Memes and Cultural Evolution

I was lucky enough to have a piece published in The New Humanist, ostensibly as a review of Dan Dennett’s “Bacteria to Bach and Back” (B2BnB), but majoring on the memetics of argumentation. The focus is Dennett’s bet that despite no longer spending his time arguing with his critics on their terms, his style of arguing for the reality of evolved consciousness will win the day against reductive denial. A new “species” of argument will evolve. I’ve summarised the following closing para in various retweets.:

Personally, I bought Dennett’s bet many years ago, and even some of his critics share the hunch that he is on the right side of history. The real work is for the rest of us to get to grips with what makes for a good argument, when the object is our understanding of how we argue – with our minds. Our very rationality is at stake.

The New Humanist piece was restricted in length by the book-review template, but I will no doubt elaborate further on that thesis. At the same time, however, I’m about 1/3 of my way through Kevin Laland’s “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony”.

Very frustrating, but I’m sticking with it. Don’t get me wrong, Laland’s book is full of referenced evidence, not all of which I’ve seen before. If you haven’t, you should read it. For me it feels like a long statement of the obvious, that human minds – and the assortment of mental tools we share individually, socially and culturally – are co-evolved with our culture. It’s not that the ability to copy and share knowledge is distinctly human – just look at the rats and even the sticklebacks(!) – it’s our ability to preserve and maintain culture in media beyond the life of our brains and genes – intentionally, beyond Darwinism. Laland uses the word “wisdom” a little too liberally for culturally shared knowledge – the wisdom of shoals, if you like – even though he acknowledges the gaming element in selective copying of behaviour. For me wisdom is meta to that. Wisdom is understanding that we can choose creatively when to apply rules and acting on that understanding. It’s not simply the fact of choosing as part of nature’s selection processes. (Guidance of the wise, the enslavement of sticklebacks, etc.) But I digress.

The frustration is to ignore Dennett and to reject the word Meme. So far there is very little I couldn’t imagine Dennett writing or having written already, using the language of memetics and Darwinian design spaces. Laland is clearly also using information in the sense disembodied from its immediate physical media. Looks 99% common ground ahead to my eyes.

The most degenerate meme we suffer from is the one that says it’s good to prove wrong the guy you disagree with, rather than integrate common knowledge for all our benefit. We need a new species of argument.

Also published on Medium.

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