Weinberg-Polkinghorne Debate, and Memes

Keith B Miller (kbmill@ksu.edu)
Fri, 23 Apr 1999 14:14:40 -0500

Another interesting set of posts from the Templeton Meta listserve.


>For those who missed the AAAS "Cosmic Questions" debate at the Smithsonian last
>week between Steve Weinberg and John Polkinghorne, you can check out an article
>in the New York Times Science Section from April 20, 1999. The article is
>entitled "Cosmology and Theology Tangle in a Rousing Match" and is written by
>Carey Goldberg. The journalist catches much of the flavor of the debate and
>some of the wit and humor. Far from being hostile, however, the discussion was
>quite playful. There was never a question of Polkinghorne and Weinberg coming
>to blows (as the Jerry Springer analogy below would lead one to believe). The
>article can be read online at
>y.html> to those registered with NYT for this free service. The Times is also
>hosting an online forum on the subject.
>Also of interest is the article below from Michael Shermer from the Skeptic
>Magazine Hotline criticizing Susan Blackmore's THE MEME MACHINE. A year ago,
>we had some discussion of memetics on Meta. Shermer offers a skeptical
>assessment of this new discipline in cultural studies.
>-- Billy Grassie
>From: SKEPTICMAG@aol.com
>Date: Tue, 20 Apr 1999 12:34:18 EDT
>For those of you in the So. California area Dr. Susan Blackmore will be in town
>on her book tour, lecturing for the Skeptics Society Wednesday night, April 21,
>at 7:30 pm at Baxter Lecture Hall, on THE MEME MACHINE. Dr. Blackmore, best
>known to skeptics for her research into the paranormal, out-of-body, and
>near-death experiences (see the interview with her in Skeptic Vol. 6, #3), has
>shifted her research interests to something a little more grounded in reality
>(at least she hopes that it is!), and that is taking Richard Dawkins' concept
>of the meme (briefly discussed in THE SELFISH GENE) and expanding it into a
>full theoretical model of how ideas infect minds and culture, and how, quite
>possibly, meme selection takes pride of place alongside natural and sexual
>selection as a major force in human evolution. Blackmore was featured in a
>two-page spread in Time magazine, entitled "The Selfish Meme," written by
>Richard Dawkins and based on his foreword to Susan's new book. Blackmore's book
>is daring. She goes so far as to speculate on the role of memes in the
>expansion of the human brain, still one of the deep mysteries for cognitive
>scientists and evolutionary biologists.
>(Actually this problem goes back to my old friend Alfred Russel Wallace--I call
>him that because my doctoral dissertation was on Wallace and the problem of
>mind and brain for him and Darwin. Wallace could not conceive of how or why
>natural selection would construct a brain double the size it really needs to be
>to survive in a natural environment--of what purpose does mathematics, music
>appreciation, and other abstract thought processes serve in survival? Virtually
>none, Wallace believed, therefore there must be a higher intelligence that
>directed the development of mind and big brain. Also, since Wallace believed in
>spiritualism and even attended seances, the "psychic" nature off mind could
>also not be explained by natural selection, yet another place for divine
>inspiration. Darwin, of course, was dismayed at all this, writing to Wallace:
>"I hope you have not murdered yours and my child"--natural selection.)
>We published the first article on memes by Susan in Skeptic Vol. 5, #2, and a
>strong critique of memes in Vol. 6, #3 by James Polichak, a cognitive
>psychologist at SUNY, Stony Brook. Polichak outlines what he sees as four basic
>shortcomings to memetics (obviously this is not a critique of Blackmore's new
>book since it just came out last week, but the general principles might apply):
>1. Memeticists have not done an adequate job of defining the meme, nor have
>they offered any examples of what a meme might be that withstand scrutiny.
>2. Memeticists have failed to show that memes are necessary to understanding
>culture. As a consequence they are unable to show that models based on
>biological selection are inadequate.
>3. By largely ignoring the principles and data concerning information
>processing from the social sciences, especially psychology, memeticists have
>argued for a highly inaccurate model of information transfer, and a highly
>limited model of the activity of the human brain.
>4. Memeticists have offered inaccurate and circular claims about what kind of
>explanatory power is obtained by assuming the existence of memes.
>Further, Polichak adds:
>With regard to how information is transmitted with potential mutation and is
>subject to selective forces leading to differential survival, the writings of
>memeticists are about as vague as their attempts to define the meme. It is also
>not clear to what extent we can meaningfully discuss transmission of
>information (as opposed to reconstruction of information). Memeticists have
>also not done enough to differentiate memetic transmission of information from
>non-memetic transmission. It is known that humans can transmit information to
