30 November 2010

Comments on Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson's article

 I wish to make comments on Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson's article:
“Memes: Universal acid or better mousetrap.”
Published in the following book :
Darwinizing Culture.
The status of memetics as a science.
Edited by Robert Aunger.
Foreword by Daniel Dennett.
With contributions from:
Robert Aunger, Susan Blackmore, Maurice Bloch, Robert Boyd, Rosaria Conte, David L.Hull, Adam Kuper, Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee, Henry Plotkin, Peter J. Richerson, Dan Sperber.

In this instance, once again I would like to show how Boyd and Richerson misunderstand the very concept of replicator, and consequently offer a critique of memetics which is not as constructive as it could have been. 
Furthermore, I want to challenge Boyd and Richerson suggestion that population thinking is a better way to looking at cultural evolution.

Boyd and Richerson first introduce replicators as “material objects that are faithfully copied”. It certainly isn't Richard Dawkin's view who described replicators as “any entity in the universe of which copies are made”. Indeed an “entity” is not necessarily a “material object” and by limiting their horizon of possibilities, Boyd and Richerson limit their own understanding of memetics. We will see later how this leads to confusion.

Further down in the article Boyd and Richerson make another mistake about replicators and write:

In The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins (1982) argues that the cumulative evolution of complex adaptations requires what he calls replicators, things in the physical world that produce copies of themselves, and have the three additional properties:

  1. Fidelity. The copying must be sufficiently accurate so that even after a long chain of copies the replicator remains almost unchanged.
  2. Fecundity. At least some varieties of the replicator must be capable of generating more than one copy of themselves.
  3. Longevity. Replicators must survive long enough to affect their own rate of replication.

From reading this it appears that Boyd and Richerson didn't understand Richard Dawkin's definitions.
First of all, fidelity means that replicators remain unchanged and not “almost” unchanged. A replicator that changes is not a replicator. If an instance of a replicator mutates then it is a whole new potential replicator that appears. This new replicator is instantly in competition for survival against the very replicator from which it originated. Richard's point about fidelity is that it needs to be not 100% perfect so as to allow mutations to happen, new replicators to appear, and evolution to occur by selecting the best replicators.

Secondly, technically, all replicators do not need to generate more than one copy of themselves. What Richard meant to say is that the higher the fecundity the higher the chances of survival. In other words, natural selection will usually (but not always) favour higher fecundity.

Finally, replicators obviously live long enough to affect their own replication rate otherwise they wouldn't replicate at all! Again, what Richard meant here is that the longer a replicator lives the more chances it has to have an opportunity to get copied.  

It is very unfortunate that Boyd and Richerson misrepresent Richard's ideas in such a way. Because of this misunderstanding they then criticise memetics for the wrong reasons.

Now let's move on to Boyd and Richerson's argument in favour of population thinking. They write:

In this chapter we want to convince you that population thinking, not natural selection, is the key to conceptualising culture in terms of material causes. This argument is based on three well-established facts.

  1. There is persistent cultural variation among human groups. Any explanation of human behaviour must account for how this variation arises and how it is maintained.
  2. Culture is information stored in the human brain's. Every human culture contains vast amounts of information. Important components of this information are stored in human brain.
  3. Culture is derived. The psychological mechanisms that allow culture to be transmitted arose in the course of hominid evolution. Culture is not simply a by-product of intelligence and social life.

They then develop each point in the following chapters.
In the first Chapter Boyd and Richerson advocate the group theory of evolution. Valid points  against this view of evolution have been made before and I am not going to repeat them here. All I want to say here is that however seductive and intuitive the group theory may seem it nevertheless lacks any strong theoretical model in the sense that in group theory no one knows what is being selected. I believe that group theory may be a convenient tool for studying some evolutionary patterns but gives no real explanation for how evolution occurs. Also, I don't think it will apply any better to cultural evolution than it does to biological evolution.

In the second chapter, Boyd and Richerson argue that the majority of culture is stored in our brains, rather than in artefacts for example. They also argue that culture is not stored in our genes, or in other words, that genes have very little role to play in the differences that we can see in different cultures. The points Boyd and Richerson make are very good I find. The only issue with this lies in the definition of culture. Indeed culture lacks a clear definition today and any attempt at studying it begs the question “what is culture?”. If we were to to transpose the idea of culture to genes, what would you call the “genetic culture”? Is it the genotype? Is it the phenotypes? Is it the living cells and bodies? Is it all of it? Or is the question irrelevant? 
In my view, if I may share it at this point, we should maybe forget about culture for a second and think about culture from a replicator point of view, where there are only two things: the replicator and its phenotype. In my view, which I argue in my articles, what's in our brains are only the phenotypes of the memes and the memes exist only momentarily through the various media that we use to communicate them, such as light waves, sound waves, etc. If you want to know more, visit my online articles :

In the third chapter, Boyd and Richerson introduce the concept of local enhancement. They explain how a mother monkey can take its baby monkey to places where the baby monkey will learn new tricks, not through looking at his mother, but through his own exploration. Therefore there is a kind of inherited behaviour linked to the habits of the parent without having children directly copying them.

