The Social Animal: Social Negotiation

(This post was supposed to go up last night. Oops.)

Over the last few posts we’ve talked about memes and culture and some of the interesting properties therein. This is the last post on that particular string; hopefully it is the one that ties them all together.

Human beings are intensely social creatures. We are constantly communicating with each other, sharing ideas and generating new ones. Most of us would find it intensely uncomfortable to spend even a single day with no outside contact. This heavy socialization is part of what makes memetics so interesting and so powerful; it is an integral part of how our human lives are structured.

The other side of that coin is the subtle realization of just how much of our lives is the result of that socialization. How many of our deeply-held ideas are socially constructed: are, in fact, memes. Let’s start with a big one: language. People already talk, in an unscientific sense, about language “evolving” as new words are coined and unused words die off. Scholars of language probably already know where this is going, but here it is anyways: any language is nothing more than a meme, or a collection of memes. These memes do evolve (for certain meanings of that word) through exactly the mechanisms we’ve already discussed in previous posts.

And because  this evolution is guided by human consciousness at least part of the time (for example, we can explicitly invent new words for new concepts), that makes this evolution also an exercise in negotiation. People try out new ideas, adopt parts they like and discard parts they don’t. They often then use these parts to synthesize a new idea, and broadcast that back into their social group. This is evolution, but the broader pattern resembles negotiation. The entire process could equally be described in terms of offers, counter-offers, compromises, etc.

I find this duality fascinating. Our ideas, our language, our culture have not just evolved the way they are;  they are the result of hundreds (or thousands) of years of social negotiation.

If you want to change the world, you may have to compromise with it along the way.

Applying Genetic Principles to Memetics

Fortunately I don’t have to write much for this particular post, since I’m tired 🙂

When talking about genetics we covered a bunch of interesting ideas and principles: lethal genes, timebombs, diversity, competition, stable strategies, and the so-called “selfish gene“. We’ve just spent some time discussing the interesting principles of memes, and surprise (surprise!) all of the above ideas/principles that we covered in genetics apply as well (sometimes with a bit of tweaking) to memetics.

Beyond pointing that out, there isn’t a lot else I wanted to say. Genes and memes have their differences, but as units of mutation and selection they have way more in common than a lot of people tend to realize.

Memes: Speedy Variation and Double Jeopardy

Random variation and natural selection are simple ideas in reference to genes, but memes don’t quite follow the same rules. Variation occurs, and new memes are born, but calling it random seems disingenuous. Selection also occurs, but calling it natural doesn’t quite fit. Memes can be consciously controlled, which makes them interesting things; unlike genes, they are capable of spreading and mutating amazingly quickly. The internet has made that spread and mutation even faster, to the point where an idea can make it all the way around the world faster than a human being.

Selective pressure, while different, is also much harsher on memes. Not only are boring ideas forgotten, but we can explicitly choose not to pass on ideas that we consider dangerous or wrong. This gives one meaning of the “double jeopardy” in the title. The other, fascinating meaning I was referring to is the interaction of selective pressure from genetics and memetics. The popularity of a particular meme can make a particular gene more or less useful, and vice versa.

This means that for a complete understanding, we cannot study genes and memes separately. Every genetic behavioural trait influences the memes we create and are willing to accept, and every meme we use affects the survival probabilities of our genes. They are tightly interwoven, and the selective pressures between them are therefore in a state of constant feedback.

Culture, Memetics, and Lamarkian Inheritance

Having covered the brain and the mind, we now take a second sharp turn and head in the other direction, in a manner roughly paralleling our previous discussion of biology. This time, however, we will be discussing culture.

We start the concept of a meme, analogous to the biological concept of a gene. The precise definition of a meme is rather controversial, but the definition suggested by Wikipedia will do well enough for us. In fact, on skimming that article, it makes almost all of the points I wanted to make here. Go read it.

The other topic I wanted to cover here is Lamarkian Inheritance. Although it is no longer supported in biological genetics, it is a useful concept to have since it is in some part the method of transmission of memes.