>each other that could not reasonably be considered memetic.
>For example Russell, Switz, and Thompson (1980) showed that human menstrual
>cycles become synchronized through olfactory cues. Presumably there is some
>variance in the degree to which people's menstrual cycles become synchronized,
>but we would probably not want to say that this variability is evidence for
>mutation and differential survival of any particular menstrual cycle. It is up
>to memeticists to demonstrate that the information that they deal with is
>different, and this will prove difficult.
>Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that learning and remembering are
>sensitive to environmental and perceptual factors, which are not considered in
>memetic analyses, and that most human thought is not likely to be memetic. They
>have also shown evidence for the recall of information never transmitted.
>Memeticists must show that, after accounting for these pieces of evidence and
>the psychological theories based on them, there is some form of discrete
>information left over that is subject to mutation (not merely variability) and
>differential selection (not based on perception, attention, or mental
>reconstruction of experience). In other words, they must demonstrate that,
>contrary to current psychological models, all forms of information in the human
>brain are not like the information discussed above before they can develop
>meaningful predictions and models of memetic transmission.
>Blackmore's (1997) analysis of why we talk so much also conflicts, like so much
>in memetics, with psychological theory and research. Blackmore presents an
>extremely competitive model of the development of human language and its
>current use we don't seem to care much what anyone else has to say because
>we're just waiting for our turn so that we can transmit our memes. There is a
>growing body of experimental evidence in psychology for a collaborative theory
>of language use (e.g., Clark, 1992). Numerous experiments have examined the
>ways that speakers work together to decide what to call ambiguous objects.
>Parallels to figuring out where to go to dinner, how to put together a bicycle,
>and so on, should be obvious. According to Clark's collaborative theory,
>language is used by people so that they can attain a reasonable degree of
>mutual understanding of their environments and intentions in order to interact
>effectively. Like Dunbar's (1993; 1996) analysis of language development,
>Clark's theory is based on the idea that language is an important way to
>coordinate activity among people and to effectively describe and manipulate
>each other and the environment. Blackmore's ideas about language use and
>development seem far more limited and far less likely.
>Blackmore (1997) offers three similar analyses for why we are so nice to each
>other, why our brains are so big, and why we think we have a self. In each
>case, of course, the answer is memes. Throughout her analyses, Blackmore asks
>the reader to continually "imagine a world full of brains, and far more memes
>than can possibly find homes." This pattern of thought imagining all those
>memes struggling to survive in the limited human brain, she suggests, will
>allow us to answer the difficult questions. Blackmore does not, however, offer
>any evidence for why and how memes might actually be the cause of our thoughts,
>big brains, niceness, and so on. We are asked to take our excessively big
>brains as evidence for the existence of memes and are expected to accept memes
>as a reason for our big brains existing. Blackmore, and other memeticists, are
>essentially asserting that memes are out there, without evidence or even an
>adequate example, and without regard for the conflict with psychological
>models. They then expect us to assume the existence of memes and insert that
>term as an answer to life's mysteries.
>I hope that the above critique has shown that memeticists have grossly
>overstated the power of a memetic approach to understanding information
>processing and culture. They have much work to do to convince the skeptical
>scientist of the value of the meme, much less its existence. Memeticists should
>start by looking at the data from the social sciences and the models developed
>from them. They need to show that they can account for the objections put forth
>in this paper based on those psychological models and on logical grounds.
>Memeticists need to more clearly define the kinds of information they are going
>to deal with, and show that existing models are flawed when it comes to
>understanding this kind of information. Then they must demonstrate that the
>memetic approach can succeed where biological or psychological approaches have
>failed. Nothing presented in the memetics literature thus far suggests that
>memeticists will be able to accomplish this. Ill-considered examples, ignorance
>of relevant experimental research, and exaggerated claims of explanatory power
>do not make for a convincing scientific theory.
>Michael Shermer
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Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506