I find it to be a very interesting point, but unfortunately, from the replicator's perspective there is no reason to see anything cultural here. There are no replicators involved in this process, Boyd and Richerson say it themselves, but the fact that they nonetheless consider this as being cultural material is, in my view, highly doubtful. If you consider local enhancement as being able to create any “cultural material” then suddenly an awful lot of biological behaviours become cultural too. Is the fact that salmon goes back to the place where it was born cultural? Is the fact that the next generations of plants grow in the same place cultural? There is just as much local enhancement here and yet you wouldn't call this cultural.
In my opinion, Boyd and Richerson are very confused about the nature of culture. They see culture where it is not, where biological processes are enough to explain the observed behaviours without needing to introduce a hypothetical culture.

Boyd and Richerson go on to try and show that there can be no replicators inside our brains because there is no way to prove that the way one brain learns a behaviour is the same as the way another brain learns it. I perfectly agree with their position here and they make their point very well. The problem here is though, that they conclude that culture may not need replicators to exist. All I want to say here is that the fact that memes are not in brains does not mean that memes don't exist. I go back to my own ideas here which are that memes are actually travelling on the media that we use to communicate, and that our cultural brain structures are the phenotypes of these memes.

Boyd and Richerson then go even further and attempt to give their “coup de grâce” to the meme idea. They try to show that the copying process is too weak to allow the existence of memes. For example, in the pronunciation of certain sounds, we never copy exactly the sound of our parents or others, we don't necessarily either find the average pronunciation, but we create our own version that fits best us and our environment. Therefore, according to them there is no replicator here but there is nonetheless a cultural transmission and evolution taking place.
The problem of the fidelity in the copying process of memes is a big and serious issue that they do well to bring up. Dan Sperber also points the finger at this problem in his own article.
I myself advocate that memetics suffers from a serious lack of definition and it comes down to  two central questions. These are the two questions that Richard Dawkins left unanswered for us in his own definition of the replicator:

A replicator may be defined as any entity in the universe of which copies are made.
( Richard Dawkins 1976 )

And the real questions that need answering are:
What is a copy ?
What is the entity being copied ?

That is the very reason why I offer my own definitions in my articles to try and be as precise and accurate in order to have meaningful tools to develop memetics. One of the key elements to defining a true copy is to define a reference, a point from which two entities can be compared. For this purpose I introduced the concept of reader. In my theory, the reader and the replicators are part of a necessary system, together with the environment. The concept of reader is nothing magical and is a rather simple idea which efficiently helps answering the questions of copying fidelity, and others. The concept of reader makes the concept of copy a relativistic concept instead of an absolute concept as it is usually understood. The definition of reader comes together with a better definition of the replicator.

I invite you to read my articles on the subject here :

As always, comments are very welcome.

13 November 2010

Why is football (soccer) so popular?

I enjoy practicing this sport but I don’t really like watching it on TV and, following the latest World Cup I found myself wondering what makes this sport so popular.

There are fairly obvious reasons that come to mind, for example, its simple rules and the fact that anyone can play, with the only things required being a ball, a rather small group of people and goals which can be symbolized by simple objects placed on the ground. This makes football easy to take up among younger people who will retain an interest for this sport when growing up. It is different for basketball for example where you need baskets at a certain height. It is worse for tennis where you need several balls, rackets and nets, and I don’t need to mention windsurfing and even car racing.

In contrast, Football surprisingly lacks any serious action on the field. The games are rather long, offer few interesting actions and very few successful ones. This already makes the game fairly frustrating to watch but it gets worse when half the players spend their time simulating faults and injuries and thus killing the little action there is.

In comparison, tennis and basketball (and most other ball sports) provide sustained levels of action and no shortage of twists. Motorsports offer spectacular views, thrilling actions and impressive technology. The Olympic Games offer variety, etc.

So why on earth do people love football so much?

I will put forward a possible argument, among many others, and which probably does not tell the whole story in itself but which I think is relevant.

The results of a football game are very random. The great difficulty with scoring goals in football means that many goals are the combined result of talented players (of course) but mostly of a good amount of luck. Often a goal is reached as a result of a gross error, or fatigue, or simply a momentary chaotic disruption. In effect, a single little random mistake can lead to a goal and a victory.

This has the effect of creating two major problems. One is that the goals are the result of a lottery and the other is that goals are rare.
Imagine for a second that a tennis match would end after scoring three points. Knowing how tennis works you would think with reason that the results are rarely representative of the quality of the players. Why? Because with only three points, chances are that the wind, the sun, a damaged soil and whatever else, can easily change the results. Too few scores leave too much room for chance.

The lack of goals added to the randomness of their occurrence means that the outcome of a football match is highly unpredictable.

What are the consequences of this unpredictability? Well it means that any team, as long as it meets a team of similar level, always has a chance to win a match at one point or another. And that is what's great for the fans because it allows them to have hope in the fact that their team can win.

If the results are too predictable, where is the interest in watching the game when the outcome is easy to anticipate? In a way this is the problem with tennis or athletics. If the athlete that you support isn’t the best you already know against whom he or she will lose the advantage, with little hope in things happening differently.

Olympic Games compensate for this problem by having a variety of disciplines and increasing the chances that there is a sport in which your country excels.

