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Meme Theory, Zahavi's Handicap, and the Baldwin Effect - Comments

The Jersey Devil's Avatar Comment 1 by The Jersey Devil

link textBetween Pinker and Zeuglodon (and a few others) my understanding of of meme theory and group selection have been competely changed over the last couple of weeks.

I think my confusion of the issue (and I doubt I'm unique in this regard) stemmed from the fact that group dynamics or cultural evolution is bound to resemble natural selection more then it resembles my older now defunct theistic beliefs.

Let me use this example:

Twelve step groups have 'replicated'. See here. (For some reason I can't get the link to be in the right spot and I'm done trying) This replication is more similar to natural selection then my discarded belief that god 'created' Twelve Step groups. I just kind of assumed it was the same kind of replication. I now realize that twelve step 'replication' is still different from gene replication.

Thu, 19 Jul 2012 03:41:00 UTC | #949548

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 2 by Zeuglodon

Comment 1 by The Jersey Devil

link textBetween Pinker and Zeuglodon (and a few others) my understanding of of meme theory and group selection have been competely changed over the last couple of weeks.

I take that as a compliment. Thank you. :-)

I think my confusion of the issue (and I doubt I'm unique in this regard) stemmed from the fact that group dynamics or cultural evolution is bound to resemble natural selection more then it resembles my older now defunct theistic beliefs.

Yes, you capture it here. That was my position, though without the theistic beliefs since I never really had those. I did think meme theory was plausible, but I was only recently tipped the other way (towards scepticism) after those group selection discussions a while back.

It is very tempting, when an idea ticks a lot of boxes, to give it credit. Group selection seems plausible because it looks like it does a great deal of explanatory work: it explains our social behaviours, groups do come into conflict, they do "reproduce" in a fashion, and so on. But when you dig deeper, more and more crosses rather than ticks start showing up on the checklist. Kin selection is already doing a huge part of the work, for example. People who say kin selection is a subset of group selection have been fooled by the overlap. And groups don't always compete to the death. Sometimes, they form alliances or just ignore each other. And other individual-level explanations work just as well, if not better. Group selection itself presupposes things about groups that are simply untrue.

I wondered if the same couldn't be applied to other ideas: superficial plausibility, but problems emerging when you looked at the mechanism more closely. Meme theory was brought up on a thread recently, so I followed on from that.

Let me use this example:

Twelve step groups have 'replicated'. See here. (For some reason I can't get the link to be in the right spot and I'm done trying) This replication is more similar to natural selection then my discarded belief that god 'created' Twelve Step groups. I just kind of assumed it was the same kind of replication. I now realize that twelve step 'replication' is still different from gene replication.

That's a good example to use. The Twelve Step Program did not copy itself. The brains of the people who adopted it copied the idea by themselves.

I find the following analogy useful for this discussion: if paper copied itself, we'd be interested in the paper; but if paper was copied by a photocopier, we'd be interested in the photocopier. Meme theory is that the paper copies itself. My own alternative (gene-influenced brains actively making a copy) is that the photocopier does all the interesting work.

Thu, 19 Jul 2012 12:15:39 UTC | #949561

Bumpy's Avatar Comment 3 by Bumpy

ZEUGLODON: So, quite apart from the high mutation rate that this Lamarkian evolution allows, it shows that ideas don't make copies of themselves any more than a paper makes a copy of itself - the photocopier, and in the brain's case the perceptive and motor neurons, have to do all the work. I think this is the biggest objection to memetics, and the main reason I'm sceptical of it.

I don't see why that's problem. Yes the paper doesn't physically forge a copy of itsef - it presupposes a massively more complicated sequence (which the paper didn't create) to do everything for it (i.e. a human has to feed it into, and operate, the photocopier).

Now how is this qualitatively different to what a genetic molecule does? It too presupposes a certain environment - one with electrostatic forces, raw materials to interact with, a certain tempreture range, the contingency that the laws of physics are unchanging etc.

The genetic molecule is such that in the appropiate environment it will be copied. A piece of paper that reads "please photocopy me" is such that in the appropiate environment (one with a photocopier and a very obedient human) it too will be copied.

Fri, 20 Jul 2012 00:13:00 UTC | #949616

OHooligan's Avatar Comment 4 by OHooligan

Zeuglodon, I've followed your comment from the earlier Meme article (the one with the cowboy hats).

I'm heartened to see several articles involving "meme" appearing here recently. I've recently re-read The Selfish Gene, especially the New Replicator chapter, and don't really have anything to add to it, I'm just rephrasing things my own way to get the concept comfortable in my own mind. I strongly recommend you (re) read that chapter too, if you haven't recently.

First, I'm impressed by the effort you have put in to starting this discussion, and I thank you for that. It's a bit long to absorb all at once, so I will go back and re-read, but here are my initial observations:

An attractive part for me is that "memes" explain things at a higher level. You don't need to keep returning to the genetic level, any more than molecular biology has to keep on reminding itself of the details of quarks and gluons.

I think that emphasis on the mechanism of replication is misguided, and overly parochial.

I think that comparison between "memes" and complex multi-cellular creatures such as mammals is also a mistake.

I think that conflating "meme theory" with "group selection" is an attempt to discredit the former by association.

I think that running the idea down is a lot less interesting than running with it.

Comparing memes with viruses is IMHO much more useful. Neither can replicate by itself, but require a complex host to do the work. Viruses need cells, memes need brains. Not just any old cells either, the viruses that bother us need the cells residing in individuals of our own (or similar) species. It does not damage the analogy to note that all the candidate "memes" detected so far require human brains for their replication.

For now, memes are only copied via the action of human brains, with our without photocopiers. That need not continue to be the case.

In any case the analogy appears sound (I hesitate to call it a theory, but maybe it is one). Especially the part that explains how a meme (like a virus) can thrive despite being bad for the hosts that perform the replication.

It also allows for the field of memetic engineering, in which artificial memes are deliberately constructed and deployed. Scientology might be an example.

Taking the "memes-eye-view", analagous to the "genes-eye-view" promoted in The Selfish Gene, will (once again IMHO) provide compelling explanations of the way people behave, and provide a framework for developing defenses against the more pernicious "viruses-of-the-mind".

