FW: [evol-psych] Critique of Memetics

From: William Benzon (bbenzon@mindspring.com)
Date: Thu 17 Oct 2002 - 11:51:19 GMT

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    ------ Forwarded Message
    > From: Herbert Gintis <hgintis@attbi.com>
    > Date: Wed, 16 Oct 2002 16:59:29 -0400
    > To: evolutionary-psychology@yahoogroups.com
    > Subject: [evol-psych] Critique of Memetics
    > I just finished reading Robert Aunger's new book, The Electric Meme. I
    > thought is was a great read, and I recommend it. However, I think it is
    > basically wrong. I thought I would share my reactions with members of this
    > list, in the hopes that they will correct my errors, and point out other
    > problems that I may have overlooked.
    > The Electric Meme
    > Robert Aunger
    > Robert Aunger <bob@robertaunger.net>
    > Genes are little strings of DNA that reside in your body. Genes are always
    > out for themselves, hopping from host to host in a struggle to replicate.
    > Genes do not care about, or promote, the interests of their hosts, except
    > insofar as this increases their replication rate. Replace the word "gene" by
    > "meme" and "little strings of DNA that reside in your body" by "little pieces
    > of thought that reside in your brain," extend the meaning of traditional
    > genetic terms (e.g., phenotype, vehicle, inheritance, mutation, adaptation),
    > and you have Aunger's theory of memetics.
    > Just as we do not choose our genes, so we do not choose our memes. The fact
    > that our memes choose us renders memetics a shocking, counterintuitive theory.
    > "Do we have thoughts, or do they have us?" asks Aunger. "...we are zombies
    > controlled by memes," he says. "That startling idea---that thoughts can think
    > themselves---is the brainstorm behind a new theory called memetics."
    > Aunger does not provide much evidence for this theory. He notes that
    > societies often embrace ideas that are individually and socially
    > destructive, such as eating the brains of dead relatives and slaughtering
    > one's animals while awaiting the coming of a godly savior. Moreover, there
    > are obvious lots of thoughts that make the rounds, like silly jingles and
    > urban legends, that serve no real human purpose but find a welcome home in
    > the human brain.
    > But both evolutionary theory and a wealth of empirical data speak against
    > memetics. The human brain is extremely costly to maintain, requiring a goodly
    > fraction of our caloric intake, and its size required a reorganization of the
    > human birth canal and an extended infancy. The brain must have served some
    > important evolutionary purpose, and could not simply be the repository for
    > memes. And it did. The size and complexity of the human brain permitted the
    > emergence of cumulative culture, and hence cumulative technological change in
    > tool-making and social organization. Moreover, while there are some "sick
    > societies" in which key cultural practices are severely fitness-reducing (see
    > Robert B. Edgerton's 1992 book by that name) by and large dominant cultural
    > forms contribute strongly to individual fitness and social efficiency. The
    > fact that cultural mutations can be fitness-reducing is no more telling than
    > the fact that a genetic mutation can be (indeed usually is) fitness-reducing.
    > Memes are for the most part chosen by people because they believe such memes
    > further their interests and enhance their well-being. Of course, people can
    > be wrong. But those societies whose memes enhance individual fitness and
    > social efficiency are likely to survive, while societies with
    > fitness-reducing memes are not. In short, the idea of SELECTION must be added
    > to a theory of memes if it is to explain the array of cultural forms in
    > societies today and in the past. Tellingly, the term "selection," which is
    > key to Darwinian evolutionary theory, does not even appear in the index of
    > this book.
    > If we add a concept of "selection" to memetic theory, it will ineluctably
    > lead us to gene-culture coevolutionary theory (to which I subscribe) and to
    > which Aunger considers memetics an alternative. The capacity of a meme to
    > replicate depends in large part on the fitness advantage it confers on its
    > human carriers. But this fitness advantage can only be understood on the
    > phenotypic level, as expressed in the behavior of the individuals who express
    > it. This fitness advantage can only be analyzed in terms of how people
    > cooperate and compete in staying alive, producing offspring, and obtaining
    > their daily subsistence and security. This requires a full-scale
    > modeling of family and social organization, and their transformation across
    > time. It also requires modeling the transformation of the human brain,
    > including the emotional system. The key emotional prerequisites to social
    > cooperation---empathy, shame, the predisposition to cooperate and share, the
    > urge to punish noncooperators---simply cannot be analyzed using the
    > impoverished tools of memetics.
    > Herbert Gintis
    > Herbert Gintis
    > Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of
    > Massachusetts
    > External Faculty, Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM
    > 15 Forbes Avenue, Northampton, MA 01060 413-586-7756
    > Recent papers are posted on my <http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~gintis>web
    > site.
    > Get Game Theory Evolving (Princeton, 2000) at
    > <http://www.isbn.nu/0691009430/amazon>Amazon.com.
    > The world of social science is divided into self-sufficient
    > "ethnies" like anthropology and economics...The
    > inhabitants of this world regard other disciplines with a
    > mixture of fear and contempt, and take little interest in
    > what they have to say about questions of mutual interest.
    > Clearly this is not a satisfactory state of affairs.
    > Boyd and Richerson
    > Top Books - Behavioral Sciences
    > http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?tag=darwinanddarwini&path=tg/browse
    > /-/226685
    > Your use of Yahoo! Groups is subject to http://docs.yahoo.com/info/terms/

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