Evolution sans Phenotype (aka: RS revisited)

From: Tim Rhodes (proftim@speakeasy.org)
Date: Thu 15 Jun 2006 - 21:11:04 GMT

  • Next message: Robin Faichney: "Re: Evolution sans Phenotype (aka: RS revisited)"

    Hi there!

    I’ve been busy and haven’t been keeping up with the JoM list for the last couple months. So I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that Robin’s comments had provoked a little flurry of quite interesting discussions on a topic near to my heart: memes & their differential transmission across varying representational systems.

    So -- of course – how could I resist piping up and offering my own take on it as well!

    But rather than rehash a month’s worth of e-mails, I’m just going to take a couple of intriguing comments as (re)starting points and leap in from there (assuming for expedience that I can count their previous context as read).

    Kate Distin wrote (on 5/11/06):
    > But I think that you raise a good point about music. You're right, of course: it is
    > totally counterintuitive to say that musica doesn't come across when heard. I
    > transcribe simple pieces for my son all the time, on the basis of my retained
    > memory of hearing them in the past, not of seeing their scores. Had I seen and
    > memorized the written music then I'd be able to replicate it for him. As it is, what he
    > gets is an approximation of the tune he wants, which he can play in C major with
    > his thumbs centered on the piano's middle C. But nonetheless he does get the
    > basics of the tune.
    > So now I am puzzling about this. One option is that music as hummed, sung or
    > played must also be an RS, just as language can be either spoken or written. But
    > I'm not entirely comfortable with this account, because when I hum a note, e.g.
    > middle C, it does not feel intuitively as if I am representing information about middle
    > C. It feels like what I'm humming simply is Middle C. And you have reminded me,
    > quite rightly, that once we start constructing theories which completely
    > undermine/deny the phenomena we set out to explain, we're onto a loser.
    > Another option - which I'm tending towards - is that played/sung music is not
    > representational at all. It is behavioral - by which I mean it's just something that we
    > do, not something that we say. When I copy the tune you have just played or sung,
    > I am imitating your behavior - it's no different from when I copy your way of rolling
    > out pastry or the way you wear your baseball cap. There are of course different
    > levels of imitation, and on this view the imitation of a tune is on pretty much the
    > same level as the imitation of clapping or waving. Strictly speaking we don't really
    > need memetics to account for it, although it is part of a bigger picture in which there
    > are also more complex elements for which memetics is a useful explanation. I think
    > that memetics does leave room for elements of human culture that are non-
    > memetic (in the sense of being just low-level behavioural imitation). Non-
    > representational things in which there is no distinction between information and its
    > effects because they're not 'about' anything, they just are.

    Later (on 5/15/06) Chris Taylor wrote:

    > Cut to memetics: _Any_ argument that has a core component that is contingent on
    > a particular conception of a meme is _doomed to fail_ as classic pointless black-
    > box-ery. We need to abandon this misguided attempt to 'discover' the true nature of
    > a meme -- it is a convenient label to use and it is _not_ always applicable. All we
    > really have are (related but not equitable) patterns in matter and individual minds;
    > patterns expressed in matter (artifacts, sounds, faces, etc.) in the 'extra-mental'
    > world can impact patterns in a mental world (a single mind) and vice versa. That is
    > it. Any attempt to classify further than that, other than as a summary or thumbnail of
    > reality for the purpose of reductionist modeling or general theorizing is misguided at
    > best and fundamentally misleading at worst.
    > Memes are not real. Species are not real. Even genes are not really real tbh. If
    > there are exceptions to a concept, then it is flawed unless it is understood from the
    > outset that it is a convenient 'model' or approximation, for the purpose of analysis.
    > As a sort of an aside in closing, consider the fact that memes (using the thumbnail
    > conception) and genes (another thumbnail tbh) are very likely to be
    > interchangeable in a sense -- if a species whose behaviour is genetically controlled
    > ('hard-wired') evolves a new response, how is that different (except in timescale
    > and the 'choice' of method of transmission) from a meme evolving to produce that
    > behaviour and being passed around?
    > Do we really need to restrict the ideas of memetics (that behaviour, as controlled by
    > 'something', can be heritably [factoring in fidelity of transmission, which has an
    > impact for the memetic and the genetic] impacted by features of the world [a set
    > that includes all other people]) to the province of memes conceived of as most here
    > might define them? Again a flawed conceptualisation that will unnecessarily restrict
    > scope.
    > Artificially restricted scope will produce unrepresentative theory.

