Sunday, December 10, 2006

Memes and Apple Pie

Reason offered this "apple pie meme" in defense of memetics:

For example, I might give you a recipie for apple pie. (Which we will call the "apple pie meme.")

You might try that recipie and you might like it and pass it along. (Selecting for the apple pie meme.)

Or you may dislike it and not use it again. (Selecting against the apple pie meme.)

You may find that one of the ingredients is expensive or hard to find and replace it with a less expensive or more widely available ingredient. (Mutation of the apple pie meme.)

You might find this modified recipie more appealing because of its taste, lower cost, or both and choose to pass it on to more people. (Selection for the mutated apple pie meme.)

Let's take this step for step. I'll keep the "meme" language as much as possible for clarity's sake.
STEP ONE: For example, I might give you a recipie for apple pie. (Which we will call the "apple pie meme.")

Seems simple, BUT this step is a lot more complex than it seems, especially since we'll probably encounter more than one "meme."
For instance, why are you giving me the recipe? Possibilities: family tradition; you're my spouse and you really hate my apple pie recipe; you want me to make apple pie like your mom did; you know I like apple pie; I asked for it... A lot of memes there! Like the relationship meme, the tradition meme, the friendship meme, etc.
Why would I accept the recipe? Family tradition? I like apple pie? I don't want to hurt your feelings? You're my spouse and I want to make you happy? Lots of memes there too!

STEP TWO: You might try that recipie and you might like it and pass it along. (Selecting for the apple pie meme.) Or you may dislike it and not use it again. (Selecting against the apple pie meme.)

Am I passing it along simply because I like it or because of many of the other reasons previously listed? Am I going to use it in the first place? If I don't use it again, is it because I don't like it or are other factors at play? Maybe I don't like it but I use it again because my spouse does.
I might get offended by the implications about my baking skills and throw it away without trying it. If I do throw it away, I'm not necessarily rejecting the apple pie meme. I might be selecting for the "my spouse needs to untie the apron strings and stop thinking I need to be like his Mommy" meme.

STEP THREE: You may find that one of the ingredients is expensive or hard to find and replace it with a less expensive or more widely available ingredient. (Mutation of the apple pie meme.)

In which cases, we're not just talking about mutation of the apple pie meme. We're involving the frugality meme, the convenience meme, etc. Then, of course, there are the memes for dietary restrictions, food preferences, etc.

STEP FOUR: You might find this modified recipie more appealing because of its taste, lower cost, or both and choose to pass it on to more people. (Selection for the mutated apple pie meme.)

First, I might not pass on the mutation. If I altered the recipe in consideration of my personal medical/dietary issues, I might still pass on the original, nonmutated meme. Then, there are the many reasons I might pass it on, discussed earlier, and the considerations of who I pass it on to and how. Do I post it on my blog? Send it out with my holiday cards? Include it in the cookbook I'm writing? Mention it on my talk show? Give it to my daughter when she gets married? Give it to a friend who mentions wanting an apple pie recipe? Give it to someone who makes really bad apple pie? Lots more memes here!

This is the short list. We'd also have to consider how the situation in which you receive the recipe affects your ability to recall it accurately, how the recipe interacts with positive and/or negative memories associated with apple pie, how medical conditions might affect your ability to taste pie, how your understanding of baking terminology affects your ability to produce an apple pie that is consistent with the recipe, etc.

Do you see the problem? Memetics provides a highly simplified, generalized "explanation" of very complex phenomena which is really no explanation at all. Even the spread of a recipe for apple pie becomes far more complex at each step than memetics allows.

UPDATE: After reading Dan's comment on the comparison between genetics and memetics, I'd like to clarify a point. Amongst many reasons I point out in a comment to this post, here's another that is relevant to the "apple pie meme" and the examples I gave in deconstructing it.
Genes are selected for or against based on their "merits" as it were, adaptability or maladaptability. A gene is not selected for or against based on the merits of a non-related gene.
I discussed the apple pie recipe being discarded because (in the imaginary world where the imaginary Melinda is married to an imaginary man) my spouse compared my recipe negatively to his mother's. I rejected the recipe not on consideration of its merits, but based on information irrrelevant to the merits of the recipe. Perhaps I may have preferred the recipe to my own, but I didn't even consider it. I didn't even have to look at the recipe, just trash it based on my relationship with my imaginary spouse.
In genetics, this would be like nature selecting against blue eyes because environmental factors make long legs more beneficial.


Anonymous dan said...

Did someone say memetic evolution wasn't complicated? Of course it can be complicated when many memes are involved. That doesn't mean it isn't a legitimate model.
Likewise, it was recently found that the level of gene expression depends on non-genetic factors such as methylizaton. That doesn't mean that genes don't exist.
Also, just because the actions of trillions of atoms can be complicated (quantum dots, superconductors, different valences), that doesn't mean that atoms don't exist or that general patterns (like in thermodynamics) can not be discerned.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

The problem is: Memes do not exist, nor can they be demonstrated to exist. "Memes" are an imaginary construct used to explain complex phenomena in simplistic terms.

