The Problem With Memes

•January 23, 2011 • 5 Comments

Recently there has been a lot of talk about the snippets of language and culture that are known as memes. They pop up in the newspaper, on television, and most of all on the Internet. In this essay I’ll briefly discuss the explanatory role that meme theory is supposed to provide, then I’ll argue that there are some gaps in the evidence supporting this particular explanation.

Richard Dawkins originally introduced the concept of memes as an illustration of evolution outside the biological domain. He postulated that the framework of evolution by natural selection was not specific to biology, but could actually be applied wherever one found replicators, so long as two conditions were met:

  1. Heritability with error. The replicators must contain information that is passed on during replication, and errors must occasionally be introduced during this process.
  2. Selection. Some replicators must systematically produce more copies of themselves than others.

Biological genes meet these criteria since the information they embody is represented in their genome and is passed on via reproduction, and the natural environment provides selection pressure in the biological domain. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins went to pains to explain that in the case of biological evolution it is genes, not organisms (which contain many genes) that are the replicators, and hence we should not be confused by apparent mal-adaptations such as the peacock’s tail, which are explained easily from a gene view but create difficulty for the organism view.

Dawkins also pointed out that his criteria are not merely necessary for evolution, rather they constitute sufficient conditions for evolution. That is, if the two criteria are met then evolution will occur, no more questions. The reason for this is that any system that meets the criteria will naturally explore a search space via replication, and selection will bias that search towards regions representing greater propensity to replicate. Without any further ingredients, any such system will evolve.

This phenomenon has been put to use by computer scientists, who use it to solve abstract optimisation problems. Genetic algorithms, also known as evolutionary algorithms, solve problems by simulating artificial genes (typically represented by sequences of bytes in the computer’s memory) in an artificial “environment” defined by a fitness function. The programmer specifies a fitness function appropriate to the problem at hand; then, beginning with a randomly generated population, the algorithm proceeds to pick the most promising individuals (as defined by the fitness function), which, by analogy to biological reproduction, are “recombined” to create the next generation. Of course, this reproduction is entirely artificial – the algorithm just mixes the bytes from the fittest individuals to create the next generation – but artificial or not, this system meets the criteria for evolution and indeed evolutionary algorithms can solve problems for which few other optimisation algorithms perform well.

Another type of replicator that meets the criteria for evolution is ideas. Humans pass ideas from one to another, so every time you repeat a catch-phrase, concept, or idea in conversation you are participating in the “replication” of that idea. Of course, the idea will often come out slightly differently to when you heard it, so ideas meet the criteria of heritability with error. What about the second criteria? Well consider how much more likely you are to pass on a funny joke or a catchy phrase or an insightful idea, in comparison to a dull, lame, or obvious one. Some ideas are stickier – they appeal to us, play to our sensibilities, resonate with us – and that is what constitutes selective pressure for ideas. So according to Dawkins’ argument, having seen that the relevant criteria are satisfied, we can now conclude that ideas, or memes, will evolve to be ever stickier to the human mind.

The meme concept has been received with much applause, and has been applied with great vigour to explain many aspects of human culture, from phrases invented by internet communities, to religion, and even to scientific theories. But is this a valid conclusion to draw from the analysis of the previous paragraph? Dawkins’ argument demonstrates that evolution of memes will occur, but it doesn’t tell us which particular phenomena we can attribute as caused by that evolutionary process. This is the crucial step in the argument that I believe requires further evidence; that is, the step from “evolution will occur among replicator class X” to “phenomenon Z was caused by evolution among replicator class X”. Dawkins’ criteria can get us to the first step but not to the second. To make the jump to the second step we need additional evidence.

As an example, consider the following (absurd) example. Pretty streams that flow through picturesque countryside naturally appeal to our sense of beauty. In time, people will tend to reshape other streams in the image of the prettiest streams they have seen in the past. Pretty streams will in this way reproduce themselves, with humanity’s sense of beauty providing the selection pressure. Therefore, the Nile – surely one of the prettiest streams in the world – must have been produced by evolution-of-beautiful-streams. Let’s call this exciting new phenomenon stremes!

