Re: virus: FAQ: new questions

Eric Boyd (
Thu, 17 Jun 1999 19:45:21 -0400


Dan Plante <> writes:
Yeah, but mention it to me first, Eric. I'm not exactly sure what you mean.

Oh. Sorry. I guess the quickest way (for me) would be to quote a web-page I just read:

begin insert:
Controversies in Meme Theory
Nick Rose
Department of Psychology
University of the West of England, Bristol. UK. and the `Meme Lab'. }

#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 selectionism'. 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.

"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.

"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)

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