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

OHooligan's Avatar Jump to comment 19 by OHooligan

@Comment 8 by Zeuglodon

I'm afraid these comments are in a rather arbitrary order. Hope you don't mind.

I agree with QuestioningKat that you are "viewing ideas or memes with a microscope".

By your own analogy (which was better than mine), it's like discussing atoms with a car mechanic. Much of your post goes into details of neural mechanisms, motor nerves, and so on. Interesting - and I'm constantly amazed by how much detail of this has been discovered in the last few decades - but beside the point. Zoom out, take in the Big Picture.

Incidentally, I was surprised in The Selfish Gene to see the (almost) "self-serving" definition of a gene. Not, as I'd expected, a specific definable strand of DNA, but just whatever collection of subsequences that turn out to persist for many generations. The definition of "gene" looked to me to be tailored to support the theory, and at first I thought that was somehow "cheating".

But then it sank in, and the theory stands, even if you cannot delve into the genome and find the particular combination of strands that "encode for" specific inherited behavioral traits, such as the way a bird builds its nest, or a spider its web.

Similarly with the meme. You aren't going to get to the details of an individual's neural activity, but you can still study the behavior of people and populations. Like the rather slippery definition of genes, memes are persistent patterns, or rather, collections of patterns.

The basic litmus test is ... does it, when given the needed materials, make copies of itself spontaneously? This is necessary for it to give rise to natural selection.

Bingo. Well stated. This is a concise statement of our point of disagreement. It's a long time since most replicating DNA was able to do so by bathing in a simple soup of amino acids. These days lots of successful genes require a much more complex environment, virus genes being just one example.

agency should be granted to the replication process and not to the passive thing that gets replicated.

Too narrow a focus, once again. Try the broad-brush approach: replication, mutation, selection by competition for limited resources. Repeat. That's Evolution, isn't it?

What persists are genes, or memes. Change the environment from DNA or RNA sequences in amino acid broth to algorithms in a computer simulation. If it supports these 3 operations, it's evolution, whether the selection is natural or artificial (meaning also natural, but with humans playing a part in the selection process). Change again to collections of ideas hosted by human minds and passed between them by any means available, I don't think this breaks the model.

...ideas will never take precedence over genes in the long run. When they do, it's because their interests and those of the individual organisms align.

A key point, I think. Suspend disbelief in "memes" for a moment, and ponder the possibility of a collection of ideas that is not aligned with the interests of the individual, but has nevertheless the ability to spread, infecting new hosts at a greater rate than it destroys them. Or doesn't destroy them, merely stunts their growth by siphoning their energy and efforts away from preserving their own genes, and into preserving and spreading the collection of ideas.

Thus, the assertion that "ideas will never take precedence over genes" is IMHO wishful thinking. I wish it too, but I don't share your optimism.

But how bad is bad for the host?

A Jonesville style self-destruction isn't good for the meme either. But a meme that induced willingness to sacrifice one's life for the cause, the faith, or the country could thrive despite killing off some of the infected before they are able to reproduce. When it's a race, you might argue that it benefits the genes specific to that race, but that can hardly apply to patriotism in a nation of immigrants, or to a religion that accepts converts

Like a parasite that treats its host as expendable, of course it doesn't help the parasite if it drives the host to extinction, but it's ok to kill individual hosts as an essential part of propagating the parasite. There's a wasp grub that uses a spider this way.

Even on its own, a virus is capable of making a copy of itself

I dispute that, in two ways: Virus DNA is a replicator that is good at getting replicated in an environment where suitable host cells exist. It doesn't need to replicate in any other environment, so whether it can get lucky elsewhere is hardly the point, as it is not its main way of replicating.

... mistaking the puppet for the puppeteer

Well, yes, but not in the way I think you mean. It may be helpful to view meme-infected humans as the puppets, driven to act for the benefit of an infectious mind-parasite, the meme serving as puppeteer in this case.

Isn't that where the original article got its catch phrase: do we have ideas, or do ideas have us?

It's actually bad science to run with a hypothesis without examining it more closely

Yes of course. You need both, those who soar on the explanatory power of a new hypothesis, and those who try to pull them back to earth with "but what about...". After much to-and-fro, the hypothesis flies or it doesn't. All the stuff we now accept had to go through that kind of trial, and it's well-nigh impossible to predict which newly hatched hypotheses will survive long enough to become respectable adult theories. What we must not do, is just Take It On Faith. Either way.

I still maintain that running with it is more interesting. Doesn't mean it's right, but it hasn't (yet) been proved wrong, or superceded by something simpler that gets more right answers.

On the aliens and androids "thought experiment", that was more-or-less the gist of the UK TV drama from the 1960s "A for Andromeda", and to some extent Carl Sagan's "Contact": Aliens send data, earthlings decode the data and end up building something to the alien's specification.

In fiction, to provide excitement, that could be an alien device to take over the earth, but imagine instead that the "something" turned out to be a transmitter that would re-transmit the original message. That would be a kind of replicator. And if the re-transmitted message was perhaps a little altered, you'd have the basis for a kind of evolution.

Mmm, tasty food for thought. Thanks again for the opportunity.

Mon, 23 Jul 2012 04:20:51 UTC | #949878