In conclusion, a sport in which chance plays an important part gives fans a greater chance of seeing their team win, even against better teams, and thus more efficiently keeping its supporters loyal.

19 October 2010

Ma théorie mémétique

Please visit: http://memelogic.blogspot.co.uk/ 

Bienvenue à Meme Logic

Meme Logic a pour objectif de présenter mes réflexions sur la mémétique dans le but de faire avancer, dans la mesure de mes moyens, cette nouvelle science.

La mémétique étant une jeune science, de nombreux avis divergent et les approches sont variées. Comme le titre l’indique mon approche sera basée autant que possible sur la raison et la logique. Nous essaierons ainsi d’amener la mémétique à être une science la plus rigoureuse possible.

Mon approche se veut fidèle aux principes fondamentaux qui l’ont faite émerger. A la base de la mémétique se trouve la théorie de l’évolution de Charles Darwin et le principe de réplicateur universalisé par Richard Dawkins.

La théorie de l’évolution est centrale à deux points de vue. Elle nous permet de comprendre les principes de l’évolution qui s’appliquent en mémétique et elle nous explique en grande partie les raisons de l’émergence de la culture.

Le concept de réplicateur est l’outil qui nous permet de comprendre les mécanismes de l’évolution de manière logique et rigoureuse et construire un modèle puissant.

J'espère que vous trouverez Meme Logic instructif.

Ce site est régulièrement mis à jour et vous êtes invité(e) à y laisser vos commentaires.

Commentaires sur "L'évolution du meme" par K. Laland et J. Odling-Smee

Commentaires sur "L'évolution du meme" (The evolution of the meme) par Kevin Laland et John Odling-Smee. Je voudrais m'essayer à commenter certains des articles rassemblés dans le livre suivant:

Darwinizing Culture.
The status of memetics as a science.
Edité par Robert Aunger.
Préface de Daniel Dennett.
Avec les contributions de:
Robert Aunger, Susan Blackmore, Bloch Maurice, Robert Boyd, Rosaria Conte, David L. Hull, Kuper Adam, Laland Kevin, John Odling-Smee, Plotkin Henry, Peter J. Richerson, Dan Sperber.

Je vais commencer par l'article intitulé «L'évolution du mème" par Kevin Laland et John Odling-Smee.

Je veux montrer que Kevin Laland et John Odling-Smee comprennent mal le concept de mème et, plus précisément, le concept de réplicateur, ce qui, du fait, discrédite quelque peu le point de vue qu'ils présentent dans leur article.

K. Laland et J. Odling-Smee introduisent un concept de construction de niche (de l'anglais “niche construction” ) qui est très intéressant en soi et l'appliquent à l'idée du mème pour essayer de comprendre comment les mèmes ont vu le jour. La « construction de niche » peut être considérée comme une transformation de l'environnement par les organismes vivants qui modifie à son tour la pression sélective sur ces mêmes organismes et leurs descendants. K. Laland et J. Odling-Smee présentent ici des arguments très valables, mais étrangement semblent passer complètement à côté de l'idée des mèmes de Dawkins. Ils écrivent:

(Traduction de l'anglais par moi-même.)
Qu'est-ce qui détermine si un mème se propage? Pour Dawkins (1976), les mèmes, comme tous les réplicateurs, se répandent si ils bénéficient d'une haute fidélité, fécondité et longévité. Dans les discussions mémétiques, chacune de ces propriétés est habituellement traitée comme si elle était une caractéristique intrinsèque du mème.

K. Laland et J. Odling-Smee semblent critiquer le fait que ces caractéristiques sont «intrinsèques». C'est là qu'ils se trompent, car en effet ces caractéristiques sont très exactement intrinsèque. Elles le  sont, tout simplement par définition. Ce n'est pas que certains mèmes pourraient avoir ces qualités et d'autres  pas, c'est que tout ce qui possède ces caractéristiques est un réplicateur et ceux qui n'ont pas ces caractéristiques ne peuvent tout simplement pas être considérés comme des réplicateurs. Ce regrettable malentendu entraine une confusion, par exemple, quand ils écrivent:

(Traduction de l'anglais par moi-même.)
[...] des études sur l'apprentissage social chez des espèces aussi diverses que les rats, les pigeons et les guppys suggèrent que ces animaux adoptent parfois une stratégie de type «fais-ce-que-la-majorité-fait» (Laland et al. 1996b). Dans de tels cas, la probabilité qu'une personne adopte un mème ne dépend pas de la contagiosité de ce mème, mais du nombre de personnes exprimant déjà le comportement associé à ce mème.

Encore une fois, si un mème, ou tout autre réplicateur, ne parvient pas à être copié, c'est précisément parce qu'il a perdu sa contagiosité, et il l'a perdu parce que l'environnement a changé, transformant ainsi ce qui était auparavant un réplicateur à succès, en un non-réplicateur. C'est peut-être ce point que K. Laland et J. Odling-Smee n'ont pas saisi. C'est la relation entre l'environnement et le réplicateur qui définit un réplicateur. Si l'environnement change, la nature même des réplicateurs doit être réexaminée.

