Fwd: The Two Solitudes Of Memetics (was: Re: virus: FAQ: new

Dan Plante (dplante@home.com)
Fri, 18 Jun 1999 13:32:08 -0700

Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 13:32:08 -0700
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: Dan Plante <dplante@home.com>
Subject: Fwd: The Two Solitudes Of Memetics (was: Re: virus: FAQ: new
Message-Id: <19990618203317.BEWR16597.mail.rdc1.bc.home.com@cs347838-a>

>Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 12:44:25 -0700
>To: virus@lucifer.com
>From: Dan Plante <dplante@home.com>
>Subject: Re: virus: FAQ: new questions
>At 07:45 PM 17/06/99 -0400 Eric Boyd wrote:
>Oh. Sorry. I guess the quickest way (for me) would be to quote a
>web-page I just read:

First of all, Eric, I want to thank you for responding quickly to a query
that apparently conveyed intense interest on my part. I also appreciate the
fact that you saved me a lot of "leg work" on this issue with the concise
complement of relevant quotes. As I believe I mentioned before, I have
precious little time for this kind of thing.

Anyway, I read the entire post first, and it quickly became apparent what
the real problem is here. The problem isn't conceptual, but contextual
(AKA: point of view). In other words, both points of view are right (within
their own implicit context), but also both wrong, because they fail to take
other valid points of view into consideration (as with an opening caveat,
for instance). At least, that's my take on it. I'll respond to each of the
parts individually to make the point clear, and send it along to the
memetics list as well.

>#5 Self-centered Selectionism:
>Finally I would like to examine what I believe is a major
>misconception which has found its way into memetics. I shall call this
>misconception Self- centered selectionism. Perhaps Dawkins himself
>provides the most famous example;
>"We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we
>have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can
>rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." (Dawkins [15],
>p 215)
>On the very last page of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins closes his
>argument with a call to overthrow the tyranny of the replicators. In
>doing so it could be claimed that he committed a common, but
>fundamental, error; he assumed there was `someone' beyond the
>constructs of the memes and genes who could do the overthrowing.
>The idea that a Self, beyond the constructs of the genes and memes,
>can select or design memes is what I call `Self-centered

This is correct in that nothing (witnin the context of the analysis of mind
and action) beyond the construct of genes and memes can select or design
memes. The problem I see here is in assuming that the "self" (i.e. the
phenomenon of self-awareness) is not, at least partially, a memeplex, and
therefore _not_ beyond the aforementioned constructs.

>Self- centered selectionists claim to accept the idea
>that memes are the unit of cultural heredity, and even that memes have
>`power' to influence behaviour; but then contradict themselves by
>claiming that it is the `conscious Self' which selects which memes a
>person has in `their' brain. This is the sentiment echoed throughout
>Csikszentmihalyi [14], and Brodie [9]. The `someone' beyond the
>construct of the memes and genes is `consciousness', they claim. It is
>apparent that both of them believe that consciousness has the power to
>select memes in order to fulfil some life goal.

This is correct in that conciousness (self-awareness) has the power to
select memes in order to fulfil some life goal. The problem I see here is
in failing to communicate (or acknowledge) the idea that the self is,
_strictly_ speaking, partially memetic in nature. No attempt seems to be
made to explain the fact that, while yes, the self is, from the point of
view of memetics, a memeplex in itself that can function in a sort of
"filtering and selecting" capacity, it is also, from a individual
subjective point of view, a uniquely distinctive thing that is known as
"the concious self" in the common cultural lexicon, and it is from this
particular point of view, with its attendant contextual language, that the
concept is conveyed.

>"After all, our genetic program, laid down before our ancestors
>achieved consciousness, dictates that we place all our efforts into
>what it takes to replicate our own genes. ... Yet there are also many
>people for whom the goals of survival and reproduction are not
>sufficient. It is for these individuals that the possibility of
>contributing consciously to evolution might be a very attractive
>proposition." (Csikszentmihalyi [14], p 168)
>"You can consciously program yourself with memes that help you with
>whatever you're up to in life. That's one of the main strategy-memes
>in the memetics paradigm. It goes against that strategy to believe
>religious dogma without having consciously chosen it as empowering to
>your own life." (Brodie [9], p188)
>The other idea they both appear to support is akin to the idea of
>`directed mutation'; a paradoxical position whereby mutation that
>occurs is not random, but somehow directed towards some goal. The
>claim that variation is directed by human intentionality appears
>utterly incompatible with the idea of culture as an essentially
>Darwinian evolutionary system.

