Friday, July 4, 2014

Memes are the new Genes

After Darwin struck upon evolution he kept it pretty much to himself for nearly 20 years; he knew he was on to something big, but also that it would be vehemently opposed. If Wallace hadn’t been about to spill the beans with his similar insight, Charles may have never shared his depth of thought and impressive wealth of supporting evidence.  And although, today, while genetic evolution is about as close to fact as you can get, in the United States just a little over half accept it as probably or certainly true. According to a Gallup  poll two thirds think humans were probably or definitely created in their present form; Some groups (e.g. Republicans) seem to be moving more firmly to that view.

Why would they do that?

Well maybe it’s just not pleasant to think of one’s self coming from the muck, as resulting entirely from a series of errors, as being infused with prehistoric impulses, or as a descendant of an ape, shrew, worm, and sponge and kin to everything alive -- or even not alive -- today.  It’s particularly hard to accept if it makes one question the happier more familiar explanations of human existence.  Evidence for evolution is easy to reject when there are still magical stories to retell.

Given the resistance to something so solidly shown, it’s not surprising to me that memetics has had a rough go too, even though it also has obvious merit and deep implications.  Memetics, you might say, is the new genetics.  It’s like we are in the mid 1800s again, resisting this germ of a huge idea.  

There have been more recent books on the topic, like Tim Tyler’s Memes: The Science of Cultural Evolution (2011)and Brodie's The Virus of the Mind (2011) but I think it will be hard to beat Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine (1999) for a solid primer on this mind-bending train of thought.

The word "meme" has even hit popular culture;  I just Binged “Internet Meme” and found 825,000 hits.  But that's just a popular video on YouTube -- it's relevant to memetics, but in a trivial way.  Memes are more than that:: these are ideas that duplicate themselves, jumping from brain to brain.  When you retell a good joke you've heard, have you just used the joke, or has the joke used you? 

But it goes deeper; let me try to intrigue you with something more.

Consider the basics of genetic evolution: individuals are different, and the more successful ones tend to pass on the contributing genes.  Creatures that are more clever than their cohorts are often better survivors, so cleverness is rewarded and brains became larger and smarter. Memetics suggests that at some point these brains become receptive to ideas that have nothing to do with the host's survival or procreation. Humans then, are the result of two evolutionary  forces: genes which groom our bodies and brains, and memes which infect our minds.  Because ideas can influence behavior, and behavior can affect genes, while at the same time genes can affect the ability to learn -- the two forces influence one another.  But they often pull in different directions.

Meme is a shortened version of 'mimeme' which means 'imitated thing' in ancient Greek but Richard Dawkins in his 1976 The Selfish Gene wanted something shorter and a little more like 'gene'.  To be fair, Hamilton in '63 and Haldane in '55 contributed to the idea he made popular then.

Memes aren’t just any idea you might have, any emotion or feeling or creative impulse.  They are the thoughts that can transfer from person to person by imitation. Although they are not perfectly analogous to genes, they have some important things in common.  They replicate. They change.  And they matter.  That's enough for natural selection to take hold, as Dawkins explained when he coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene  and this means they move and change on their own. They are like viruses, which depend on living cells but move between them freely. Blackmore puts it this way:  memes are unleashed when brains become sophisticated enough to 1) transform an idea from one point of view to another, 2) decide what to imitate, and 3) produce matching behavior.

It's tempting to try to compare memes to genes directly, but this has been one stumbling block in their acceptance. Stephen Jay Gould called memetics a “meaningless metaphor” and others have been harsher still.  But memes aren't like genes.  Why would they have to be?

Blackmore uses the analogy of a recipe for a meal to make this point.  If it is written down and photocopied it is very much like genetic code – each person might make a little change, by taste or error, but with every generation the code is reset.  If it is passed on by observation or verbally, however, or jotted down on the back of an envelope, then it is not like genes because any error or alteration will persist.  In that sense it’s Lamarkian [Lamark believed in heritability of acquired characteristics].  Either way, the recipe is a meme. 

Is the whole recipe the meme or just each ingredient?  A similar question is central to genetic evolution (is it genes, is it organisms, species or groups which are selected?).  But Blackmore answers “any or all of the above.”  The key to memes is imitation, which she carefully distinguishes between contagion, social learning, and imagination. She contrasts the prevailing view of evolutionary psychologists and her own, and at times she even disagrees (refreshingly) with Pinker, Dawkins, and Dennett -- all of whom are my main guys, by the way.  There are many references and citations.

Many who have supported memetics assume that memes mainly inform genetic change – in other words, that while ideas evolve their function is to affect genes.  So we had the idea to leave the forest for savanna, and genes were then groomed for bipedalism.   Memes may affect us, but through genetic selection.