Ce problème de définition porte une ombre sur leur argumentation globale de la construction de niche qui est, en dehors de çà, pleine d'informations pertinentes sur les processus évolutifs et très certainement intéressante à lire.

Commentaires sur "Une objection à l'approche mémétique de la culture." par Dan Sperber

 Je souhaite émettre quelques commentaires sur l'article de Dan Sperber:
"Une objection à l'approche mémétique de la culture"
Publié dans le livre suivant :

Darwinizing Culture.
The status of memetics as a science.
Edité par Robert Aunger.
Préface de Daniel Dennett.
Avec les contributions de:
Robert Aunger, Susan Blackmore, Bloch Maurice, Robert Boyd, Rosaria Conte, David L. Hull, Kuper Adam, Laland Kevin, John Odling-Smee, Plotkin Henry, Peter J. Richerson, Dan Sperber.

Il y a trois points sur lesquels je voudrais intervenir.
Tout d'abord, la représentation que fait Dan Sperber du concept de Richard Dawkins, que je pense erronée.
Deuxièmement, la critique de Dan Sperber sur l'argument du téléphone arabe de Richard Dawkins.
Troisièmement, l'argument final de Dan de la « déduction » contre la « copie ».

1 /
Dan Sperber semble avoir mal compris, ou du moins mal représenté, le concept de mème comme Richard Dawkins l'a décrit.
Dan Sperber écrit (traduit de l'anglais par moi-même.):

Richard Dawkins définit les «mèmes», comme des réplicateurs culturels se propageant par imitation, dans un processus de sélection, et sont sélectionnés non dans l'intérêt de leurs véhicules, les humains, mais dans leur propre intérêt.

Richard Dawkins a en effet défini les mèmes comme des réplicateurs mais il ne dit pas qu'ils ne profitent qu'à eux-mêmes tel que Dan le sous-entend. Oui, ils travaillent pour eux-mêmes, mais ils peuvent aussi travailler au bénéfice de leurs hôtes, et il n'y a rien dans la définition d'un réplicateur qui l’empêche. S'aider soi-même n'est pas exclusif d'aider les autres. En outre, la plupart des réplicateurs travaillent pour eux-mêmes tout simplement en travaillant pour leurs hôtes, parce que c'est leur meilleur moyen de réplication. Dans la plupart des cas, il est dans l'intérêt direct du réplicateur de bénéficier à son hôte, et on peut s'attendre à ce qu'il en soit de même pour les mèmes.

Dan dit ensuite que les mèmes sont des éléments agressifs tels que les chain-letters ou encore, il suggère que ce point de vue considère les mèmes comme envahissant et recrutant les esprits pour poursuivre leur propagation. Ici Dan utilise un langage qui personnifie les mèmes d'une manière contre laquelle Richard Dawkins a toujours mis en garde. Les mèmes (et les gènes) n'envahissent ni ne recrutent, ils se trouvent simplement être copiés avec succès. Les mèmes ne sont pas conscients et ils n'ont pas de plans. Le choix de vocabulaire de Dan n'aide certainement pas à se faire une bonne idée sur le sujet et dénature la vision de Dawkins.

2 /
Dan Sperber réagit ensuite à l'un des arguments de Richard Dawkins où Richard tente de plaider en faveur de l'existence des mèmes. Je ne vais pas revenir sur l'argument de Richard, qui pourrait bien être critiqué, je vais me concentrer uniquement sur l'argument de Dan, qui peut être analysée en soi.

Dan commence par donner une définition de la copie. C'est une initiative intelligente et je crois moi-même qu'il est important de définir ce concept très clairement. J'en fait la tentative dans mon travail théorique et j'expliquerai plus loin comment la définition de Dan est bonne mais, à mon avis, incomplète. Voici la définition de Dan Sperber (traduit de l'anglais par moi-même.):

Permettez-moi [...] de définir trois conditions minimales pour une véritable réplication.
Pour que B soit une réplique de A,
  1. B doit être causé par A (en présence de l'environnement nécessaire),
  2. B doit, de façon pertinente, être similaire à A, et
  3. Le processus qui génère B doit obtenir l'information qui le rend similaire à A à partir de A.

Dans un exercice de pensée, Dan explique que lorsque les gens copient un dessin aléatoire de mémoire, ils ont beaucoup de mal, mais quand ils copient de mémoire une forme reconnaissable comme une étoile à cinq branches, ils réussissent très bien. Dan explique que s'ils réussissent aussi bien ce n'est pas parce qu'ils copient l’étoile, mais parce qu'ils créent un nouveau dessin de ce qu'ils ont reconnu comme une étoile bien connue.
Par conséquent Dan affirme que, dans ce cas, la condition (3) de sa définition n'est pas remplie, en d'autres termes que le nouveau dessin d'étoile n'est pas une copie directe résultant des détails de la première étoile, mais plutôt une simple reproduction de l'étoile qui était déjà connue avant l'exercice.

J'ai deux objections simples à proposer.

