Re: Giving a presentation on memetics

From: John Wilkins (
Date: Sat 03 Dec 2005 - 01:56:20 GMT

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    On 03/12/2005, at 7:58 AM, Dace wrote:

    >> From: John Wilkins <>
    >> On 30/11/2005, at 6:52 AM, Dace wrote:
    >>> Ben,
    >>>> I'm an undergraduate University student in Derby, England. As
    >>>> part of
    >>>> my coursework for the Philosophy of AI module I am studying, I am
    >>>> giving a presentation on memetics, which is an area of great
    >>>> interest
    >>>> to me.
    >>>> Does anyone have any ideas? Or any advice about the talk in
    >>>> general?
    >>> You might want to bring up the concept of agency. In pursuing
    >>> replication, memes become causative agents within human culture.
    >>> The result is that human agency is displaced by memetic agency.
    >>> Instead of rationally determining what we believe, we let memes
    >>> do our thinking for us. An obvious example is the rise of Nazism
    >>> in Germany following World War I. The Nazi meme successfully
    >>> replicated because it enabled Germans, including Hitler, to expel
    >>> their shame and anxiety by shifting the blame for defeat onto
    >>> Jews, Roma, etc. Just as natural environments select for some
    >>> species over others, the psychological environment of post-
    >>> Versailles Germany selected for the Nazi meme. Wherever human
    >>> agency is displaced, for whatever reason, memes must pick up the
    >>> slack.
    >> I think this is wrong for two reasons - one is that memes are not
    >> agents - they don't "think" any more than genes "strategise".

    > When I say "letting memes do our thinking for us," I'm speaking
    > figuratively. Neither memes nor genes think, but they're both
    > agentic, i.e. "selfish." In pursuing their goal of replication,
    > both play a causal role in their respective fields.

    Then you are replacing one metaphor with another, and in fact it turns out to be the same metaphor. "Goals", "agency", "selfish" are all based on a metaphor with standard human agency, and it fails in evolutionary biology the same way it fails in astronomy. What might be misleading you is the use of game theory - the model of which is the "rational egoist agent", but the *mathematics* of which happily describe genetic evolution where there is no agency, no goals, and no selfishness. The "selfish gene" is a shorthand way of talking about how game theory applies to evolutionary entities, but there is no reason to infer that genes are agents. It's a common error, made even by philosophers (naming no names - some of them are friends).

    Suppose Dawkins had instead written about "The Game Theoretic Gene". Would you be equally inclined to think that genes really *did* play games? Would there be an Evolutionary Chess Player? A Prisoner Gene in a Dilemma? It's only the math that makes the connection, not the semantic connotations. I repeat a quote from Michael Ghiselin, published the year *before* TSG: "The only strategists in evolution are evolutionary biologists. Carrots do not ponder reproductive fitness."
    >> The other is that whether or not agency is involved here (and in
    >> biology many organisms surely are agents with intentions and
    >> goals: the lion wants to catch the gazelle, and equally the
    >> gazelle doesn't want to *be* caught), evolution occurs. An
    >> evolutionary account of culture is irrelevant to the distinct
    >> issue of whether agents are involved.
    > There's no cultural evolution without a shift of agency from meme
    > to person. Like natural evolution, cultural evolution is
    > characterized by punctuated equilibrium. Memes are nothing more
    > than collective habits of thought and behavior. When memes are in
    > charge, culture stays roughly the same. Only when a new meme is
    > unleashed as the result of conscious intervention does culture move
    > forward. As agency shifts back from people to memes, cultural
    > equilibrium is restored.

    I think you are plainly wrong. Institutions, which in my view are not agents in any sensible way, evolve happily. Marriage doesn't decide to act in a particular manner. The Dollar isn't choosing to compete against the Yen. Such outcomes are non-agent results of ordinary evolutionary processes, and yet they are irreducibly cultural. My point, though, is that it really doesn't matter if agents are involved or not - evolution goes on anyway. The reason for this is that agency is not some magical power to foresee the future. Just like a genome, an agent is constrained by Hume's Problem of Induction. And that problem is solved the same way for both.

    John S. Wilkins, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Biohumanities Project
    University of Queensland - Blog:
    "Darwin's theory has no more to do with philosophy than any other
    hypothesis in natural science." Tractatus 4.1122
    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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