The conclusion of the argument above is pure nonsense: the beauty of the Nile was produced by geological forces, not humans, and certainly not evolution. But if the conclusion was wrong then either one of our premises must have been wrong, or else there must have been a mistaken step somewhere in the argument. So what exactly went wrong? It is certainly true that people do have a sense of beauty and that some streams are naturally more beautiful (to humans). It is also true that humans reshape their environment (in part) according to appealing environments they have seen before – the spread of landscaping trends over the past few hundred years bears witness to that. Despite the absurdity of the stremes example, it does satisfy Dawkins’ criteria for evolution, and indeed if we imagine a world in which the only force is humans industriously replicating their favourite streams, occasionally introducing errors, then, yes, we actually could imagine an evolutionary process leading to ever prettier streams. It is true that stremes could evolve, but the real problem with the argument I gave was in the final conclusion, that a specific phenomenon (the Nile river) was caused by this type of evolution. Perhaps something similar to the Nile river could eventually come about as a result of evolution-of-stremes, given a sufficiently conducive environment and enough time, but that is different to the question of whether the actual Nile river did come about as a result of evolution amongst stremes. Indeed we have very good reason to believe that the Nile came about for reasons completely unrelated to evolution. There is a gap between the statement that “stremes will evolve given the right circumstances”, and the statement that “the Nile river was caused by evolution among stremes”. And that gap can only be bridged by extra evidence.

The same evidence gap exists in the case of memes. The argument for memetic evolution is valid: Dawkins’ criteria are satisfied and a straight forward argument tells us that memes will evolve. However, to conclude that any particular phenomenon such as Rick-Rolling or Buddhism or silicon chips was caused by evolution of memes requires further evidence.

At this point it may be worth returning to the case of biological evolution and asking on what grounds we conclude that the specific phenomenon of life on Earth is a result of biological evolution. Well, I’m glad you asked. One source of evidence is the fossil record, which shows a sequence of species that looks just as it should if evolution were the cause for life on earth. Another supporting observation is that the range of species found on each continent looks just as it should assuming an evolutionary process on separate land masses occasionally connected by land bridges. These pieces of evidence are independent of Dawkins’ criteria for evolution (which merely show that genes will evolve), and it is because of them that we conclude that life on Earth was caused by an evolutionary process.

Similar evidence is required to validate memetic explanations for any specific phenomena. If evolution amongst memes really was responsible for, say, Rick Rolling, then we should expect to see a relatively continuous sequence of memes in historical records, analogous to the fossil record. We should also expect never to find irreducible complexity in memes (that is, memes that could not have been caused by evolution because removing any part would destroy the meme’s fitness). I have not collected evidence that supports or denies memetic explanations for particular cultural phenomenon; the thesis of this essay is simply that it is invalid to assume memetic explanations in the absence of such evidence.

Another piece of evidence that supports biological evolution as the cause for life on Earth is that there is no other process we are aware of that provides a plausible alternative. But is the same true in the case of memes? Are we forced to accept memetic explanations for lack of any alternative? No, we are not; there are many alternatives to memetic explanations. For instance, the word “mum” has come to mean “mother” probably because “mum” is an easy sound for young children to make given the biology of the mouth and throat, not because it arose from evolution of memes passing between infants. That is, our use of the word “mum” is explained by biological facts, not memetic evolution. Don’t be confused by the fact that our biology itself arose through an evolutionary process: although biological and memetic evolution could surely interact, they are fundamentally different processes since they operate on different substrates: DNA versus human discourse.

