Monday, June 12, 2017

Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett

This is the final post in a old series (from four years ago) on memes, cultural evolution, and the thought of Daniel Dennett. You can download a PDF of the whole series HERE. The abstract and introduction are below.

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Abstract: Philosopher Dan Dennett’s conception of the active meme, moving about from brain to brain, is physically impossible and conceptually empty. It amounts to cultural preformationism. As the cultural analogue to genes, memes are best characterized as the culturally active properties of things, events, and processes in the external world. Memes are physically embodied in a substrate. The cultural analogue to the phenotype can be called an ideotype; ideotypes are mental entities existing in the minds of individual humans. Memes serve as targets for designing and fabricating artifacts, as couplers to synchronize and coordinate human interaction, and as designators (Saussaurian signifiers). Cultural change is driven by the movement of memes between populations with significantly different cultural practices understood through different populations of ideotypes.

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Introduction: Taming the Wild Meme

These notes contain my most recent thinking on cultural evolution, an interest that goes back to my dissertation days in the 1970s at the State University of New York at Buffalo. My dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978), included a chapter on narrative, “From Ape to Essence and the Evolution of Tales,” (subsequently published as “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self”). But that early work didn’t focus on the process of cultural evolution. Rather, it was about the unfolding of ever more sophisticated cultural forms–an interest I shared with my teacher, the late David G. Hays.

My current line of investigation is very much about process, the standard evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention as applied to cultural forms, rather than living forms. I began that work in the mid-1990s and took my cue from Hays, as I explain in the section below, “What's a meme? Where I got my conception”. At the end of the decade I had drafted a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic 2001), in which I arrived at pretty much my current conception, but only with respect to music: music memes are the culturally active properties musical sound.

I didn’t generalize the argument to language until I prepared a series of posts conceived as background to a (rather long and detailed) post I wrote for the National Humanities Institute in 2010: Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities (PDF HERE). But I didn’t actually advance this conception in that post. Rather, I tucked it into an extensive series of background posts that I posted at New Savanna prior to posting my main article. That’s where, using the emic/etic distinction, I first advanced the completely general idea that memes are observable properties of objects and things that are culturally active. I’ve collected that series of posts into a single downloadable PDF: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2.

But I still had doubts about that position. Though the last three of those background posts were about language, I still had reservations. The problem was meaning: If that conception was correct, then word meanings could not possibly be memetic. Did I really want to argue that?

The upshot of this current series of notes is that, yes, I really want to argue it. And I have done at some length while using several articles by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as my foil. For the most part I focus on figuring out what kinds of entities play the role of memes, but toward the end, “Cultural Evolution, So What?”, I have a few remarks about long-term dynamics, that is, about cultural change.

Dennett’s Memes

Dennett’s account of memes can be typified by two brief passages. The first is the fifth and last footnote in From Typo to Thinko: When Evolution Graduated to Semantic Norms:
There is considerable debate among memeticists about whether memes should be defined as brain-structures, or as behaviors, or some other presumably well-anchored concreta, but I think the case is still overwhelming for defining memes abstractly, in terms of information worth copying (however embodied) since it is the information that determines how much design work or R and D doesn’t have to be re-done. That is why a wagon with spoked wheels carries the idea of a wagon with spoked wheels as well as any mind or brain could carry it.
That memes are information is central to Dennett’s meme doctrine, which follows from a similar idea in biology, that genes are information.

My problem is this: a signal can be said to carry information only with respect to a device that can read and/or write and interpret that information. Biologists know a great deal about the relevant biological mechanisms and, while psychologists do know a great deal about psychological and neuropsychological information processing, Dennett has little to say about that. For the most part “information processing” is a promissory note that Dennett is passing on to others to fulfill.

What Dennett does say about “information processing” is bound-up in a computational metaphor, such as this one in The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools (Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology, Volume LXXIV, pp. 1-7, 2009). p. 5:
Similarly, when you acquire a language, you install, without realizing it, a Virtual Machine that enables others to send you not just data, but other virtual machines, without their needing to know anything about how your brain works.
Those other “virtual machines”–sometimes conceived as computer viruses, sometimes as benign apps–are memes. Dennett frequently endows these memes with agency, though a bit less so in his more recent publications, such as this one, and imagines them travelling around from one brain to another, looking for neural real estate they can occupy.

