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On Modelling in Memetics - Bruce Edmonds

3 A Priori Models

The first type of model I will discuss takes a foundationalist approach. That is it examines the conditions under which an cultural evolutionary process may occur. This is the approach taken by Dawkins in
[7], where he states the thesis that in the presence of a new replicator an evolutionary process is "inevitable". A good example of this type of model is Calvin [4]. Such works attempt to establish that if certain facts are true then a memetic process will (generally) occur. They thus attempt to build forward explanations in a manner that in terms of theory is top-down (i.e. it starting with abstract considerations and concluding with the phenomena of evolutionary process, see figure 1).

One of the weaknesses of such types of models, when considered in isolation from others, is that the link to real-world (concrete) models is weak. Typically in such works the examples to support such models are of a very high level, involving such complex phenomena as history or religion. The complete demonstration that the abstractly motivated, a priori model would actually show that such complex phenomena are explained by memetic process can, at best, only be sketched and, at worst, is left solely to the imagination due to the fact that it is merely assumed.

This sort of assumption (that the complete explanatory chain can be built from such abstract considerations for a wide range of cultural phenomena) can be taken to ridiculous extremes, so that it may be taken as read that almost all cultural phenomena are due to memetic processes (I am not saying that Calvin is necessarily doing so). But the building of such a credible explanatory chain from theory to phenomena is not so easy - this (if and where it is possible) will be long and arduous. It is extremely tempting to attempt to short-cut the process.

One such temptation is to weaken the meaning of key terms in evolutionary models to ensure that the phenomena is a `memetic' one. One such weakening is to call any process which includes some variation and selection an evolutionary one. This has the effect of losing some of the meaning of memetic models - after all, if one did succeed in choosing ones terms such that one could prove that many processes were memetic then one would have also proved that such a theory had no empirical foundation; it would be a merely formal proposition. Memetics could become like economics, where certain assumptions, processes and goals are taken as a priori*1 so that the gap between the theory and real-life becomes increasingly wide.

If memetics is to be a substantive theory of cultural processes (as opposed to just one of many equivalent descriptive frameworks), it has to be possible that some cultural process is not designated by the theory to be of an evolutionary nature. Otherwise we would be left with a non-falisfiable construct since its truth would be independent of the actual processes studied [19].

Let me propose one such process: deductive inference. Here, one or more pieces of information act up on each other to form a new piece of information such that the status of this new information is such that it derives from the status of the old information (and the process by which it is combined). This is an example of variation that is not blind; the variant is produced so that we have some assurance that it will be satisfactory before that selection process is actually applied to it. Such blindness is Heylighen's criteria for an evolutionary process [12]. The difference between an evolutionary process and, what I call an `intentional' process is illustrated below in figure 2 and figure 3.

Figure 2. An evolutionary mechanism

Figure 3. An `intentional' mechanism

Thus, an evolutionary mechanism is one where the variations are produced without `consideration' as to whether they are likely to be selected, while an `intentional' one is where the variation is biased so as to produce variations that are likely to be selected. A consequence of this is that in an evolutionary process it is the process of selection that is critical for the process (since the process of variation can of many types as long as it produces sufficient variability and is blind to the selection), while in an intentional process it is frequently the variation process that is critical. A memetic model is an evolutionary model whose subject is the (cultural) transmission of information between peers.

Since I take a constructivist approach to knowledge, I see the distinction between `evolutionary' and `intentional' mechanisms as being primarily a property of the model of the process concerned and only by extension (via the success or otherwise of the model) to the process being modelled. Of course, many of the thought processes of humans can be modelled as either evolutionary or `intentional' processes (or, indeed, a mixed of both). I would argue that it would be clearer to say that such processes have memetic aspects (to a greater or lesser degree), rather than to simply class them as memetic, since otherwise we are in danger of losing some of the meaning of the term.

Deductive inference is an extreme example of an `intentional' process - in deduction the operators of variation (for example modus ponens) are such that they only produce the desired results, i.e. logical consequences. Thus such inference (if and where it occurs) is a good candidate for a process that may act upon information but is not a memetic one. Of course, many examples that are sensibly categorised as inferential may be seen as a result of an evolutionary processes when the best model of the mechanisms that implement that top-level process have an evolutionary structure. However, the presence of such evolutionary sub-processes do not weaken the claim that top-level process, of which it these are but constituents, is essentially not an evolutionary one. The fact that evolutionary processes can implement inferential ones and vice versa does not mean there is not a meaningful and important distinction between them, just as the fact that discrete and continuous mechanisms can implement each other does not mean that there is no difference between them*2.

Unless we want to follow the sterile route of a priori economics then we have to ensure that the explanatory chain from abstract model to real-world relevance is really built rather than merely assumed. The a priori models should be allowed to survive only if such explanatory chains establishing their relevance are established.

On Modelling in Memetics - Bruce Edmonds - 18 AUG 98
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