N. (1999). Okay, but exactly `who' would escape the Tyranny of the Replicators?
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.
The section of my paper entitled Self-Centered Selectionism actually dealt with several issues, which was clumsy of me. To help rectify this I shall respond to the commentaries by attempting to divide up the issues.
In a Darwinian system the random variation among the replicators allows differential survival to drive evolutionary change. The meme `eye view' of this process has been characterised by Blackmore (1997) "...imagine a world full of hosts for memes (e.g. brains) and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Now ask - which memes are more likely to find a safe home and get passed on again?" The problem, as I see things, with the ability to consciously choose or reject which memes we have is that it shifts the focus of cultural selection away from the characteristics of the `meme' and instead concentrates upon the properties of consciousness (with all the associated problems). I am happy to accept that people choose memes - and that they do so in a non-random or directed way. However, I would insist that whatever is directing the selection of memes we are better off examining genetic predisposition and the memes already in situ and trying to understand the differential survival of memes - before resorting to the more enigmatic properties supposed of the mind. Just as the environment for genes includes other genes (and their vehicles), the environment in which memes differentially survive includes other memes. It is these genes and other memes, perhaps in the form of `filters' (c.f. Dennett, 1991), which I believe make up the `self' which selects memes.
At the last I have no great argument against the possibility of conscious foresight or intention selecting memes, and I have no trouble admitting this. For me it simply focuses the debate in a rather unpromising direction - and represents a kind of giving up. To that extent I find myself in general agreement with David Hull and Derek Gatherer. One point of contention with Hull is the question of Artificial Selection. Hull suggests that because I rule out intentionality in memetic evolution - that I reject also Darwin's argument that the goals of conscious agents play a crucial role in artificial selection. This is ironic because Darwin spends a large section of his first chapter in `The Origin of Species' undermining the extent of conscious selection - for his argument builds towards natural selection from the premise of unconscious artificial selection having a crucial role in the form and character of domestic animals. But, nit-picking aside, the example of artificial selection (and modern genetic engineering) is a misleading one. Cultural practices which have effects upon the phenotypes of animals are (we might claim) the result of memetic evolution. Selective breeding is not random, but then neither is natural selection. The selective environment for domesticated animals also includes humans who, through the course of cultural evolution, have discovered ways of exploiting them and even manipulating their characteristics at the genetic level. I still feel that this does not require conscious foresight to guide meme selection - merely evolved cultural practices to guide the selection of genes in animals. I find this compatible with Darwin's observations and preferable to introducing conscious foresight.
There are many aspects of John Wilkins's commentary with which I agree, but he insists at the last upon the intending self as a social agent. He writes; "If memes are selected for or against intentionally on the basis of prior experience and propensities to estimate the likely success of a given strategy, that will deform the fitness landscape for these memes and meme-bearers." If I could strike the word `intentionally' I would find myself in perfect agreement. I find the word `intentionally' utterly redundant here, adding nothing to the description of the process. The `intentional stance' (c.f. Dennett, 1991) is an excellent heuristic - it allows us to form quick and ready predictions about the behaviour of another - whether that other is Wilkins's lion or another person. Whilst such a `theory of mind' is undoubtedly useful, I would say (probably along with Dennett) that it is only a convenient short-hand. I might use a similar short-hand to describe other non-intentional processes, for instance; the salt molecules seek areas of low concentration, or the phototropic plant wants to grow in the direction of light. But, at the end of the day it is merely a short-hand for a more complex, and essentially passive, process. Wilkins suggests that the `self' (as a social agent) has some control over the kinds of memes it hosts, not unlike the control our immune system has over the sorts of micro-organisms that a body hosts. However, we don't require `immuno agency' to understand the immune system - so why introduce `social agency' to understand culture? Whilst it may be `bleeding obvious' to Wilkins that intentions play a part in evolution, I would say it is a short-hand which is `bleeding redundant' to understanding selection.
Hull is right, I don't care very much for such `selves'. I find attributing meme selection to a `self', which exists beyond the constructs of memes and genes, redundant, misleading and lazy. Whilst George Modelski may be right that there is no `inherent contradiction' between self-centered selectionism and Darwinian evolution, I would agree with Gatherer and Hull who suggest that it is a position unhelpful to the development of memetics. However I maintain that what is essentially fatal to the argument that culture evolves along Darwinian lines is the suggestion that meme variation is a product of a process directed by conscious intentionality and foresight; which I shall dub `Self-Centered Variation'. If variation among memes is somehow directed by consciousness towards some goal then it is not a Darwinian process. None of the commentators appeared to argue against this position, so I shall hesitantly assume that they were in general agreement.
Memetics poses some difficult questions about free will and the self. Francis Beer describes the uneasy coexistence of free will and determinism within our thinking and theorising and perhaps it is this underlying tension which so often produces impassioned argument. I have nothing against using the term `free' in a legal or political sense, indeed these are definitions of freedom which make some sense to me. Certainly a slave has, in a very practical sense, less freedom than I do. However, whatever freedoms I enjoy only exist by convention of the society in which I live. Whenever we speak of freedoms, in a political or legal sense, we also recognise responsibilities. In many instances `responsibilities' represent things which we are not `free' to do. As Beer rightly points out, these meanings are themselves `fluid' and subject to the selective forces we seek to use to explain other aspects of our culture.
Ilfryn Price attempts to find a compromise in this debate and seeks to soften the dramatic claim made by Dawkins (1976) which I felt typified the Self-Centered Selectionist error (c.f. Rose, 1998). He writes; "Perhaps it is only through the memes / genes for the inquiring mind and an appreciation of the power of selfish replicators that we may at last escape at least some of the tyranny." I would add with a touch of cynicism; `and run headlong into other tyrannies'. However, to describe the genes or memes as `tyrants' in the first place is certainly a `literary excess' - for we are the products of these memes and genes. I find the distinction between us and our genes or us and our memes distinctly odd (and one which smacks of Dualism). At the end of the day who would escape the tyranny of the replicators? To escape the tyranny of memes we should surely have to lose the ability to imitate and instruct and culturally transmit information to one another - and have minds unshaped by culture. To escape the tyranny of genes we should surely have to lose the ability to reproduce - and have bodies and brains unshaped by biology. Not only would such a revolution be impossible, but who would be left after the revolution to enjoy the victory?
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2nd Edition, 1989).
Dennett, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Blackmore, S. (1997). The Power of the Meme Meme. Skeptic, 5:43-49. http://www.memes.org.uk/meme-lab/SKEP97.HTM
Rose, N. (1998). Controversies in Meme Theory. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/rose_n.html
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