10 October 2010

Comments on “The evolution of the meme” by Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee

I would like to try my hands at commenting some of the articles gathered inside the following book: 

Darwinizing Culture.
The status of memetics as a science.
Edited by Robert Aunger.
Foreword by Daniel Dennett.
With contributions from:
Robert Aunger, Susan Blackmore, Maurice Bloch, Robert Boyd, Rosaria Conte, David L.Hull, Adam Kuper, Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee, Henry Plotkin, Peter J. Richerson, Dan Sperber.

I will start with the article entitled “The evolution of the meme” by Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee.

I want to show that Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee misunderstand the concept of meme and, more precisely, the concept of replicator altogether, which as a result discredits somewhat the point they are trying to make in their article.

K. Laland and J. Odling-Smee introduce a concept of niche construction which is very interesting in itself, and apply it to the meme idea to try and understand how memes came about. The niche construction can be seen as a transformation of the environment by the living organisms which in turn changes the selective pressure on those same organisms and their descendants. K. Laland and J. Odling-Smee make some very valid points here, but strangely seem to miss completely the point of Dawkins' memes. They write :

What determines whether a meme will spread? For Dawkins (1976), memes, like all replicators, spread if they have fidelity, fecundity and longevity. In memetic discussions, each of these properties is usually treated as if it is an intrinsic characteristic of the meme.

K. Laland and J. Odling-Smee seem to criticise the fact that those characteristics are “intrinsic”. This is where they are mistaken because indeed these characteristics are very much intrinsic. They are so simply because it is their definition. It is not that some memes might have them and others might not, it is that anything that has those characteristics is a replicator and those that don't simply don't qualify as replicators. This unfortunate misunderstanding leads to confusion, for example, when they write:

[...] studies of social learning in species as diverse as rats, pigeons and guppies suggest that these animals sometimes adopt a “do-what-the-majority-do” strategy (Laland et al. 1996B). In such cases, the probability that an individual will adopt a meme depends not on its infectiousness, but on the number of individuals already expressing the behaviour.

Again, if a meme, or any replicator, fails to be copied it is precisely because it has lost its infectiousness, and it has lost it because the environment has changed, suddenly turning what previously was a successful replicator, into a non replicator. This is maybe the point that K. Laland and J. Odling-Smee have missed. It is the relationship between the environment and the replicator that defines a replicator. If the environment changes the very nature of the replicators is to be re-examined. 

This issue obviously casts a shadow on their overall argument of niche construction which otherwise is full of interesting insights on evolutionary processes and most certainly worth a read.