

(Not to imply that Dawkins knows or cares about Objectivist epistemology, but he did follow a correct method.)

That wraps it up I think, thank you all for your earlier replies.

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I think that the idea of 'memes' is a cute metaphor for how beliefs spread, and it may be useful to look at certain popular beliefs to see if they share any features which might make them more likely to 'survive' than others (one example: many popular belief systems have an inbuilt defence mechanism where people who disagree with the belief system get a label stuck on them so that their disagreement can be explained away. Those disagreeing with Marxism suffer from false consciousness, those disagreeing with psychoanalysis are rationalizing, and so on). Its interesting to speculate about why some beliefs catch on and survive whereas others dont.

But ultimately its a metaphor and the hardline evo-psych idea that brains are just collections of memes seems both scientifically and philosophically dubious.

Edited by eriatarka
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