    I identify with Kate’s puzzling and agree with much of what Chris has to say. It seems to me the frequent and often grand – but equally misguided – attempts to pin down with laser-like exactitude just what IS and ISN’T a “meme” has lead many great minds astray, often despite the most noblest of intentions.

    Having listened in on debates similar to this for ten years now, I tend to be a strict utilitarian when it comes to the topic of “what constitutes a meme.” When confronted with someone else’s conception of what a meme “is”, my immediate reaction is to ask: What utility does that particular conception offer? And what work can it do? And what are its inherent limitations?

    This is why I take issue with Kate’s later comment (emphasis added) ibid:

    > Now, we humans are so good at doing this - at reconstructing and inferring - that in
    > a sense it doesn't matter whether we call it 'real' replication or not. Much of the
    > same information gets across, whatever the mechanism. Where I maintain that it
    > does matter, is at the level of a theoretical analysis of what's going on here.
    > Because unless you keep the replicator-phenotype distinction sharp then memetics
    > will flounder.
    > I think.

    “I think” indeed!

    And I think I must ask, in return: “What utility does a sharp replicator-phenotype distinction really provide?”

    The attempts to fit cultural evolution into a replicator-phenotype model within memetics have been many & varied over the years and they they’ve produced a wide range of very convoluted thinking & ornate conceptualizations as people tried to fit culture into a box originally designed for biological evolution. And all of them leave me asking the same question, “How’s useful is this particular bit of framing to us, really?”

    Yes, thanks to genetics we are quite accustomed to associating differential replication with the classic replicator-phenotype model – it’s where we learned the concept from, after all! But evolution through differential replication doesn’t, in and of itself, require that the replicators in question must produce a distinct and separate phenotype in order for evolution to take place.

    This may be how we’ve been trained to think about evolutionary systems thus far, and so frames our thinking on the topic, but there is nothing preventing another (non-genetic) evolutionary system from existing in which the selection pressures are practiced upon the replicator itself rather than it’s manifestations or phenotypes. In such a system the line between replicator and phenotype would anything but sharp. In fact, the distinction could be quite muddy indeed – or even completely non-existent, depending on your point of view! (And, moreover, within such a system, would it even be a useful distinction worth making? Could it bare any fruit whatsoever?)

    I believe cultural evolution (aka: memetics) to be one such system.

    To the “Meme-in-Mind”-ists I say: Yes, there’s some in there! And to the “Meme-in-Artifact”-ist I likewise say: Yes, there’s some there too!

    The information under study (meme, if you will) can exist in a multitude of formations. The important – and dare I say, most useful – question(s) worth consideration, as I see it, have more to do with the propensities and limitations that we will find inherent in the information’s movement through these various formations.

    Let me backtrack a bit and make up some symbols & terms to hopefully make myself more clear. (And to really piss off the people that hate new, questionably useful terminology & symbols, at the same time!)

    As primarily a visual thinker, I often find little diagrams far better suited for communicating my ideas than words (more on this topic later), but unfortunately this medium we’re using (e-mail) is not well suited to that particular brand of memetic transfer. So, please, bear with me if you will.

     Let’s say the “classic” model for a memetic replication might be diagramed something like this:


    Where “MEME(parent)” might be something like the parents religion, sports affiliation, or choice of boxers or briefs, and “MEME(child)” would represent the corresponding beliefs, fandom, or underwear preference of their child. (And for me the most interesting part of this particular equation is the “→”, but more on that to come!)

    To some, the above “meme-flow chart” is detailed enough to suit their level of description and useful for all the heavy lifting they’re interested in doing with memetics. (Hi, Richard! Long time no see!) But others, myself included, may find this wanting and need a more robust and detailed conception of memetic replication in order to get at the meaty bits of cultural change we might want to explore.

    And that brings us to the “→”.