But this can't be right.  Memes don’t always agree with genes. Sure, in a culture that is insular, a tribe that is small, or when families are close-knit, the flow of information and directives is mainly vertical, generation after generation.   That’s the way the genes flow too, so in those situations there is no conflict -- ideas that increase survival and procreation will propagate and thrive if the tribe does too.  On the other hand, for example, if an Amish household adopts the idea of celibacy, both that family line and the idea are not likely to fare well.

This may be a reason to distrust neighboring tribes, to create and reject the "other" -- they may have ideas which would be invasive to our own.

Because when information flows horizontally memes travel in a cross-current to genes.  Their interests (which is ultimately self propagation) may be quite different. Though some ideas are aligned with genetic survival, some are irrelevant to it, and some fly in the face of genetic advantage and this is where it becomes most interesting and useful to understand.  Consider family planning, contraception, abortion, homosexuality ... genes would "object" vehemently to these notions, yet memetics would predict that they could thrive.

Happily, many of these ideas are testable.  Is internet connectivity correlated to use of contraception?  Is abortion a greater taboo in authoritarian societies? Is a rigid society more socially conservative? Are gay rights more common where press is unfettered? At the time of the writing the answers were not known.

If memes duplicate selectively, what makes one more likely to be repeated or imitated than another?  This has been carefully studied by advertisers and politicians.  Currency, novelty, alignment with preexisting ideas, repetition, danger, contrast, association, utility, sequence, context, timing.  All of these things affect how convincing or coercive a message will be.

One of the hard facts about genes are that they aren't always nice to their host.  It's replication of the genes, not the creature, that drives evolution and sometimes interests clash between genes and their organism. There are lots of examples how humans even are full of quirky errors -- the way the eye is wired, for example, leaving a blind spot.  Genes aren't aligned with groups, either: a 50:50 sex ratio is a good example of this, as I've explained in a previous post.  Likewise, memes aren’t always nice to genes and they aren’t always particularly nice to their humans. Just as a virus jumps from host to host, memes do the same, with similar disregard for the health of their host beyond the meme's ability to spread itself more widely. 

Darrell Ray wrote The God Virus (2009), which made fairly close and very interesting analogy of the spread of religions (although he didn't use the term meme) to viruses.

At the heart of the argument Blackmore presents, is imitation. 
"Once imitation arose three new process could begin.  First, memetic selection (that is the survival of some memes at the expense of others). Second, genetic selection for the ability to imitate the new memes (the best imitators of the best imitations have higher reproductive success).  Third, genetic selection for mating with the best imitators." (116)
There is a chapter on how memes may have been the root cause of the jump in brain size about 2.5 million years ago, about when toolmaking began.  Her speculation, to summarize, is that this was the dawn of true imitation and genes that assisted imitation were quickly groomed by sexual selection.  David Deutsch said something similar in The Beginning of Infinity.  Brain size, Blackmore speculated, may be like peacock feathers: peahens took a liking to large feathers and feathers got larger and larger and larger in a crazy feedback loop called runaway evolution.  "We need not take it for granted," she said, "that big brains, intelligence and all that goes with them are necessarily a good thing for the genes." (p 120)

Another leap, about 100,000 years ago -- language -- also may have been directed by memes. From the meme's perspective "a silent person is an idle copy machine waiting to be exploited." (p 84).  A scandal, horrifying news, useful information, anything that taps into sexual needs or increments social status are memes just pressing for expression.   Those individuals who could better express themselves would have the advantage and so language itself emerged, she argued -- in the service of imitation.

She takes on altruism (Chapters 12 and 13), cults (Chapter 14) religion (15), and the impact of the internet (16).  In the clinching chapter Blackmore speculates that self awareness itself (i.e., consciousness) may have been born of memes, as so: sense of self creates a sense of ownership, including ownership of ideas, hence a proponent of those ideas, thus giving a meme an advantage by grooming a sense of self. "The self," she wrote, "is a great protector of memes."

Could we be the battlefield for competing memes, and their soldiers as well?  Do we take ideas in, convince ourselves that they are ours, and then protect them as possessions so we actively promote them to others? But by this new way of thinking, ideas seem a bit like parasites.

But there's little wonder (as I've noticed), that the science of memetics is hardly popular, and even the subject of derision.  I mean half adults in the United States don't accept genetic evolution --are we really ready to consider that news, the gossip, lessons from mother, our hobbies, knowledge, trades, warnings, friendly advice, careers, our avocations, preoccupations and all of the rest are not only outside under our control .. but that might be taking us for a ride?

I don't think so. 

Despite the small foothold, evident in the graph to the right (the two scales are wildly different of course), memetics as a science is probably not going anywhere fast.  But Blackmore suggests there might be some personal advantage to considering it anyway.  If you ponder your own thoughts -- and she recommends meditating -- to trace their origins, it may help put things in a better more healthy perspective. Modern life may be stressful, she suggests, not because we want to take advantage of all the wonderful new opportunities and ideas, but because the ideas want to take advantage of us.

Certainly food for thought.
The Meme Machine Susan Blackmore, 1999.
264 pp references, index.