In the first place, computer software is created by programmers who have extensive knowledge about the platform for which they are coding software; they can thus “design from above” in a way that  is not possible for language. Dennett knows this, but mostly just shrugs if off by observing that, after all, humans did evolve without benefit of a designer, and we do speak. Nor does he pay any attention to the fact whereas humans install software in computers through a relatively simple procedure; language is acquired slowly over a decade or more.

Most of my criticisms address these issues, and do so in some detail (e.g. “Culture Memes Information WTF!”, “The Memetic Mind, Not: Where Dennett Goes Wrong”, and “Information WTF 2: The Candy Itself”).

Cultural Evolution, Some Concepts

In process I further articulate my own position, introducing and explicating my current terminology in ”Cultural Evolution: Some Terminology”:
meme: the observable properties of objects, events, or processes that are culturally active; the cultural analog to the biological gene.

substrate: the physical object, event, or process in which culturally active properties (i.e. memes) are said to inhere.

ideotype: the cultural analog to the biological phenotype. Ideotypes are mental constructs arising in minds as brains engage with memes.
Much of my argument against Dennett is that the objects he calls memes are the objects I’m now calling ideotypes, an observation I explicate in detail in “Dennett’s Preformationist Memetics”.

Note that I DO NOT treat physical artifacts as memes nor, obviously, do I treat them as ideotypes (which are, by definition, entities in people’s minds). Culture’s physical artifacts need no more of an explanation than the explanation we give for termite’s nests or beaver dams. Culture exists in minds and that’s what we have to account for. Physical artifacts enter minds through observable qualities, some of which are memes, though not all observable qualities are memetic.

In “Memes as Data: Targets, Couplers, and Designators” I finally assimilate my view to a standard conception of “information processing”: computation. Computers, both abstract and real, operate on data. Some bits of data are special in that they directly influence processing by supplying the values of operating parameters. Memes are data of that type.

Concerning memes as targets: For example, assume that you want to make a stone ax head of the standard sort. Using an existing ax head as a model, you can treat its size and shape as targets against which one can judge progress in fabricating a new ax head. In this case a target is a parameter in a fabrication procedure that defines some aspect of the fabricated object.

In cybernetic terms, a target is a reference level for a control system. As such, perceptual targets are ubiquitous in animal behavior. But those targets are not specified by and given meaning by a matrix of cultural practices. They are not memes. But the target function is the psychological function on which evolution “bootstraps” complex culture into humans.

Memes as couplers come into play in real-time interaction between one or more people. When soldier’s march in step the rate and length of their strides couple their motions together into a coherent ensemble. The conventions of the blues, or of a particular raga, are more complex couplers. Conversational turn taking is a coupling function too.

And that brings us to language and to memes as designators. The prime example here is the Saussurian signifier but not, I repeat NOT, the signified. And THAT’s Dennett’s problem in a nutshell. As signs, words consist of BOTH a signifier and a signified, but Dennett gives no attention to the distinction. From his point of view, as a thinker standing completely outside the language system, both signifier and signified are equally subject to cultural conventions, which of course they are. But those conventions play very different roles within the language system and are realized through different mechanisms.

Signifieds exist in the public domain where all can hear and see them. In contrast, signifiers exist in individual minds and, as the linguist William Croft points out, “getting speaker and hearer to converge on the same meaning is a problem, precisely because our thoughts cannot leave out heads” (Explaining Language Change, 2000, p. 111). Dennett simply dissolves this deep problem by characterizing language and culture in such a way that the problem cannot arise. Those Dennettian memes flit about from head to head all the time and remain unchanged. Convergence on meaning is thus given in the mechanism Dennett specifies.

Sure, as a practical matter Dennett knows that people misunderstand one another all the time, and that reaching agreement is often difficult, if not impossible. But the memetic theory he has so far proposed, such as it is, has no way of accounting for this. Thus his conception of cultural conventions is all but empty as it simply declares their existence from a transcendental point outside the system.