    Let’s keep it simple for now. Take the case of:


    I want to conceptualize this entire process of replication as a single unit -- as the “meme being replicated from A to B” process if you will. (WARNING: I’m going to make up a term here and, like it or not, I’m going to use it for a while as I make my point. So you’ve been warned!)

    For argument sake I’m going to call this the “Iteineration* of MEME from A to B”

    [*a sloppy fusion of the words “iteration” & “itineration”, since I feel both concepts conjoin nicely in this particular instance. And to those who bemoan the adding of new terminology to our lexicon -- take heart! This word’s similarity to the others, combined with the widespread use of spell-checkers in e-mail, predict that the term “iteineration” will, ironically, fail to find successful iteineration within the e-mail environment!]

    Okay, with that as out of the way, let me try to offer a different way of conceiving the meme replication process – and one that may open a door to some useful insights.

    Take, for example, a simple letter as our MEME under study: I write a letter to you & you read it. Under a replicator-phenotype conception, we might diagram this as:


    But this is far too simple a conception to be truly useful (IMHO). The sheet of paper with words on it (the phenotype) falls out of this equation on to the floor in an unsatisfactory way. To gain a more nuanced conception of this particular instance of information replication, we might be far better off seeing it as:


    This is a little more accurate depiction of what actually happens. The replication of the meme undergoes not a single me→you iteineration, but is rather seen as the product of the me→text→you iteineration cycle.

    This simple change in viewpoint provides a chance to look at how cultural change & mutations happen in a clearer light, allowing us to ask better questions about the process and its characteristics.

    For instance:

    • Can we construct a list of errors in fidelity common in the iteineration from (me) to (text)? • Are these errors different, in type or frequency, from those common in the iteineration from (text) to (you)? • Might this set of errors (i.e.: possible mutations & fidelity rates) be different than those found in other types of iteinerations? (such as MEME(me)→MEME(music) or MEME(art)→MEME(you) ?) • Do some types of iteinerations show differing fidelity when replicating different subject matter? (For instance, does the me→music→you iteineration show a higher capacity for fidelity in replicating emotional states than the me→text→you iteineration can? (Historical & anecdotal evidence suggests: yes.)

    And that just touches the just the tip of the iceberg!

    The really interesting questions come when you start looking for the properties inherent in each type of iteineration, along with the limitations they impose on the set of possible mutations that can occur, or how limits in fidelity characteristic to certain iteinerations predict that some memes might become more prevalent in some cultures rather than others. Or how a system composed of all those elements, in varying percentages might behave. (And –importantly – what happens to information flow within that system if those percentages are changed as a result of the introduction of new technology.)

    The areas open to exploration once you get out of the replicator-phenotype lock-box are vast!

    A short list of good iteinerations to explore the dynamics surrounding might include:

    MEME(mind1)→MEME(music)→MEME(mind2) MEME(mind1)→MEME(visual art)→MEME(mind2) MEME(mind1)→MEME(behavior)→MEME(mind2) MEME(mind1)→MEME(poetry)→MEME(mind2)

    or, from another aspect:

    MEME(text1) → MEME(mind) → MEME(text2) MEME(music1) → MEME(mind) → MEME(music2)

    or even:

    MEME(text) → MEME(mind) → MEME(music) MEME(music) → MEME(mind) → MEME(visual art) MEME(text) → MEME(mind) → MEME(film)

    You see, by collapsing (or abandoning) the replicator-phenotype duality where memes are concerned one is freed to view the process of cultural replication from either aspect – memes-in-the-mind or memes-in-the-artifact – with equal validity.

    -Tim Rhodes

    p.s. And of course, lest I forget, there’s Dennett’s ever-elusive internal bootstrapping iteineration of: MEME(mind(t))→MEME(mind(t+1)) to be thrown into the mix as well!

    p.p.s I suspect Robin may be able to rephrase much of my above jibberish more clearly in terms of the transformations information is subjected to when moving between representational systems (with the caveat that internal dialogue within the mind itself should also to be seen as its own unique RS) and that human culture is shaped by the nature & interaction of these transformations.

    Tim Rhodes tim@newstylecollective.org Eyes, Ears & Memes, NSC / SIL2K New Style Collective / Strategic Improv Laboratories www.newstylecollective.org / www.sil2k.org

    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit

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