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← Meme Theory, Zahavi's Handicap, and the Baldwin Effect

Zeuglodon's Avatar Jump to comment 12 by Zeuglodon

Comment 9 by QuestioningKat

Hey Z, I want to start off by saying that I appreciate the effort you took to post this topic. I realize how much effort it takes. Now that you are no longer on the main page, your ideas have less of a chance of being seen and surviving for much longer. ;)

Thank you. :-)

Yep. It's just a pity they don't replicate, otherwise they could swarm all over this place and get themselves heard without my help! ;-)

Admittedly, I am probably one of the least scientifically literate people here, but I have lots of experience working with ideas, design and artwork, so I will let you determine if my view has any worth.

That's OK. An idea stands by its own merits, not automatically on the qualifications of those who promote it (though it helps to get expert views, of course).

Basically, I think you are overlooking the various levels of ideas from the initial creation or conception to the point when it becomes a staple or tradition in society.

That may be so, but the meme idea posits that something replicates. Not that it endures, or has a beginning, middle, or end, or that it is inherited, or that it is X by Y by Z dimensions. The basic litmus test is; At whatever size, does it, when given the needed materials, make copies of itself spontaneously? This is necessary for it to give rise to natural selection.

Working on an individual creative act certainly is aligned with natural selection (maybe artificial selection too), but the process happens at lightning speed. Ideas are connected with other ideas, edited, changed, pondered...until a final decision or direction is made. One large creative effort such as writing a book can viewed as an analogy to Evolution. Within this microcosm, a mini Evolution is taking place within the creative work and within the ideas and thought processes of the "creator."

The first trouble is that evolution is not a synonym for natural selection. It's important to distinguish the two. Evolution is when, generation after generation, a replicator accruing the occasional error turns into something else. This includes natural selection, but it also includes other processes like genetic drift, where it's pot luck whether a mutant comes to fixation or not. Natural selection is specifically about mutants spreading or replacing each other in a zero sum game to be the last gene standing, the test being by how well their phenotypic differences help or hinder their own spread.

The second trouble is that, even using the looser analogy of evolution, the analogy breaks down when you look for a replicator which has distinct generations and the occasional error. This is crucial to making the analogy work, and to differentiating evolution from basic change. It doesn't matter what speed you calibrate for: once you've identified a generation, you have to compare it with the mutation rate.

You proposed that generations could occur, say, during the process of editing multiple drafts before sending out a book for publishing. Some ideas will make it into the final draft, others will lose out, and some mutually-contradicting ideas will be competing for the same spot.

However, those ideas don't leap from draft to draft all by themselves - they're put there by a person with a brain - and in the brain, the configuration for the idea (say, the network of neurons that represent it) is still the same one. It may change when new signals stimulate it to grow new dendrites that encounter other neurons and make a new net, or if under-use means its existing links weaken, but it's still the same network. It would be like saying a man evolved during his lifetime from baby to adult. Where, exactly, are the distinct generations, and are they identical to each other? There's a big difference between making two copies of X (the second subsequently replacing the first) and the same X enduring all this time.

A better analogy might be to development. A book has a lifespan, from the birth of inspiration to the "death" by being sent off to the publishers, and then the copy rotting away or falling apart on someone's shelf like a corpse. Or it might be to within-lifetime contests or ecological ones, such as a grey squirrel fighting off a red squirrel for an acorn but co-existing with the tree.

It should be noted that writers are just as prone to looking out for cognitive dissonance as much as anyone, but in this case the dissonant feelings have to be built in by genes too, and for the benefit of having a brain capable of spotting contradictions between ideas. The ideas themselves don't create the dissonant feelings - they're a feature that the dissonant mechanism is designed by genes to spot and deal with, as a means of refining mental mechanisms.

When you have so many mutations in generation one, that suggests we are not dealing with a replicator at all. We have something closer to the X to Y to Z to A model.

Yes, that is correct. It goes from x to y to z in an individual creative endeavor. You're looking too closely at only one aspect of the creative process. I'll continue.

Very well. I'll see what you've put.

You think it doesn't look right, so you edit it and write an improvement. You reread it, edit it, and so on. At what point can we say that there are distinct replicator generations between memes?

Certainly not at this point. Again you are looking at one individual going through an entire "evolution" for their creative endeavor. A person that designs a hat needs to experiment with materials, structure, sizing, different designs, textures, etc. This is confined to one person or a unit focusing on one particular project. Notice how changes are happening quickly? If the craftsman is talented chances are he is visualizing the options inside of his head and changing his internal visualizations by the seconds. He sees his hat as wide brimmed, then changes it to purple, now brown, felt is then visualized then changed to leather.

