Teams of Memes, bursting from the seams

Image courtesy of the googles.

Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back is a lengthy and winding journey. It is characterized (including by its publisher) as a general explanation of the evolution of minds and various peculiar mental functions, consciousness and language being the two most hotly discussed by philosophers, but there’s a better way to read it. As its best, the book is a tour of Dennett’s personal philosophical repertoire, illustrating how ideas from his books and papers fit together.

Dennett’s general theory of the development of genetics stems from his broad theory of memes, where a meme is any informational entity that can be transmitted and replicated. The rough idea is that minds are meme-machines in the way that organisms are gene-machines (in Dawkins’ analogy of the gene’s-eye-view). This is a fruitful analogy, in some respects, though I think it can and should draw some skepticism from readers. I’ll return to those worries later.

The basic building blocks of Dennett’s view are indicated by gestures and short explanations, which is a challenge since he’s spent so much time discussing and arguing for them elsewhere in his work. In any case, there are really two that it is important to understand.

The first is what Dennett calls the Intentional Stance, the eponymous idea in one of his books. Dennett’s view is that we ascribe intentionality (the presence of beliefs, desires, etc.) to systems as a way of predicting their behavior. If I say, “The thermostat wants to keep the room at 72 degrees,” this has predictive power regarding the behavior of that thermostat. It isn’t meant to be an actual account of the thermostat as some entity that has thoughts about whether or not it is cold in my apartment and then makes adjustments, but rather a description that allows us to predict its behavior.

The thermostat example can seem silly, because the behaviors are not so complicated, but when talking about the behavior of countries or organisms or weather patterns the stance is useful, though perhaps a bit imprecise.

In my experience, philosophers of biology and biologists are pretty skeptical of the intentional stance, partly because it makes things sound teleological, and those around biology are (rightly) nervous about those sorts of things. I think Dennett addresses those worries fairly well, and he does acknowledge (from the original presentation through Bacteria to Bach) that the intentional stance isn’t actually talking about thinking thermostats.

The second is probably more familiar to those who know Dennett’s mainstream stuff; what he calls “Darwin’s Strange Inversion of Reasoning.” (The Turing bits in the Atlantic article also appear in the book, and I think are particularly fascinating, but I won’t dwell on them here.) In short, he likes MacKenzie’s slogan: “in order to make a perfect and beautiful machine, it is not a prerequisite to know how to make it.”

The second is now widely accepted within virtually all domains of academia, though Dennett flogs the point a bit in his discussion of the intellectual laziness of the intelligent design folks. In short, there are lots of things that can and are done by organisms without knowledge of precisely how they do them; things from forming sentences and ascribing moods to anticipating the movements of traffic and organizing novel tasks.

Memes are informational entities that want (under the intentional stance) to be transmitted and replicated. In order to facilitate this replication, they do something interesting. They stick together to develop more and more complex memes and meme-structures, and proliferate through the natural world, building up in complexity. Like genes under Dawkins’ story of evolution, just by performing this simple task of replication and transmission, they wind up developing into more and more sophisticated sentences.

Dennett is particularly fond of the linguistic cases, and for good reason; phonemes become words, and words become sentences, and sentences develop into even more complex entities and allow for the expression and formation of other (non-linguistic) memes. In fact, the development of natural languages is basically the paradigm case of Dennett’s view. These memes, through the natural processes of their promiscuity, create these complex entities that are the explanatory object of Dennett’s book: culture, language, and consciousness.

There are a few worries for the argument advanced in the course of this discussion. The first is that it isn’t really clear how much of a journey over these phenomena Dennett’s story offers. Surely, Dennett offers a framework for the explanation of these phenomena, but that’s not really the same as the sort of developed story the project description suggests… then again, that sort of project would be “ambitious,” to borrow the euphemism for “completely ridiculous” my polite Kiwi thesis advisor prefers.

The more serious worries fall into two camps. The first is a general critique of the general approach to the genes-eye-view/memes-eye-view approach, a line of argument with which I’ve familiarized myself after sharing an office with an unabashed Gould-ite. (Sadly, Okasha’s criticism is paywalled… but for those with academic access, it’s very good.)

