etiologue

logue of etion wanderments

Monthly Archives: February 2011

Memes

Memes are a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene and popularised by Daniel Dannett, meme is a concept for explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena via application of evolutionary principles.

Memes evolve by natural selection, like that of biological evolution and they show self-replication, variation, mutation,  competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. Memes are thus analogous to genes. Examples of memes include thoughts,  ideas, theories, practices, habits,  songs, dances, melodies, catch-phrases, fashion and moods and terms such as race, culture  and ethnicity. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and mutate.

While memes are taken as “units” to emphasize their nature to replicate as discrete, indivisible entities, it does not imply quantization as in the case of atoms or like the digital bits and bytes. A meme has no given size and a meme can often be broken into components.

The field of study called memetics arose in the 1990s. Memetics explains, among other things, why science and logic do not always win {because selection favors ideas (memes) that are easy to understand, remember, and copy} and why the most successful memes typically provide superficially plausible answers for complex questions.

Memetics is a subject out of scope for a single blog entry. However, the following might serve as a quick start :

memeplex (or meme complex) is a collection of mutually supporting memes, which tend to replicate together. {Like, a particular religion, idea of human rights, etc.}

Memotype is a meme in the form of information held in an individual’s memory. Thus, it is a meme as contained in your head ( or any particular person’s head).

Mediotype is a meme as expressed in an  external medium, such as a text, an artefact, a song, or a behavior. A very useful mediotype is the internet meme.

Sociotype is the particular form of a meme as held commonly by a group or community of individuals. Like creationists who think Big Bang was a form of creation by God.

Criticism: Memetic theory is hardly discussed in recent texts on evolutionary psychology and linguistics. Memes, after all, are hard to define, quantify, and measure; their very existence is somewhat nebulous, inferable but not scientifically verifiable. Criticism has come from religious quarters, since religions are often reduced to mere memes or memeplexes. Also, the idea of human behavior as nothing but the programming of snippets of information is troubling to many.

A more relevant criticism comes from a still newer field: Epigenetics, saying that the culturally-transmitted behaviours are NOT copied, they are reconstructed from observed behaviours.

References not linked above:

1. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_dennett_on_dangerous_memes.html
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15191323?dopt=Abstract
3. http://science.jrank.org/pages/10160/Meme-Criticism-Memetic-Theory.html
4. http://www.evolutionary-philosophy.net/culture.html
5. http://alife.co.uk/essays/more_memetic_misunderstandings/
6. wikipedia Meme

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Occam’s Razor

Occam’s razor (or the law of parsimony or of economy) is one of the most outrageously abused principles in contemporary rhetoric. The principle that says that explanations should be as simple as possible: “Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate” or “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” Today it means selecting among the competing hypothesis the one that makes the least number of new assumptions, if the hypotheses are otherwise equal … for instance, they (the hypothesis) must account for all available data.

Occam’s razor is NOT considered an irrefutable principle of logic, and certainly NOT a scientific result. It is used as a heuristic (general guiding rule) to guide scientists for developing theoretical models. {Even though Marcus Hutter has shown mathematically that short computable theories have more weight when calculating the expected value of an action across all computable theories which perfectly describe previous observations.}

All justifications for Occam’s Razor ultimately point to convenience of using theories left after Occam’s Razor has been used:

  1. Aesthetically, simpler things are better to work with.
  2. Empirical content of simpler theories is greater and hence they are better testable.
  3. Simpler theories require less information to answer the same questions, hence are more informative.

Weaknesses: It fails as a criteria of prediction. Evidence doesn’t seem noticeably supporting Occam’s razor. In fact, anti-razors have been proposed, more than once (e.g., if three things don’t explain something then add a fourth).

Uses:

  1. In reducing number of competing theories while explaining some phenomena.
  2. Reportedly, the Razor has been occasionally distorted to support argument for ‘budget cuts’ arguing that “what can be done with less is done in vain with more.” … conveniently forgetting the word assumptions.

Many pragmatic philosophers, like Einstein, have cautioned against over-use of the Razor.

One of the more palatable forms of Occam’s Razor is due to Ayn Rand: “Concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity—the corollary of which is: nor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity.”

References not linked above:

  1. http://www.skepdic.com/occam.html
  2. http://www.iep.utm.edu/ockham/