But, being an analogy, I expect it will break down at some point. Finding that point is worthwhile, and I hope discussions like this help that goal.

Once again, thanks for starting this discussion.

Fri, 20 Jul 2012 00:52:34 UTC | #949617

OHooligan's Avatar Comment 5 by OHooligan

Question: Are these examples of non-human memes? Or are they better described some other way?

Learned behavior by a bird that uses a stick to obtain food.

A bird's song.

A whale's song.

Fri, 20 Jul 2012 03:04:38 UTC | #949618

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 6 by Schrodinger's Cat

Take this thought experiment, which I found quite useful in making the distinction: you read a little about something, say postmodernism, and then shut yourself in a room for a bit. You have a pen and a lot of paper, and you sit down and write out your idea of what postmodernism is. You read what you've written. You think it doesn't look right, so you edit it and write an improvement. You reread it, edit it, and so on.....

Well....we actually have a perfect example of this in the contradictory texts of the four Gospels. Effectively, different drafts of a religion still survive. Yet a person does not call themselves a Luke-ian, or a Matthew-ian.......they call themselves a Christian.

The fact that there are probably as many different takes on Christianity as there are people who believe in it, does not alter our ability to identify a meme called 'Christianity'. So I would suggest that the core feature of a meme is it's ability to be reduced to a simple label......to the extent that in extreme cases the meme may actually be no more than the label.

Thus the meme is not the full extent of that which actually exists in the head of the 'holder' of it, but is solely that element that enables anyone else to identify that there is actually a meme there. The 'identifier' component is the actual meme.

So in other words, commonality of an idea may spread thoughout society, but the meme is not the actual full package of the idea, but only the ability to 'recognise' that commonality......i.e the point at which a label is atached.

Two people may intrinsically hold the exact same core idea, but unless they or society can actually identify that commonality through the public expression and perception of it......it's hard to see in what sense a meme exists. Thus a meme is not something that is intrinsic to the holder and exists as an entity in its own right.....but to all extents and purposes is the perception of commonality.....whether that perception is true or not.

That's my take. The "ah, thats the same thing I believe in" is the actual meme and what is propagated.........regardless of whether the idea is actually the same.

Thus one could identify a meme as being that component that makes a person think that they hold the same idea as someone else, rather than the actual idea itself.

Fri, 20 Jul 2012 06:14:17 UTC | #949620

Premiseless's Avatar Comment 7 by Premiseless

I struggle to comprehend the whole of this post Zeug'.

I also struggle to comprehend the whole of basic gene theory, therefore struggle to compare how meme theories fit in, naturally.

This is in a way what you are, I think, talking about. Memes have different levels of comprehension and understanding therefore it is not easy to garner synchronous groups on the same brain GPS. Even when you tell the above to me I don't follow for example. This will also likely explain why information access is a market driver for memeplex group bias. Religion can get much backing; much market investment (sustainable and long term - multi lifetime) with the biproduct of financial return for family units of meme slaves. Pseudo tribal allegiance no matter the location - a transferable commodity. It's foundation is to make an easy access memeplex that also devolves pseudo feel goods - success by accessible delusion.

When you think about it, something of this same order (but inverse proportionality) goes on in academia, where rewards are often the result of inaccessibility, rather than commonly achievable brain GPS.

Where this is leading? Equality? No! Emotional congruence? No - since emotional kudos comes from high expectation and respect for success = an elitist emotion. We're back in the memeplex being tied to the emotive somehow. This is an interesting arena don't you think?

It's good, I think, that these last few years have seen an exponential rise in bringing academic progress to the wider population, in terms of "whole life holistic markets" previously dominated by religion and totalitarian regimes. However the problems of accessibility still loom large on the futures horizon, just as much as medicine and food have always been a mirage in that of the third world populations. We haven't solved that yet, amidst this new wave of progressive accessibility to ones own mind, absent its enslavement to humans claiming they work for the big bully in the sky.

Fri, 20 Jul 2012 11:27:51 UTC | #949624

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 8 by Zeuglodon

Comment 3 by Bumpy

ZEUGLODON: So, quite apart from the high mutation rate that this Lamarkian evolution allows, it shows that ideas don't make copies of themselves any more than a paper makes a copy of itself - the photocopier, and in the brain's case the perceptive and motor neurons, have to do all the work. I think this is the biggest objection to memetics, and the main reason I'm sceptical of it.

I don't see why that's problem. Yes the paper doesn't physically forge a copy of itsef - it presupposes a massively more complicated sequence (which the paper didn't create) to do everything for it (i.e. a human has to feed it into, and operate, the photocopier).

Now how is this qualitatively different to what a genetic molecule does? It too presupposes a certain environment - one with electrostatic forces, raw materials to interact with, a certain tempreture range, the contingency that the laws of physics are unchanging etc.

The genetic molecule is such that in the appropiate environment it will be copied. A piece of paper that reads "please photocopy me" is such that in the appropiate environment (one with a photocopier and a very obedient human) it too will be copied.

It is very different, because the exact same argument could be used to buoy up a version of group selection or genome selection for an asexual species. What you are saying is that active replicators and things being replicated both need certain conditions, but this is trivially true whatever process we are talking about. It's the differences between the two that I want to highlight.

The implications cannot be reduced to an unequal assigning of conditions needed for replication. The difference is in the replication mechanism, and to ignore these differences or dismiss them on the grounds that conditions need to be met in either case just sweep the issue aside, not address it.

Genes have autonomy and, when presented with the necessary components of their own replicator molecule, actively create copies of themselves. The machinery involved in cells is actually to refine the process, not to do it for the genes, because a replicator that improved its own replication process would be selected by the very same logic that made replication a viable start-up for evolution in the first place.

The problem is that memetic theory presupposes a similar autonomy for memes which I don't think they have. It's not enough to have a copy made for something - that something must be able, under its own steam, to make copies of itself without intervention by another process. It has to be a genuine replicator before natural selection can act on it. If ever memes have natural-selection like properties, it could only be because they align with genetic interests. The instant there's any divergence, genes win and memetics is revealed as a convincing illusion.

