Re: what is a meme?

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue 03 Feb 2004 - 06:38:06 GMT

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    At 12:18 PM 03/02/04 +1100, you wrote:
    >Proposing memes as an analogy of genes is doubly deficient. First it
    >suffers from all the problems of explanation via analogy.

    ***********begin quote

    EE Times July 28, 2003

    Marvin Minsky, MIT professor and AI's founding father, says today's artificial-intelligence methods are fine for gluing together two or a few knowledge domains but still miss the "big" AI problem. Indeed, according to Minsky, the missing element is something so big that we can't see it: common sense.

    "To me the problem is how to get common sense into computers," said Minsky.
    "And part of that, it seems to me, is not how to solve any particular problem but how to quickly think of a new way to solve it-perhaps through a change in emotional state-when the usual method doesn't work."

    In his forthcoming book, The Emotion Machine, Minsky shares his accumulated knowledge on how people make use of common sense in the context of discovering that missing cognitive glue. For instance, "scripting," according to Minsky, lets people reuse procedural knowledge in different contexts by tweaking its parameters. Parking your car in an unfamiliar spot is an example: You adapt on the fly using the knowledge base gained in previous parking experiences.

    But "the big feature of human-level intelligence is not what it does when it works but what it does when it's stuck," Minsky said. When faced with novelty, Minsky claims, human intelligence applies "reasoning by analogy" to make the most direct tap into the cognitive glue that fuses knowledge domains.

    Reasoning by analogy is a way of adapting old knowledge, which almost never perfectly matches the present situation, by following a recipe of detecting differences and tweaking parameters. It all happens so quickly that no
    "thinking" seems to be involved.

    *******end quote

    >Has there ever been a scientific breakthrough, even a minor one, resulting
    >from an analogy assumed to hold in a different realm of organised life?
    >Did Darwin argue by analogy in any significant way? What if he had said:
    >'Let's start with chemistry as the basis for an explanation of all life
    >and look in biological life for something analgous to molecules'? Would he
    >have got anywhere?

    Reasoning by analogy takes off from applying (in a sloppy way) something you already know to something you don't understand. Historically chemistry, particularly organic chemistry was not advanced enough to provide insights. It was about 20 years after Darwin figured out natural selection and 7 years after he and Wallace published before Friedrich von Stradonitz realizes that benzene was a ring structure.

    It is not "organized life" but in 1861 Maxwell used a mechanical analogy to derive electromagnetism--which was a major scientific breakthrough More recently quantum chromodynamics was developed by analogies from electrodynamics. (And no, I can't claim more than vague, hand waving understanding of either.)

    >Second the view of genes (as 'selfish') which gave rise to the analogy is
    >highly problematic.

    "Selfish" as you properly put in quotes is a shorthand for a tautology. Genes that do well (mostly by building better survival machines around them) become more common as time goes on. That's all "selfish" means where it is used as a shorthand in evolutionary studies. Hamilton's big contribution of "inclusive fitness" was to show that "selfish" genes could be expected to build animals, humans even, who were so altruistic that they would die to save copies of their genes in relatives. (Like bees do when they sting intruders and die.)

    >Genes are not the core phenomenon of biological life, they are one feature
    >of it. Dawkins himself half indicated why when he wrote about
    >'Rediscovering the Organism' in The Extended Phenotype. What chance has
    >the notion of memes got of explaining social life when it is an analogy of
    >something in biological life of such questionable significance?

    If you go back and read Dawkins on memes:

    "What's so special about genes? The answer is that they are replicators. (page 191, 2nd ed)

    (Next page)

    "The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator."

    So the analogy made here is to genes and memes both being replicators. That means that some of them (genes and memes) will become more common over time due to replication and selection and the ones that do are in this metaphorical and technical sense "selfish." But it's just an outcome of Darwinian evolution expressed in a way that you can't take in the literal sense.

    > No more chance, I would suggest, than the notion that social life is
    > like an organism (this silly analogy has been proposed by more than a few
    > sociologists, most notably by Durkheim).

    I have to agree with you that it does sound silly.

    >The point is, social life is not like anything else - no more so than
    >biological life is like anything else.

    Again I agree on both of these points.

    But just because biological life is unlike anything else does not keep us from understand it all the way down to the bottom and all the way back in time. At the bottom biology is vast numbers of molecular machines running in a energy soup of ATP. We have a rough count on the different kinds of machines in our bodies (about 30,000) from the human genome project. Reconstructing the genetic record we know a lot about when these various classes of these machines first came about and a lot about how they came about (typically duplication and branched evolution). A bunch of them, the hox genes for example, go back to the last common ancestor between worms and crustaceans roughly 550-600 million years ago.

    We have hints that allow us to do *some* reconstruction of past social life. First, hominids were social. Second we are fairly sure that hominids started carrying rocks around (manuports) because rocks good for throwing are found way out from natural sources in strata where early hominid fossils are also found. I think this was about 3.5 to 4 million years ago. A bit later:

    *********Begin quote


    Late Pliocene hominids began manufacturing and utilizing flaked stones c. 26 Ma, and the Gona localities provide the earliest evidence of a high density of stone artefacts from laterally-extensive deposits exposed east and west of the Kada Gona river.

    The beginning of the use of modified stones was a major technological breakthrough which opened windows of opportunities for efective exploitation of available food resources including high nutrient meat and bone marrow from animals. The cut-mark and bone fracture evidence from Bouri provides strong evidence for the incorporation of meat in the diet of Late Pliocene hominids as early as 25 Ma. The sudden appearance of thousands of well-flaked artefacts documented from several localities in this time interval is intriguing.

    It may mean that the beginning of the manufacture and use of flaked-stones was a novel adaptive strategy which appeared abruptly c. 26 Ma and spread through populations quickly. On the other hand, there is a possibility of finding modified stones/and or bones from older deposits if the manufacture and use of flaked stones evolved gradually. Thus far, the evidence is strongly in favour of an abrupt appearance of modified stones in the archaeological record between 2526 Ma or probably a bit earlier.

    ********end quote

    After this burst of rock chipping progress was miserably slow. Without looking it up, I think the next major advance was projectile water hole hunting with "killer Frisbees" that starting about a million years ago. Then we have fire at something like 500,000 years ago. After about 100,000 years ago modern humans started to come on line and things got going a lot faster.

    One of the main things to keep in mind is that human (tribal) culture and the human genome *co evolved,* at least up to about 10,000 years ago when people started farming. After that culture moved faster than the genome could keep up. There are a few exceptions; ending periodic starvation about 300 years ago seems to have changed the gene pool by killing off a lot of the carriers of "thrifty" genes.

    It's late, so I am not going to make push this out, but our society and culture are every bit as much a lineal descendant of those African rock knappers 2.6 million years ago as our hox genes are of the Urbilateria 550 million years ago.

    Keith Henson

    PS. If you have not read William Calvin's books on the subject of human evolution, particularly the expansion of the brain, I strongly recommend them. You can find them on the web with his name.

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