Memetics is also a bunch of hooey

Before explaining why memetics is a bunch of hooey, we first must understand what a meme is. A meme is an idea. Nothing more, nothing less. That alone is well worth noting. When someone invents a fancy, new word to use in place of a commonplace, old word, it’s a likely sign that they’re up to something. The new word distracts your attention, and a bad notion slips in while your guard is down.

In this case, the bad notion is that ideas can take action all by themselves. Memes are credited with the ability to “replicate”, to “compete”, to “struggle”, and so forth. If anyone suggested that ideas could do such things, they’d be dismissed as crazy. Ideas replicating themselves? That’s about as likely as my car having a litter of baby cars. Ideas competing to get themselves thought? One might as well say that the vegetables in my fridge are competing to get themselves eaten.

We are told to view memes as similar to organisms, and the mind as the “environment” where they live. To state the thudingly obvious, the mind is not an environment. An environment is simply the set of circumstances that exists in a certain place and time. It is entirely passive. By contrast, the mind thinks and controls itself. There is nothing less like an environment than the human mind.

The notions that memetics depends on are not even well-defined. An organism, such as a fish or a tree, is quite clearly defined. We know exactly what it is. By contrast, it’s not clear whether a certain segment of thought is many ideas, one idea, or part of an idea. How often must a person think a certain idea for that meme to be “surviving” in their mind? And for how long a time must they think it? And how closely related must two ideas be in order for them to be the same meme?

I started a similar thread a couple months ago about evolutionary psychology, but evolutionary psychology at least makes specific and clear claims. If someone claims that there’s a gene which causes a certain behavior, we can search the genome and see whether such a gene exists. But the claim is clear and well-defined, so evolutionary psychology at least qualifies as an honest theory, even though it’s incorrect.

Memetics, by contrast, is just a bunch of meaningless babble. If someone claims that a certain meme exists with a certain frequency, that doesn’t mean anything, so there’s no way to prove or disprove the claim. Calling memetics a pseudoscience would be far too generous.

The final argument against memetics is the most obvious one. In any other field of study, there are actual results. Memetics, by contrast, has contributed nothing whatever to human knowledge.

Dawkins clearly stated that the personification of memes (or genes for that matter) is shorthand for a more complex set of circumstances. I believe he gave an example in one place of how you should really think about it. Thinking that anyone is claiming that memes are actors just shows you don’t understand what they are really saying. Jokes and fads spread rapidly through the population. It is convenient to talk as if they were reproducing, but we all realize that what is really happening is that a person repeats it, another person remembers it, likes it, and repeats it to more people.

Ever hear of earworms? Try not to think about tigers. How active is the mind now?

Have you thoroughly researched the literature to prove that this model has not inspired any useful research? I’m not a psychologist, so I haven’t, but I’m not making any claims.

They are. The vegetables that are more successful are profitable, more of them are grown, and that vegetable is evolutionarily successful.

And “ideas”, or memes or whatever you want to call them aren’t passive, dead things; they are processes that run in the human brain. They affect people’s behavior, even when you aren’t consciously thinking of them ( which is why being objective is so hard); they don’t just sit there.

Wrong again. Environments aren’t passive; an “environment”, in this context includes other forms of life, and even the intentional acts of humans. The mind is an abstract sort of environment, like a simulation, but then so are ideas/memes.

At the very least, it’s a useful metaphor. And it’s quite new; I’d hardly call it a science yet, but neither would I chuck it out as not worth considering. Much of it’s problem is that we can’t yet look at the physical components of memes, or even their low level computational structure, which makes many questions about them difficult to answer. It’s as if we were 18th century people trying to understand a computer by using it, without the ability to list any programs or the fine details of the hardware; we’d be stuck studying the high level, highly abstracted stuff like windows and prompts, and trying to figure out what was behind them.

And ideas/memes fit the characteristics of something that should evolve; they can be copied, they vary, they are selected for differentially. It would be rather shocking if they didn’t.

I suppose congratulations are in order: you’ve managed to bypass the quite common strawman that memes are only “bad” ideas, like religion, while “good” ideas, like science, are presumably not memes at all.