One version goes like this: while it’s useful to talk about the role of lower level constituents in advancing selection, that story only takes you so far. The genes and memes can do lots of things, they can be ambitious and promiscuous and ubiquitous, and still get suppressed or even destroyed by certain high-level phenomena exerting selection pressures, like diseases killing off their respective hosts. I don’t think this is really a slamming critique of either Dawkins or Dennett as much as pointing out that their story can’t be complete. There’s other stuff that has to be included that won’t be mapped adequately.

The second worry is really my own; memes are interesting, to be sure, but they’re so broadly defined on Dennett’s view that they really are just a basic functional description. As a result, it seems hard to say much that’s really deep about them. Even very abstract views making using of general concepts, like Dretske’s use of information give a clearer sense of the prospective application.

Lots of the things that are memes (e.g. words, musical riffs, gestures) have interesting features; the thing is, they don’t seem to have any of those features (beyond the definitional notion of their copy-ability) in virtue of their being memes.

Some of those features are importantly different, result in sameness across token instances or transformations from one token to another. It is hard for me to see what the upshot of memetics beyond on a few general corollaries, and some of the corollaries (e.g. features of language like compositionality) aren’t going to be true for certain domains (e.g. cultures). At that point, why not just acknowledge that the approach is best handled through the diverse scientific and social scientific domains that work on the individual phenomena? Seems more practical.

This objection leaves me in an odd position. On the one hand, I find the idea that we ought to pursue something like “memetics” unconvincing, because I’m not sure it does anything except point out a similarity between diverse, clearly applicable disciplines like linguistics, physical and cultural anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and so on. On the other, I find Dennett’s perspective on these issues incredibly useful and interesting. Even where I disagree with him, he is one of the most important philosophers in recent history, and the book is a nice mash-up of his greatest hits.

I am fortunate to be a part of a community that includes some of the best up-and-comers in philosophy of biology (as well as some veterans, but they didn’t help me out with this); special thanks to my colleagues Celso Neto and Alison McConwell, who talked through some of this stuff with me as I was reading the book.


  1. kaleberg says

    I think memes are at the wrong level. We know that the brain is good at recording spatio-temporal trajectories which can traverse physical or semantic space. We also know that the brain is good at using these mechanisms for pursuing goals. In that sense, I can see something like a meme being very basic in the way we think. Sure, there are generative and selection mechanisms, it isn’t clear how these components aggregate or even if they do.

    Maybe there will be something meme-like that will prove incredibly useful in understanding brain function, but I’m not sure we are ready to be talking about memes yet.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    It is hard for me to see what the upshot of memetics beyond on a few general corollaries…

    Hard for me, too. Couldya clarify this one, please?

  3. chigau (違う) says

    “meme” has never been a usefull … thing.
    Actual Real Anthropologists have had this covered for decades.

  4. says

    @kaleberg, I actually think this is already explored at some length in Paul Churchland’s account of using vector spaces to map neurological processing of information. It’s a bit more technical and specific than anything Dennett does (and that’s part of Dennett’s design, because meme’s don’t just get picked up by brains), but I strongly recommend Plato’s Camera as a way of considering how a more specific neuroscientific and philosophical theory might accommodate the sort of things you’re talking about.

    @Pierce, I’m not sure exactly what sort of clarification you mean, but by general corollaries I have in mind something like this. “Memes are more likely to achieve reproductive success if they’re joined with other memes to form complexes” and “some simpler memes are parts (in the metaphysical and practical senses) of other memes.” You can get stratification of some sorts of memes as a result of the second, for example, but like the compositionality cases in linguistics (where phonemes make up words that make up phrases that make up sentences) those observations are all domain specific. The “general corollary” winds up not being nearly as interesting as the specific instances and the exceptions, which all seem to fall outside of the scope of “memetics.”

  5. says

    Whoa, stop the presses (as if that’s possible). Whose blog/writing is it that appears on the front page of PZ’s site? There’s no introductory precis by PZ, but I read the entire piece hearing his voice (gotta admit, I took it rather strange at times). It was only after I scrolled-down the the comments and discovered that it was a piece by a fellow who goes by “Philosotroll” (not a bad alias, that). Yet I can’t help feeling a bit deceived.
    On the bright side, I didn’t get shot at a country music concert in Vegas, so there’s that.

