Re: Lamarckism in memetics (Rose and de la C

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Mon, 9 Jun 1997 11:34:02 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 9 Jun 1997 11:34:02 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Lamarckism in memetics (Rose and de la C

I'm going to keeo the old title, but I admit that I'm not sure which thread
is which either. What we really need to do is identify who says what.

The context here is Platonism, and Nick Rose will be opening a can of worms
(his phrase, below). I have some other comments about Platonism and
evolution in answer to one of Price's postings, which I called "Platonic
and non-Platonic evolution."


>>It is a very old idea indeed. It is called "idealism in
>>philosophy, and its founding was Plato.
>I must protest! The position that memes, as replicators,
>manipulate host organisms is about as far away from idealism as
>you can get! Memes are physical instantiations in the brain -
>(e.g. predispositional weightings within the neural net, etc)
>they have to be! The behaviour and cultural artifacts they
>produce also act in the physical world. Idealism, as the claim
>that there is only 'mind' stuff rather than 'matter' stuff, has
>nothing to do with this form of memetic thinking.

TP: Yes, *this* form of memetic thinking, which, as it happens, I share
with you. (As I've said, I'm not a Platonist, but recognize it as a valid
way of seeing the universe.)


>>We have, by assumption, memes that do not change when they are
>>"thought" by people. However, they can alter or change people.
>>How can this be? How can something -- *anything* -- exist that
>>has only effects but is not affected?
>This is a big assumption, and not at all what I mean. Memes, and
>sets of co-adapted memes *must* be able to change for there to be
>any variety in the 'memepool'. It is precisely this variety
>which allows differential survival to naturally select memes.
>Memes *do* change, but it is random mutation, recombination and
>permutation within and between sets of memes, copying error, etc,
>which alters memes - not "conscious agents". What I am saying is
>that memes are not modified or selected by 'consciousness' or
>'individual selves', but by the environment; which includes gene
>built organisms, and other memes.

TP: I agree completely until about the middle of your paragraph. Then I
diverge. Here's why.

We can assume (for analogy's sake, if nothing else) that memes must change
-- "mutate," "recombine," and so forth. But the part about "conscious
agents" apparently NOT being able to change the memes is where I diverge.

First, I'm not sure what you mean by "conscious agent." Let me give an
example. If I learn that fried potato recipe (a convenient example), then
by the time I have made fried potatoes a number of times, I have varied the
recipe both systematically and accidentally. (I tried it with mutton fat
and they were terrible; I used bacon fat, they were better; and so on.)
Now the issue is not with consciousness per se, but with whether the input
meme (from some cookbook or conversation I once had) is genuinely the same
as the meme I am now using when I fry potatoes (or is using me, or
whatever). You see, when you suggest that "gene built organisms" are among
the factors causing meme change, I simply do not see why the organism which
*carries* the memes must be excluded. My own experience is that I *do*
change the memes I have (recipes being an example).

Moreover, if we consider memes as being physically instantiated (or
"represented" somehow) by neural activity, then unless the memes are
Platonic forms, unchanging by definition and essence, they *must* change
during their habitation in my mind. How can they not?

>This is central to any cultural evolutionary theory! To say that
>that 'consciousness' or 'self' can select or modify memes,
>renders the notion of meme evolution invalid.

TP: I disgree. Instead, let me suggest that memetic evolution involves
not only selection events occurring in the broad social environment, but
*also* involves changes induced in the memes by the carrier. This proposal
makes memetic evolution rather unlike genetic evolution, because genes do
NOT thus change, but hey, look, *I* didn't invent the system. I see no
problem that memes are not the complete analogues of genes.

Thus, we can suggest that one *reason* memes change in the person's mind --
by which I mean during their sojourn in their carrier -- is that is one way
social selection *operates* on memes. We imagine an audience of people who
believe the world is flat, and we present them with photographs taken from
outer space showing the world is round. That evidence convinces some
people and not others. The unconvinced ones need to develop reasons why
the earth *looks* round but isn't. This they do, e.g., by producing new
memes, according to which the space photographs are all hoaxes, and so on.
This manoeuvre preserves the viability of the flat-earth memes for those
people. Others, however, grow dubious about the truth of the flat-earth
memes, and begin to *interrogate* their own flat-earth memes.

On several occasions, I've been stressing how important it is to have an
idea of how the memes function. The preceding is an example. What
actually occurs when a listener begins to doubt ideas previously firmly
held and believed? We assume that he or she is alone during the process
(as is not unlikely). At the end of this period of introspection and
thought, the person emerges with a different belief -- that the earth is
round. What has actually occurred?

Did the "flat-earth" meme vanish and die, to be replaced by a new meme, or
did it change to *become* a new meme? The easy answer is that now the
person merely has TWO memes where before there was only one. But the easy
answer does not reflect accurately the nature of thought and introspection.
The person might (for example) now say "The earth is round," proving
thereby that the round-earth meme inhabits his or her mind. But it turns
out that they say so with a mental reservation "... but I don't believe it,
not really." Or they might add mentally "... and you have truly convinced
me." And yet again they might say to themselves "... and I don't know what
to believe."

Behaviorism in psychology ran into the same issue, which, it seems to me,
applies to memetics: how do we tell the difference between these three
sorts of mental process? Let's say we're counting instances of the
flat-earth and round-earth memes in order to see which one is replicating
more effectively. How shall I count these three examples?

So I am suggesting that when we look at how ideas change, we do not see
something as simple as replacement of one meme by another, but a far more
dynamic process. I am not pretending to explain what that process is,
because I do not know, but it seems unlikely to be modelled simply by
removing one ball from an urn and replacing it by another.


NR>The analogy would be to say that biological evolution proceeds, but all the
>selection and mutation is carried out by God!

TP: An idea that has been seriously proposed.


NR>To trade philosophical traditions with you; the notion that memes
>are somehow selected or mutated by conscious agents is a form of
>dualism! If humans are a gene built organism with a meme built
>mind, then there is no need to refer to 'self' or 'consciousness'
>as the starting point for any theory of culture, or even theory
>of mind! This nebulous and ill-defined 'self' which Omar
>believes modifies memes is merely a benign user illusion; an
>illusion we, as memeticists have no need for.

TP: An interesting observation, tempting me to ask where these illusions
come from. Is the experience of self-existence (the "cogito" of Descartes,
also known as the ghost in the machine) itself a meme? If so, then that
particular meme seems to be aware of itself. Are you suggesting that this
self-awareness meme can do *nothing* but observe itself? Or are you (or
someone holding the view just presented) suggesting that the self-awareness
meme is not *really* self-aware until it seizes control of processes that
lead to self-awareness? And if so, where does this non-memetic
self-awareness come from?

Of course, if self-awareness is not a meme, then the theory of memetics
seems distinctly and unpleasantly incomplete as a theory of mental
operations, having been reduced to nothing but a
switch-the-balls-in-the-urns model.


>The central conundrum, as you so rightly put it, is not between
>Platonism and non-Platonism, but between free-will and
>determinism. I'm 'simply' saying that human beings have no
>'free-will' with which to modify a meme.
>(phew! that'll open up a can of worms - cheers Tim)

TP: Indeed it has! And I glad you've done so, because these *are* the
issues that need to be considered.

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