29 October 2014

Why memetics has to work.

In May 2014 a meeting took place at the Santa Fe Institute gathering some of the prominent scientists and philosophers on the subject of cultural evolution. It was organised by Daniel Dennett and aimed at discussing agreements and disagreements over the views and models of cultural evolution.

Each participant wrote a short note on their personal experience of this event, often focussing on areas of agreements and disagreements.
All notes can be read at this address: Santa Fe Workshop

As these sort of events are rare I was eager to hear how it went. I read all the articles and notes that followed the event and was left with a very strong feeling that the popularity of memetics is seriously on the decline, or that the people present were starting to turn their backs on memetics if they had not already buried the whole idea.

Here’s what Dan Sperber said in his summary:

  • "There have been great insights in Dawkins’ whole idea of memes even if it failed to spawn a successful scientific program."
Read Dan's full note here: Dan's thoughts

One can sense here that Dan Sperber really wants to put the final nail in the coffin of memetics, describing it, in a past tense, as a failure. Reading all participants’ notes, I felt like he was not the only one thinking that way and that even Daniel Dennett himself, usually a fervent advocate of the meme idea, seems to move away from memetics and embrace more the ideas offered by the other scientists. Now that Richard Dawkins himself is showing signs of being (as Tim Tyler would say) a reluctant apostle of the meme idea, it seems that Susan Blackmore is left pretty much alone to defend the meme's eye view on cultural evolution. Sue may be the last true memeticist standing.

Read Susan's thoughts on this event here: Susan's thoughts

I have to say that I feel sad and somewhat alarmed by this new trend and I wish more than ever to prevent the collapse of memetics. The reason I don't want us to give up on memetics is because there is a logical reason for which memetics ought to work. If we follow a logical chain of thoughts, it's not up to us to decide whether memetics is real or not, it happens that memetics just has to be true. If it turns out that memetics is not true then it may have some serious consequences for the theory of evolution itself. That is why we need to pay more attention to this issue, and not discard memetics as if it were just a fad. Let me explain further.

Memetics is part of a larger picture which is the theory of evolution. 

The theory is based on simple principles, which Susan Blackmore do well to remind us of regularly. These are heredity, variation and selection. Indeed, when we have those elements together we necessarily have evolution. This idea has been formalised a little further with the concept of the replicator. The existence of the replicator along with environmental conditions is what allows for evolution to take place.

The theory of evolution relies on these concepts to be true and universal, as Richard Dawkins himself has pointed out. That is actually the very reason why he looked for another replicator than the genes, in order to show the universality of the concept. He was right to chose culture as an example. Sure enough he didn't have much choice, but at least culture exhibits all the signs of evolution. In Fact the evidence for cultural evolution is so overwhelming it was actually used as an argument for biological evolution. So, undeniably, culture evolves.
If culture evolves, it can only mean one thing, it must obey the laws of darwinian evolution, and it means there has to be some replicators at the heart of cultural evolution. Not just a few loose replicators, no. The cultural replicators need to be the cornerstone of cultural evolution. At least that’s what the theory leads us to expect.

So what if those memes, those cultural replicators, were nowhere to be found? What if memeticists failed to make a convincing case for memetics? What would happen then? 

What I want to argue is that if it were the case we would have a bigger problem than we would like to think. It wouldn't be just a case of “oh well, memetics doesn't work, forget about it then”, no, if memetics were to fail then this simple fact could falsify the whole theory of evolution. In a ricochet effect, the problem would bounce back to the theory of evolution and force us to question Darwin’s own ideas. Why is that?

Let’s take an analogy to understand better what is at stake here. 
If one considers triangles, one may notice that the sum of all 3 angles of a triangle adds up to 180°. From this observation one would naturally extrapolate that probably this fact is true for all triangles. As a matter of fact it is true and this can be considered as a fundamental law for triangles. Now what would happen if someone, one day, were to find a particular triangle that does not obey the 180° rule?
One cannot just say, “Ah well, the rule applies to all triangle but not that one!”. That would be unsatisfactory because one would still need to account for the existence of that strange triangle, and it wouldn’t help us finding out whether there are other triangles that also violate the rule.
In fact, if this were the case, mathematicians would have no other choice but to reconsider the 180° rule itself. They would think that maybe the 180° rule is not complete and that, surely, it should be reviewed. In other words the 180° rule would be falsified, proven to be false.
That is exactly what is at stake here between memetics and the theory of evolution. If memetics cannot be proven to be true, then this questions the validity of the theory of evolution. It potentially falsifies darwinian evolution.

So at this point it can go one of two ways, either we work it out and show how memetics is a valid model for cultural evolution, or we go back to the drawing board of theoretical evolution and fix the problem there. Either scenarios are possible indeed. In fact even if we were to be forced to go back to the theory of evolution, it doesn't mean that it is entirely false but maybe only incomplete. Let me continue my analogy to explain this point.

There are actually some triangles that do not obey the 180° rule. Proving it is very simple. If you were to draw a triangle between let’s say London, Tokyo and Sydney, by drawing lines on the surface of the planet that join these cities, you would find that the sum of this triangle’s angles exceeds 180°. Now how’s that possible? The reason for this is that the surface of the earth is curved, non-planar. The 180° rule only applies to a Euclidean space, where lines are straight. The surface of the earth is a non-Euclidean space where the lines of the triangle are curved. In such spaces, the rule does not apply any more. So what we find here is that the 180° rule has to be completed in order to work. We need to add a condition to the rule which is that it only applies to a Euclidean space. Once this is understood, then the mystery is solved.

So, going back to the theory of evolution, it may be that we just haven’t found the right angle for memetics yet or it may be that we need to make some adjustments to the theory of evolution itself. I have my own opinion on what needs to be done, but I believe this is the very reason why we cannot give up on memetics. If we do give up on memetics, then we have a logical obligation to account for why it doesn't work and that means going back to the theoretical board of darwinian evolution.

As it stands, my own approach to memetics has led me to work on the concept of replicator. I find that as it is, it lacks definition in order to build a good model of memetics from it. I hope to show with my work that all of this can be done rigorously, and that memes are real indeed.