Comment 4 by OHooligan

I'm heartened to see several articles involving "meme" appearing here recently. I've recently re-read The Selfish Gene, especially the New Replicator chapter, and don't really have anything to add to it, I'm just rephrasing things my own way to get the concept comfortable in my own mind. I strongly recommend you (re) read that chapter too, if you haven't recently.

I have it open in front of me right now. I'm fully aware of Richard's own stance on meme theory, which is that he doesn't fully commit to it as much as many suppose he would. But even if he did, my argument still holds and has to be considered on its own grounds, however shaky or solid those grounds turn out to be.

An attractive part for me is that "memes" explain things at a higher level. You don't need to keep returning to the genetic level, any more than molecular biology has to keep on reminding itself of the details of quarks and gluons.

This is an unequal comparison, because invoking the properties of subatomic particles for replicators is, as far as explanation goes, unnecessary. It's an obvious distraction, the equivalent of discussing atoms when telling a driving enthusiast or an apprentice car mechanic how a car works. But with brains built specially by genes, any discussion of biological behaviour needs to refer back to genes at some point because replicator molecules with phenotypes form the core of any biological explanation. It is difficult to make sense of an organism's design without considering genes.

One quick aside: The thing about memes explaining things at a higher level is that they are not higher level explanations. They cannot be a higher level. They have to be autonomous entities, so they have to be a parallel development working alongside genes. That's very different, because then you acknowledge them as two separate replication entities with diverging interests. Group selection would be a higher level explanation because it has to refer back to genes by its very nature (of course, the problems of doing so are what make it an unsound idea).

I think that emphasis on the mechanism of replication is misguided, and overly parochial.

I think it isn't. An asexual species may look like it's body or its genome is replicating, and we might then be fooled into talking about clone selection or genome selection. But it's all genetic however you look at it. The products of genes do not have replicator autonomy, and it's this illusion that makes gene selection a brilliantly successful theory but clone selection and genome selection a waste of time.

I think that comparison between "memes" and complex multi-cellular creatures such as mammals is also a mistake.

I'm not sure I understand why you said this. I was not trying to explain memes with reference to, say, mammals as though the two were comparable. My focus is on what properties memes have and whether real ideas have those properties, not on whether memes are like mammals.

I think that conflating "meme theory" with "group selection" is an attempt to discredit the former by association.

Nothing of the sort, and I would be displeased with myself if this was what it amounted to. Instead, my point is that they both have something in common that should make people stop and think: they look superficially like entities under natural selection, but when you examine the mechanisms behind them, the process is actually not natural selection of replicating entities, but a mechanism that actively mimics it. In the case of group selection, the proposed examples end up being gene-centric explanations like kin selection, herding behaviour for personal benefit, and reciprocal altruism. In memetics, it's that the supposed spontaneous replication is actively orchestrated by genes who have to build brains that make a concerted effort to blindly reproduce the mental patterns hidden in other brains. The implications couldn't be more profound, because this suggests that groups and 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.

The genes want brains to be similar to each other. The ideas themselves don't. And I want to know why.

I think that running the idea down is a lot less interesting than running with it.

Running the idea down is only meant to hit it with scientific scepticism and see if we can't come up with a better hypothesis. It's actually bad science to run with a hypothesis without examining it more closely.

Comparing memes with viruses is IMHO much more useful. Neither can replicate by itself, but require a complex host to do the work. Viruses need cells, memes need brains. Not just any old cells either, the viruses that bother us need the cells residing in individuals of our own (or similar) species. It does not damage the analogy to note that all the candidate "memes" detected so far require human brains for their replication.

But even this comparison has its problems. A virus RNA physically enters the cell, creates copies of itself by actively hijacking the machinery, and then physically bursts out of the cell to enter another one. It's a genetic predator. Even on its own, a virus is capable of making a copy of itself, but it so scarcely finds the right ingredients, and in any case there's a bounty of ingredients and of refined copying mechanisms packed away inside cells. Viruses, like planktonic predators, want to find their prey and take full opportunity when they do find it.

By contrast, ideas do not physically leap from brain to brain. An idea in one brain has to be converted by neural mechanisms so that information can be sent to the motor nerves. The motor nerves are where the buck stops for electronic signals. After that, the body moves or does something, which affects the light patterns or the sound patterns around it. These changes fight their way through the noise of the environment, whereupon they meet the sensors of another brain.

The thing is, the sensors themselves receive a flat and uninteresting income of light, and cannot by themselves make anything out of the light source. Brains need to actively reconstruct the environment in something called inverse-optics, which by its very nature requires assumptions to have been already installed in the brain. To get an idea of what a brain has to do, imagine trying to work out whether the 12 you are given is a product of 2 times 6 or 3 times 4.

Now for the interesting part. The sensors send as much information as possible to the perceptive cortices of the brain, which then have to make a serious attempt to interpret the signals and reconstruct the shape of the world outside. They are actively designed, in the case of humans, to reconstruct what's in another brain, and do it blindly, trying to filter noise out of the signal. They never get a chance to check directly whether the result matches the other brain. Moreover, the machinery is doing all the work, but it wouldn't do so if it hadn't been built by genes for a specific purpose. The genes could just as easily dismantle the machinery in evolutionary time, which is why giving the ideas the credit of all the work seems to me so misguided.

This machinery, as shown with all other animals with nervous systems, can occur without memes. Millions of animal species communicate all the time, though when their brains reconstruct the signals, the reconstruction does not have to match that in the sender's brain. There are no mirror neurons in the majority of cases to make an exact match. So the mirror neurons, say, or whatever is the equivalent, are key to this "replication" process. And nothing gets in the brain's head unless genes wanted it to.

To put it in summary: viruses do, as a matter of fact, replicate, but they replicate much faster if they hijack a ready-made host cell and actively use its machinery to pump out copies of itself, which then burst out and physically invade other cells. Ideas never leave their host brains, but nearby machinery send proxy signals which hit other brains. The brains are so designed that they themselves create what seems to them a parallel structure found in the other brain. The idea itself is passive throughout.