  6. chrislawson says

    I first read The Selfish Gene not long after it was published and I remember being absolutely amazed by Dawkins’ discussion about memes. It really is an extraordinary and profound analogy. The problem is that the concept of memes borrows from genetics without having a solid basis in physical evidence, which means that barring some massive and currently unforeseeable future developments in neuroscience, it can never be more than an analogy.

    At the time of The Selfish Gene we already knew a huge amount about what genes were, what they were made of, how they were copied, how they mutated, how they were encoded, how they ebbed and flowed in populations, and in many cases we could even point to specific selection pressures that led to gene propagation or extinction. Obviously this knowledge was not complete (and never will be), but we knew enough to develop powerful theories linking genetics and evolution. But none of that baseline information is known for memes and it is extraordinarily unlikely that the mechanisms of memetic reproduction share much with the mechanisms of genetic reproduction.

    (Dawkins was aware of this btw — he wrote quite explicitly of the limitations of the meme concept in the book. )

  7. chrislawson says

    I should add that I adore Dennett’s thoughtful writing. I suspect that his basic problem is that he is trying to solve a massively difficult concept (how minds evolved) at least a century before we have the research base to achieve any truly effective theories. It’s like trying to model quantum entanglement using Maxwell’s equations. Good on him for trying, though.

  8. Corey Fisher says

    On pursuing memetics: I’m not sure how feasible it would be to do (memes can be messy), but if we developed a logic to reason about memetics, the fact that it is so broad could be fairly useful – with a fairly relaxed definition of memes, any properties we could deduce about memes in general would be applicable to all the areas that use them. I’m not as familiar with the intricacies of using logic to describe real-world systems rather than formal ones, so I’d be curious to hear how difficult or how useful of a project this could be from someone with more experience.

  9. says

    @Scott, duly noted. I’ll make sure to include a precis up top in the future.

    @Chris, I agree about Dennett’s writing. I’m not sure I agree that the problem has to do with timing. The worry I raise has to do more with the broad principle and a worry about granularity, which is likely to persist even as the relevant scientific theory improves.

    @Corey, I think there are pretty serious problems with applying a logic to domains this broad. Bas van Fraassen has discussed these sorts of things in more specific domains like quantum mechanics (and they’ve been applied to other fields by others) and the result is that you do need pretty different systems to handle different real-world issues. (Which isn’t a big deal for logicians; logic is a pluralistic discipline.) I suspect that this makes the granularity issue I raise much more serious.

  10. DonDueed says

    This remark will echo some of the above comments, but I swear I hadn’t read those before formulating it.

    The status of memetics today reminds me of that of “continental drift” prior to our more recent understanding of plate tectonics. It was a great idea with some compelling evidence to back it up, but there was no underlying mechanism that explained how it could have happened.

    If memes are real (not just an abstraction) we’ll need a better understanding of brains before memetics is more than a great idea.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    Would a better understanding of brains really help? When we talk about memes that increase the ability to survive and thrive, it seems as if we’re talking more about entire cultures than about individuals. If I, individually, adopt the meme that says that I should fight to the death to protect my tribe, and I’m the only one with the meme, then it’s just going to get me killed. But if most people in my culture adopt the meme, then the culture that supports the meme is likely to expand by conquering other tribes. But how can that be measured scientifically? I’m sure I don’t know. The closest discipline that could help might be computer modeling, but that’s really fancy guesswork.

    But I share the idea that this is an idea that can be hugely influential in how we look at the world. It’s not provable, but a reasonable place to start would be the premise that any meme that shows up independently in many cultures around the world probably confers a benefit upon those cultures. Speculating on what that benefit might be does risk ‘just-so’ stories, it’s true. But it becomes powerful because it can help us determine whether the conditions that favored the meme originally still apply today — or whether we can discard the meme because technological change has made the meme’s advantages obsolete.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    philosotroll @ # 4 – Apologies for the lag in replying, but obviously I made my comment too brief.

    Your clarification helps, a bit, but I meant to point out the statement I quoted was and is a grammatical and syntactical trainwreck.