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Evolutionary Progress (Or Not) 
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Post Re: Evolutionary Progress (Or Not)
Robert Tulip wrote:
Just how limited is Dawkins' theory of progress? In his review of Gould quoted above, Dawkins defines progress as "a tendency for lineages to improve cumulatively their adaptive fit to their particular way of life, by increasing the numbers of features which combine together in adaptive complexes." This is a very broad ranging definition. In fact, it applies just as much to memetic cultural evolution as to genetic evolution. Lineages of ideas, of technology, of culture, are progressive in just the same way as genes.

I knew it--this was bound to come up again. All I want to say about it is that if this genetics-memetics equivalence is asserted, it's not coming from Dawkins. Maybe from you or somebody else, but the father of the meme doesn't believe it. There are quotations throughout his writings that indicate his tentativeness about a subject that he considered exploratory. Here is one from 3.1, "Chinese Junk and Chinese Whispers."
Quote:
There is at least a superficial analogy to the longitudinal transmission of genes down generations, and to the horizontal transmission of genes in viruses" (p. 119).

He's using genetics to stimulate his thinking about how a certain class of mental phenomena propagates. He wouldn't be talking about a superficial analogy if he wasn't. He also makes clear in the essays on Darwin that natural selection selects only traits under genetic control, making cultural "natural selection" at best another analogy. The tree of life represents a dynamic system. Human culture represents another. There are similarities seen between two such systems, but to say that the basic units of each act identically, or even very similarly, takes too little note of the large differences between the systems.


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Last edited by DWill on Fri May 20, 2011 9:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Fri May 20, 2011 9:43 pm
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Post Re: Evolutionary Progress (Or Not)
What humans really ought to do is move off the planet en-masse. When the option is really viable, we should get out and leave this planet alone. Take our farming culture and terraform something. Let earth do what it does.

Mars (or some other rock) is dead. Lets breathe life into that, and let earth create.


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Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.

Have you tried that? Looking for answers?
Or have you been content to be terrified of a thing you know nothing about?

Is this the virtue of faith? To never change your mind: especially when you should?

Young Earth Creationists take offense at the idea that we have a common heritage with other animals. Why is being the descendant of a mud golem any better?


Sun May 22, 2011 12:56 am
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Post Re: Evolutionary Progress (Or Not)
DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
Just how limited is Dawkins' theory of progress? In his review of Gould quoted above, Dawkins defines progress as "a tendency for lineages to improve cumulatively their adaptive fit to their particular way of life, by increasing the numbers of features which combine together in adaptive complexes." This is a very broad ranging definition. In fact, it applies just as much to memetic cultural evolution as to genetic evolution. Lineages of ideas, of technology, of culture, are progressive in just the same way as genes.

I knew it--this was bound to come up again. All I want to say about it is that if this genetics-memetics equivalence is asserted, it's not coming from Dawkins. Maybe from you or somebody else, but the father of the meme doesn't believe it. There are quotations throughout his writings that indicate his tentativeness about a subject that he considered exploratory. Here is one from 3.1, "Chinese Junk and Chinese Whispers."
Quote:
There is at least a superficial analogy to the longitudinal transmission of genes down generations, and to the horizontal transmission of genes in viruses" (p. 119).

He's using genetics to stimulate his thinking about how a certain class of mental phenomena propagates. He wouldn't be talking about a superficial analogy if he wasn't. He also makes clear in the essays on Darwin that natural selection selects only traits under genetic control, making cultural "natural selection" at best another analogy. The tree of life represents a dynamic system. Human culture represents another. There are similarities seen between two such systems, but to say that the basic units of each act identically, or even very similarly, takes too little note of the large differences between the systems.


First we had DWill misreading Dawkins on progress, now we have DWill misreading Dawkins on memes. Its good to attempt to mutate the memepool, but only if the mutation is progressive. A bit of copy fidelity goes a long way to assessing how progressive a memetic shift actually is.

Here are some quotes from A Devil's Chaplain Chapter three which correct the misleading impression of Dawkins' views on memes that DWill has sought to draw by quoting the 'at least superficial' comment out of context.

Quote:
I have long been academically attracted, and humanly repelled, by the idea
that self-replicating information leaps infectiously from mind to mind like
(what we now know as) computer viruses. Whether or not we use the name
'meme' for these mind viruses, the theory needs to be taken seriously. p116


(Note - the human repulsion is because stupid religious memes are impervious to reason)

Quote:
I concluded by rebutting the suggestion that I have gone cold on memes since introducing them in 1976. p116


Quote:
I always thought religions provided the prime examples of memes and meme complexes (or 'memeplexes'). p120


Quote:
the Oxford Dictionary now does contain the following definition: meme: 'a self-replicating element of culture, passed on by imitation.' p120


Quote:
these considerations [instructions are self-normalizing] greatly reduce, and probably remove altogether, the objection that memes are copied with insufficient fidelity to be compared with genes ... As with genes, we track memes through populations by their phenotypes. p124


Quote:
Behavioural phenotypes such as genuflecting in front of crosses, and facing east to kneel five times per day, are inherited longitudinally too, and are in strong linkage disequilibrium with the previously mentioned phenotypes, as is the red-dot-on forehead phenotype, and the saffron robes/shaven head linkage group. p125


