Saturday, June 21, 2008

Evolutionary psychology: The "meme" generates a fruitful hoax, if nothing else

In some detail, Mario Beauregard and I discussed Richard Dawkins's 1976 notion of "memes" - hypothetical units of thought that replicate themselves by spreading from brain to brain, possibly governed by Darwinian natural selection. As Dawkins explains it,

Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over. We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help. All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capacity to the full. (P. 218, quoting Dawkins's the Selfish Gene, 1976 pp. 214-15)
Not surprisingly, given the materialist mindset that spawned the concept, it was soon pressed into service to "explain" religion. This from Susan Blackmore, Dawkins's standardbearer for the meme theory:

When we look at religions from a meme’s eye view we can understand why they have been so successful. These religious memes did not set out with an intention to succeed. They were just behaviours, ideas and stories that were copied from one person to another in the long history of human attempts to understand the world. They were successful because they happened to come together into mutually supportive gangs that included all the right tricks to keep them safely stored in millions of brains, books and buildings, and repeatedly passed on to more. (P. 219, quoting Blackmore's The Meme Machine, 1999, p. 192)
As we noted, "Like almost everyone who shares her views, Blackmore exempts science from the roster of deceitful meme gangs. She is sure that what she does is science. And what she likes best about science is that it is testable. Religious theories, by contrast, can thrive “in spite of being untrue, ugly, or cruel.” Well, are memes or memeplexes testable? Could we know if they
were not a correct explanation?

Not likely. It's not even clear what the concept means. We know that genes exist and we have even mapped the genome, but the meme is too vague a concept to generate anything except speculation, good graphics, culture vignettes - and hoaxes.

One hoax was perpetrated by Oxford poli sci prof John Gray. As explained by Bryan Appleyard in "John Gray's apocalypse" (Sunday Times, June 24, 1994). The ergoneme was supposedly a discovery of "widely ignored Hungarian thinker named L Revai," who never existed, except in the imagination of Gray, who reviewed his mythical book "The Word as Deed: Studies in the Labour Theory of Meaning" in 1989 (paywall). Says Appleyard,

It is a sign of Gray’s remarkable prescience that one of Revai’s “discoveries” was the “ergoneme”, a primitive atom of meaning that exactly anticipates Richard Dawkins’s idea of memes. “I intended it as a joke, but, sadly, he doesn’t. I intended to create something as far away from genuine science as possible, something akin to creationism or alchemy.”

Only one reader was not taken in. The intellectual historian Isaiah Berlin simply said: “Too perfect, my boy, some kind of spoof.”
Yet many people wrote to Gray, claiming to know Revai.

Neuroscientist's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" hoax

By the way, neuroscientist Vilanayur Ramachandran also perpetrated an evolutionary psychology hoax paper on the theme of "Why Gentlemen Prefer Blondes." Many refused to believe it was a hoax, or defended the basic idea.

In summary, I suggest that gentlemen prefer blondes in order to enable them to detect the early signs of parasitic infestation and aging – both of which indirectly reduce fertility and offspring viability. Although originally intended as a satire on ad hoc sociobiological theories of human mate-selection, I soon came to realize that this idea is at least as viable as many other theories of mate choice that are currently in vogue. - Med Hypotheses. 1997 Jan;48(1):19-20
That's not surprising. It sounds exactly like many other evolutionary psychology papers, and some rresearchers continue to defend the ongoing nonsense.

As Ben Goldacre says in a fun but thoughtful post in Bad Science (which features many other examples of total balderdash),

Fine. Neat. Perfect. Everything fits when you find your hypothesis in your results.
As I have said elsewhere, not all evolutionary psychology is nonsense. But 95% of it is. And generally, the more trendy it is, the more likely it is to be nonsense.

The image above is from Memes Org - through a memetic lens who offer this definition of a meme:

A meme is any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea,
that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to

A meme is defined within memetic theory as a unit of cultural information, cultural evolution or diffusion that propagates from one mind to another analogously to the way in which a gene propagates from one organism to another as a unit of genetic information and of biological evolution. Multiple memes may propagate as cooperative groups called memeplexes (meme complexes).

Actually, there is nothing wrong with this sort of fun as popular culture. Trying to shoehorn it into serious science is where the nonsense begins.

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