Again, _strictly speaking_, the dynamics of human culture _is_
completely, utterly evolutionary in nature. But this fails to acknowledge
existing (and perfectly valid, within context) cultural distinctions, where
differences in meaning exist between "natural" and "artifical", as well as
between "evolved" and "directed". The context of the analysis determines
the nature of the distinctions, and since there can be more than one valid
(internally consistent logic) point of view from which to analyse a system,
both points of view must be entertained, and both contextual lexicons must
be correlated, to dispel or prevent erroneous conflicts in meaning.
I'm sure that if James Burke (author of "Connections") were introduced to
the idea of memetics, he would acknowledge each context's distinctions,
make the correlations, and have no conceptual conflicts at all. The key
here is, I believe, to acknowledge the fact of strict evolutionary
supremacy, while at the same time utilizing the readily grasped concept of
a distinct self-awareness (conciousness) to facilitate the communication of
the idea in a _cultural_ context. Dawkins was under no allusions regarding
the intentionality of molecules when he coined the term "selfish gene".

>"At the moment of creation, the meme is part of a conscious process
>directed by human intentionality." (Csikszentmihalyi [14], p 120)
>"In the not-so-distant future, the bulk of our culture will be
>composed of designer viruses. Why? Because now that we know how to do
>it, we will. We will conquer the conceptual landscape as surely as we
>conquered the wilderness. At first, designer viruses will compete with
>cultural viruses for a share of our mind. Soon the old cultural
>viruses will lose, because the natural selection with which they
>evolve is not as quick as the intelligence-directed creation of
>designer viruses." (Brodie [9], p 200)
>The claim that we can intentionally design and choose memes begs the
>question; `why do we need an evolutionary theory at all?'. If the
>processes of meme selection are not `natural', one is perhaps left
>with `conscious foresight' picking and choosing memes towards some
>goal. Even if we ignore the very real issue of consciousness doing
>anything, this is still entirely at odds with the proposal that
>culture is an evolutionary system.
>Given the complexity and variety of life found on Earth it is not
>surprising, perhaps, that in the past people have looked to that
>complexity as evidence for the existence of a God or supreme designer.
>William Paley [31] used the example of finding a watch on a deserted
>heath, and that from the complexity and apparent design of the watch
>one could infer the presence of a designer. By analogy, he claimed,
>because complexity and apparent design exists within nature, nature
>too must have had a designer. Paley was firm in the claim that;
>"Arrangement, disposition of parts, subserviency of means to an end,
>relation of instruments to a use, imply the presence of intelligence
>and mind", and his belief that; "There cannot be design without a
>designer". It is this view which has been roundly defeated by the
>Darwinist revolution within the biological sciences. In biological
>evolution it is unnecessary to posit some external influence, or
>guide, or God which directs evolution along. Natural selection can
>account for the evolution of complexity and design without a designer,
>without foresight.
>If memes are not selected by the same sorts of `natural' processes
>which affect genes, it becomes difficult to understand how memes could
>be said to have `phenotypic power', or any other kind of power for
>that matter. If one believes God meddles in biology, one need not
>posit evolution to explain the forms we find in biology. Likewise, if
>one believes that `consciousness' has the foresight and independence
>to select and direct behaviours towards some goal, one need not posit
>evolution to explain the forms we find in culture.
>People choose memes, but people are constructs of memes and genes. If
>meme theory is to be given serious consideration then we must first
>reject the notion that some `central executive Self' can pick and
>choose among the memes, and refer instead to the sorts of filters
>(c.f. Dennett [19]) which memes and genes have constructed. Dennett
>[19] suggests it is the memes which already occupy the brain which
>influence the brain to accept or reject new memes which come along.
>"But if it is true that human minds are themselves to a very great
>degree the creation of memes, then we cannot sustain the polarity of
>vision with which we have started; it cannot be `memes versus us'
>because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role
>in determining who or what we are. The `independent' mind struggling
>to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth; ..."
>(Dennett [19], p207, original italics)

