Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The fox (Mark Signorelli) and the sour grapes (meme theory)

The subject is memes. The author criticizes the meme concept and its proponents.

From wikipedia.org (3/10/2010):A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream"[1]) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (The etymology of the term relates to the Greek word μιμητισμός ([mɪmetɪsmos]) for "something imitated".)[2] Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.[3]

(It should also be pointed out that memes originated simply as a metaphor for the way genes transfer genetic information. But the meme concept caught on with intellectuals and the perspective the concept grants has proven itself valuable.)

Is Mr. Signorelli deliberately misrepresenting the meme concept or does he actually lack the acumen to grasp it?

Why is it so hard to understand that extragenic information and behaviors may be replicated from one organism to another, one brain to another? “Monkey see, monkey do” was hardly a new idea when I was a child.

Why is it so hard to understand that in the process of replication the copier may inadvertently or otherwise make minute but distinguishable alterations to the information or behavior? Does Signorelli have no grasp of information theory? He doesn’t address it in the sections to which I subjected myself, but I feel comfortable speculating he does not.

There may yet be no objective way to quantify discrete units of extragenic information or behavior. But they are subject to being copied, to being repeated. Is there a name for these analog bits (pardon the equivocation) of information and behavior? Thanks to Dawkins, there is: memes. And the process by which these memes and their subsequent versions (or perhaps subversions?) are spread (or not) by various means of communication is highly analogous to asexual reproduction or viral pathology and also somewhat analogous to sexual reproduction. (Preexisting memes may interact with new memes to produce something like a hybrid.)

They are also subject to not being copied, of going extinct. For example, in thirty years Dawkins’ books and other writings will likely be available in libraries and online. Signorelli’s? Probably not. The main driving force for replication is interest… how interesting the meme is. That which is interesting is more likely to be repeated/replicated. Factuality and utility may factor into how interesting a meme is. But Cinderella, moon walking (the dance) and (insert your least favorite deity here) are all fictional and (arguably) lack utility. An interesting lie spreads farther and faster than its rebuttal.

But memes, like ideas are not tangible. We can observe an example of an idea but not “ideas” themselves. And while information may be digitized, ideas are a little more slippery. And to use the gene/meme analogy, it is generally a lot easier to identify physical peptide chains that correlate to phenotypes than it is to quantify and display discrete units of replicable analog cultural information.

Neither Dawkins nor the English language are perfect. Dawkins' approach may throw in a dash of dramatic or poetic license to which a willful dissenter might cry foul. And his metaphors, like most metaphors, also leave room for misinterpretation, more so when the interpreter is predisposed to do so. Here too Signorelli is more confounded than confounding.

But to get back to the original question: Is Mr. Signorelli deliberately misrepresenting the meme concept or does he actually lack the acumen to grasp it? While I would like to give Signorelli the benefit of a doubt the vituperation he applies to Dawkins and Dennett strongly suggest a prejudice. It is possible Signorelli only scanned the source material for opportunities to disagree. It is possible that his only exposure to the source material was through a disingenuous third party, perhaps the Discovery Institute? If he were genuinely attempting to refute the theory he has failed. Even the “straw man” he attacks is largely unscathed. The only real damage is to those who are first exposed to the idea of memes through his writing. Upon reflection, his own credibility is damaged as well. So while I can not assert Signorelli is technically lying, I suspect if he were actually capable of understanding the simple idea of “monkey see, monkey do” or the game of “telephone” that he would still do his best (don’t laugh) at trying to refute it.

I'm forced to wonder why Signorelli even wrote this. It reeks of assigned work. The conclusion seems to have been reached before the subject was broached. Did Dawkins and Dennett steal his girl, or otherwise wrong him? Sig (can I call ya Sig?) surely can't have stumbled upon the concept of memes, investigated further and gone into a rage over the audacity of such a flagrantly bogus concept and the detriment that it will or has caused? Even his corrupted perception of memes doesn't warrant his misguided rage.

There's something else at work here, another layer. This isn't just Sig expressing his internal musings. Maybe the piece was commissioned. Maybe he's seeking favor or employment from a think tank or special interest. It could be that he is just a bitter but florid idiot. But it doesn't seem that simple. It doesn't sit right. Something is askew.

Two of the best meme examples I rely on are toilet paper folding and grain floating.

Toilet paper folding. Susan Blackmore gave a TED talk (ted.com) on this phenomenon. It is not quite universal, but extremely common for professional housekeepers to fold the end square of toilet paper. Typically it is folded under creating a triangle. It is actually counter-productive but it signals deliberate and detailed preparation of the facility. Thirty years ago I had never seen an example of this display. I was introduced to this form of "salute" during basic military training in the late eighties. A few years later I would sometimes encounter this display when taking lodging. Many years later it was quite common. And in the last few years I am not likely to notice unless the salute is missing.

Grain floating. I think I may have learned of this from Carl Sagan's 'Dragons of Eden.' The details are fuzzy to my recollection. A group of humans, for a reason I have forgotten, would often have left over grain, possibly rice. They would scatter it outside to be rid of it. Local primates became aware of the routinely available free food and made a practice of collecting and consuming it. (Sort of a meme in itself there) The humans were unhappy with the primates so took to discarding the grain on a convenient beach. It was so difficult for the primates to separate the sand from the grain that most would give up. But one primate took some of the sand/grain and put it in the water where the sand fell away and the grain floated. It continued to do so and the younger members of its social group copied the behavior. The point of the story was the older primates were less receptive to new behavior. But if ever there was an example of a meme, this is it.

Memes exist in the same capacity as consciousness or nature. They may be difficult to pinpoint, define or prove but they give identity to very real phenomena.

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