For now, memes are only copied via the action of human brains, with our without photocopiers. That need not continue to be the case.

To dismiss the photocopier is to miss the point. My point is that the agency should be granted to the replication process and not to the passive thing that gets replicated. If the two are one and the same, as with genes in RNA or DNA, then we have an autonomous replicator. Memetics is the equivalent of claiming that ideas are both the thing being copied and the thing doing the copying, and these two roles need to be correctly assigned because it's misleading to give credit to the wrong thing.

In any case the analogy appears sound (I hesitate to call it a theory, but maybe it is one). Especially the part that explains how a meme (like a virus) can thrive despite being bad for the hosts that perform the replication.

But how bad is bad for the host? Yes, you can get "epidemics" in which a group holding the same idea kills itself, but this is like when a deer with congenital bad eyesight blunders into a predator in the bush - just a natural byproduct of genes trying their best to implement proxy strategies to meet whatever the environment demands, and having to accept limitations as part of the package. It's reconcilable with the framework of any idea of a genetic feature occasionally causing an error.

It also allows for the field of memetic engineering, in which artificial memes are deliberately constructed and deployed. Scientology might be an example.

In this case, the deliberation comes from the rest of the brain, not the idea itself. Ideas don't come with their own desires - they just sit there. They are manipulated by the rest of the brain using them for the good of the whole organism, or at least insofar as that aligns with genetic interests.

Taking the "memes-eye-view", analagous to the "genes-eye-view" promoted in The Selfish Gene, will (once again IMHO) provide compelling explanations of the way people behave, and provide a framework for developing defenses against the more pernicious "viruses-of-the-mind".

This is another reason why I made the comparison with group selection. The claim that taking another's-eye-view provides extra explanatory assistance may well be true, but we could take the viewpoint of any feature of the natural world - even an electron or a photon - and this by itself doesn't justify assigning it certain qualities. If anything, it can be positively misleading, the equivalent of mistaking the puppet for the puppeteer and wondering what the puppet would think of doing next.

But, being an analogy, I expect it will break down at some point. Finding that point is worthwhile, and I hope discussions like this help that goal.

Once again, thanks for starting this discussion.

No problem. :-) Any attempt to find out what's true needs a checkup every now and again.

Comment 6 by Schrodinger's Cat

You missed the purpose of the thought experiment. The point is that the mutation rate cannot be too high, or it will destroy any serious attempt to call an idea a replicator. The bible example illustrates my point: the mutation rate that we do see in the four gospels is stark. Even if you presuppose intermediate texts between the originals back in the first century, the train always looks like an X-Y-Z-A chain of causality. It's only recently that exact copies of books can be made and mass produced, and even then it only lasts one generation. Genes are literally identical for tens, if not hundreds or thousands of generations before a mutant strain turns up. Ideas vary from generation to generation, even if you account for a shorter time frame.

Even the biological pointlessness of some cultural practices, such as religious duty or art that distracts one from looking for mates, isn't a counter, because genes already have a mechanism by which they prosper, paradoxically, by going against their own interests. Peacock tails would be ironed out if they were under the selection for aerodynamic streamlining or for avoiding predators, but not as a means of advertising genuine phenotypic prowess, as described by the Zahavi-Grafen handicap principle. And even artists succumb to basic needs like eating, toiletry, and sexual lust. The rarity of artists that take it to an extreme is akin to the rarity of peacocks with tails twenty feet long - genes have to strike a balance between self-handicapping and not committing genetic suicide. This is why people, in practice, strike a balance between biologically frivolous activities and biologically necessary ones.

Biologically frivolous practices themselves emerge as byproducts of multiple genetic phenotypes; art, for instance, is a combination of using perception and using manipulation and the brain being intelligently wired to experience pleasure from engaging in both, which in prehistory would have meant intelligently interacting with the environment and spotting something interesting or achieving something interesting.

Fri, 20 Jul 2012 12:04:34 UTC | #949625

QuestioningKat's Avatar 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. ;)

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.) 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.

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. 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. 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.

Sat, 21 Jul 2012 01:41:26 UTC | #949704

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 10 by Schrodinger's Cat

Comment 8 by Zeuglodon

You missed the purpose of the thought experiment. The point is that the mutation rate cannot be too high, or it will destroy any serious attempt to call an idea a replicator.

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'.

Let me give an example...the word 'universe'. 100 years ago, the actual content of the idea of universe was solely our galaxy. People had no idea that other galaxies existed, let alone that there was any big bang. Clearly,'universe' today contextually means something completely different and more extensive than 100 years ago.......and the content of the idea 100 years ago has not survived. But...the meta idea of 'universe' has survived, in the sense of 'all that exists'.

Thus it is the meta idea...the actual idea of the idea...that is the actual replicator. That is precisely how a person can call themselves a 'Christian' ( for example the former Archbishop of Canterbury ) despite not believing 90% of what the Bible says.

Sat, 21 Jul 2012 13:29:36 UTC | #949755

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 11 by QuestioningKat

I'm saying that what I think gets memetically passed on is not the idea itself, but the idea of the idea.

When something finally reaches the masses, it is usually several generations lost or watered down. Usually one aspect is latched onto and continues because it fulfills a wanted need for society.

Sat, 21 Jul 2012 15:17:30 UTC | #949759

Zeuglodon's Avatar 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

Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 13 by Schrodinger's Cat

Comment 12 by Zeuglodon

That doesn't work either, because it confuses endurance and inheritance with replication.

Then we have two seperate memetic type phenomena at work...

1) The point at which an idea is literally replicated.

2) The point at which people think that an idea has been replicated...or label it such. The meta-idea.

I would argue that all the issue that you raise arise from a 'literalist' memetics such as (1), as you are looking for some sort of meme equivalent of genes and its hard to see how such an abstract thing actually exists.

So I agree with your critique of memetics, but that is precisely why I introduced concept (2). The point about (2) is that it is clearly something that does actually happen, and there are examples all over the place including on this forum.

