Monday, June 23, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: Key concept of "memes" trashed as "one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades"

Wouldn't you know, Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology agrees with me that memes - hypothetical units of thought that jump from brain to brain, perhaps in accordance with Darwin's theory of natural selection - is a load of nonsense:

I think ‘memetics’ is one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades, hiding in the shadow of respectable evolutionary theory, suggesting that anyone who doesn’t immediately concede to the ‘awesome-ness’ of meme-ness is somehow afraid of evolutionary theory. (June 12, 2008)
Some of us are hoping that respectable evolutionary theory will somehow emerge from the fog of nonsense and Darwin-hype.

Anyway, Downey offers 10 problems with "memetics" (study of memes) which he likens to phrenology (attempting to detect personality via bumps on the head). Here's #7, for example:

7) Trivial examples as analogy to ideological change

A recurring problem in memetics theory is triviality being used to explain serious issues. Although she’s attempting to be funny, Blackmore uses the example of folding toilet paper so that the end forms a point as an example of the global spread of a meme. This example is supposed to explain something serious, like the spread of a religion. The same thing with the example of an advertising jingle. These simplistic examples are then argued to be analogous to something like Christian conversion or the spread of capitalism, as if getting a jingle stuck in your head is like undergoing a major religio-ideological or political-economic social transformation.

Dennett compares memes to lancet flukes, a parasite that takes over the brains of ants so that it can use the body of the ant even though the behavior is suicidal for the ant. He then compares this to ‘dying for an idea,’ whether that ‘idea’ be communism, capitalism, justice, freedom, Catholicism, or Islam. Is ‘Catholicism’ really ‘an idea,’ like an advertising jingle or a concept (like ‘memes’), or is it really something a hell of a lot more complex, including a social system of status, a community, behaviours, multiple ideas, desires, modifications of basic emotions, and a host of other things? That is, is Catholicism (or Islam or communism) like a gene? As a Catholic school boy and an avid reader of Marx, I can, with some confidence, say that neither are ‘an idea’; they are a lot of ideas, behaviors, even social relations, with long histories, marked transformations, and whole social worlds connected to them. We talk about ‘dying for an idea,’ but it’s a sloppy metaphor for what is really much more complex
Mario Beauregard and I talk a fair bit about the concept of memes in The Spiritual Brain. The basic problem is that memes just aren't a clear enough concept to be science.

One really big problem with all these simplistic concepts is that the brain may really be more like an ocean than a machine. Some things - the spread of ideas, for example, - are probably fuzzy by nature, like currents in the water. I guess that's why we call them "currents" of ideas, rather than, for example, "bricks" of ideas.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

Note: The image above is a "Brainbows" image from Neuroanthropology. To learn more about "connectomics" - the connections in the brain - go here."