Stability and Change

Once the roles and the terminology (memes: targets, couplers, designators) are all in place I finally get around to, well, you know, cultural evolution, first in “How Do We Account for the History of the Meme Concept?” and then in my final post, “Cultural Evolution, So What?”

That first post builds on Jeremy Burman’s 2012 article, “The misunderstanding of memes” (Persepctives on Science, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 75-104). I extended his argument by offering an explicit model for the mind (cognitive networks). Burman argued that the meme concept changed from its original metaphorical sense in Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) to the active flitting homonculus when Dennett and Hofstadter recast and reordered Dawkins’s word in their edited collection, The Mind’s I (1982). That’s the concept that appealed to the public and to journalists.

I open my final argument by recalling remarks Dawkins made early in The Selfish Gene, where he argued that evolutionary change can only take place against a background of stable inheritance from one generation to the next. I then argue that cultural change happens when memes and, of course, assemblages of memes, cross from one population to another. That, in effect, is what Burman had argued. I offer another example by looking at a few performances of “Tutti Frutti”: Little Richard’s original performance in 1955, Pat Boone’s 1956 cover, and a much later performance by Queen (1986). Something had changed between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s.

Of course “Tutti Frutti” is but a single case from among that tens of thousands that make up the music known as rocka and roll, and then simply as rock. And rock and roll is but one genre if a whole ecosystem of popular 20th century styles turning on musical borrowing and reworkings between African-descendents European descendents, a cultural mixing that has, of course, European parallels (Queen, after all, is a British band). This cultural process has been described and examined in thousands journalistic and academic histories and commentaries, but it has not been well explained.

Are we now in a position to do better? That remains to be seen.

Replicators, Not

I suppose I should say a word about the notion of “replicators” The fact is, I no longer find the term very useful. To be sure, it’s the topic of an early post: “Roles in Cultural Selection: Replicators, Interactors, and Beneficiaries, or, Where’s the Memes?” Both Dawkins, who coined the term, and Dennett use it as a core term: memes are replicators. But the notion of replication doesn’t get at the core mechanisms of cultural interaction as I’ve come to understand them.

I note as well that the concept of replication has proven to be problematic both within biology and in culture. John Wilkins has made some useful remarks about this in his response to the paper I posted at the National Humanities Center blog, On the Human. You might also consult a useful review by Peter Godfrey-Smith, “The Replicator in Retrospect”, Biology and Philosophy 15 (2000): 403-423.

More specifically, consider some exemplary wheel. That it is the source of target memes in the creation of other wheels means that those wheels will be copies of the example. The example wheel will have been replicated. But to focus on the wheel as a replicating entity is to miss the mechanisms by which that happens. That mechanism requires target values; those values are supplied by memes.

And so it goes with couplers and designators. Those types of memes play roles in certain kinds of (cultural) interactions between people. To the extent that those interactions are mutually satisfactory to the participlants, they will continue. The memes that enabled them will be passed on from individual to individual and will remain active over some period of time. But talk about replication and replicators doesn’t help us to understand those processes.

The Mind of Dan Dennett

Finally, I should say a word or two about Dennett’s conceptual style, which I address in a relatively early post, “Watch Out, Dan Dennett, Your Mind’s Changing Up on You!”, and in an appendix: “Turtles All the Way Down: How Dennett Thinks.”

Thinking about little things, memes, moving back and forth among big things, brains, is relatively easy. Thinking about how certain properties of things and procsses, memes, play a certain role in human thinking and communicating, that is somewhat more difficult.

That one conception is more tractable than the other does not in itself have any bearing on which one, if either, is true. But it might explain why the easy conception has been explored extensively, to no deep consensus, while the other has received little attention. For memetics has always had the aura of a “magic bullet” solution to the problems of understanding and explaining culture and, for that matter, the human mind.

For that reason I think it important to look carefully at how those concepts work. That’s what I do in those two posts about Dennett’s mind. Dennett’s words have mislead a a relatively large number of people to believe a shallow conception of culture and cultural processes. In examining Dennett’s mind, we’re examining the mind of many in an intellectual generation, a generation whose time has come and gone.

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