Type (2) is precisely how we get to call someone a 'Muslim' despite the fact that they may hold considerably different ideas and lifestyle and devotion to their religion than someone else that we might also label a 'Muslim'.

Indeed, without the meta-idea concept, it is hard to see how anyone is a Muslim, or a Christian, or a Buddhist or whatever.

After all, no idea is passed on verbatim. The writers of the Gospels had to struggle with words to convey their thoughts...and who can say whether those words exactly convey the idea ? And likewise with a person then reading that Gospel...who can say that what enters their head is actually even an accurate interpretation of the inadequate words ? Thus in a mere two generations we've lost all certainty that the original meme has actually been passed on !

Thus the only sense in which that second generation is actually a 'Christian' is at the meta level.

Sat, 21 Jul 2012 16:58:41 UTC | #949761

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 14 by Zeuglodon

Comment 13 by Schrodinger's Cat

But literalist is what the meme theory has to be if it interacts with matter at all. The reason a man can call someone a Muslim is that they hold ideas they've inherited or tick a few boxes of criteria in the observer's head. But this still says nothing about whether the ideas or even meta-ideas are replicating entities. If anything, it's turning into a distraction from the point of memetics in the first place, which is that ideas are replicated. A meta-idea is simply invoking a genome to do a gene's job, so it actually makes the problem worse. How would you show that the meta-idea has replicated, not just endured? At present, it's wordplay.

Some ideas get passed on, like the label of Christianity, but even to say it's "passed on", as though the idea was physically jumping from head to head, is stretching the term a bit, and that's my point.

Sat, 21 Jul 2012 18:00:39 UTC | #949765

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 15 by QuestioningKat

But literalist is what the meme theory has to be if it interacts with matter at all.

Does it interact with matter...at all?

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.

Ideas do not make copies spontaneously, human interaction is necessary.

If an idea does not have any tangible, literal substance and exists purely in an abstract state, it can never literally copy itself. Any transfer from one person to another is still in this abstract form which is communicated from one person to another. It can be communicated through any of our senses, intellect, emotions.... We can show a physical object and people can literally copy this, yet the underlying concept of the object is what is being examined. This process is not literal and searching for direct physical evidence of one idea replicating seems impossible. We can examine the results of physical manifestation, but not the actual action/idea.

Sat, 21 Jul 2012 21:51:59 UTC | #949777

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 16 by Zeuglodon

Comment 15 by QuestioningKat

Does it interact with matter...at all?

If an idea doesn't have anything to do with matter, I think anyone trying to prove it would be in trouble, don't you? Even mathematics and logic are about matter sooner or later.

Ideas do not make copies spontaneously, human interaction is necessary.

That's my point. If a thing cannot make copies of itself, it doesn't fulfil the criteria needed for a replicator, though it can mimic one superficially just as a leaf insect can mimic a leaf. The copying mechanism, however, might be a benefit to genes if their success depended on relatives or helpful partners holding common ideas. On another thread of mine (which I think you've seen), I suggested some reasons why people sharing the identical ideas could be adaptive: for instance, that it makes it easier to cooperate or to bond (by reducing mutual misunderstandings - after all, you see the world roughly as they do), because of a social contest in which one advertises one's mental prowess by feats of memory for trivia and cultural mores etc.

If an idea does not have any tangible, literal substance and exists purely in an abstract state, it can never literally copy itself. Any transfer from one person to another is still in this abstract form which is communicated from one person to another. It can be communicated through any of our senses, intellect, emotions.... We can show a physical object and people can literally copy this, yet the underlying concept of the object is what is being examined. This process is not literal and searching for direct physical evidence of one idea replicating seems impossible. We can examine the results of physical manifestation, but not the actual action/idea.

But this dualism of ideas and physical matter isn't really a dichotomy. My knowledge of football, for instance, doesn't sit apart from the physical technicalities of the sport, actual games I've witnessed, and the workings of one's own mind. I won't go into depth on it here, but in short appealing to an abstract realm like a Platonic cave and claiming it cannot be tested by matter is a cop-out because memetics neither requires it nor suggested it. It's moving the goalposts after I've done my critique.

I do agree that lineages of cultural ideas do look convincing, but I explained above how I think this lineage actually works, and it doesn't need replication.

Sun, 22 Jul 2012 16:03:45 UTC | #949845

QuestioningKat's Avatar Comment 17 by QuestioningKat

To better clarify myself. Ideas are not separate "entities" floating around. Otherwise, I may as well go back to church. Ideas are dependent upon functions of the brain, but the idea cannot be manipulated separately by matter like a chisel to a rock. (That's what I meant by it doesn't interact with matter or it being abstract. It's the result of brain functions.) My goodness, this is difficult to explain.

I agree that it isn't a dichotomy. Was it my poorly communicated first line that led you to believe this? Until an idea is acted upon by manipulating objects in the environment, the idea still remains in the brain as a thought - in abstract form. (as opposed to concrete as a physical object.) By sharing this thought through communication it is replicated. I know you're face palming right now. I'm not sure there is a literal replication since ideas cannot make copies of itself. Ideas are not themselves material.

I'd continue but somehow I think we are on different pages speaking different languages. Interesting ideas though.

Sun, 22 Jul 2012 20:14:59 UTC | #949859

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 18 by Zeuglodon

Comment 17 by QuestioningKat

Ideas are dependent upon functions of the brain, but the idea cannot be manipulated separately by matter like a chisel to a rock.

It's not that difficult to pin down, trust me. Let's say an idea is a bit of my brain, just to keep it rough. Now the spread of the idea would be the idea appearing in more brains. It could be said to be a population of ideas. Now, the population of ideas itself could replicate, each generation being a new population of ideas budding off the old one like clouds fragmenting and then each one growing. You'd have a kind of evolution of populations if this went on for enough buddings and the idea occasionally changed in detail. Is that what you're getting at?

Mon, 23 Jul 2012 00:18:00 UTC | #949869

OHooligan's Avatar 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

OHooligan's Avatar Comment 20 by OHooligan

Comment 17 by QuestioningKat

Thanks QK, I just had an "Aha!" moment. Here it is again in slow motion:

Ideas are not themselves material.