Premièrement, même si la copie n'est pas une copie de l'étoile donnée dans l'exercice, il y a néanmoins une copie qui est faite de la toute première étoile que nous avons connue bien avant l'exercice. En effet, il devait y avoir une première exposition initiale à l'étoile dans le passé afin que l'étoile puisse ensuite être reproduite à nouveau dans cet exercice futur. Ceci suggère que même si le processus de copie que Dan critique n'est en effet pas un processus réel de copie, il peut y avoir malgré tout un processus de copie sous-jacent, sur une échelle de temps plus large. Donc, si l'on considère l'exercice à plus grande échelle, nous pourrions voir que cette condition (3) est bel et bien remplie, sauf que ce n'est pas le même objet A qui doit être considéré, A étant la première étoile que l'on ai connu.

Deuxièmement, il y a malgré-tout quelque chose qui est copié dans cet exercice, même si l'on copie un dessin aléatoire. Les gens ne copient pas simplement le dessin, ils copient différents aspects du dessin. L'un d'eux, par exemple, est le fait que c'est un dessin au trait, que la ligne est sombre et que c'est sur un morceau de matériau plat de couleur claire. Tous ces éléments peuvent être copiés fidèlement indépendamment du fait que le dessin lui-même soit ressemblant ou non, et sans doute, même si la personne qui fait la copie n'a jamais utilisé un stylo et du papier auparavant. Ainsi, d'une certaine façon, il est injuste de dire qu'il n'y a pas de copie dans cet exercice. A mon avis, ces points ne doivent pas être minimisés, de plus qu'encore une fois ils satisfont les critères de Dan.

Par ailleurs, Dan ignore la complexité inhérente à un dessin aléatoire. Les informaticiens savent trop bien que des données aléatoires sont les plus difficiles à stocker, car elles sont incompressibles, en d'autres termes il n'y a pas de règles qui permettraient de les stocker d'une manière simple. Il en va de même pour notre cerveau. Par conséquent lors de la copie d'un dessin aléatoire il faut mémoriser beaucoup plus de détails que lors de la copie d'une forme géométrique par exemple.
Une autre façon de voir les choses, c'est qu'une forme aléatoire ferait un bien mauvais réplicateur, car elle exige plus d'efforts pour être retenue. Par conséquent, il n'y a pas à s’étonner que le dessin aléatoire sera moins bien copié qu'une étoile à cinq branche bien régulière.

3 /
Le dernier point de Dan est probablement son argument le plus important contre la mémétique.

L'argument est très simple et est plus ou moins ceci : Quand un enfant apprend à parler, elle apprend naturellement la grammaire, bien que personne ne lui ait explicitement enseigné les règles de grammaire. C'est parce que les règles de grammaire doivent être déduites du contexte par l'enfant, grâce à sa propension génétique à le faire.
Par conséquent, Dan suggère à juste titre que la grammaire, et très probablement notre culture dans son ensemble, ne s'apprend pas à travers un processus de copie mais par un processus de déduction, ce qui, si tel était le cas, compromettrait sérieusement l'idée même de mèmes.

Ironiquement, Dan propose une solution à sa propre question, et il nous suffit d'appliquer sa propre définition de réplication. Voici le résultat:

La règle de grammaire B est une réplique de la règle de grammaire A, car:
  1. la règle de grammaire B est causée par la règle de grammaire A (en présence de l'environnement nécessaire),
  2. la règle de grammaire B est, de façon pertinente, semblable à la règle de grammaire A, et
  3. Le processus qui génère la règle de grammaire B, obtient l'information qui fait la règle de grammaire B similaire à la règle de grammaire A à partir de la règle de grammaire A.

Mais, au mieux, cela montre seulement que Dan n'est pas tout à fait cohérent avec ses propres idées. Cela ne dit pas si sa définition de la réplication est bonne, ni si ce contre-argument est valable.

Pour répondre à cette question nous avons simplement besoin de revenir à la définition originale du réplicateur et poser la question suivante : existe-t-il une entité, telle une règle de grammaire A, qui soit reproduite avec succès et durablement dans une population? Je crois que nous pouvons répondre par l'affirmative en toute confiance, et c'est tout ce qu'il faut pour que la règle de grammaire A corresponde à la définition de réplicateur. Ainsi, la nature culturelle de la règle de grammaire A en fait un réplicateur culturel, c'est à dire un mème.

Du point de vue du mème, il importe peu de savoir si il existe une propension génétique pour les règles de grammaire ou non, c'est le résultat qui compte, à savoir, s'il est répliqué ou non. Mais, la question importe d'un point de vue mémétique et évolutif, afin de comprendre ce qui va déterminer laquelle de toutes les règles de grammaire aura le plus de succès. Une propension génétique pour l'apprentissage des règles de grammaire joue en effet un rôle de catalyseur pour ce type de mème.

Mon impression générale de l'objection de Dan Sperber, est que Dan n'a peut-être pas bien compris tous les détails de l’idée de Dawkins. Ainsi, Dan s'efforce malheureusement de critiquer une fausse idée de la mémétique. C'est regrettable vu la qualité de l'esprit analytique de Dan Sperber.

