LogoWilkins, J. (1999). On choosing to evolve: strategies without a strategist.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

On choosing to evolve: strategies without a strategist
- a commentary on Rose's paper: Controversies in Meme Theory

John Wilkins
PO Box 542, Somerville 3912, Australia.

In his 1974 paper Michael Ghiselin wrote that while there were evolutionary strategies, the only evolutionary strategists were the biologists studying evolution. Nick Rose (1998) has raised several interesting problems not only for memetics but evolutionary thinking in general. To avoid the Scylla of Lamarckism, he has chosen instead the Charybdis of denying the bleeding obvious - that intentions play a part in evolution. Before anyone accuses me of deserting the Darwinian fold for Lamarck, let me explain.

It seems that the reason Rose takes this tack and follows Dennett's attack on the Cartesian Theatre of the Self (Dennett 1992, 1995) is that if we admit the role of intentions into evolution, we end up with some kind of Piagetian Lamarckism (Piaget 1979) and lose the strength of the blind watchmaker schema - evolution through natural selection (plus sundry other theoretical bits like drift). Must it be so? Are intentions really that dangerous?

Usually when the charge of Lamarckism is raised, the spectre of clairvoyance lies not too far beneath it (Hull 1988). We choose to solve problems, we seek solutions, we adapt by learning, not by random variation and selective retention (Campell 1960, Popper 1972). If we take this approach, then evolutionary explanations of memes are redundant and indeed otiose. Better to deny that we can choose and control memes at all. If folk psychology admits a causal role for intentions, so much the worse for folk psychology. I think this is wrong. We can have our memetic cake and eat intentions too, if we recast matters just a bit.

The lion, contra Wittgenstein (1968) can surely be understood to have intentions to catch the gazelle. Just as surely, if a gazelle thinks and intends at all, it intends not to be caught by the lion. Yet, the outcome is an evolutionary one, and purely Darwinian. How can this be? Didn't we just stipulate that intentions make Darwinism otiose? Well, there is an obvious difference between intending to solve a problem and actually achieving the solution. The problem of induction, and its heirs like Nelson's `Grue' Paradox (Goodman 1973), shows that intentions are not endowed with magical clairvoyance. After all, we humans have intentions that pave many roads with varying destinations. Selection operates on outcomes not the provenance of variations.

Having intentions and being able to learn are at once both biasing effects on the selective landscape and also adaptations in themselves - one reason why we do have the cognitive faculties we do is that it broadens the range of adaptation. If we can learn, we can deal with challenges without waiting for mutations, but once we have the novel lifestyle, selection can catch up as soon as more cost-effective instinctual behaviours appear genetically. This is called the Baldwin Effect (Belew and Mitchell 1996, Turney et al. 1996) and is perfectly Darwinian. Learning deforms the fitness landscape.

Ignore, for a moment, the supposed psychic powers of intentionality and consider instead trait U. This trait permits an organism to deal more effectively with its environment than non-U organisms can. It is not perfect, because the environment can always bowl a spin ball, but it does bias the odds in favour of U-bearers as opposed to non-Us. It will obviously spread through its deme so long as selection is stronger than drift. There's nothing too problematic about this. Now, substitute `intention' for U, and see if it makes the slightest difference to the Darwinian nature of the model. I submit that this does not. So, how does this biological argument bear on memes? 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 those memes and meme-bearers. We pick those memes that we estimate will succeed. But no matter how good we are at picking strategies, our intentions merely bias, they do not determine, the outcomes. Our social ecology is not totally plastic any more than the biological ecology is. We cannot, on pain of sinning against St. David Hume, predict with complete accuracy what comes our way next.

The strategies we inherit are not good because we rationally analysed them. Indeed, we inherit them because they are good ones, for whatever reason. No grand Cartesian General planned them, and the presence or absence of a minor strategist does not impugn evolutionary explanation. Quine once wrote (Quine 1969) that "creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind" (p 126). Social agents that are ordinarily wrong about good ways to proceed tend not to have much influence or leave many intellectual descendants (the praiseworthiness is left as a judgement for the reader). So, we had better be good at choosing our memes is we want to have any influence. However, come the next revolution, many of our strategies may find themselves first against the wall. Selection reigns in social games as much as in the struggle for existence. If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. No clairvoyance, just good old trial and error. I believe that any Lamarckian process of evolution can be reformulated as a Darwinian process. The difference is one of rate, degree of novelty, and fidelity of transmission (Fisher 1930). Dennett (1995) notes that memetic selection occurs first in the head, then locally and finally more broadly (Cziko 1995, Wilkins 1998). But although the selective filters of our mind are not a Cartesian Self, that there exists an intentional social agent is silly to deny. It is bounded by the extent of direct control of our body by the central nervous system. To agree with Wittgenstein this time, the best model of the human soul is the human face.

An intending self is the social agent, and it has some control over the kinds of memes it hosts, not unlike the limited control our immune system has over the sorts of microorganisms that a body hosts. Cognitive structures and processes behave something like the immune system. Good immune systems, and good memetic selection patterns, get more copies of themselves passed on. It may make it harder to model things, but we have to live with intentions in memetics.


Belew R.K. and Mitchell, M. (eds.). (1996). Adaptive Individuals in Evolving Populations: Models and Algorithms. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

Campbell, D. T. (1960). Blind Variation and Selective Retention in Creative Thought as in Other Knowledge Processes. Psycological Review, 67:380-400.

Cziko, G. (1995). Without Miracles: Universal Selection Theory and the Second Darwinian Revolution. Cambridge MA: MIT Press. http://www.ed.uiuc.edu/facstaff/g-cziko/without_miracles/.

Dennett, D. C. (1992). Consciousness explained. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press..

Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin's dangerous idea: evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fisher, R. A. (1930). The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Ghiselin, M. T. (1974). The economy of nature and the evolution of sex. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goodman, N. (1973). Fact, fiction, and forecast. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Hull, D. L. (1988). Science as a process: an evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988..

Piaget, J. (1979). Behaviour and evolution Trans. Nicholson-Smith, D., London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Popper, K. R. (1972). Objective knowledge; an evolutionary approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press..

Quine, W.V. (1969). Ontological Relativity and Other Essays. New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Turney, P. Whitley, D. and Anderson, R. (1996). Evolution, Learning, and Instinct: 100 Years of the Baldwin Effect. Evolutionary Computation, 4:213-234. http://ai.iit.nrc.ca/baldwin/toc.html.

Wilkins, J. S. (1998). What's in a Meme? Reflections from the perspective of the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/wilkins_js.html.

Wittgenstein, L. (1968). Philosophical investigations. Trans. Anscombe, G.E.M., Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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