Exactly. They're Information. But so are genes. They're long strands of digital data encoded in DNA molecules. It isn't the molecule that is passed on when DNA replicates. It's the Information.

The atoms are different, but the gene remains the same. How many of the atoms in the original egg-and-sperm combination that started your good self are still within your body somewhere? Don't know? Nope, me neither. But does it matter? Not a bit, I'd say. And what are the odds of any of these atoms making it into one of your children? About as near as you can get to zero. But what are the odds of a particular gene getting through into one of your children? 50% isn't it?

All genes are pretty much equal if all you do is count the number of atoms of each element, it's the arrangement, the Information, that matters.

so, to paraphrase your insightful comment (and give you the credit)

Genes are not themselves material.

There.

So, in easy bites:

Genes are information.

Memes are information.

The same rules can apply to both these kinds of information.

Both are kinds of information that can evolve, by replication, mutation, and selection by competition for limited resources.

And finally, the "Aha!!!": I'll put it as an assertion:

Evolution is an innate property of Information, independent of the specifics of the processes that encode, replicate, mutate and select it.

Mon, 23 Jul 2012 04:46:32 UTC | #949879

Zeuglodon's Avatar Comment 21 by Zeuglodon

Comment 19 by OHooligan

It's nothing like discussing atoms with a car mechanic. I'm trying to check whether an idea ticks all the boxes needed to qualify for replicator. That means asking:

  1. What is the structure, the unit of replication?

  2. Does it make discrete copies of itself?

  3. Is the number of generations large before it hits its first mutation?

To answer one, I zoned in on the structure in one brain, say that could be representing "christianity" or something. Say we represent it by X.

To answer two, you look at two brains. X is in one brain, but not in the other. The replication process occurs. Now, X is in one brain and an X is in the other.

To answer three, you look at more brains in a chain. If it goes only one brain more before X becomes a Y in the next brain, that's hardly enough time for any kind of meaningful spread to occur. Even if it was like one person from generation one told twenty people from generation two, that would still be one generation. If, on the other hand, it goes a hundred or a thousand brains more before X becomes a Y in the next brain, that's plenty of time for a meaningful spread to occur. We'd be able to call it evolution, though not automatically natural selection.

What you call me using the microscope is actually me looking at the right scale - by analogy, watching the moment when an RNA strand makes a copy of itself. And when you look, you notice two things:

  1. I would therefore have to look at nervous system nets such as those in the brain to show one. I have to identify the unit, and that would be a nerve net that represents the idea in one head. To take a broad view is bad policy here because the unit isn't found by assuming it exists and jumping straight to the natural selection metaphor.

  2. I question whether it makes discrete copies of itself on two grounds: the first is the high mutation rate between generation zero (my brain) and generation one (your brain); the second is the stick insect argument.

Genes are crisp, digital, separable from the genome and isolate-able. It's not arbitrarily picked, as you misinterpret it, and it doesn't mutate after only a handful of generations. It's described, in RD's case, with reference to an allele. Any change is not a gradual thing, but an either/or state. A mutation changes a genome in the blink of evolutionary time, and then the resulting genes competing with their alleles follow the same algorithm as blindly as before. Genes are not terms of "convenience". You misunderstood, and subsequently exaggerated, the observation that a gene is not one of a string of beads along the genome, because for all practical purposes it is.

Ideas aren't beads even for practical purposes. When I tell you about christianity, the idea in your head is guaranteed to be a mutation of mine, especially if my explanation is complicated. And if you tell somebody else, another mutation is added. Bits will pass on unscathed, true, but the mutation rate will be so high that it'd be a game of Chinese whispers. The number of generations for this would be too low before the idea morphed beyond recognition compared with the original. And weirder still, it's recursive. Generation one can be fed by generation ten a completely new idea that is, ironically, the result of the idea it passed on.

Any common ground between people - for instance, their understanding of alphabets and language instincts - are the products of genetic phenotypes, just like a stick insect's leg and brain. Damage to these will not be passed on in the next generation. I'd understand what an alphabet is even if my ancestor received a head blow that destroyed his or her language circuits. Those bits of the idea that everyone automatically gets are those bits that didn't replicate, so memetics is as unnecessary as clone selection here.

You also fail to appreciate the significance of the virus RNA. All a virus RNA cares about is meeting nucleotides that, when it is exposed to them, automatically arrange themselves into a copy. The fact that it can exploit the goldmine of stuff in cells follows evolutionary logic: why waste time looking for them elsewhere when you can specialize in parasitism on a nearby and available bounty? In the very early days of replication, simply drifting about bumping into material like plankton do would have to be part of the process. RNA is not a helpless little thing that has to ask organelles to read it and build a copy without it. Give this a moment's thought and it should be apparent that a replicator needed to get life started could never be such a thing. It had to be something that replicated under its own steam. I told you that modern organelles are refinements of that process, with the RNA still hanging around and the DNA acting as a kind of database for it to refer to. RNA has to physically touch the matter needed to make RNA before it can replicate. An idea in your head behaves nothing like this because it is helpless. The machines have to do the dirty work for it. Moreover, they're not doing it for it. The genes have made large-scale copiers for their own purposes.

And this is putting it mildly. Far from the copying mechanisms being spontaneous, it's so mutational and more akin to straightforward causation that the few times an idea lasts more than a few generations without changing at all are rare. Too rare for evolution, never mind for any kind of selection process, to occur.

I maintain you're running with a half-baked idea. That is the last thing you should be doing.

The alien analogy you provide doesn't work. The transmitters don't make more transmitters. They are already set up by the genes long ago. The information "sent" is simply another form of causation, but a transmitter never makes a transmitter any more than a mouth makes a mouth. That's like saying a bit of brain makes another bit of brain just like it. It doesn't - the transmitter and interpreter bit is already set up in the other guy's brain, and the info actually being sent isn't sent: specifications on how to build it have to be translated into code before being reverse-transcribed into info. This is assuming your mechanism doesn't lose anything in transmission.