C'est la raison pour laquelle j'ai toujours essayé de montrer combien il est important de comprendre l'idée du réplicateur et être en mesure de prendre le point de vue du mème sur la culture. Ce n'est pas vraiment le travail de Richard que j'essaie de défendre ici, mais l'idée du réplicateur. C'est une idée extrêmement puissante qui a été remarquablement transmise et développée par Richard Dawkins, mais j'ai également ma propre opinion sur certains aspects de la mémétique, et je pense qu'il y a encore beaucoup à faire.
J'ai moi-même proposé une définition de ce qu'est une copie, et aussi de ce que sont un réplicateur et un mème. Je crois que nous pouvons être plus précis dans ces définitions de manière à laisser moins de place à l'ambiguïté et j'espère qu'elles seront utiles pour bâtir un meilleur modèle de la mémétique. Je vous invite à lire mes définitions dans ma tentative théorique en ligne:
Tout commentaire sera le bienvenu.

18 October 2010

Comments on "An objection to the memetic approach of culture." by Dan Sperber

 I wish to try and make comments on Dan Sperber's article: 
“An objection to the memetic approach of culture”
Published in the following book :
Darwinizing Culture.
The status of memetics as a science.
Edited by Robert Aunger.
Foreword by Daniel Dennett.
With contributions from:
Robert Aunger, Susan Blackmore, Maurice Bloch, Robert Boyd, Rosaria Conte, David L.Hull, Adam Kuper, Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee, Henry Plotkin, Peter J. Richerson, Dan Sperber.

There are three main points I want to comment on.
First, Dan Sperber's representation of Richard Dawkin's concept which I think is mistaken.
Second, Dan's critic of Richard's Chinese whispers argument.
Third, Dan's final argument against memetics of inference VS copying.

Dan Sperber seems to misunderstand, or at least misrepresent, the concept of meme as Richard Dawkins introduced it.
Dan Sperber writes:

Richard Dawkins defines “memes” as cultural replicators propagated through imitation, undergoing a process of selection, and standing to be selected not because they benefit their human carriers, but because they benefit themselves.

Richard Dawkins indeed defined memes as replicators but he did not mean to say that they only benefit themselves in the way Dan implies it. They surely do benefit themselves but they may benefit their hosts as well, and there is nothing in the definition of a replicator that forbids it. Benefiting oneself is not exclusive of benefiting others. Furthermore, most replicators benefit themselves simply by benefiting their hosts, because it is the very best route for their replication process. In most cases it is in the replicator's interest to benefit the host and we can reasonably expect it to be the case with memes as well.

Dan then consequently says that memes are aggressive things such as chain-letters or he suggests that this view sees memes as invading and recruiting minds only to further their own propagation. Here Dan is using a language that is personifying the memes in a way that Richard Dawkins has always warned against. Memes (or genes) don't “invade” nor “recruit” they simply happen to be successful at being copied. Memes are not conscious and they don't have plans. Dan's choice of vocabulary is certainly not helping to get the right picture and is misrepresenting Dawkins' view.

Dan Sperber then continues and reacts to one of the later arguments of Richard Dawkins where Richard tries to make a case for the existence of memes. I won't go back to Richard's argument, which might indeed be worth criticising, I will instead concentrate only on Dan's argument which can be analysed on its own.

Dan starts by giving a definition of a copy. This is a smart move and I believe myself it is important to define this concept very clearly. I have made an attempt to do so in my own theoretical work, and I will explain later how Dan's definition is good but, in my opinion, incomplete. Here is Dan's definition:

Let me […] define three minimal conditions for true replication. For B to be a replication of A,
  1. B must be caused by A (together with background conditions),
  2. B must be similar in relevant respects to A, and
  3. The process that generates B must obtain the information that makes B similar to A from A.

In a thought experiment, Dan explains that when people copy a random drawing from memory, they perform very badly but when they copy from memory a recognisable shape such as a five-branched star they perform very well. Dan explains that if they perform so well it is not because they copy the star but because they create a new drawing from what they recognised as a well known star.
Therefore Dan claims that, in this case, the condition (3) of his definition is not satisfied, in other words that the new drawing of a star was not a direct copying resulting from the details of the first star, but rather a simple reproduction of the star that was already known before the test.

I have two simple objections to that point.

First, even if the copy is not a copy of the original star from the test, there is nevertheless a copy being made of the very first star that we learned about, long before the test. There had to be a first initial exposure to the star in the past so that the star could then be reproduced again in that future test. This suggests that even if the copying process that Dan is criticising is indeed not a real copying process, there might still be an underlying copying process going on, on a larger time scale. So if one looks at the test on a larger scale, we might realise that condition (3) is indeed satisfied, except for it's not the same object A that we should consider, A being that very first star we encountered.

Second, there is still something being copied in this particular test, and even so when copying a random drawing. People are not just copying the drawing, they are copying different aspects of the drawing. One of which, for example, is the fact that it's a line drawing, that the line is dark and that it is on a light coloured piece of flat material. All of those could be copied faithfully regardless of whether the drawing itself is resemblant or not, and probably, even if the person doing the copying never used a pen and paper before. So, in a way it is unfair to say that there is no copying going on here. These points should not be downplayed I believe, and again they would satisfy Dan's own definition.

