04 June 2008

Making mimetics scientific

As it happened, the lucid Susan Blackmore had a TED talk up about Darwin's ideas within 24 of my own talk on natural selection to a graduate class.

She comments at one point that mimetics isn't taken seriously. I think there are very good reasons for that, which have to do with how memes could be measured. Let's compare mimetics to its senior sibling, evolutionary biology.

As Blackmore point out, there are the three things needed for natural selection.

Variation. We can easily quantify variation in organisms. We can measure height, mass, number of spines, colour, and so on. No doubt memes vary. For instance, the movie The Aristocrats is an exercise in variation, with one hundred comedians telling the same dirty joke. But how do you measure that variation? How do you compare three versions of the same joke? How much does switching words around matter? The language? The tone of voice? If it's on paper or someone's memory?

Inheritance. If something isn't heritable, it can't be subject to natural selection. I'll spot mimetics this one for now.

Competition for limited resources. This is known by several terms; superfecundity is one I use in teaching. Organisms need resources, and resources are finite. Again, we know what those resources are with biological organisms: energy, water, food, mating partners. We can measure how much of them organisms get. What are the resources that memes are competing for? How do we measure how many of those resources they acquire? How do those resources affect their ability to copy themselves?

I don't know if anyone is seriously working on these problems. But if mimeticists can come up with ways to quantify these things, they'll be on their way to rigorous science.

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