It doesn't goes like this:

Idea -> Idea -> Idea

Or like this:

Idea (moved around by machinery until it physically touches material) -> Idea (moved around by machinery until it physically touches material) -> Idea etc.

Genes do work like this:

Gene (moved around by machinery until it physically touches material) -> Gene (moved around by machinery until it physically touches material) -> Gene etc.

It goes more like this:

Idea -> Transmitter -> Light/Sound wave -> Sensor -> Reconstructor -> Idea

And even then, it's just as likely to do this:

Idea 1 -> Transmitter -> Light/Sound wave -> Sensor -> Reconstructor -> Idea 2 (mutation of 1)

It's easy enough to say that we can treat it like it's evolving, but that's to confuse any kind of change in general with evolution, which is specific and technical. Star cycles aren't evolution, they're straightforward change. So too is the constant transmission and reconstruction of ideas.

Comment 20 by OHooligan

The trouble is, this doesn't get you out of the mix. A physically identical molecule physically comes away from the original replicating molecule. You could swap them and not tell the difference, and the beauty is that this isn't a coincidence, but will happen over and over again until a mutation, gross or small, occurs. You can't duck it by saying information is passed on via an intermediary or that it's not material. To even declare it's passed on requires a physical replicator in the first place, or else you might as well say that an idea gets passed on when anything happens to anything else - say, a star's explosion disturbs a dust cloud that collapses and forms another star. That's not replication, but under your logic, it would be because stars lead to other stars.

And you commit an awful mistake here:

Evolution is an innate property of Information, independent of the specifics of the processes that encode, replicate, mutate and select it.

Evolution is not an innate property of information. Every non-meme brain is proof of that, because the information in brains doesn't get replicated any more than the bodies of asexual stick insects do. If damage or a change occurs to a stick insect - say she loses a limb - this isn't inherited by its offspring, and the same applies whether it's a change to her leg or to her brain. If she loses an eye or gets damage to a part of her ganglia, this won't get inherited by her children.

Replication is the first step to getting any evolutionary process started. Replication is what we should focus on, because if something doesn't replicate, and do it often enough so that mutation comes only every 100th generation or so, there's a basis for differential survival of replicators. But the first step is to prove replication is happening. Information about the previous star could be held in this new star caused by the previous one's explosion in the form of its molecular content, but again this information is not making an evolutionary process.

My apologies if I come across as a little belligerent, but it's too easy to assume change is evolution, and when it's not I think it's important to get to the heart of the issue and point out these differences. I think genes enable an independent causal chain to operate in parallel, but in a similar sense to how a tool might be passed on outside of genetic generations. The distinction between an active and a passive copying mechanism (self-propelled and set up by something else) is key, and I really want to get that across.

Mon, 23 Jul 2012 15:23:35 UTC | #949897

Quine's Avatar Comment 22 by Quine

Zeug, sorry your thread got shut down. I was reading up to be able to post, but did not get there in time.

Mon, 23 Jul 2012 23:54:07 UTC | #949940

God fearing Atheist's Avatar Comment 23 by God fearing Atheist

Comment 22 by Quine :

... but did not get there in time.

Bloody pZombies, just can't be relied on! ;-)

Tue, 24 Jul 2012 00:30:13 UTC | #949944

Quine's Avatar Comment 24 by Quine

Busted. :-(

Tue, 24 Jul 2012 00:57:05 UTC | #949947

OHooligan's Avatar Comment 25 by OHooligan

@Comment 21 by Zeuglodon

an awful mistake

Yeah, I must admit I phrased it rather provocatively. On re-reading, it was a bit too vague. And half-baked, sure, but this isn't a paper for peer review (when we'd expect the baking to be done), it's a discussion.

I don't mind the belligerence, it's the haystack of strawmen, all the stuff about stars and bits of brains and stick insects with missing twigs.

Consider instead the only instance of an evolving system that we agree on, Life on Earth, and try to extract the essentials that make it evolve:

I nominate these as being necessary and sufficient properties

  • Information in discrete packages

  • A way to replicate these packages

  • replication is not always exact

  • replication requires some finite amount of a finite resource.

  • the content of a package affects its ability to acquire the resource.

  • repetition. Lots and lots of it.

  • I contend that evolution will take place in any system with these properties.

    The physical, molecular, chemical, electromagnetic, mechanical nature of the way the information is carried is secondary, as are the replication mechanism and the nature of the resource.

    The conjecture, in a single sentence:

    Evolution is inevitable in any system that supports repeated imperfect replication of packages of information with competition between packages for finite resources necessary for replication.

    The unit of persistence is the Information Package, not the temporary structures or organisms that participate in the competition for resources and the replication process.

    This means that other systems, not just our familiar "carbon based lifeforms", can also evolve. Granted, we know of no mechanism other than RNA for getting this started.

    But I regard your strict insistence on "self-replication" as artificial, once the process has started.

    You place "self-replication" center stage, and therefore exclude any system that doesn't have this property. You go into detail on the remarkable properties of RNA, essential for the bootstrapping of life as we know it. But once bootstrapped, evolution works on the information packages stored in the DNA "database" as you put it. No reason why we should expect life to stop there. The RNA is still needed, but the evolutionary action has moved on to DNA. Next step, in another layer of bootstrapping, DNA is still needed, but the action may move to another form of information encoding, the "database" may be stored elsewhere, and here is where we get to consider Memes.

    Without requiring genetic (DNA) mutations, memes can evolve much faster.

    Human technology has developed from next to nothing in an eyeblink on the genetic evolutionary timescale. The human brain today is hardly any different from the brains of the people who built the pyramids. The "database" for our technology lies beyond our DNA, and is updated much more frequently.

    In summary:

    With an arbitrary self-imposed constraint, you effectively disqualify "meme theory" from consideration as an evolutionary system on a par with genetic evolution.

    Without that constraint, I contend the opposite, that the evolution of memes can be studied within the same theoretical framework as the evolution of genes, and that both are instances of something more general.

    Perhaps you were also being deliberately provocative in starting a discussion entitled "meme theory..." and then going into great detail on something else.

    Thanks anyway for goading me into trying to sharpening up my thinking. I'm sure it's good for me, but I'm not sure I've succeeded.

