Monday, October 4, 2010

Imagining How Culture Works

Kate Distin.  The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment.  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  ISBN: 0521606276.

While certainly not the last word on the subject of culture, this book really opened my mind.  Distin tries, with little empirical grounding (to the annoyance of Matteo Mameli), to get a notional grip on how people create, use, and transmit information (a process we sometimes call "culture" from the old Latin colere, meaning "to cultivate, tend, take care of a field").  While I agree provisionally with the problems Mameli finds with fanciful thought experiments such as Distin performs, I still learned a good deal from her approach, which (for my own enjoyment) I am going to outline here in a series of quotes (preceded by my summaries):

(1)  Culture evolves by "memes" (discrete packets of replicable cultural information) the way biology evolves by genes (discrete packets of replicable biological information).  The information in memes exists in the form of "representations" (mental images that shape human thought and behavior). 
"The most basic element in evolution, whether biological or cultural, is replication.  There are two steps involved in replication: the preservation of the information that is copied, and the means by which it is transmitted...In the evolution of any form, what evolves is essentially information.  Genes are a means of preserving biological information, and the format that they use is DNA.  We know where to look for the units of biological selection (within organisms) and we know what form that information takes (DNA).  In culture, however, things are not yet so obvious, and this is a real stumbling block for many who first encounter the meme hypothesis.  It is all very well to suggest that culture "evolves" via memes, just as biology does via genes, but where exactly are these memes to be found and--most fundamentally--what are they?" (18) ...
"Since memes are replicators it is reasonable to expect that their content, too, must be preserved in a particular way...What does this mean in practice? Much information will have a severely restricted impact on the meme pool, owing to its limited effects on the world.  The reasons for such limitations are varied.  For example, the Spanish that I learned many years ago, for exam purposes, has now all but disappeared from my memory, since its potential effects (enabling me to communicate with other Spanish speakers, or to read Spanish text) are not able to operate when I am surrounded by monolingual English speakers and choose not to buy any books written in Spanish.  That information, in the context of my particular mind and environment, has therefore very little effect on the world.  Other representational content may not have much potential in any context: a poorly written novel, which neither stirs the heart nor stimulates the mind of the reader, will struggle to survive in the competition for our attention.  There may be some mileage in being associated with a successful replicator (i.e., being selected as a side effect of a replicator with useful effects), but in general a meme demands content that has an executing role, in (potentially) producing a phenotypic effect.  [Translation: we want information to be practically useful in some way if we are going to go to the trouble of learning it, using it, and passing it on in usable form to others.]" (19) ...
"Surely the vast majority of our mental representations are created as the result of encounters with a particular sort of object--a book, an apple, a person or whatever...Suppose that a wasp flies into a room where there is a small child who has never encountered one.  Ben has, however, seen bees many times before, and the wasp triggers the representation that he has previously had whenever bees have flown into the room.  That representation was created as a result only of previous encounters with bees, since this is the first time that Ben has seen a wasp.  As a result of his belief about those sorts of insects, Ben will believe that this one might sting him, avoid antagonising it, and do his best to let it back into the garden.  My intuition about Ben is that, rather than a correct representation (of a bee-type insect, for instance), he has made a lucky mistake (thinking it is actually a bee)...No matter that both insects fulfilled the same purpose in his life (causing him to represent them in a certain way, and therefore to avoid them); what does seem relevant is that he assigned the wrong identity to the wasp.  Wasps are not bees" (25-26) ...
"[T]here are different sorts of mental representation, with some being more complex than others.  In particular, some representations play a role much like a switch, linking an organism's perception of a given stimulus to behaviour that is appropriate as a response.  Others are more complex, and have not only these external links to perceptions and behaviour but also internal links to other representations [Pavlov's dogs salivated when a bell rang, an event they learned to associate with being fed, even when no food was forthcoming]--and the content of any given representation will be determined by all of these links" (34).
(2)  Memes exist and reproduce following patterns evident elsewhere in information integration and dissemination.
"It is well known that complex replication will always be more successful if the complexity involved is hierarchical.  This fact has been neatly illustrated by Herbert Simon, in a parable which suggests 'a general functional reason why complex organization of any kind, biological or artificial, tends to be organized in nested hierarchies of repeated sub-units.'  It goes roughly as follows.  Each of two watchmakers have to assemble watches from a thousand component parts.  He has, in effect, to replicate an established complex form.  Tempus assembles his watches piece by piece, and they are so constructed that if he pauses or drops an unfinished watch then he has to start again from scratch.  Hora, on the other hand, makes subassemblies of ten parts each, then subassemblies of ten of these, and finally a whole watch from ten of those, so if he is interrupted then he loses only a small part of his work.  As a result, Hora can assemble his watches in a fraction of the time that it takes Tempus: according to Simon's analysis, if there is a chance of say one in a hundred that either watchmaker will be interrupted while adding a part to his assembly, then Tempus can be expected to take four thousand times as long as Hora to assemble a watch.  Although in fact the statistics of expectation show that the correct relationship is more like two thousand times as long, Simon's key point still holds: the Hora style of building gives a better time scale, greater stability and resistance to shock, and a greater amenability to repair and improvement--and it is clearly hierarchical" (41).