Another candidate explanation for cultural phenomena is optimisation by humans. When Einstein proposed the special theory of relativity he did not simply make random permutations to the ideas of those before him; rather he took the best ideas in physics at the time and made directed, purposeful modifications. A memetic explanation for how the theory of special relativity came about would posit many physicists making small, random modifications to existing theories, followed by selection of the more promising theories for further modification. While the latter is quite plausible, the former is not: Einstein’s contribution to physics was anything but small and random; rather he used insight and rational inquiry to make contributions in a directed manner. That Einstein’s theory was significantly better than previous theories at explaining physical phenomena could only be accounted for in a memetic framework if there had also been literally billions of competitor theories that proved less useful, since in an evolutionary process a large increase in fitness comes about only as a result of a great many small increases, and an even greater number of small failures. Although there certainly were rivals to special relativity that were ultimately discarded, they number in the dozens, or at most in the hundreds: too small by many orders of magnitude for the memetic explanation.

If optimisation-by-humans is the cause of theories in physics then it is also a plausible explanation for more general phenomenon such as Buddhism, Rick Rolling, or silicon chips. I am not going to try to settle those particular cases in this article, the arguments herein are simply intended to demonstrate that optimisation-by-humans is at least as plausible as memetic evolution, and that therefore in the absence of further evidence it is unjustified to assume the memetic explanation.

The term “meme” has found widespread use in contemporary discourse, especially when discussing the public mindset, since the constitution of that mindset is what memetic evolution is supposed to explain. It is often used to refer to particularly catchy or trendy ideas, but I have argued that in many such cases there is little justification for assuming that an evolutionary process was responsible. Questioning whether the term “meme” should be applied in such cases process is dangerously close to a vacuous quibble over semantics; however, a few cautions do bear mentioning. First, it is a mistake to think that a deeper understanding has been reached just by calling something a meme. In the absence of evidence for an evolutionary process, calling something a “meme” is no different to calling it an “idea” or “phrase”. No greater understanding of its nature or origin has been reached by invoking the term, nor does the term suggest any new ways that it might be manipulated, magnified, or minimised. To talk of “injecting into the meme pool” is no different than just talking about plain old “publicity”. Second, we may miss evidence of alternative explanations for the things we label as memes, since the term implies that the ideas have a “life of their own” (which they would, but only if the memetic was correct).

In this essay I have argued that although memetic evolution is a coherent concept, applying it as an explanation for specific phenomena requires extra evidence to corroborate its causal role in producing those phenomena. In the absence of such evidence we should be careful about using the term “meme” too liberally since we may make unjustified assumptions about the nature of the ideas we are dealing with.

The ever-present right and wrong

•June 28, 2010 • 3 Comments

Have you ever had an argument with someone and then thought of the perfect comeback just after the debate is over? Yeah, me too. Rationalist bloggers must be the most susceptible people in the world to this world judging by the number of posts I’ve read that begin with “The other day I was talking to a friend about … and this is why they were wrong…”. Far be it for me to dismiss such posthumous rekindling of lost debates, I actually think that there’s much to be gained by mulling over interesting conversations after the fact. But this post isn’t about whistful comebacks, nor debates among friends, nor even updating beliefs. In fact, this whole first paragraph was simply a red herring so that the first line of my post would be something other than…The other day I was talking to a friend about … and here is why their arguments were wrong.

The particular topic in question isn’t important here because I want instead to make a meta-observation about how people perceive costs and benefits. You see, when people weigh costs against benefits and see that one outstrips the other, the common reaction seems to be to dismiss outright the very existence of the items on the losing side.

First case in point: climate change. It is my belief that, on balance, it would be a good thing if the government introduced regulations forcing new houses to be insulated for energy efficiency. The benefit is an energy-efficient future for the country. The cost is that houses might become slightly more expensive. On my reading, the benefit outweigh the cost. Done. That’s the way to make a decision, but it does not in any way show that house prices will not increase, or that increasing house prices are not bad. It simply states that the bad part (increased house prices) is less bad than counterbalancing good parts (energy-efficiency).