    Tue, 24 Jul 2012 00:59:11 UTC | #949948

    jimblake's Avatar Comment 26 by jimblake

    Zeuglodon, I agree with OHooligan. You are over-analyzing this issue; reducing it down to unnecessary levels.

    I think you are mistaken when you say that a gene is self-replicating. A gene is informtion. The medium for this information is DNA. There is nothing in the gene that tells it to copy itself. The information in the gene is copied by the DNA into another DNA molecule. The analogy with meme theory is that the 'meme' is information, the brain is the medium, and the brain copies the information into another brain.

    I think that meme theory is just a possible explanation for cultural evolution that is on a different level than biological evolution.

    Tue, 24 Jul 2012 18:32:09 UTC | #949992

    phil rimmer's Avatar Comment 27 by phil rimmer

    For me memes can work like genes when there is good enough copying. This restricts them to simple mechanical and expressive functions.

    The mechanisms are getting to be well understood, mirror neurons and young comparatively unwired (neotenous!) brains as recipients.

    My monthly Victoria Horner Link.

    Memes restricted to simple mechanical and expressive tasks can lay down a huge substrate of behaviours that may well facilitate more complex cultural idea acquisition.

    The meme idea itself, however, evaporates with much more "idea" sophistication due mainly to the very high error rate in the copying mechanism and the lack of a robust container. Thats not to say that copying doesn't go on. It clearly does. But the clarity of the process recedes much as it would in the transition from cell wrapped DNA packets to RNA World soup.

    Tue, 24 Jul 2012 20:32:48 UTC | #950002

    Schrodinger's Cat's Avatar Comment 28 by Schrodinger's Cat

    Comment 14 by Zeuglodon

    But literalist is what the meme theory has to be if it interacts with matter at all. The reason a man can call someone a Muslim is that they hold ideas they've inherited or tick a few boxes of criteria in the observer's head. But this still says nothing about whether the ideas or even meta-ideas are replicating entities.

    That sort of begs the question of who gets to decide that a meme has actually been copied. There's no such problem for genes, because a gene is a physical object, and thus replication means physical copy, but what's the criteria for a meme being passed on ?

    That is why I raised in #13 the fact that the copying of an idea is a somewhat meaningless concept because something that is not actually a 'copy' may still nevertheless be decided by external observers to be 'the same thing'.

    My point is...if a million people think that person A has the same ideas as person B, something must have been copied even if we ourselves would judge the ideas to be totally different.

    So there is a second type of meme.....meme2 one might call it....which is not so much the literal idea but the idea of the idea. The meta idea. And I would judge that to be by far the most prevalent type of meme. In fact one could probably argue that it's the only type of meme, because at the end of the day whether an idea has been copied is entirely a matter of perception.

    Tue, 24 Jul 2012 21:07:15 UTC | #950004

    phil rimmer's Avatar Comment 29 by phil rimmer

    Comment 28 by Schrodinger's Cat

    So there is a second type of meme.....meme2 one might call it....which is not so much the literal idea but the idea of the idea.

    I have seen it argued that (at least historically, in culturally simpler times) the mode of learning used by males and females differed markedly. Women copy exactly, movement for movement and men copy intentions.

    The thesis runs that childcare in a species that rapidly adapts to new environmental niches with radically novel risks and food supplies, mothers need to learn quickly and precisely about the risks to their very vulnerable babies. (Human babies, born unnaturally undeveloped for maximum cultural programmability need prodigious levels of care.) They copy actions shown them by others precisely. Men, conversely, are freer to invent, copying the intention of others actions. The (joke?) demonstration of this is that they don't read the instructions or the map and are lauded culturally for appearing to "go it alone".

    More pertinent may be this-

    Male IQ is a grey matter (CPU modules) process predominantly.

    Female IQ is a white matter (trans brain coms) process predominantly.

    Tue, 24 Jul 2012 22:14:07 UTC | #950007

    OHooligan's Avatar Comment 30 by OHooligan

    @Comment 29 by phil rimmer

    mode(s) of learning

    Fascinating. Twin braids of instruction, culturally/traditionally segregated by gender, suggesting indeed distinct types of meme as per SC (Comment 28), with differing requirements for successful transmission.

    The "intention" memes, SC's meme2, would be subject to greater variation, I suppose, while the "action" memes would need to be copied with greater fidelity, though still not always 100%, as mutations (mis-rememberings, or wilful tweaks) give rise to variations.

    Or rather, the "intention" memes are not instructions on exactly-what-to-do, but instructions on how to go about figuring out what to do, which can then be useful in as-yet-unknown situations. Perhaps they copy just as faithfully as "action" memes, though they appear more able to pick up new material.

    As for the earlier discussion on mental states and how "exact" must be the copy for memes to work, the answer seems to be: nowhere near exact.

    Even a software application these days can identify a tune, despite differences in noise, pitch, rhythm, instrumentation/timbre, recording quality, sample rate, compression algorithms. So there is no need for brain-to-brain reproduction of exact neural or mental states, only for "enough" of an idea to be transferred to count as replication of a meme, as determined by observable behavior.

    And that was just on the simple end of the scale, a tune. On the complex web of mutually supporting concepts and habits that comprise a religion, the mental states involved can differ wildly, all that matters for meme propagation is that "enough" of the essentials are passed along.

    Indeed, the successful long lived "meme" contains mechanisms to counter the potentially high mutation rate. Long lived folk or ethnic music has strong internal structure that survives different interpretations in playing. It was only with the invention of written musical notation that entire complex arrangements could be composed that would outlive the composer and those he'd personally conducted.

    Religions, seen as "memes", contain a variety of checks-and-balances to ensure that the meme propagates unchanged. The RCC ensures this by control of teaching and tradition. Reciting a creed helps remind the faithful what it is they're supposed to believe, and trained habit gets them to do this on a regular basis.

    Book-based religions do it by holding central an immutable "database" of material, though even then sub-species (schisms) arise by point mutation - a single influential teacher can spawn a whole new sect.

    Wed, 25 Jul 2012 00:46:49 UTC | #950011