Re: Polichak on memetics

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Fri 30 May 2003 - 04:10:09 GMT

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    At 11:09 AM 29/05/03 -0700, Dace wrote:


    >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

    That's sure what it sounds like. :-)

    >Here's a telling excerpt, from pp 47-48 of Skeptic (Vol 6, No. 3):


    >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.

    Considering who Dawkins is, that is a really ridiculous statement to make. Also "take over" is in the sense that culture will evolve faster than genes to, something few would argue against.

    >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

    In a sense he is right. Genes build humans that can accumulate the extra genetic information (memes) that in total make up culture. The humans get the information ultimately from other humans or the 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.

    Of course not. But genes did build human minds that do take up fads. Exactly what those fads are is not controled by genes, but I would bet long odds there are limits on the kinds of things that are likely to become fads.

    >Polichak is way out of
    >the loop here, and his credibility is seriously eroded in this passage.



    >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.

    You might be right here, but I could use some concrete examples.

    >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.

    Certainly happens often enough for cult leaders.

    >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.

    I don't see why you make such a claim. Would it help if I were to state that cultural elements are culturgens? The vast majority of memes we learn
    (or are infected with if you would prefer the paranoid view) are just plain
    *useful.* They are in the class of tying an extra knot in the bow of shoelaces to keep the laces from coming untied so quickly and tripping you. Or the rule about the result of multiplying a number of nine and under by nine.

    >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.

    Re human self-determination, I am with Marvin Minsky on this subject. It does not matter that the laws of physics require everything to be either causal or random, we (and that includes me) are constructed to think and act as if we have self-determinism.

    At the surface level, memetics is about the class of replicators that have to reside in a human brain to have influence, just as genes and computer viruses have to be in their proper environments to have effect.

    Now it is not hard to understand the mechanics of how both genes and computer viruses work, but we have a ways to go to understand why memes, particularly the ones that are not useful, exist in a lot of human minds.

    That's where I think the interesting front is in memetics.

    Keith Henson

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