There is no sense in denying that house prices will rise, or denying that rising house prices are a bad thing — that is to miss the point. The right decision hangs on the relative extent of the good and bad outcomes. If, hypothetically, the result of building regulations would be that house prices would soar to such an extent that (absurdly) every single person in the country would become homeless, then the costs would instead outweight the benefits, and building regulations would be a bad idea.

Second case in point: My college recently declared Thursdays as a meat-free day in hall. The benefits were that it would cause a surprisingly significant decrease in the college’s carbon footprint. The costs were that it reduced individual freedom. Those who know me know which side I supported, but the fallacy I want to point out in this post was perpetrated by both sides: While those in opposition were busy arguing that reducing carbon consumption was not at all a good thing, those in favour twisted their tongues trying to show that personal freedom had no real merits. Both of these position are in my opinion absurd. The good-or-badness of meat-free days is dependent on whether or not the costs outweigh the benefits; there is no need to pick a side and deny the very existence of arguments on the other side.

Again a hypothetical scenario serves to illustrate this point: If (absurdly) a meat-free day could save the entire planet from an apocalyptic asteroid impact, then nobody would believe that the affront to freedom could possibly outweigh the enomrous benefit to the entire world. And if (equally absurdly) a meat-free day could only be accomplished by literally locking students in jail cells, then the affront to freedom would surely outweigh the carbon-saving benefits. So reducting carbon consumption is a real benefit and enroaching personal liberty is a real cost. The argument cannot be settled simply by fixating on one or the other. The right choice is a matter of degrees, not absolutes.

So when making decisions, make sure to honestly weigh the costs against the benefits without being tempted to dismiss the existence of items on either side.

The East Oxford Ideas Company

•May 31, 2010 • 1 Comment

Alex Flint, Christo Fogelberg and Akshat Rathi have today created a business venture: The East Oxford Ideas Company


To enhance the quality of life through the use of novel ideas

We believe that the technological and sociological developments that humanity has made over the past few centuries enables us to overcome many limitations of our human lives. We are more connected than ever before and we have the capacity to influence more lives than any point in history. A spectacular array of experiences is available to us in comparison to any previous generation and our aim is to enhance this human experience through ingenuity and invention.

How we eliminated the carbon footprint of eight individuals in two hours

•January 31, 2010 • 1 Comment

Today students at Exeter college passed a motion after a two-hour debate to support a meatless day per week in the college hall. Their main argument stems from the UN’s Livestock’s Long Shadow Report. The 400-page report is an in-depth assessment of the significant impact of world’s livestock on the environment. The meat industry already contributes to 20% of global emissions, and meat consumption is projected to double by 2050.

According to the college chef, Exeter purchases (approximately) the following quantities of meat each week: 150 kg beef, 150 kg diced chicken, 600 chicken breasts, 100 kg lamb, 60 kg pork, 30 kg bacon, 10 kg sausages. This translates to 16.4 tons of CO2e (see footnote) every week of which red meat alone contributes 12.8 tons. Hall runs at full capacity for 30 weeks each year and at 30% capacity for 15 weeks, with a staggering carbon footprint of 566 tons of CO2e per year. A meatless day each week will reduce that consumption by about 15%, or 85 tons CO2e. This is equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of eight people in the UK. Furthermore, a meatless day in hall will not only effect a reduction in our carbon footprint but also our water footprint. (More on that here). The UN report on livestock also discusses the impact of meat on water depletion, water pollution, and biodiversity, all of which a meat-free day will affect positively.

Decreasing college spending on meat will mean lowering of prices, essentially benefiting students’ bank accounts whilst simultaneously reducing their carbon footprint. This point is worth dwelling on: with hybrid cars, energy-efficient homes, and so other many carbon-reduction options far out of the financial reach of students, it’s nice to have an option that actually saves money while saving the environment.

The international meatless Monday campaign & the supporting UK chapter have gathered critical support in the recent years. With three other Oxford colleges already passing a similar motion, this idea has the potential of gaining a wider following not only in Oxford but also in other universities.