That aside, memes are said to be units of thought, rather like genes are units of heritability. Not all ideas are memes, just ones that cannot be broken down into smaller ideas. Ask yourself, would you really have believed in units of heritability if you lived before Mendel?

These two paragraphs, and most of your post, would read just the same if you replaced meme/idea with gene. How do you manage to differentiate the two?

The distinction between minds and environments is a false one. Just as environments are (from the point of view of the gene), at least in part, made up of other genes, minds are (from the point of view of the meme), at least in part, made up of ideas.

Wrong. Speciation events cannot be identitified as they happen, or with a precise time after they happen.

Nonsense. If I claim that the “Obama would make a better president than McCain” meme (using your definition of memes) exists with, say, 55% frequency, evidence can be gathered to support this claim. Depending on the time of year and the method of data collection, these tests would be called either “polls” or “elections.”

I don’t really have an argument against this one. To my knowledge no one has given a good criterion for distinguishing a unit idea from a composite one. I think of memes as more of an interesting philosophical idea, rather than a hard science.

I’m not really equipped to evaluate its scientific validity, but to me, Susan Blackmore’s argumentation for a meme-gene coevolution, and thus an influence on both genotype and resulting phenotype due to memetic adaptation seems quite cogent and is, at least, a valid scientific hypothesis (which even provides a tentative explanation for our generally oversized brains).

Well, I for one support the OP’s stance.

Let me put it this way.

I don’t think that anyone, on either side of the debate, would argue that memes are as clearly defined as genes or that memetics does or will ever make as many concrete predictions as genetics does.

So the debate comes down to a question of degree; just how loose a term is a meme, and how useful is memetics?

Well, I haven’t seen anything but some statistics and ad hoc explanations.

As for the article that Half Man Half Wit linked; as usual it’s vague, it certainly isn’t a testable theory, and it remains unclear what advantage memetics gives over standard social evolution models.

It would be interesting to see if the idea that “memetics is a bunch of hooey” can survive repeated retellings, perhaps altering during the process of repetition into a form that ensured its own survival.

Memes are, at best, the gene-equivalent in terms of social evolution, but even then there are significant differences between meme and gene (even in a metaphorical sense). They have absolutely no impact on biological evolution.

“Meme” as a concept is really no different than “idea” as a concept. Memes are not naturally selected, they are artificially selected. Meme evolution is more Lamarckian in nature than Darwinian.

Every bad (and good) thing I have to say about memes, I’ve said in this 4-year old thread. Unfortunately, much of that argument had to do with disagreeing with a non-standard argument regarding the nature of memes.

Why? If the ability to reproduce certain memes is advantageous towards reproduction success (let’s say by putting an individual higher up on the social ladder, for example), it seems that the biological facilities enabling an individual to do so ought to be selected for (bigger/more complex brains wired a certain way, more complex vocal apparatus, etc.)…

seen recently on a bumper sticker:

“Memes don’t exist… pass it on…”

In which case, you said yourself what is actually being selected for: bigger / more complex brains, more complex vocal apparatus, etc. There is no way that a meme in and of itself can be selected for or against in a biological fashion. There is no link between any particular meme and the genome (or the phenotype, for that matter).

My understanding of the topic came from a very wise man, and he said,

“What do memes add to the conventional understanding of the propagation of culture? Just this: They remove the element of conscious choice, making the process purely mechanical. Just as natural selection accounts for mankind’s origins without invoking God, meme theory accounts for our cultural edifices without positing a “self”.”

So, unless Cecil’s explanation is totally off the mark, memetics does reject the idea of a human choosing what to like, remember, and repeat. It replaces it with a “mechanical” process in which the conscious decision-making abilities of the human mind play no role.

There may not be a link between individual memes and genes, but what about genes which produce a greater capacity for memetic reproduction? That is, instead of thinking of memes being connected to genes, think of them as influencing each other. The environment of a genome includes memetics, and the environment of memes is definitely affected by genes.

The best analogy I’ve heard is viruses. The main point is, memes aren’t helping their hosts survive and breed, they’re trying to reproduce themselves. So the issue is not whether they affect biological evolution, the issue is whether or not the **memes **evolve.

You assume conscious decision-making is something other than a mechanical transformation of inputs to outputs.