"Replication...will be most efficient if it builds on what already exists rather than starting afresh each time.  An important implication of this message is that the most successful sort of replication will be particulate: if the constituent parts of what is replicated were to blend, then the end product would be a conglomerate rather than an assembly.  The units of an assembly must be what Arthur Koestler has described as 'self-assertive': each maintains its own individuality within the assembly.  On the other hand each must also be compatible with the others in the assembly, otherwise the result will be unstable: as part of a larger system, towards whose future and stability they tend to 'work', the units in an assembly must (in Koestler's terms again) be 'integrative' as well as self-assertive.  The replication of complexity, in its reliance on assemblies, is therefore dependent on the existence of dual-natured units, which are able to retain their individual identities whilst operating as part of a complex" (42).
"It is of course important to acknowledge that there is a difference between the acquisition of information and the acceptance of that information into one's network of beliefs.  There is a sense in which the "flat earth" meme is still pretty successful today: plenty of people know that it is possible to believe that the earth is flat, even though they themselves do not subscribe to that belief.  In this way it is perhaps analogous to a recessive gene, whose DNA we possess and are able to pass on to our children but which exerts no effect on our bodies or behaviour.  Similarly, we are capable of passing on information that persists in our memories, even when we don't assent to it, but it will have little or no effect on our thoughts or behaviour.  Just because I understand what it means to believe that the earth is flat, I neither subscribe to a conspiracy theory about the origin of satellite pictures of the earth nor have any doubt that it is possible to circumnavigate the globe" (44).
 (3) Memes evolve by simultaneously conforming to and rebelling against the cultural status quo.  The information they encode at once agrees with the growing body of information already "out there" in society (in mega-packets of systematized information that Distin calls "protective meme complexes" -- one example of such a complex might be the LDS gospel) and disagrees with it (changing it in some way, large or small -- this looks like the Mormon principle of continuing revelation).  The survival of a meme depends more on the culture around it than on itself: a great idea goes unnoticed if there is no context in which it makes sense, no reason to pick it up, no evangelist committed to selling it.
"One of the most significant aspects of any meme's environment will be the other memes that are present in that culture, and this is the factor that will often dominate the fate of novel memes in particular.  In order to be accepted, an idea has (usually) to be compatible with those already in existence--which means that selection will favour memes that are capable of exploiting the current cultural environment.  The result will be coadapted meme complexes which bestow further benefits on their members in addition to the initial privilege of admission: as the complexes grow in size and strength, they will become more difficult to penetrate, providing protection against invading, contradictory ideas.  This is analogous to the complexes of coadapted genes to be found within particular species, and typically we should expect to find protective meme complexes within specific cultures.  It also reflects [the] fact...that the direction of evolution will be dependent upon what already happens to exist. For specific novel replicators--both genes and memes--this will mean that their success of failure will be partly determined by the prior existence of other replicators in their area. 'Much as the evolution of rabbits created ecological niches for species that eat them and parasitize them, the invention of cars created cultural niches for gas stations, seat belts, and garage door openers'" (57).
"A meme's own content may, then, be a fairly arbitrary factor in determining its success: its fortune in the struggle for survival will always be relative to context.  As memes struggle to gain and retain the attention of human minds, their success or failure is in this sense influenced more by the environment than by their own content.  Novel memes must be fit for the existing body of culture, for the physical environment and for the dictates of human biology and psychology, in order to stand a chance of being copied accurately or enduringly" (67).
(4) Memes exist in human minds and external repositories (like libraries, architectural blueprints, articulate cultural ideologies [e.g. correlated Mormonism], etc.) but require active presence in the mind in order to be reproduced.  The key point to take away is this: the individual human mind is not an absolute master of the meme pool; all individual mental activity occurs inside a greater cultural complex with ideas (memes) and ideologies (meme-complexes) that we only naively construe as being our own.  This does not mean that we are entirely powerless as individuals, however.  While we cannot tell what memes the world will confront us with, we can (and do) shape our personal reaction, selecting for the memes we engage with and against the ones we ignore.