As I mentioned briefly, it's not just "memes" involved here, but basic cognitive functions ignored by memetics. For instance, experimentation has shown that people asked to remember a list of words related to an unspoken word will remember the unspoken word despite the fact that it wasn't part of the lists. Experimentation also shows that physical/emotional state effect how we take in information and our ability to interpret it properly.

Memetics is not a legitimate model because it ignores data and evidence, declaring it irrelevant to an understanding of the spread of ideas without demonstrating that existing theories based on that evidence are irrelevant or insufficient. Or, even if they are, that memetics itself has greater explanatory or predictive power.

Memetics doesn't meet the fundamental requirements of science any more than would a theory that little fairies carry ideas from brain to brain. We can come up with all sorts of explanations about how fairies negotiate with one another to determine which of their ideas will be implanted in the human mind, negotiate compromises, have fairie wars, etc. This "theory" could "explain" the transmission of ideas in some basic way, but it's still not science.

And there's more... If ideas are merely memes, memetics must ultimately undermine its own claims by destroying its foundation. Can memetics explain everything BUT science and memetics? Or will we apply memetics to science and memetics, thereby removing any possible claims to the truth of the theory?

Also, vague analogies to genetics, epidemiology, etc. brought in to play only when they most support the theory but ignored when the comparison casts doubt on the theory are not science. Well, it's kind of like... except when it's not like... doesn't work.

Memetics isn't like genetics. For instance, memetics assumes that there's one "monotheism" meme for three monotheistic religions. Or that one idea has one meme. Genetics shows that a single phenotype can be derived from multiple genotypes. Not to mention the fact that we can actually observe, map, and manipulate genes to demonstrate their existence and their functions. The same cannot be said for the non-existent meme.
Your point about genetics demonstrates the problem with the analogy: genetic expression depends on non-genetic factors. Memetics must, according to its fundamental arguments, ignore non-memetic explanations for and influences on the spread of ideas.

Ad-hoc excuses drummed up for every criticism of the theory do not justify the theory. We can expand the memetic vocabulary all we want, throwing in the semantic monkey wrench every time reason, science and evidence rear their ugly heads, but ultimately, such hedging leads to only one conclusion:

Memetics is baseless. It cannot claim to equal much less to supersede the framework of cognitive theories it declares irrelevant and insufficient.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to say that the recipe for apple pie is not a meme.

I think that when people dance philosophical with the concept (like what's going on here) they lose the objective of memetics: a quantitative perspective on cultural evolution.

Before we can debate this on solid grounds we have to have a formal definition that can be empirically tested. And I think some of the ideas surrounding formal concept analysis are proving to be furtive ground.

When we include formal concept analysis and build a formal context based on frequency that certain symbols associate with one another within a given window we find that the structure of concepts is independent of language. So the problems with mis-recalling lists of words is not an issue, since it's the structure of the association of words that has to be maintained.

One thing that really bothers me when people bash memetics or try to support it is they always bring the human brain into things. It should be pointed out that memetics is not neurological. Memetics is population based. It's based mathematically well-defined social networks and not individual neural networks.

Memetics is an approach to sociology, not psychology.
Psychology is as useful for memetics, as much as the study of individual neurons is to psychology. That is to say, it should not be ignored, but it's a far too reductive level of analysis to be fruitful.

Formal concept structures can be linked ans tracked if they are corresponded with the social structure (not the mental stucture!) Also, a study of memetics has to be strictly in the linguistic or physical realm and assume that base human interaction is chaotic - but that's a strength not a limitation.

So if you're looking for a neurological description of memetics, then social groups are the brains your looking for, not the individual neurons.

I would also add that analogs to genetics harm memetics more than bolster it.

If you would like to look at a very nice model for future memetic research... (or, rather, cultural epidemiology and formal concept analysis, since the words memetics and meme have been hijacked and butchered)... check out it's a pretty nifty thing.

I hope to be attending grad school for mathematical sociology because I love memetics and it will be a science.

10:36 PM  
Anonymous dan from said...

I think the number one problem with memetics right now is that there is so little agreement on what memetics is or what memes are that someone attacking one version thinks they have thoroughly debunked the whole thing.
I like to think of memes in the simplest sense as ideas that spread. In this sense, memes obviously exist. Whether or not memetics will ever yeild any useful models that can generate predictions remains to be seen.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...


I'm all for tracking the spread of ideas and how they succeed or fail in the "marketplace." BUT, I just don't think memetics can replace the existing theories I've studied. (My first degree was in communications, which is...despite the stereotypes... far more than learning how to give a pretty speech. Master's was in journalism.) If at some future date, memetics is nailed down to concrete terms, is able to meet the standards of science, and offers something new that other theories don't, I'll be one very happy woman if only because I'll have a new "toy" to keep my mind busy. Until then, I can't accept the memetics hypothesis. (Realized I'd been calling it a theory although it doesn't yet meet the standards for that term. Odd how we use a term we know is inappropriate just because others do.)

8:19 AM  
Anonymous dan from said...

Good point.

1:07 PM  

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