Quote:
the concept of the meme-complex or 'memeplex'.
Memes, like genes, are selected against the background of other
memes in the meme pool. The result is that gangs of mutually
compatible memes - coadapted meme complexes or memeplexes - are
found cohabiting in individual brains. This is not because selection has
chosen them as a group, but because each separate member of the
group tends to be favoured when its environment happens to be
dominated by the others. An exactly similar point can be made about
genetic selection. Every gene in a gene pool constitutes part of the
environmental background against which the other genes are naturally
selected, so it's no wonder natural selection favours genes that
'cooperate' in building those highly integrated and unified machines
called organisms. By analogy with coadapted gene complexes, memes,
selected against the background of each other, 'cooperate' in mutually
supportive memeplexes - supportive within the memeplex but hostile
to rival memeplexes. Religions may be the most convincing examples
of memeplexes, but they are by no means the only ones. p126


Quote:
I am occasionally accused of having backtracked on memes; of
having lost heart, pulled in my horns, had second thoughts. The truth
is that my first thoughts were more modest than some memeticists
might have wished. For me, the original mission of the meme was
negative. The word was introduced at the end of a book which otherwise
must have seemed entirely devoted to extolling the selfish gene as
the be-all and end-all of evolution, the fundamental unit of selection,
the entity in the hierarchy of life which all adaptations could be said to
benefit. There was a risk that my readers would misunderstand the
message as being necessarily about genes in the sense of DNA molecules.
On the contrary, DNA was incidental. The real unit of natural selection
was any kind of replicator, any unit of which copies are made, with
occasional errors, and with some influence or power over their own
probability of replication. The genetic natural selection identified by
neo-Darwinism as the driving force of evolution on this planet was only
a special case of a more general process that I came to dub 'Universal
Darwinism'. p127


By the way, I was also a big origami fan (not the fold of the peacock tail). I really like Dawkins' example of the memetic contrast between copying a drawing of a boat and copying the instructions on how to make one to illustrate how memetic fidelity can vary.



Sun May 22, 2011 4:41 am
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Post Re: Evolutionary Progress (Or Not)
Robert, I went back over my posts, and what I said was that Dawkins gave a limited assent (I said "weak," and that was probably not an accurate word) to the progressiveness of evolution. I made my own statements about the topic, but didn't draw on Dawkins to do that. The progressiveness Dawkins identifies is much like saying that evolution is cumulative. But he wants to avoid stoking any pride we might feel in being on top, as though evolution were building up to us all along. He also wants to avoid saying that some higher organizing principle has ever been proven to exist in evolution. There's nothing scientifically established beyond the individual's struggle to survive and reproduce.

As for Dawkins' support for memetics truly mimicking genetics, it looks like you've got me there, buddy. That was somewhat rash of me. I think I want to acquit him of believing in a bad idea, because I think he's one of the best writers on science topics. I find it hard to read that stuff from him, because to me he seems to be committing the same offenses for which he tagged postmodernism in an earlier essay. Still, the brief quote I cited plus other bits make me think he's not always sure how far to push. In the notes to the 30th anniversary edition (Chapter 11 notes) he has this to say about his theory:

"The word meme seems to be turning out to be a good meme. It is now quite widely used and in 1988 it joined the official list of words being considered for future editions of Oxford English Dictionaries. This makes me the more anxious to repeat that my designs on human culture were modest almost to vanishing point. .... Whether the milieu of human culture really does have what it takes to get a form of Darwinism going, I am not {323} sure."

He's a mite disingenuous here, his designs on culture being obvious. However, is it not true backpedaling?

We could investigate a couple of things. One, has the meme been established as a scientific idea (Dawkins didn't know if it would be in the original SG)? Two, what is the citation rate lately for memes, aside from the now-popular context of "internet meme"? Has it found a home in the fields of sociology, history, political science? It has had a long enough history, 35-years, so what's the status.

The problem such an idea would have in advancing into fields related to culture isn't hard to see when you consider that the "parent" field, genetics, doesn't have all that much to do with culture, either. I mean that it doesn't touch very meaningfully on what interests us about culture, about what we think we need to know about it. As Dawkins will tell us, genes are not very determinative about how humans are shaped. "Genes aren't us," he says. Right, they're not. They're influential, but as we get further from discrete traits such as eye color, height, and others, their hold becomes difficult to discern. Many children have non-related friends that are more similar to them in personality than their own siblings. Sexual recombination and the environment take care of that. This genetic non-determinance actually projects out eventually, through the aggregation of billions of events all influenced by the unique human environment, into culture. If it's asserted that all this happens "memetically," this doesn't carry much information value; it doesn't answer a question. "Meme" doesn't have an advantage over the other words commonly substituted for it, or over the cultural name for the thing examined (Lutheranism, the punch buggy fad, breast implants, e.g.). Culture is all about particularities, so it's ways to examine and understand those better that would find a real use. Systematizing at a large-grain level, such as memetics tries to do, doesn't seem a good method to apply to culture.


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Sun May 22, 2011 7:33 pm
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