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."


Does a recent discovery in honeybees "prove" that the "selfish gene" exists?

A recent article in Science Daily would have us believe that Richard Dawkins's "selfish gene" (that supposedly drives behaviour) really exists:

Since renowned British biologist Richard Dawkins ("The God Delusion") introduced the concept of the 'selfish gene' in 1976, scientists the world over have hailed the theory as a natural extension to the work of Charles Darwin.

In studying genomes, the word 'selfish' does not refer to the human-describing adjective of self-centered behavior but rather to the blind tendency of genes wanting to continue their existence into the next generation. Ironically, this 'selfish' tendency can appear anything but selfish when the gene does move ahead for selfless and even self-sacrificing reasons.
Here's what researchers, Peter Oxley of the University of Sydney in Australia and University of Western Ontario (Canada) biology professor Graham Thompson actually did: They isolated a region of the honey bee genome that appears responsible for the fact that worker bees (always females) do not mate, but rather leave that task to one among their number who becomes the queen, who spends her life mating with non-working males (drones) and laying eggs. Still,
"This basically provides a validation for a huge body of socio-biology," says Thompson, who adds the completion of Honey Bee Genome Project in 2006 was crucial to this discovery.
Huh? This article is a classic in using just about any finding in nature to try to support a questionable, pre-existing materialist belief - in this case a belief in the "selfish gene" that is supposedly "wanting to continue its existence."

People don't - according to materialist theory - have actual minds, but genes supposedly do? or something?

In the real world, scientists have long inferred that a gene or group of genes is associated with the fact that most female honeybees do not mate but instead gather food and raise the eggs laid by their queen. The identification of the region in which the gene occurs does not provide support for a theory about the "selfish gene," and certainly not for the controversial field of "sociobiology," as applied to explanations of human behaviour. We can look long and hard for any such gene in human beings.

As a scientist friend told me,

Don’t try to make sense of this, it makes no sense at all. Even the modest discovery that they seem to have made, the gene involved in worker sterility, doesn’t seem to be nailed down. It is incredible what you can get away with if you don’t do much but provide some tenuous breath of hope for a doubtful theory associated with Darwinism. In this case, the connection is not logically there, but who cares?
Sounds like good advice to me.
Note: This image is from - the honeybee is the agricultural symbol of the American state of Tennessee.