Re: virus: FAQ: new questions

Dan Plante (
Fri, 18 Jun 1999 12:44:25 -0700

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 selectionism'.

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 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 identified by 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 loops.
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 importance 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. 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 pending).