At this point, I would maintain that to confuse any change with evolution is a mistake, but I've developed this idea above in this same comment of mine, so I won't repeat myself. I'll see what the next bit says.

Now let's start to zoom out from the fast paced microcosm to a larger, slower world view. As we move outward, the speed that an idea hits the masses is dependent upon communication and people promoting the idea. The microcosm flourishes with change, adaptation, "the New", the innovative at lightning speed. At the opposite end are the staples and traditions. It maintains its presence by stability, the familiar, the usual. Staples are the little black dress, or a pair of jeans. (Notice that they have slightly changed over the years. If they did not, they would have died out as a trend.)

To claim it maintains its presence, though, is what I think is part of the problem. Ideas do not maintain their presence. Brains collect (or come ready-made with some of the) ideas and fit them in its network. It's true that the ideas themselves have to matter, but that's because the mechanisms themselves are selecting, not the ideas. It would be no different if a beaver was trying to assess which type of wood would best build his dam. The beaver's assessment has to fit the material he's working with, or he could end up trying to fell a Redwood or an iron post. But the thing being selected - say, an already-dead tree - does not send out phenotypes because it is not itself a gene. If beavers were selected to pick iron posts for whatever reason, the iron post would not be a gene or a phenotype with genes in it being selected for.

The same process could be explained by twin mechanisms trying to strike a balance between keeping old and safe ideas and adopting new and unsure ideas. There are advantages and disadvantages to both ends of the spectrum, just as there are advantages and disadvantages of a beaver being more selective and a beaver being more indiscriminate (say, the former gets excellent high quality wood but not enough to build a dam, the latter gets plenty to build a dam easily but then ends up with more low quality wood). This careful balancing act is a lot like Optimal Foraging Theory, and in the context of brains, the thing being optimised is the adoption of mental tools (ideas, or fashions) that may be unsafe but a chance of getting ahead of others, or may be safe but later lead to the conservative being outcompeted by more innovative rivals. The variation between people's attitudes to the old and the new fits nicely with this genetic paradigm.

As products or physically concrete objects are shown to others, the idea behind the object, what what it intangibly represents (or even the physical form) is acknowledged. Some of these ideas then move towards mini trends. They take off because they are valued in some way by other people. At this point, the idea, may be tweaked by someone else (needing less energy and thought compared to the initial idea.) As more people are exposed, then the idea can move towards being a full trend. The changing or evolving of the idea slows down but still has the possibility of changing or branching off if the idea reaches an "innovator" If the idea doesn't reach an "innovator" or the innovator hesitates to act, the trend continues as communication brings the idea to the masses. Eventually, some people (who are certainly not as creative as the "innovators" decide that they like this idea so much because of the social benefits that they personalize it and pass it along to close friends, families, or associates. They incorporate it into their life, but they do not change it.

When an idea comes to this point, it either continues to shift slightly and continue on by mutating into different ideas or it becomes stagnant. If it becomes stagnant, things get ugly if the idea becomes outmoded.

I think you're identifying here the passing on of ideas to others (inheritance), why they are passed on (the selection procedure), the innovation stage (mutation), and trends of ideas (the population of genes in a gene pool). Could you confirm this?

If so, I'd better address each one, but I will need confirmation so that I'm not going off on a tangent with my next reply.

When we pass on an idea to others (inheritance), it is certain true that, by doing so, we double the idea. This does make it sound like replication, akin to passing on the genes to our offspring. But this meets the same objection as the virus idea - the gene's copy is itself physically passed on, in this case through the gametes and the germ-line. The idea, however, never leaves my head when I tell you about it. The idea that is assembled in your head never physically budded off from mine by meiosis. This is not a trivial point because meiosis is what makes the gene potentially immortal. The very same set of atoms making up the same molecule could literally pass down the line until the end of all life itself.

I hope it helps if I use the following analogy. Suppose an alien wants to make an android on multiple worlds, say because his relatives have settled on them or his business partners have, and they need one each. He has a radio transmitter that can scan his own android's specifications and beam them to a nearby world, but first he has to build this radio transmitter. Having done so, he then has to align the android so that it will be scanned, and then beam the information across space. In some cases, his transmission hits a nebula and is lost. In others, though, partial information gets through (mutation), and in still others all or most of the signal reaches its destination .

At the other end, his relatives or partners receive the instructions and need to make a machine to interpret those instructions. They do so, and find a match - the instructions for rebuilding the android are now available. They build the android, and then build a radio machine to scan the android and send back confirmation (or clarification if the android is only part complete). Now the original alien has to build his own receiver to interpret their question, and he hitches it to the android to see if it matches. He may send another signal to give them the message STOP, and they receive it and confirm that the android is theirs.