"[T]here is no significant distinction to be drawn between the human mind and external information stores such as libraries and the Internet, but in order for a meme to be available to selection, active copies of it must exist.  If the human mind is not universal, but is developed via interaction with existing culture, then external representations play an essential role in memetic replication.  The internal brain structures are, though, the ultimate source of the external representations.  Thus a combination of both sorts of meme store has led to a massive capacity for information dissemination and copying stability, which would have been impossible via only one of the storage methods...This picture ties in with the view of the capacity to gain and retain attention as the best measure of memetic fitness.  If a meme is to be replicated, then it must be able to grab our attention: at times when only passive copies of it persist, it is not able to do this and is therefore not at all fecund.  On the other hand, if a meme is to persist then it must be able to able to retain our attention, and passive copies of it are the most efficient way of ensuring its prolonged existence.  This extension of memes' phenotype is also reminiscent of Clark's view that 'much of what we commonly identify as our mental capacities may...turn out to be properties of the wider extended systems of which human brains are just one (important) part'" (90).
"[T]he human mind develops as a result of acquiring memes, and many of its activities are then dictated by its memes--but...the memes themselves cannot function independently of minds, and are always initially created by a mind.  Modern humans, on this story, are born with a degree of mindedness, and this is exploited by existing memes to the extent that the fully fledged mind may, itself, create new memes" (115).
(5) Memes as we know them depend on "meta-representation" (inducing general principles from specific instances; e.g. the leap the baby makes when he learns that the individual word "cat" means something like "small, furry animal with whiskers" no matter the context in which it occurs).
"Modern memetic evolution could not begin, however, until our own ancestors were capable of manipulating--and of course copying--the right sort of mental representations.  However memetic information is transmitted between individuals, the important thing is that it should be represented in such a form that those who acquire it can manipulate it freely, without being tied to a particular context.  Many organisms can represent the world around them, but memes are representations with a particular nature: as complex, context-independent concepts, they depended on their emergence on the development of unique mental capacities.  The participants in memetic evolution needed to be able to compare incoming information with their existing knowledge, to fit it in with their existing skills, and if necessary to rerepresent it in a different format--and the mere fact of its being transmitted via imitation cannot guarantee this.  Meta-representation is key [and the age-old debate pitting nature against nurture resolves with each being necessary]" (141).
(6) Memes exist in "systems of representation" (RS) that are in theory infinite (as opposed to genes, whose RS is finite (DNA).  Memes are like letters that can be re-arranged infinitely to form an infinite number of languages (with an infinite number of rules for "making sense").
"[T]he memetic equivalent of DNA is not one, but many cultural systems of representation.  Unlike organisms and their DNA, we are not endowed at birth with one fixed RS [representation system], but have the capacity to learn and develop many fixed systems.  Language has primacy amongst them in that it alone is the result of a biological endowment which also facilitates its communication through speech.  Crucially, however, it is also the result of the human capacity for meta-representation, and it is this which facilitates the development of alternative RSs.  These nonlinguistic systems, whose rules and structures are incredibly diverse, must be realized in a medium which is not subject to the constraints of universal grammar" (167).
(7) The human mind exists prior to memes and requires memes to develop.  The mind takes memes from its environment, compares them, and uses them to create new solutions to the problems it encounters.  During this process, the mind necessarily relies on a body of memes much larger than those it "owns" for itself, having recourse to external depositories of cultural information (meme-complexes).
"Infants have the basis of and potential for strong muscles, but in a form that is by no means fully developed.  Once a muscle begins to be used, however, it soon strengthens and develops its potential.  In this sense, exercise 'creates' the strong muscle; but conversely the exercise could not have occurred in the first place without the existing basis of a weaker muscle.  Similarly, in the mental activity of a newborn child there is the basis of and potential for a fully fledged mind.  As soon as this is put to use and begins to acquire concepts (both from its contemporaries and as a result of its own discoveries about its surroundings), it begins to develop that potential.  Thus the concepts that it acquires 'create' the mind only in the sense that exercise 'creates' muscles: the mind itself does not merely consist of a complex of concepts, but rather develops as a result of its interaction with them.  Furthermore, the concepts themselves would not have existed in the first place if there were no prior existence of some mental activity" (170-171).
"[C]onsciousness cannot be explained as a meme machine, but rather the memes-mind relationship was more accurately portrayed two thousand years ago, in the parable of the sower...The message [of the biblical parable] is clear: different people (and even the same person at different times and stages of her life) will respond to the same information in very different ways.  Incoming information--the seeds of the parable--will be understood, remembered, acted upon and then passed on to others with varying degrees of accuracy and enthusiasm, depending on its recipient's mind--the soil" (173).
