Re: Replicator article

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun 09 May 2004 - 15:35:03 GMT

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    At 09:22 AM 06/05/04 -0700, you wrote:

    >I'd like to say a few words regarding the discussion of my paper which
    >came up recently on this list. I have been sympathetic to the memetic
    >perspective for a long time, and in some ways still am. The paper was not
    >something I dashed off quickly, but the result of nearly 20 years of
    >reading, writing, and computer modeling devoted to really getting to the
    >bottom of the question: how does culture *really* evolve?

    Human culture memes are like computer viruses in the aspect that they simply don't exist without the hardware substrates. Taking the *long* view, going back to the first surviving examples of meme directed behavior
    (chipped rocks), it seems apparent that there was feedback between memes and genes. Co-evolution, mutual benefit.

    Memes interacted with the human line, making those hominids who could learn the memes more likely to reproduce and to obtain the high energy foods needed to support the energy hungry hardware of a large brain. A computer model going back to the origins of culture would have to include two levels of evolution where both memes *and* genes for better meme capacity would be influencing each others reproduction.

    >Clearly ideas or memes do not consist of, as part of their information
    >content, self-assembly instructions (akin to genetic material), which get
    >carried out to form new copies. If they did, then for one thing,
    >inheritance of acquired characteristics would be prohibited.

    I think it is as much a mistake to force the analogy between memetics and genetics as it is to ignore that there are similarities.

    >But we all know that ideas or memes can inherit changes as they pass from
    >one person to another. If you read this email, you will accommodate it to
    >your own way of thinking, if you tell someone about it you will put your
    >own slant on it, perhaps garnish it with your own insights&.. It acquires
    >characteristics along the way. But that doesn't mean it isn't *evolving*;
    >it is undergoing descent with modification after all. So what is going on

    I don't think it matters how you set up the semantics as long as you understand what is going on. While memes "have a life of their own" they are not independent of the substrate (bodies/brains) built by genetic level. Memes contributing or at least neutral to human genes will (over a long time) become more common or drift. Memes that are really hard on human genes, like the Shakers, will die out for lack of hosts.

    Consider the Children's crusades. Twice large numbers of young people marched out of Germany headed for the Holy land. Virtually none of them came back. You can make the case that there was genetic selection going on here. (Or memetic or both.)

    >In fact, inheritance through a self assembly code came about in biological
    >evolution only after millions of years of inheritance through a more
    >primitive, self-organized form of replication, which is more akin to the
    >form through which culture evolves.

    Again, pushing the analogy is probably not productive.

    >I argue that it is worldviews or minds evolving, not discrete ideas or
    >memes, because a worldview constitutes an integrated, self-modifying,
    >self-healing structure, and that ideas or memes are how a worldview
    >*reveals* or manifests its (ever-changing) structure (like a slice through
    >a log reveals something of the internal structure of the wood, slicing at
    >a different angle reveals something different&). I wont go on to re-write
    >the whole paper here, but just mention that it is not a line of reasoning
    >that can be quickly dismissed after light reading of the title or
    >abstract, and it is better to read the whole paper before leaping to quick
    >assumptions about what it is saying.

    I don't see any problem with differing viewpoints when trying to understand something. Taking a "gene's viewpoint" led to amazing advances in evolutionary biology even when we know a gene doesn't really *have* a viewpoint. In the same way, considering a meme's replication while holding the environment of communicating brains constant leads to significant understanding about the spread of elements of culture. It does not give you the whole picture though because if there is anything we should realize today it is that the meme pool really does change ever more rapidly with time.

    But "worldview," something that genes, memes and environmental cues all contribute too, is more akin to a reformulation of psychology rather than memetics alone. (Not that psychology doesn't *need* it!)

    As some of you are aware, my interest has largely switched from memes to a larger problem; the brain's gene based switches that change biases in human behavior, particularly in the propagation of memes. There is an observed coupling between hard economic times and the spread of xenophobic memes. The logic of how that mechanism came to be selected and its current day application is profoundly disturbing. There are days when I feel like someone who (by some strange flash of insight) has discovered physics
    *after* seeing people who are completely unaware fall off a cliff.

    Keith Henson

    >PS The paper can be obtained in reprint form from the Biology and
    >Philosophy journal website (
    >or in html form from my website (below).
    >Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies, VUB, Brussels Ph:
    >Psychology Department, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-1650 Ph: 510-642-1080

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