Also, Dan ignores the inherent complexity of a random drawing. Computer scientists know too well that random data is the most difficult type of data to store because it is incompressible, in other words there are no rules that would allow to store it in a simple way. The same goes for our brains. Therefore when copying a random drawing one needs to remember a lot more than when copying a geometrical shape for example.
Another way of looking at it, is that a random shape would make a bad replicator indeed. Because it demands more effort to remember it. Therefore, it is little surprise that a random drawing will generate worse copies of itself than a nice regular five-branched star would.

The last point is probably Dan's strongest argument against memetics.

The argument is quite simple and goes more or less like this. When a child learns how to speak she naturally learns the grammar, although nobody has actually explicitly taught her the rules of grammar. That is because the rules of grammar have to be inferred from the context by the child, thanks to her genetic propensity to do so.
Therefore, Dan rightly suggests that grammar, and probably most of our culture, is not learned through a copying process but through inference, which, if it were true, would undermine seriously the very idea of memes.

The ironic situation here is that Dan himself offers a solution to his own question, and we don't need to look further than his own definition of replication. Here is how it goes :

Grammar rule B is a replication of grammar rule A because :
  1. Grammar rule B is caused by grammar rule A (together with background conditions),
  2. Grammar rule B is similar in relevant respects to grammar rule A, and
  3. The process that generates grammar rule B, obtains the information that makes grammar rule B similar to grammar rule A from grammar rule A.

But, if anything, this only shows that Dan is not quite consistent with his own ideas. This doesn't say whether his definition of replication is good and whether this counter-argument is valid.

To answer this question we simply need to go back to the original definition of the replicator and ask the question. Is there such an entity as a grammar rule A that is being successfully and sustainably replicated throughout a population? I believe we can confidently answer yes, and that's all it takes for grammar rule A to fit the definition of replicator. Thus the cultural nature of grammar rule A would make it a cultural replicator, i.e. a meme.

From the meme's eye view, it is irrelevant whether there is a genetic propensity for grammar rules to exist or not, it's only the result that counts, i.e. whether it is replicated or not. But, it is relevant from a memetic evolutionary point of view in order to try and understand what will determine which of all grammar rules will be most successful. A genetic propensity for learning grammar rules is indeed a catalyst for those types of memes.

My overall impression of the objection by Dan Sperber, is that Dan has perhaps not understood every detail of Dawkins' idea. As a result, Dan tries to criticize a false idea of memetics. This is unfortunate given the quality of Dan Sperber's analytical mind.

This is the reason why I always try to show how important it is to understand the idea of the replicator and being able to take a meme's eye view on culture. It is not really Richard's work that I try to defend here but the replicator idea itself. It is an extremely powerful idea that has been remarkably conveyed and developed by Richard Dawkins but I also hold my own opinion on some aspects of memetics and I think there is much to be done still.
I have myself suggested a definition of what a copy is, and also what a replicator and a meme are. I believe we can be more precise in those definitions so as to leave less room to ambiguity and hopefully use it to build a stronger model of memetics. I invite you to read my definitions in my online theoretical attempt:

Comments are very welcome.

12 October 2010

The tyranny of the tip.

Do you give tips, why, and is it a good thing?

Like everyone else I like eating out but I've always wondered why I had to tip at the end of the meal. Why don't I give a tip to the cashier at the store when he helps me fill my bag, why not to my hairdresser when she patiently listens to my stories, why not to my publisher when he recommends a good book why not the postman when she brings me a heavy package on the 4th floor without lift, why not to the bus driver when he kindly waited for I rushed in before closing the doors?

Tipping is a cultural trait linked to a very specific area of our culture, hotels and catering, and we are entitled to ask the reason for its existence and its relevance.

From a memetic point of view, we ask the question: what are the mechanisms that led to the tipping culture to develop in certain services and not in others? Also we will reflect on how we can make them evolve.

Here I will suggest a couple of possible leads, far from being exhaustive.

How it all began.
I do not know the details but one can easily imagine how some customers satisfied with a service but sad to see a young person with a bad salary would be tempted to give a coin or two by simple charity.
This financial incentive, from the point of view of the "servant" (the one that offers a service), will encourage him to renew his efforts to provide good service to other customers.
In parallel, the word will spread that you are a generous customer, as a result you will get a preferential treatment, which will encourage other customers to give, not by charity but by a desire to receive special treatment.

A complex set of behaviours may ensue. The "servants" can inform each other of which customers are likely to tip. Customers can attract “good servants” by showing their "generosity" in public, and formalizing the gesture of giving a tip. In addition, a customer may wish to broadcast a generous image of himself of a wealthy individual, among other clients.

Thus, we observe that the tip can provide a mutual benefit for the client and servant. In hotels and catering services that are traditionally expensive, wealthy clients do not suffer from giving a little money and the less fortunate servants will be happy to significantly expand their revenues. In effects, the gain in tips may become much more important than the basic wage.

Everything looks for the best, but the system can slip. That which can be seen as a simple exchange of services can become a harsh necessity.

Indeed, the owners of restaurants and hotels will eventually realise the interest of the tips and would like to enjoy it too. Thus, bosses will begin claiming a share of the gratuities, or collecting it from employees or even reducing their salaries.
As a result, the "servants" must ensure that they receive regular tips because their salary becomes insufficient. Tips are becoming a necessity for employees, which plays against them.