The human self can (possibly) be a mechanism, and certain meme’s can (possibly) be more likely to cause that mechanism to act in a certain way (invoke the desire to transmit meme to others).

I think a better way to think about both biological viruses and meme’s is not that they are trying to reproduce themselves, but rather that the nature of their physical (virus) or abstract (meme) form causes them to reproduce when in an environment that supports their reproduction. That sentence sounds like it might not really be saying anything, and maybe it not. But both situations seem analagous to a ball at the top of a hill, it doesn’t try to get to the bottom, it just does because it’s form and the environment it finds itself in naturally result in rolling down.

I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Mr. Analogy.

Identify some of those genes, and you may have something. In the absence of such, all you’ve got is baseless speculation.

The problem here is that you are now instilling memes with an active will. They aren’t trying to do anything, nor can they. My problem with memetics is that memes are analogues. They are metaphors for an actual process. The problem, however, is that some people have taken them out of the realm of analogy and are treating them as actual entities in their own right, and then using further analogy and metaphor to explain them. You’re trying to argue for a metaphor using a metaphor; it just doesn’t work.

A meme is an idea. That’s all. Ideas live or die based on the will of the individual who is evaluating them. If an idea, be it a tune, joke, concept, political soundbite - whatever, is deemed sound by an individual, that individual will be more likely to pass that idea on to others. Such is the way of knowledge transmission. But that process is entirely dependent on the person, not the idea itself. Ideas spread in society because people choose to spread them, not because they “want” to be replicated.

It seems to me that most memologists (or whatever the heck they’re called) mistake the workings of our brains for some sort of volition on the part of the ideas that pass through them. If something - a catchy tune, for example - gets “stuck in your brain”, that says more about how our brains work than it does the nature of the tune itself. Labeling the tune as a virus-like entity that seeks to reproduce itself does nothing whatsoever to further our understanding of brain function. If anything it mysticizes the process, impeding understanding rather than improving it.

Nitpicking. People, including scientists quite often say that a virus is “trying” to outcompete it’s rivals or that a plant “wants” more sunlight and therefore grows towards it. It’s simply a lot easier and clearer in non-specialist forums than more technically accurate language about tropism and selective pressure; it’s not an attempt to claim that they actually have minds and wills.

And why do people choose to spread them ? Because the ideas appeal to them, and often demand to be spread ( i.e., religion ). And I think you are attributing a lot more rationality and self examination to people than they actually have.

That sounds to me like the kind of argument an old time scientific opponent of Darwin might have made. I don’t see why you need to attribute conscious purpose to memes competing with each other any more than it’s necessary to do so with genes; they don’t need to think to compete.

Well, yes. That’s an important point. Memes (or genes, for that matter) aren’t really trying to do anything. But, simply because they replicate themselves, and there’s a limited amount of resources (food, brainspace, whatever) some of them are going to survive and some not.

I think you’re probably right that it can confuse the issue a lot. While I don’t hang out with many memeticists (memeticians? mementologists?), I’ve met people who have, at best, a fuzzy understanding of memes. But I don’t think that’s utterly damning of the concept as a whole. It means it’s not very well explained, perhaps, but I think there’s some underlying value.

For one thing, there’s the whole issue of free will. Memetics is the only theory* I’ve heard of that proposes a mechanism for why people act the way we do. Without that, you’re left with either some mystical source of free will, or a purely biological explanation, which to my mind does a poor job of coping with nurture as opposed to nature.

Furthermore, I think you’re absolutely right that which songs are infernally catchy tells us more about our minds than about the song. But then, I’d argue that biological genetics tells us as much about the environment as it does about the individual specimen under study. Too be altogether too cute in picking examples, Darwin’s proverbial finches were far more important for what they indicated about evolution than for what they told us about finches.
*in the popular sense

It’s an observable fact that different ideas (and behaviors) spread at different rates through a population. Meme theory is an attempt to explain that fact. Are there other theories to explain it better? I don’t know, but I haven’t read about them. It’s certainly a good idea to point out flaws in meme theory, but without a replacement, how do we explain the differential spread of ideas?

It’s also a good idea to distinguish between popular culture interpretations from the actual science. I certainly wouldn’t want Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to be called hooey because of some peoples’ vague understandings of it.