^ CO2e stands for carbon dioxide equivalent, which is an internationally accepted measure that expresses the amount of global warming from greenhouse gases. CO2e is not limited to carbon dioxide but includes other gases like Methane & Nitrous oxide.

* Calculations of the carbon footprint have been done based on reports published by New Scientistthe Guardian.

Act like a guardian angel

•January 6, 2010 • 1 Comment

I am a chronic list-maker. Shopping lists, wish lists, idea lists, and particularly to-do lists. I can hardly sit still without thinking of all the things I’d like to get done in the next hour, next day, next month, next year. I write lists of goals, lists of steps to achieve goals, lists of chores that need to get done before I can get back to work on my real goals, and I’m sure soon I’ll be keeping lists of lists.

One day, looking back at my to-do lists, I realised that most of the “would be nice to get done” items never got done, and that most of the things I actually did get done aren’t on any of my to-do lists at all. That’s a pretty clear pattern, I thought, and from time to time I like to call myself a rationalist so I decided not to ignore such a clear pattern. I resolved instead that if I really cared about something, then I wouldn’t write it down on a to-do list at all. If I really cared about getting something done then I’d _do_ something about it!

It turns out this strategy works much better than I ever expected. Here’s why. At each moment in our lives we have a different set of immediate concerns that threaten to envelop our entire awareness. Dinner to cook. A leaky tap to fix. A facebook profile to check for updates. Sleep to catch up on. More than this, we have a conveyor belt of new and glorious ideas dashing past and a constantly shifting set of goals and values. In rare moments of idleness and clarity we may sit down and plot out a sensible path through the ensuing chaos of modern life, but if we think that just by mentally resolving to follow such plans and goals (or worse — writing a to-do list) we will enjoy equally crisp motivation towards these very plans and goals at all points in the future, then we are mistaken. By all means, sit down and make careful plans, but then find an effective method to ensure that you follow through with them!

Think of each day as a separate “you”. Tomorrow’s “you” is like an identical twin that you care about as if he was yourself. He is a well-meaning gentleman (or woman), true of heart and mind, but, bless him, he lives a demanding life and no-one could expect him to make all the best decisions at every point in time. Luckily for him he has a guardian angel — you — who is going to help him make better decisions and progress faster towards his goals. What can you do to help him?

First you need to decide what will benefit him most in his life. Don’t rely on his own goal-setting — he’s well-meaning but anything could be filling his attention tomorrow and you can’t rely on him being as astute as you are. Let’s say by way of example that you decide he should start a personal website.

Next, you need some way to affect him towards these goals. You can send him a message by writing a neat little to-do note, but he gets dozens of those messages every day and he rarely manages to grasp their importance, so he probably won’t act on the one you’re about to send any more than he’ll act on the others.

Instead, tell some of his friends (who thankfully also happen to be your friends) that he’s going to build a website for himself; that way he might feel compelled to live up to their expectations. You might think this is a bit mean, but remember not to worry about his feelings too much because he needs a firm guiding hand.

You might also want to try setting a good example yourself. You know that once he gets working on a project he’ll spend a good bit of time and effort on it, so why don’t you start the project for him right now? You don’t have to do it all for him, just find a website host and pick a design template, maybe write a blurb for the front page to get him going with it. That’ll help him along nicely.

Your future self is reasonably competent at keeping appointments, so make one for him right away. Ring a friend that knows about building websites and organise a time to meet and ask him how to get started, perhaps over coffee. Perhaps you already know how to get started but it’ll be good for your future self to sit down and have a chat specifically about this project. It’ll help him consolidate ideas and build motivation.