I would say that it is simply a different (but nevertheless contextually
valid) way of saying the following:

The mind is the emergent source of awareness that rises out of the
interplay between the brain's basic, funtional aspects: intellect, emotion
and memory. Self-awareness, on the other hand, is the emergent that arises
when memory begins to fill with memes, some of which are sensory patterns
derived from the mind percieving itself, rather that just the outside
environment. This establishes the self as the target of the desired results
of individual behaviour. Once the target is identified, emotion(desire)
steers intellect to search for patterns percieved in the environment and
stored in memory that have correlated with instances where desire was
gratified. This process continues, constructing ever more abstract patterns
and associations of patterns in memory (meme complexes), resulting in ever
more complex behaviour, as the mind progresses on its path to zero in on
the locus of attraction that represents the point of maximum
happiness/satisfaction/gratification indicated by the reaction of the
emotion aspect (desires). The more effectively each component does its job
(intellect, emotion, memory), and the more effective the balance of their
dynamic interplay is, the faster, more effectively and more efficiently the
mind can be in identifying and filtering out patterns that cause behaviour
that falls short of, or overshoots, the attractor (unless it misses it by
too much and gets captured by another attractor, producing pathalogical
behaviour), as well as identifying and amplifying/reproducing/varying
patterns that cause behaviour that edges closer to the attractor. This
behaviour should be familiar to anyone who has taken a course in control
systems theory, specifically with respect to
proportional-integral-differential nodes inserted into negative feedback
The point here is that the locus of the attractor, the dynamically
stabilised set-point of mind-meme interaction, is not just an allegory, or
useful model, it quite literally _is_ the self. It is the direct
manifestation of the phenomenon of self-awareness, expressed in functional
(i.e. memetic), rather than neurological terms.

Or, you could just say that a more self-aware mind is more capable of
filtering ideas which affect behaviour that leads to greater happiness and
contentment and less self-destructiveness. It's easy to see that either one
is OK, as long as you realise that they are _both_ OK. Otherwise, you'll
see one as OK, and the other as not OK. You see? OK.

>Understanding the `natural' selection pressures upon memes is of
>fundamental importance to meme theory.

You might also say that explaining the very real phenomenon of concious
thought and decision-making in terms of memetic dynamics is of just as much
fundamental import to meme theory. I'm sure that none of the parties
involved would assert that the very real phenomenon of mind is a "myth" or
an "illusion". It is the very real emergent "thing" that arises out of the
dynamic interplay between the mind and memes, just as the expressed trait
of "flocking" is a very real thing, which is an emergent property of the
dynamic interplay between otherwise invisible behaviourial potentials in
isolated birds, which in turn are, nevertheless, very real behavioural
potentials which emerge from the dynamic interplay between otherwise
innocuous collections of genes in the particular bird species.
Yes, ultimately, I suppose you could make the argument that "all of
existence is simply interactions between subatomic particles, and any
apparent distinctions in observations of the universe are illusory", but
this would then refute the "reality" of higher order complex systems, such
as molecules, cells, animals, memes and culture. I'm sure no one would
refute the very concrete reality of the desk their keyboard rests on. So
what's the problem here?
The problem as I see it, is that both points of view are necessary to
create a non-conflicting, internally consistent picture from our analyses,
which are objective and subjective. These points of view are, in essence,
"reductive" and "synthetic". Therefore, the key to painting the "big
picture" is a process of analysis that is both dualistic and complementary.
Physicists had to come to terms with the wave/particle nature of photons, I
suggest we do the same.

>To attribute selection to
>conscious foresight, ignoring that (short of some kind of
>precognition) foresight does not really exist, not only undermines the
>value of meme theory as an evolutionary process, it is also a kind of
>giving up. Meme selection is already a big enough mystery without
>introducing the complex and enigmatic concept of consciousness. We
>might as well attribute meme selection to magic, for all the progress
>that will achieve.
>{end insert}
>Blackmore (also part of the 'Meme Lab') has very similar ideas -- that
>is what David and I are talking about in that other thread.

Thanks a heap for this, Eric. By the way - what thread? I make it a point
to read all posts (if I can). Maybe I just haven't got to it yet (many


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