LogoHull, D.L. (1999). Strategies in Meme Theory.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

Strategies in Meme Theory
- a commentary on Rose's paper: Controversies in Meme Theory

David L. Hull
Department of Philosophy
Northwestern University
Evanston, IL 60208

Rose does not care very much for the `self', in particular the self doing anything, what he terms self-centered selectionism. He finds fault with those who "believe that consciousness has the power to select memes in order to fulfil some life goal." He finds the claim that "we can intentionally design and choose memes" is "entirely at odds with the proposal that culture is an evolutionary process."

My immediate response is to ask whether Rose objects to agency and intentionality only in memetic evolution or whether he also objects to it in genetic evolution as well. In most gene-based evolution, intentions and goals play no role in the selection process, but the same can be said for much of meme-based evolution. However, in both gene-based and meme-based evolution, selection in terms of conscious agents doing things for a purpose at least seems to play a role. Rose limits his discussion to meme-based evolution, but the problem arises just as seriously in gene-based evolution.

Darwin began his `Origin of Specise' with a long discussion of artificial selection. In Darwin's day and before, plant and animal breeders selected "sports" that they found useful and bred them selectively so that these variations became more common; e.g., ancon sheep. Darwin reasoned that if breeders could do so much with so little, one can only imagine how powerful natural selection must be. Apparently, Rose rejects Darwin's argument because the goals of conscious agents play a crucial role in artificial selection. Breeders did not produce the variations, but they did select them. Nowadays, breeders are in even a stronger position. They can also design the variations that they want. They can intentionally design and choose genes. Is artificial selection an "unnatural" process? Can it be explained without reference to selves, goals and intentions?

Rose seems to think that intentional behavior is Lamarckian if not downright miraculous. I think that it is neither. Even so, I agree with Rose that including it in theories of genetic or memetic evolution right now is a bad strategy because it introduces whole series of issues that are currently highly problematic. Perhaps someday in the future we can handle the roles that conscious agents play in both sorts of evolution, but not right now. The strategy that I am suggesting is the same one adopted by evolutionary biologists with respect to development. In Darwin's day, development looked promising. Some of the biggest names in science were working on it, but at the time evolutionary biologists could not find a way to integrate these findings in their theory. Instead, they worked their way around development, not to mention genetics. Their contemporaries were happy to point out the `holes' in their theoretical structure, but the Darwinians could do nothing, until, finally, at the turn of the century, a theory of heredity was formulated that (after some overly obtuse wrangling) fit nicely into evolutionary theory. We are still waiting for development. But right now things look promising!

Those of us working in memetics need not deride the self, agents, goals, intentions, and the like. Someday we may be able to work them into out theory, but not now. What is lost if we do restrict our attention? How important are intentions in organisms other than human beings? Organisms do strive to get away from predators as these predators strive to capture them. It is difficult not to see these phenomena in terms of goals. But even plants exhibit tropisms. They seem to strive toward sunlight and the like. But one thing that these organisms do not do is strive to evolve. Now, can all this `striving' be interpreted solely in behaviorist terms? The history of behavioral psychology is spotty. Behavioral psychologists have made significant headway in their program, but even with respect to nonhuman animals, problems remain. However, I think that the safest bet, for now, is to adopt a behaviorist view of organisms other than humans. Little is lost, and quite a bit is gained. One might mention that operant learning is itself a selection process (Skinner 1974 and Glenn 1991).

When the issue is humans, the vast majority of people, scientists included, reject a purely behavioral account of behavior. We are conscious. We do have goals, and we do strive to realize these goals. I happen to be a bit cynical about human beings, me included. I think that a huge chunk of our behavior can be explained in purely behavioral terms without significant loss. For example, we constantly hear about all the damage that the human species is doing to the environment. I hasten to add that almost none of this degradation was intentional. We didn't mean to do it. To make matters worse, the vast majority of human beings have never heard of biological evolution. Of those who have, most do not understand it very well, and even fewer accept it. Only a very tiny percentage of the human race understands biological evolution and believes it. This small minority is in a position to introduce their intentions and goals into the evolutionary process. I shudder to think of the effects. In the past most of the modifications that we have consciously made in the environment on the basis of the best knowledge at the time did not turn out the way that we expected. It is still possible for people who understand evolutionary biology to produce the effects that they intend, but these effects are likely to be quite minor when compared to all the unconscious effects. If our intentions matter so little with respect to such phenomena, I fail to see why we have to mention them, except to dismiss them.

Perhaps the human race does not have a very good track record with respect to such huge phenomena, but how about other areas of human endeavor? On a day-to-day time scale, people behave intentionally. We get hungry and go to the local Wends to get a hamburger. Is there anything so wrong in saying as much? Most of our behavior can be explained entirely in behaviorist terms, but a substantial amount remains. Behavioral psychologists no longer claim that they can explain all human behavior in terms of operant conditioning, even of the most sophisticated sort. Maybe, some time in the future, they will be able to explain more, but all? That is highly questionable, especially when one turns to science itself. Science is as intentional a process as has ever appeared on Earth. When Rose urges that we reject references to `selves', `intentions', `purposes', etc. in memetic evolution, is he not doing so for a purpose? He does not intend for us to change our focus of research? But all of this is just so much everyday talk. Once psychology gets sufficiently powerful, we can explain human behavior without reference, no matter how covert, to the entities and processes that Rose finds so objectionable. Perhaps so, but I suggest a more cautious strategy. Just as evolutionary biologists have waited for the science of development to catch up before they attempted to incorporate it into evolutionary biology, I suggest that we memeticists exhibit similar caution in committing ourselves so totally with respect to a behaviorist stance for all of human behavior. Behavioral psychology is sufficiently well developed that we can use it and only it for the behavior of all other creatures without significant loss, but when we turn to us, I think that behavioral psychology is not currently up to the task. Let's hold these issues off to the side while we attack those problems that seem more soluble. Attacking the Big Issue right now and failing is certainly designed to harm our emerging research program. (OK, OK, maybe we are not doing it on purpose, but I suggest that it is the most likely result.)

To return to the opening paragraphs of this note, if Rose wants to make memetics as pure as he thinks it should be, then he must reject artificial selection as so much magic. To be sure in artificial selection the replicators are genes and not memes, but the selection process itself is riddled with intentional, goal-directed behavior, and we are currently in no position to eliminate reference to this behavior because we currently have nothing to put in its place. But if Rose's position is put in slightly different terms, I am all in favor of it. Because of all the problems surrounding `selves' behaving `intentionally' to fulfil `goals', for now at least let's ignore it and continue to work on the vast majority of behavior in which such considerations do not arise. Right now we have only scratched the surface with respect to these much less problematic phenomena. Once we get really good at handling them, then we can turn to the hardest parts. One of the faults that I find with philosophers is that we attack the big issues first. Scientists have had the good sense to attack at least some of the more soluble problems early on. As Medawar (1967) put it, science is the art of the soluble.


Glenn, S.S., (1991). Contingencies and metacontingencies: relations among behavioral, cultural, and biological evolution, In P.A. Lamal (ed), Behavioral Analysis of Societies and Cultural Practices, Hemishere Press, 39-73.

Medawar, P.B., (1967). The Art of the Soluble, Barnes & Noble.

Skinner, B.F., (1974). About Behaviorism, Knopf.

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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