Everyone likes gifts, but unfortunately you don’t have any money. That doesn’t matter, though, because you have access to your future self’s bank account! Buy him a book online about how to get going with his projects (“websites for dummies” would be a good start). He won’t mind you spending his money. Well, he might a little bit, but don’t worry about his feelings too much, and anyway he’ll probably feel compelled to read the book because it was paid for with his own money, which is great news! So you’re paying for the book _plus_ the impulse it’ll give him towards the plans you’ve set out.

Be creative, there are plenty of other channels you can use to manipulate him.

The most important thing to remember is that your future self is _not_ you. He’s very similar but he’s confronted with different immediate concerns, worries, and impulses. Most of all, he’s definitely not perfect. He won’t read your mind and follow your plans without a bit of guidance. After all, how many times has he done so in the past? Being a guardian angel should be much easier than raising a child because you do know fairly precisely how he thinks and what motivates him.

Doing a good job as guardian angel means you need to choose good quality plans and projects to set in motion for your future self. Don’t procrastinate, but don’t be too impulsive either. Spend a few minutes honestly weighing up pros and cons. Most importantly, don’t ever leave the tough decisions to your future self, just think of some of the foolish things he’s done in the past if you ever start hoping _he’ll_ take responsibility for setting all these important plans in motion.

Henry Makram: Super computing the brain’s secrets

•November 22, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Henry Makram is director of the Blue Brain project which uses IBM’s Blue Gene computer to simulate a brain. He starts with answering the question: Why do we wish to build a brain?

  1. Key step in evolution
  2. Can’t do animal testing all the time
  3. To build new drugs for mental disorders which are less empirical

He explains one of the theories of how the brain works is by building its own version of the universe where decisions are the key things supporting our perception. 99% of what we see comes for these decisions.  He speaks of a mode of action of anesthesia which works by introducing noise in the brain and thus impairing decision making rather than a model where neurons are numbed. The mode of action of general anesthetics is not well understood.

The blue brain projects aims at testing this hypothesis. How do they do it?  By simulating neurons in a neocortical column. Every neuron is unique, yet the pattern made by a set of neurons of a particular species is same. That’s why we can communicate with each other but not with another species. He ends the talk by quoting that “May be in 10 years we will send a hologram to give a talk at TED.”

Brain decoding: the state of the art

•November 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

We all know that the brain is made up of neurons interacting with tiny electrical impulses, and that zillions of these little things firing in concert generate our very own high-level thoughts. In principle the idea that someone could look at the impulses and understand our thoughts seems plausible, but as a practical matter its far too complex to be within the near future… right?

Not according to Carneggie Mellon researchers that are using fMRI to decode brain signals and understand which object a person is thinking about. By taking a 3D image of the brain, the researchers are able to correlate brain activity patterns with patterns previously observed during training. Unlike other systems, theirs does not require each individual to undergo training, but rather can generalise from one person’s brain activity patterns to the next.

Any technologist will tell you that there’s an enormous gap between demonstrating some exciting technology to generate some hype on a television show — particularly for a technology as suggestive as brain decoding — and actually bringing the product to market. That’s why it’s all the more exciting that the early versions of these technologies have actually reached the consumer market.

Electroencephalography (EEG) machines have long been used for medical purposes, particularly to diagnose epilepsy, but now several companies have developed computer games based on these devices. NeuroSky of San Jose have developed an EEG device that lets you navigate a character in a computer game just by thinking about it.

Emotiv Systems, an Australian-based company, have taken this a step further with their upcoming EEG-based Emotiv Epoc game.

Brain-computer interfaces promise developments far more profound than mind-controlled computer games. If these devices can increase the “bandwidth” between our brains and our computers then they may allow us to increase the speed with which we access and interact with information, or with each other. The size and cost of fMRI machines make them completely unsuited to commercial applications, so it would seem that consumer products will be limited to EEG technology, at least in the short term. But perhaps new technologies will be developed that will be able to capture brain activity at a similarly detailed level to fMRI at lower cost.

Whatever the future of these technologies are, those interested in transhumanism should pay attention closely as the future may be closer than we think.