There is another perverse effect in the system which this time works against the customer.
When the servants always expect a tip, they will be disappointed not to receive one and no tip will become synonymous to poor service. Thus, a customer is expected to tip just for a normal regular service, with no special treatment at all. This creates a hidden cost to the customer.

In the end, the winner in this story is the boss and the losers are the customers and employees.
What at first might have been an act of charity from the customer to the employee becomes an act of extortion of the client and abuse of the employee. The customer ends up paying hidden expenses and the employee is found underpaid and forced to beg.

Now let's ask the question of why the tips are mainly in hotels and restaurants and rare in other services.

We quickly notice that there are certain areas where tipping is completely illegal. Imagine giving a tip to a police officer, judge or politician! These cases are therefore protected by law.

But why not, for example, give a tip to a shop employee who gives you advice on which product to buy? The point I want to make here is the link between tipping and the psychological state in which customers are.

When you go shopping for daily necessities you do not necessarily have great fun doing it. You focus on the fact that the job needs to be done as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible. With this mindset, you're not inclined to be generous.

In comparison, when you are eating, your psychological state at the end of the meal will be very different, especially if you have consumed some alcohol. Similarly, when you take a hotel room for your holiday, your mind is relaxed and playful, much more inclined to be generous.

So I suggest that the mental state of clients will decide strongly their propensity to give tips. In a stressful environment tips will not succeed but in a relaxed environment they are more likely to spread.

Can the perverse effects of tipping be reversed?

For these effects to be reversed, there must be a direct benefit to a change of strategy. For customers, there is a social problem. When you dine with friends at the restaurant, you do not want your friends to think you are "stingy" by not giving a tip. You do not want to risk insulting the server or take the risk of being served incorrectly. From the perspective of the “servant”, it is clear that refusing a tip seems absurd. From the perspective of the boss, giving up on tips mean that he must pay his employees more money and raise his prices to compensate, which would drive away customers and would be a commercial suicide.

We can clearly see how getting out of the tipping culture is difficult. Tipping is indeed a stable cultural system.

One solution might be, for some, to advertise something like "No tipping here, paid employees." Who knows, it might work and attract a certain clientèle.
Another more radical option would be a solution outside the system, ie a change in the law, for example by making tipping illegal and forcing employers to pay full wages.
An alternative, perhaps more realistic, is to change the format of the service. For example, we see more and more self-service restaurant such as McDonalds, Starbucks, motorway restaurants, etc.. This format discourages the development of the tip simply because the clients help themselves.

If you have some comments, I'd love to hear them.

10 October 2010

Comments on “The evolution of the meme” by Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee

I would like to try my hands at commenting some of the articles gathered inside the following book: 

Darwinizing Culture.
The status of memetics as a science.
Edited by Robert Aunger.
Foreword by Daniel Dennett.
With contributions from:
Robert Aunger, Susan Blackmore, Maurice Bloch, Robert Boyd, Rosaria Conte, David L.Hull, Adam Kuper, Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee, Henry Plotkin, Peter J. Richerson, Dan Sperber.

I will start with the article entitled “The evolution of the meme” by Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee.

I want to show that Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee misunderstand the concept of meme and, more precisely, the concept of replicator altogether, which as a result discredits somewhat the point they are trying to make in their article.

K. Laland and J. Odling-Smee introduce a concept of niche construction which is very interesting in itself, and apply it to the meme idea to try and understand how memes came about. The niche construction can be seen as a transformation of the environment by the living organisms which in turn changes the selective pressure on those same organisms and their descendants. K. Laland and J. Odling-Smee make some very valid points here, but strangely seem to miss completely the point of Dawkins' memes. They write :

What determines whether a meme will spread? For Dawkins (1976), memes, like all replicators, spread if they have fidelity, fecundity and longevity. In memetic discussions, each of these properties is usually treated as if it is an intrinsic characteristic of the meme.

K. Laland and J. Odling-Smee seem to criticise the fact that those characteristics are “intrinsic”. This is where they are mistaken because indeed these characteristics are very much intrinsic. They are so simply because it is their definition. It is not that some memes might have them and others might not, it is that anything that has those characteristics is a replicator and those that don't simply don't qualify as replicators. This unfortunate misunderstanding leads to confusion, for example, when they write:

[...] studies of social learning in species as diverse as rats, pigeons and guppies suggest that these animals sometimes adopt a “do-what-the-majority-do” strategy (Laland et al. 1996B). In such cases, the probability that an individual will adopt a meme depends not on its infectiousness, but on the number of individuals already expressing the behaviour.

Again, if a meme, or any replicator, fails to be copied it is precisely because it has lost its infectiousness, and it has lost it because the environment has changed, suddenly turning what previously was a successful replicator, into a non replicator. This is maybe the point that K. Laland and J. Odling-Smee have missed. It is the relationship between the environment and the replicator that defines a replicator. If the environment changes the very nature of the replicators is to be re-examined. 

This issue obviously casts a shadow on their overall argument of niche construction which otherwise is full of interesting insights on evolutionary processes and most certainly worth a read.