That's intelligent design, not Intelligent Design.
August 17, 2015 7:47 AM   Subscribe

Daniel Dennett, known for having previously explained thinking, religion, and consciousness, recently spoke at the Royal Institution where he did a most excellent job of explaining memes [1-hour video].
posted by sfenders (22 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oooh! This is relevant to my interests!

Memetics has been an interest of mine for a few years, and I really like what Dennet has to say on the subject. Can't wait to watch this video and dig into the other links. Thanks for posting!
posted by bstreep at 8:02 AM on August 17, 2015


Excited to see this, thank you!
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:11 AM on August 17, 2015


I apologize for misspelling his name. It's unlikely to be a beneficial mutation.
posted by sfenders at 8:31 AM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Hrm, can't watch the video right now, does Dennett actually bring anything to memetics that balances the abject failure of the field to even develop an operational definition, much less a body of research weighty enough to support their own attempts at a peer-review journal?

Is he not aware that the naive version that ideas are analogous to genes has been thoroughly falsified? Systematic classifications of both physical artifacts and language are simply incompatible with the predictions of descent with modification via natural selection that gives evolution its rigor.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:36 AM on August 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


[Fixed the spelling of Dennett in the post.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:41 AM on August 17, 2015


Is he not aware that the naive version that ideas are analogous to genes has been thoroughly falsified?

His comments around 39:30 in the video suggest he is probably aware of that, yes.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 9:11 AM on August 17, 2015


His comments at around 17:30 seem more apposite - roughly, Some people are viscerally against the word "meme". I've had twenty years dealing with second-rate objections to memes. There are some slightly more first-rate ones, which I shall deal with summarily in my next book.

As somebody who's never been able to tell any difference between 'meme' and 'idea' (and about 50 minutes into the video, still not there) but as the friend of someone who feels the same and has a scathing letter from Dennett denouncing him hanging proudly in his loo, I remain profoundly unconvinced that it has any particular explicative power.
posted by Devonian at 11:30 AM on August 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


Hrm, can't watch the video right now, does Dennett actually bring anything to memetics that balances the abject failure of the field to even develop an operational definition, much less a body of research weighty enough to support their own attempts at a peer-review journal?

Is he not aware that the naive version that ideas are analogous to genes has been thoroughly falsified? Systematic classifications of both physical artifacts and language are simply incompatible with the predictions of descent with modification via natural selection that gives evolution its rigor.


Oh man, he's gonna be pissed when he finds out he's been wasting his time
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:44 AM on August 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


I suspect that memetics is New Atheism's Lysenkoism, the place where ideology wags science.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:07 PM on August 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


CBrachyrhynchos,

I'm a layman in this area. Would you mind explaining a little more about the problems with viewing memes as analogous to genes?
posted by Sangermaine at 12:38 PM on August 17, 2015


OK. Watched the whole thing now. I think it's more like The Tao of Physics than Lysenkoism - here's some cool stuff! And here's some other cool stuff! They look a bit alike and one of them is science, so therefore... it's a duck! Lyseconkoism at least made testable propositions.
posted by Devonian at 1:01 PM on August 17, 2015


The whole thing is pretty much about how memes are not evolutionary in the strict Darwinian sense, but that there's a continuum (or I guess a phase space) between cultural objects that can be said to have evolved in a Darwinian fashion, and memes, which are at the other extreme (in this lecture, small-i small-d intelligent design) of said phase space.

I can see why it annoys people, but linguists speak of language behaviors in evolutionary terms all the time which is usually a terrible analogy if you lean on it with any real force, and it doesn't seem to bother people that much. The assumption being that your audience knows you don't mean capital-E Evolution.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 1:12 PM on August 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Sangermaine: Evolutionary biology is a strong theory because it predicts that tree-like common-ancestor relationships will be the best-fit model for explaining most features across any biological family. And for the most part, this is true. (There's some debate about early microbiology, but that's an exception.) These predictions are derived from the Central Dogma of how genetic information is encoded and transmitted primarily via mitosis and meiosis.

This isn't true if you're talking about culture. The classification of culture generally creates web-like multiple-ancestor relationships.

