Thursday, January 08, 2009

Genes and memes, ideas and empty words

Because a large part of the Spanish online community seems to be infected with a meme of a ball that changes its color upon clicking (almost 1 visit to TRF per second, is the reason for the propagation of this meme, or a nonsense of the day, if you wish to follow their terminology), let me write something about the memes.

A few weeks ago, I had an e-mail exchange about memes with a reader of TRF whom I have also met in the real life - unlike many of you. Greetings, Tom.

He argued that the concept of a "meme" is an amazing discovery because it allows us to understand the fascinating phenomenon of a "Mexican wave" that moves around the Earth every 24 hours and that affects a field that is defined as the density of the vibrations of five-inch sticks referred to as toothbrushes. 

How is it possible that these toothbrushes move in unison? It is surely a divine phenomenon proving that memes are jumping in between the brains of different people. And the extraterrestrial aliens would surely be talking about "memes" all the time when their attention would focus on the Mexican wave of toothbrushes on the Earth, Tom argued.  ;-)

As you may expect, I was skeptical about these big assertions about the importance of "memes" because the aliens would probably be thrilled by very different things than "memes" or "toothbrushing waves" and they could even use the toothbrushes themselves in ways that we couldn't have predicted.

So let me defend my viewpoint.

Memes: a few positive words

I am personally using the word "meme", at least sometimes. What does it mean? It is a small idea, an elementary building block of an ideology, a partial method to look at a particular or general problem, or a myth, a joke, or a viral video or another computer file that people send to each other to have some fun, and what is important for every meme is that it can spread just like an infection. It is very stupid to click at the ball in the previous posting. But people are doing it nevertheless. And they lead other people to do the same thing.

There exists a clear analogy of this behavior to the concept of the genes. Much like genes, memes are "selfish", if you allow me to use Dawkins' colorful adjective. They have their own identity - or at least it's the point of "memetics" to imagine that they do - and they want to become more powerful and to control a larger portion of the world. So they are using and abusing the environment in order to spread. Each of them may choose a different strategy.

Genes spread by creating proteins and animals and by forcing the animals to reproduce so that they reproduce the genes (parts of the DNA code), too. Analogously, memes are able to rewire the brains of the people (and animals) and force them to impress (and infect) other people.

To some extent, this analogy works very well. And I remember that as a teenager, I was impressed by the observation that many seemingly different portions of the real world (e.g. evolution of species and development of new graphics cards or anything else, for that matter) share the same qualitative aspects of dynamics such as the competition.

Genes and memes: why we use the word "meme"

This similarity between genes and memes is often helpful to express an idea. Why do I use the word "meme" rather than "idea" or "habit" or something else? It is exactly because of its vagueness. Much like a "gene", "meme" has no moral sign. We don't have to discuss whether the "meme" is correct or incorrect, profound or shallow, moral or immoral. Also, we don't have to discuss the precise methods how the idea is being propagated: the medium is not important.

It is just a piece of "creative information" that we should look at without any emotions. The focus should be on its ability to mutate, propagate, and compete with other memes. That's why some other words such as "ideas", "myths", "habits", "heresies", "world views", "opinions", "beliefs", "slogans", "slanders" are often less appropriate than "memes" because all these words are too specific: they either involve an appraisal of the correctness, depth, or ethics, or they are associated with a very specific medium that carries them or an excessively specific purpose for their propagation. Memes are more general. 

It often happens that the old languages only offer words for rather specific things, and as we're getting wiser, we are inventing new words (or recycling the old words) to refer to more general or more abstract concepts. The reason why the old languages (and our languages in the past) were more specific was that they were mostly created by ordinary people who didn't want to think about too abstract and too general concepts. On the opposite extreme end, philosophers often coin words that are too general to be any useful (for people's practical lives or for genuine understanding of the real world).

Memes: the vagueness is a problem

On the other hand, this vagueness is also the reason why "memes" are not terribly helpful to establish a detailed science. Besides the qualitative similarity with genes explained above, there is nothing deeper to investigate about "memes" unless we know some details about the situation. And once we know the details, we can use the very same methods that people have been using for centuries, long before they knew the word "meme". In other words, we're not learning anything new by the word "meme". People have known for quite some time that it is possible to educate or brainwash other people and to spread opinions, beliefs, or slogans.

When we look at the Mexican wave of toothbrushes, there is really no mystery. This Mexican wave is one of the most mundane (and least important) processes in the world. It is a logical consequence of more elementary processes that we understand pretty well. For a couple of centuries, people were refining their habit to clean their teeth: see the history of toothbrushing. It made their breath fresher which made the people more attractive and it arguably lowered the probability of toothaches in the future, so they were rewarded. A reward is the main reason why habits propagate.