"[T]he design process [by which engineers create products]--which seems prima facie to be the harnessing of imagination to practicality--is underpinned by a methodology that is iterative and in many senses even mindless.  It moves from a perceived demand, through clarification of the problem in a solution-neutral statement, and the generation and initial selection of concepts with the potential to meet the requirements, to a structured development and detail design of the end product.  At each stage of the process selections will be made between possible solutions, according to the demands and wishes laid down in the target specifications.  An option may be rejected when it is still an idea ('How about a pick-up truck?'), whilst it is being developed as part of the embodiment design ('Perhaps a 1.3 litre engine will give us the power we need'), or even when it has reached the final stage of the detail design ('Let's try the engine from our existing pick-up as a prototype').  It may be rejected on the basis of economic as well as engineering considerations.  If at any point it seems that the end result will not be viable, then losses will be cut and the project abandoned" (176).
"Thus the preceding account [reproduced above] of the design of human artefacts provides a working, observable example of the compatibility of evolution with design--not just in principle, but in practice...In intentional, psychological terms, the new front end for the model 'xyz' car was designed by Chris because he wanted to make the 'xyz' more crashworthy in frontal impact, he wanted to keep his job, and so on.  This provides an answer to the 'why?' question...The 'how' questions, though, are answered rather differently.  The new front end was designed using the four-stage process described, through which novel designs for that part of the car were tested against the 'pass' criteria laid down in the problem statement.  One of them was selected from the variety of proposed solutions, and the end result is a front end that is intellectually descended from, though a significant evolutionary improvement upon, the existing design" (181).
(8)  Memes underlie culture (in all forms: Distin talks about [a] science, [b] religion, and [c] society), which we inherit (rather than creating from scratch for ourselves).  We cannot decide what memes we will inherit, but we can decide how to use them.  So the situation in which we find ourselves as individuals is one that we control provisionally, not absolutely.
[a] "The structure of the scientific community will also affect the selection pressures on theories: the professional standing of an individual scientist will have a bearing on the reception of his work, and politics will affect funding and thereby the progress that can be made in any given discipline.  The lifespan of novel scientific theories may well be affected by such factors...Thus the memetic perspective on science reveals little that is really surprising, but it does help to demystify some of the processes at work.  Somewhere between the traditional view of scientists as invincible warriors in the battle against ignorance and confusion, and the more recent cynicism about their relationship with government and other vested interests, comes the claim that their work is but one branch of cultural evolution" (187-188).
[b] "On the one hand there is some objective truth about the nature of the universe, our place in it, and whether God exists...On the other hand there are questions about how (or indeed if) we can discover the facts of the matter, and how we feel about what we learn...On the one hand religious ideas, like scientific hypotheses, evolve towards what we hope will be the most accurate possible representations of the world and our place in it...On the other hand these ideas are accepted or rejected by human beings, and it may well be true that some people set aside their usual capacity for rationality and restraint when it comes to religious matters, just as others do when dealing with politics or family feuds" (193-194).
[c] "A significant piece of evidence in favour of gene theory was its ability to explain various apparent empirical contradictions, such as altruism.  Is meme theory able to explain apparent contradictions that arise from gene theory, such as suicide or contraception?  In fact, this seems to be one of the theory's strongest candidates for success.  Clearly, a gene for suicide, self-sacrifice, or contraception could not replicate successfully without various complex strategies to compensate for its lack of fecundity; similarly, at the level of the individual such behavior is inexplicable.  Viewed in meme terms, however, such examples are easily explained [as memes coming through meme-complexes embraced by individual minds]" (195).
"[C]ulture's development will ultimately be determined by a complex interplay between memes and their environment.  The content of those memes, however, is our responsibility" (207).
Distin's discussion raises a number of ideas that help me make sense of my personal experience with culture.  I grew up inside several competing meme-complexes, integrating memes from both "secular" and religious ideologies into my evolving persona (the filter my mind uses to recognize and utilize memes).  Eventually, the persona I was manufacturing became so incoherent that I could not live with the dissonance: the meme-complexes I was integrating into my life contradicted one another in important ways.  I had to make a decision about what filters to use when accepting, using, creating, and handing down my own personal memes.  Being who I am, I did not want to renounce either religion or "secularism" utterly to follow the other: I saw problems with both.  I was (and am) particularly bothered by the fact that all ideologies in practice manifest a tendency to deny, denigrate, and/or otherwise distort anything valuable that lies outside their purview.  My own experience investigating human health shows me that science is no more free from this tendency than religion: no human culture is safe.