Human beings have sex. We also talk. If genes and words were theoretically equivalent, we'd expect to see similar patterns of population genetics and language. But we find that language features don't follow the same patterns.

lefty lucky cat: That's rather like saying that General Relativity explains gravity here but not there.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:53 PM on August 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm saying that as long as all parties involved are cognizant of the fact that you are making an analogy that only goes so far, it's still a useful analogy.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 3:39 PM on August 17, 2015 [6 favorites]




"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate."

I'd say that more people have found Sonnet 18 useful than memetics, and Sonnet 18 still isn't science and doesn't pretend to be science.

Memetics can't even tell us how to measure a meme. That's the antithesis of validity and reliability.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:40 PM on August 17, 2015


it predicts that tree-like common-ancestor relationships will be the best-fit model for explaining most features across any biological family. And for the most part, this is true.

It's becoming significantly less true as species domesticated by man begin to dominate the biosphere and we start tinkering with their genes. But yeah, what Daniel Dennett said.

If you feel compelled to come up with a better word to replace "meme", one that makes it obvious to everyone that it isn't exactly the same thing as "gene", by all means give it a try. Nobody having discovered yet exactly what memes are made of, maybe you still have time to get away with it. To the extent there's a comparison to be made, memes are probably about where they were with genes around the year 1857. Sort of a long way from the modern evolutionary synthesis, people are just beginning to get some ideas.

That sonnet 18 though... can't argue with that.
posted by sfenders at 4:01 AM on August 18, 2015


To the extent there's a comparison to be made, memes are probably about where they were with genes around the year 1857.

I'd say it's more like aether circa 1920, which was also an analogy that light acted like sound.

In this case however we're not waiting 60 years (on top of the 40 years already spent on memetics) for memetics to prove its value. We already have better theories.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:56 AM on August 18, 2015


What name do these better theories have for the concept which is more commonly referred to as the meme? Because if they do without one, I think they will have a difficult time explaining the phenomena it identifies. From what I know of it, I wouldn't call memetics "a theory" at all. Darwin's theory of evolution is a theory, but the word "evolution" by itself isn't. The meme is merely a concept that lets one get a handle on some interesting ideas, such as those discussed by Dennett. Perhaps someone will (assuming nobody yet has) forge from it something worthy of being called a theory, perhaps not. There are many more or less related theories, some of which explain a few things, but there is no comprehensive theory of the replication of ideas and culture. Understanding of that is perhaps even further from perfection than are the continued efforts to build a good general artificial intelligence. Success in those endeavors could clarify things; short of that there's no getting rid of the "meme" meme.
posted by sfenders at 6:23 AM on August 18, 2015


Broadly speaking, the concept of a cultural practice covers almost everything that memes claim, and between social network theory and communities of practice, we have a fairly robust explanation for describing how they are transmitted from place to place and generation to generation.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:30 AM on August 18, 2015 [1 favorite]


In an interesting coincidence, the first hit on Google Scholar for "social network theory" right now is introduced with "the world 'social' as used by Social Scientists has become laden with assumptions to the point where it has become misnomer."
posted by sfenders at 6:51 AM on August 18, 2015


Actually the tree structure falls apart completely in the case of microbes who do the whole horizontal transfer thing, or in a half-dozen other weird cases, and neutral evolution. It's why people have phylogenetic DAG's and phylogenetic general networks.

Basically, topological descriptions of evolution are funny. Evolution, as a concept, is older than Darwin: natural selection is not. Darwin did nearly nothing to think about the causation of genetic variation, because he had no ideas about the mechanism, whereas in most thoughts about the origin of culture everyone thinks surprisingly hard about the source of variation.

A strange man once told me that abstraction is not possible in biology. I have found this to be a surprisingly true statement.

CBrachyrhynchos: Try "Can Cascades Be Predicted?", if you have paper access. Science often as not gets done after the engineering (to make more engineering possible), and this is very much an engineering paper showing that we kind of have the ability to poke at the things that are often said to be memes, now that Facebook has the amount of data that it has.
posted by curuinor at 7:16 AM on August 18, 2015 [2 favorites]


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