And the parents realized this advantage (or hypothetical advantage) so they were leading their children to do the same thing, before the kids become able to decide for themselves. To educate them, parents give chocolates to the kids because they were brushing their teeth yesterday. There is also an explanation why people usually do this activity in the morning or the evening which, together with the known patterns of the Earth's rotation, explains the geometric structure of the Mexican wave in spacetime.

The other side, Tom, argued that the discovery of the meme was as important as Mendel's discovery of genes or Darwin's discovery of natural selection which is the kind of statements that make me go ballistic. You know, Darwin's discovery was one of the deepest paradigm shifts ever. It introduced a new, obviously correct theory whose explanation of the world around - and the historical events - completely contradicted pretty much all the beliefs of intellectuals up to Darwin's times. And Darwin actually had to face some backlash, much like nearly all people who discover something important.

On the other hand, the concept of a meme is just a recycled idea of a gene, so it is nothing new, and it offers no new explanation of the observed phenomena and their history (e.g. tooth brushing). It doesn't change the people's opinions about any particular events in the past or in the future. In this sense, it is a vacuous word. I view the difference between "knowing something" and "knowing the name of something" equally sharply as Richard Feynman did. Recall that in Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman, a section called Is Electricity Fire?, he wrote about an interdisciplinary conference:
There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read - something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn't make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn't read any of the books on that list. I had this uneasy feeling of "I'm not adequate," until finally I said to myself, "I'm gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means."

So I stopped - at random - and read the next sentence very carefully. I can't remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: "The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels." I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? "People read."

Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became a kind of empty business: sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio," and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn't understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.
Incidentally, in this interview, Feynman humiliates both the habit to brush the teeth (at the beginning of the video: Gell-Mann told me that Feynman's teeth were in a really bad shape because of his brave opposition to this habit!) as well as the desire of many people to learn the names of things instead of learning things (at 4:00).

The concept of a "meme", if sold as deep science, is analogous to the "members of social communities who receive the information via visual, symbolic channels" in the quotation above. Why don't we just say that "people read"? And why don't we simply say that brushing the teeth is a "habit" rather than a "meme"? Sometimes I am not sure whether some people only want to look "smart" by using an unnecessarily sophisticated jargon, or whether they really believe that it is deep.

Sequences of bases

There is one more scientific problem with the "meme" that makes it inferior to the concept of a "gene": the vagueness is guaranteed to be permanent. You know, genes have been known to be rather sharply defined from the very beginning. A gene may be responsible for the color of your eyes that can be brown or blue and the intermediate colors are encountered rather rarely, at least in some communities. 

It follows that there has to be a rather discrete piece of information that decides about your eye color. People have realized this fact for more than a century. The only major qualitative advance of the 20th century biology was the discovery of the molecular basis of genetics - the science of DNA. It showed us that the information is much more discrete and rigid than anyone has thought. We're genetically more similar to computer programs than to the mushed potatoes. But the DNA discoveries haven't really changed anything about our knowledge concerning the macroscopic working of the rules of genetics.

While genes are described by sharp, binary information encoded in the base sequences - using letters "A C G T" for the DNA or "A C G U" for the RNA - memes are almost certainly guaranteed to be associated with no specific sharp information. In fact, it is likely that the details of every idea are stored differently in the brain of each of us. The idea, or a "meme", has to use the existing wiring of our brains, but because the latter depends on our genetics as well as the previous learning and experience, the rewiring necessary for us to accept the "meme" is different for every human being.

When "memes" are propagated via computers, one can see that they are carried by pretty much universal sequences of bits and bytes: they're various computer programs, pictures,  viruses, and trojan horses. In the computer world, the concept of a "meme" is perhaps closer to a "gene" than the "memes" in the purely human world. But in this computer context, we surprisingly like to use other, more specific terms, such as "viral videos".

At any rate, the "meme" can be a useful term but we should never pretend that a new word to be used for an old, well-known object or phenomenon is a big discovery equivalent to Darwin's breakthrough. It's usually not. And if our predictions for all the future events and our guesses about the past events remain unchanged once the new concept is introduced, we should admit that the new concept is nothing else than a word, a piece of linguistics or culture without a scientific value. The word "meme" is just a meme, after all.

And that's the memo.

1 comment:

  1. Nice, even generous, post.
    Both Mary Midgley (who I review at and David Stove (who I review at ) had some rather unkinder things to say about memes.