Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Imagining Itself (part VIII: Mindless Variation and Selection)

In the book Imaginative Minds (Roth 2009) Meme theorist Susan Blackmore presents her view that memes are the evolutionary source of human imagination. The concept of memes is the brainchild of Richard Dawkins who in 1976 coined the term to describe the cultural equivalent of genes. According to Blackmore memes are reproducible instances of culture (ideas, images, slogans, products etc) that, like genes, are propagated through imitation and which are subject to variations in the accuracy of imitation*. These variations frequently render memes useless or meaningless but in rare instances variation brings about alterations (adaptations) that are better suited to their environment and are therefore more likely to survive and to flourish or even supersede previous versions.

Meme theory peaked in popularity in 2002 but has since seen a steady decline in serious academic interest. A wider form of research into the Darwinian aspects of cultural development known as Dual Inheritance Theory continues to garner critical interest, nonetheless there remain pockets of activity in meme theory of which Susan Blackmore’s work is amongst the most prominent (see also Donald Brook’s memetic theory of art which I have discussed elsewhere here).
Blackmore’s contention is that there was a significant turning point in hominid evolution - though she provides no speculative period - when our ancestors became capable of imitation and turned from “gene machines into meme machines”. According to Blackmore, as imitation increased so too did the pressures upon genes to adapt to the resulting social, technical and environmental changes. Ultimately, those individuals and groups most well adapted to the imitation of advantageous behaviours, tool use etc were the most successful. Blackmore extends this theory by reference to what she calls “Memetic Drive”. Memetic drive is a process by which memes precipitate genetic adaptations that favour meme replication which in turn ramps up the co-evolutionary process in an evolutionary feedback loop.
Surprisingly, for an examination of the evolution of imagination, Blackmore’s essay makes very little direct reference to the imagination and when it does there is little doubt that Blackmore regards it as a minor contributor to memetic evolution. She writes:
“Neither biological evolution nor human creative imagination is a top-down process in which a clever conscious mind thinks up new ideas and puts them into effect; both are mindless processes in which new products emerge because old ones are copied with variation and selection.”
So, according to Blackmore, innovation is the result of “mindless” variation and selection and therefore to exercise a conscious mind in thinking up new ideas and putting them into effect is pointless. We are simply better off imitating old products with occasional mindless variation and selection. Innovation will emerge all by itself.
It seems strange to say it but Blackmore is right – in a very limited sense: mindless variation and selection would almost certainly result in gradual cultural evolution, just as has been the case with biological evolution, but what this theory fails to address is the question of how we appear to be witnessing an exponential memetic evolution that far outstrips the ability of genetic evolution to keep pace. It should also be noted that the logic of Blackmore’s theory leads to the ironic conclusion that it too is a mindless imitation of, in this case, Darwin himself:
“The value of the products of our imagination depends of course on the number, accuracy, and clearness of our impressions; on our judgment and taste in selecting or rejecting the involuntary combinations, and to a certain extent on our power of voluntarily combining them.” -Charles Darwin
In her concluding remarks Blackmore writes:
“Those of us who are most creative are those who are best at accurately copying and storing the memes we come across, recombining them in novel ways, and selecting appropriately from the myriad new combinations created.”
Far more valuable would have been an explanation of how our ancestors might have evolved this alleged ability to select appropriately from the myriad new combinations created, if indeed they ever did. Much of the evidence available to widespread scrutiny supports a contrary view, that in fact human beings are remarkably limited at selecting appropriately and that our insights and innovations are barely more common than would be expected from a purely random process of variation (I’ll come back to this in a moment). Ultimately Blackmore’s conclusions on this subject, and more widely on the nature and evolution of the imagination, can be summed up by another popular meme coined in this case by cartoonist Scott Adams in his 1996 book ‘The Dilbert Principle’:
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
Variation (making mistakes) and selection (knowing which ones to keep) are at the genetic – not to say the memetic - core of natural selection. But culture, driven by human agency, introduces a new element: purposeful or guided variation:
"People also occasionally introduce new variants and, because of their intelligence and knowledge, produce innovations that, unlike genetic mutations, are not random but cluster near useful solutions to various problems. This process of intelligent innovation is called guided variation." -William Irons [my emphasis]
Variation undoubtedly makes a significant contribution to cultural change but it would be a mistake to assume that the guiding, selection or knowledge of which variations to keep is something that humans are particularly skilled at. As another contributor to meme theory, Donald Brook, has pointed out; true memetic innovation (The "Art" in art, and all genuine innovation besides) cannot be purposefully marshaled:
“The acquisition of absolutely new memes cannot be counted in any way and exercise of skill. Epiphanies are not more less well-performed actions, at which their users can improve with practice.” (2008)
This point deserves emphasis. We cannot know, with any degree of certainty, where or how the next major innovation will emerge and nor can we sharpen our skills at discovering them. True innovations, like epiphanies and revelations are not the product of scriptable intentions to innovate.
"There may nevertheless be a context that is somehow more propitious than others; a context in which the acquisition of new memes can be eagerly awaited - and may even come to be expected - with a little more than normal optimism." (Brook, 2008)
What we can also do – and do very well - is improve upon newly selected innovations through the application of already accumulated knowledge and technical skill. It is at this level, the level of guided variation - not guided selection - that opportunities exist for exploiting innovation in ways that are significantly more rapid than would be the case if they were simply left to unguided evolution. Cultural evolution is far from mindless and imagination plays an important role in shaping its development.

*This is a common misconception amongst meme theorists. The product of a meme is not a meme, just as the product of a gene is not a gene. A rabbit is no more a gene than a slogan or product etc is a meme. As Brook (2008) points out, it only makes sense to view memes as the repeatable actions that are productive of cultural artefacts such as popular songs or catchphrases etc.


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