Re: Polichak on memetics

From: Dace (
Date: Thu 29 May 2003 - 18:09:39 GMT

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    > From:
    > Since I cannot acces this article, I would greatly appreciate its being
    > posted in its entirety.

    So would I. But since I don't have a scanner and don't feel like typing in another 3000 words on top of the fifteen hundred I already typed in, it's probably not going to happen.

    However, I will type in a bit more. Polichak presents a powerful argument against memetics, one which cannot be ignored by those of us who wish to see it taken seriously by the larger scientific community. Until memetics stakes out its own territory, it cannot get a foothold. If it simply provides an alternative explanation for a phenomenon-- transmission of cultural information-- already well accounted for in conventional science, it will remain a fringe science.

    But Polichak's article also comes across as a hit job. He seems to be attacking memetics on every possible front, even where he's clearly in the wrong. You get the sense he's just another reptilian academic defending his turf. Here's a telling excerpt, from pp 47-48 of Skeptic (Vol 6, No. 3):

    Scientific investigation of culture and information processing by humans is still in its infancy. Numerous attempts to examine and model how genes interact with the environment and influence cultural development have been made (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Richerson & Boyd, 1992). These works, as their authors or editors acknowledge, are only beginnings and are necessarily incomplete. We clearly do not yet understand the full extent to which genes and environment can account for human culture and human brain activity. As such is the case, it might seem premature to many to postulate an entirely new class of replicating entities to account for the as-yet-unknown inadequacies of the more widely accepted approaches to the development of the human brain and culture. Yet this has been the method of memeticists from the very start. Dawkins writes, "we do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present. Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over" (1976/1989, 200). Dawkins postulates the existence of a new class of entity, then assumes its existence and decides that we can therefore ignore the effects of genes and biological evolution, whatever they may be. It seems that we should look for conventional survival values for religion, for example, before we decide that it makes any sense to look for non-conventional survival values. Dawkins and his later followers have failed to present any strong evidence that conventional approaches are inadequate. They have instead asserted this as if it were a fact and used this assertion to then assume the existence of memes.

    Here Polichak argues that we shouldn't try to come up with an alternate, evolutionary explanation for human culture when it's still possible that culture will turn out to be a product of our genes interacting with environment. Does he actually believe that cultural developments are in some sense reducible to our genes? Even the arch-reductionist, Dawkins (Mr.
    "Survival Machines"), rejects this ludicrous approach. I think we've gotten past the point where anyone takes seriously the notion that there are genes for hula hoops or wearing baseball caps backwards. Polichak is way out of the loop here, and his credibility is seriously eroded in this passage.

    But his most revealing error is his attack on memetics for its avoidance of the unconscious. Here he is on page 50:

    Cognitive psychologists regularly hypothesize and find evidence for thought processes that are largely or entirely unavailable to conscious introspection. For example, Allbritton and Gerrig (1991) hypothesized that when people read stories with unfavorable outcomes (e.g., a bomb exploding) they are mentally generating alternate outcomes that affect their ability to recognize the actual outcome. These alternate outcomes are not generated in any way of which readers are necessarily aware... With regard to memetics, one can then ask: Does subconscious mental activity (which comprises most of the activity of the brain, Baars, 1988) count as memetic in any way? It does not seem to. The Memetic Lexicon states that "an idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone else to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All transmitted information is memetic" (Grant et al., 1995, 2). Ignoring the inconsistency of this quotation (certainly information can be transmitted without causing someone to repeat it; most information falls into this class), it implies that the mental alternatives generated are not memes, and similarly that most of the mental activity that occurs in the human brain is not memetic. However, difficulties with this position arise when we consider that the consequences of these counterfactual thoughts were demonstrated by Allbritton and Gerrig, suggesting that they were then transmitted.

    In the course of his attempt to refute memetics, Polichak has identified a meme. We might call it the tragedy-counterfactual meme. When we read a story or see a movie with a painful outcome, we generate scenarios in which the character we identify with gets a more favorable outcome. I know exactly what Polichak is refering to, and I've been doing this all my life. The end of Chinatown is a perfect example. If only the bullet had gone a little to the left or the right. Ah, but it's Chinatown, so what can you do?

    What Polichak has identified is a specifically Western meme. Unlike the passive Buddhist, who accepts as inevitable the wheel of suffering and merely tries to escape it, the Westerner can't tolerate painful outcomes. This can have negative consequences in terms of emotional adjustment, but it also produces a more "proactive" culture with greater survival value. Polichak is certainly correct that this cultural habit is transmitted, and it has played an important role in the rise of the West (Guns, Germs, and Steel notwithstanding).

    Just when he thinks he's driving the final nail into the coffin, Polichak reveals the potential of memetics for explaining human culture. The unconscious is the fertile field in which memetics can take root. What is the unconscious but a living fossil of human culture? Memes are specifically those habits that are collective rather than personal. Indeed, we may regard memes as the particles comprising the collective unconscious. This is the portion of our unconscious minds that reflects our cultural background as opposed to our personal habits. Whether personal or collective, what begins consciously is repeated and habitualized in the unconscious. The cultural unconscious is the kingdom of memes.

    The success of consumer capitalism can be ascribed, in part, to its systematic exploitation of our unconscious vulnerability to memes. But we must recognize the two-fold nature of memetic engineering. An ad is just an idea to the people who create it and make money from it. But the ideas of sex and youth and belonging are memes to the consumers who buy into them. What is idea for the engineer is meme for the engineered. Of course, we're all vulnerable to memes, and sometimes even the engineers get taken in by their own creations.

    Culture is primarily a product of human consciousness. But what is conscious today is habit tomorrow. We depend on memes, as we depend on personal habits, to keep our cultures running smoothly without the need for continual, conscious input. Human agency gives way to memetic agency. To claim that all culture is memetic is to make memebots of human beings. Keith doesn't see the distinction between conscious agency and memetic agency because he doesn't recognize human self-determination in the first place. The unfortunate result is to claim for memetics not only culturally-transmitted habits but the intelligent thought that generates them. Memetics becomes a theory of everything and therefore of nothing.


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