So I remain an incurable skeptic: I doubt everything, but especially anything that comes to me lavishly praised by important men in imposing suits.  No organization is above suspicion.  No meme is unquestionably good.  All are potentially useful tools.  All are potentially worthless trash.  The only way to know the difference is to examine them for myself and see what works from my own perspective (which like every perspective is in constant transition, changing all the time: no matter what the men in suits say, no human perspective is permanent; there is no unmoving vantage point from which everything makes the same kind of sense all the time).  This does not mean that I have no values, only that I acknowledge a fact that many people like to deny--the fact that values are re-negotiated every time we make a decision (which is why we have courts of law: they make sure that particularly sensitive decisions get the kind of thorough re-thinking we have learned that they need).  There are no easy answers to any really important questions: the best culture can do is provide you some basic generalities and show you how others have put them to specific practice in the past (whether fictional or historical: from a practical standpoint, these often amount to the same thing).

The great thing about culture as we know it is that it can take all kinds of disparate minutiae (information about things in the external and internal environments of the human being) and turn them into something larger and more powerful than anything any one of us could come up with on her own (like Mormonism or modern, industrialized agriculture).  The terrible thing about culture is that it sometimes produces atrocities (which it is very good at rewriting into acts of heroism).  From my perspective, it will be a long time before I accept anything from any group uncritically again.  In fact, I may never do so.  I can accept that I am human and desire to live safely, happily, securely in a community that "values" me and the stuff I find important.  I can accept that, but I cannot accept achieving it at the price of ignoring the fact that my happiness is built on someone else's misery.  Maybe I do decide to make others miserable (as indeed we all do in order to live); even so, I want to see what I am doing (and at least preserve the capacity to think about ways of alleviating the pain I cause others by existing: think of this as me being selfish if you like--I don't like stepping on your toes on the way to my own happiness, so I look for paths outside of the normal to have my cake and eat it too).  Enough for now.


  1. "This does not mean that I have no values, only that I acknowledge a fact that many people like to deny--the fact that values are re-negotiated every time we make a decision."

    If everything else went over my head at least this point sunk in. It seems like there is no stable place to view the world from. This will never provide us with satisfying concrete answers but I think it is such an important point to recognize. I am interested to reflect more about what this means.

    "I can accept that I am human and desire to live safely, happily, securely in a community that "values" me and the stuff I find important. I can accept that, but I cannot accept achieving it at the price of ignoring the fact that my happiness is built on someone else's misery"

    Such food for thought. Perhaps all we can do is be as constructively critical as possible. We should never find ourselves in a position where we are grounded into our tradition in a way that refuses to accommodate new information and new perspectives.

    It seems the goal should not be seeking answers at all (which is what everyone is happy to provide) as much as nurturing a continual learning process. You live a certain way until perhaps your view is shifted and then you absorb that new information and move forward continually embracing the positive.

  2. "We should never find ourselves in a position where we are grounded into our tradition in a way that refuses to accommodate new information and new perspectives."

    Thanks for this, Chris. I will be putting up something from Jiddhu Krishnamurti soon that resonates very well with it.