It is tempting to say that the android replicated, but in this scenario the "brains" are literally worlds from each other (don't be distracted, by the way, by the aliens having brains of their own), and the android never buds. The aliens take advantage of the common features of each other's technology to build machines that actively copy the android. The aliens are genes building brains, and the radio waves are the means of bridging the gap between brains. If the aliens/genes didn't think the expensive android was a useful tool, they wouldn't have built it in the first place (the basis for the selection procedure). So it comes down to genetic interests.

I'll just add that, on a longer scale, the back and forth between different worlds may well result in androids being modified or tweaked, or with them being combined to make new models that have their own specs. In my own terms, the exchange and continuous rebuilding of ideas can itself lead to errors which are retained because of noise, or with other mechanisms modifying the ideas as a product or byproduct of their own working. In this sense, ideas and androids could look like they were evolving like autonomous robots after programming, or like bacteria in a petri dish, but it would be more accurate to say that they are being mass produced by the population, with one factory making and tweaking one object from available materials put in. The automated factory machinery also beam instructions to alter the machines of others, given the pre-set specifications and ranges.

The illusion of evolution may be helpful for the analogy of talking about the evolution of ideas, but it runs the risk of being misleading, which is why I think it would help to find a new analogy or to acknowledge it as an illusion.

At this point I need to stop because it was a busy week and hopefully I made sense. Your post is long and I need to take a look at the rest of it before commenting.

Sorry. I am a bit on the chatty side, but I love talking about ideas and pinning them down. Just tackle it in bite-sized chunks if you're ever passing this way again.

So far, I think that you are viewing ideas or memes with a microscope and need to step back and view the bigger picture of trends and macrotrends along with traditions.

I was hoping that my point would be valid whichever scale we operate at, because it is less an issue of scale and more an issue of identifying the mechanism. It could fulfil the criteria at the scale of whole countries, but in that case, once we've set the scale, we move in with the checklist.

The fortunate thing about macrotrends and traditions is that an equal and opposite effect usually occurs in response to the prevailing idea or ideology. We may fear the religious meme, but counterculture has been kicking in.

This is something to be optimistic about, yes. But I fear the counter-counterculture that might follow. The history of culture seems at times like one long list of such counter-counter iterations. :-(

Comment 10 by Schrodinger's Cat

I think you missed my point. I'm saying that what I think gets memetically passed on is not the idea itself, but the idea of the idea. It is the very notion that something is 'the same idea' that is being passed on and is the'replicator'.

That doesn't work either, because it confuses endurance and inheritance with replication. A thing that gets inherited, like a house, property, or ideology, may pass on over multiple generations and may change from an original style that "loses out" to a new style that "takes over", but this is straightforward modification, not by necessity a replication. It is still being changed, not changing under its own steam, and there are no distinct generations of the thing being inherited. Your example with the changing idea of the universe and with Christianity are effectively a series of tools, outside the brain or in it, that get passed on in this way.

No matter how you phrase it - in a meta or straightforward sense - the brains actually holding the information are not being swept away by a living virus of any kind. They are complicit in the plot, and the supposed virus is a puppet. The brain is actively constructing the cultural bits, and it is doing so because the genes that set it up "want" it to do so. Christianity is the complex result of multiple extended phenotypes running on conditional strategies - for instance, "assume that someone is out there beyond your sight", "behave as others do to fit in", and "match your thinking style with theirs to prevent yourself being ostracised by your peers by actually believing what your family and peers tell you". I go into more detail in the second half of my OP.

A more appropriate analogy for "lineages of ideas" would be with ecological niche competitions, arms races, and business contests, not with evolution by natural selection, because if ever there is any contest between ideas, it is always between at least two people fighting over a physical or social resource they want, such as a claim to status, dominance, group or social safety from rival groups or social units, or an external reward like food or access to sexual partners.

The analogy with group selection is helpful here. A group structure rather than a group might get passed on and be used more often and "spread" and so forth, but it is not so much replicating as being inherited like a tool, which is why non-relatives of the group or outsider groups can adopt it, just as they could steal a house or an heirloom spear that belongs to someone else's family. The thing that induces them to do so, however, is their own genetic set-up that actively structures their minds such that they would go after such useful things. To say that the "squirrels" evolve even as the grey ones drive the red ones extinct is still to posit replicator qualities which they simply don't have, to refer to an analogy used against group selection in a similar vein.

Sat, 21 Jul 2012 15:24:59 UTC | #949760