A philosophical catfight in the TLS: Dennett vs Papineau

August 3, 2017 • 11:45 am

Matthew called my attention to a series of pieces in the Times Literary Supplement (free online) in which materialist philosophers Dan Dennett (Tufts) and David Papineau (King’s College London) battle it out over a number of philosophical issues.

It began with a fairly negative review by Papineau of Dan’s newest book, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, a book I own but haven’t yet read.  In the review, called “Competence without comprehension,” Papineau takes issue with Dan’s idea that consciousness is an illusion; with his notion that humans are unique among animals in being able to comprehend some of why they do what they do (i.e., running away from predators, which he thinks humans can “comprehend” but zebras cannot, for the latter react from instinct or a form of learning that doesn’t involve “comprehension”); and with Dan’s idea that memes are self-selecting units of culture that can spread independently of “the role of human understanding in cultural exchange” (I have to admit I don’t understand this last criticism). Papineau ends his review this way:

Dennett has done much over the years to show how fruitful this strategy [an appreciation for natural selection creating “designoid” features and a rejection of “greedy reductionism”] can be. But perhaps his good reductionism has its own blind spot. He might not be a greedy reduc­tionist but he is arguably a very grudging one. He is constitutionally disinclined to give credit to the powers of the mind, even when it is due. Throughout this book, he constantly plays down the ability of agents to knowingly manage their destinies, and instead portrays them as shaped by processes that unfold unthinkingly.

It is no accident that Daniel Dennett has gained such a wide readership. He is always fun to read. He has few equals at explaining complex topics, and his positive theories are never boring. But his public would do well to take those theories with a pinch of salt. They are by no means the latest scientific insights that he cracks them up to be. The real source of his views is rather a set of peculiar philosophical assumptions that he acquired more than half a century ago.

Well, Dan couldn’t let that rest, and so he and Papineau had a debate in a subsequent issue of the TLS, a debate that comprises a brief introduction by Tim Crane, the TLS philosophy editor, and then two rounds of back-and-forth letters between Dennett and Papneau.

I have to admit that even though this is in a popular book-review magazine, I find a lot of it either above my pay grade or about things that can’t be resolved. (Does a zebra understand why it’s fleeing from a lion? How can we know?). But I suspect that many readers who are more philosophically educated or inclined than I will enjoy the exchange.

But I do have an opinion on memes: I think they’ve added absolutely nothing to our understanding of culture. I’ve discussed some of my reasons in a book review in Nature, and since I wrote that in 1999 my opinion hasn’t changed. “Memetics” is a weak analogy to natural selection that adds nothing except tautology to our view of how human culture evolves. Memetics boils down to this: memes spread because they have properties that allow them to spread. The rest, and the important bit, are the reasons why some aspects of culture spread and others go extinct. You can analyze all that without ever mentioning the concept of memes.

But I digress again; here’s Dan’s widely viewed TED talk on consciousness, designed to show you that just because we’re all conscious doesn’t mean that we’re authorities on how it works. I have to admit that in the series of changing pictures at the end, I did really horribly spotting the changes.

70 thoughts on “A philosophical catfight in the TLS: Dennett vs Papineau

  1. I not know what ‘consciousness is an illusion’ means. Who or what is experiencing this illusion? How can people like Dennett be conscious of it being an illusion?

    Unitary consciousness, I’d agree. But just because vision involves the integration of 30 or so cognitive processes doesn’t mean we don’t ‘see’.

    1. My take on what Dennett means is that he is not saying consciousness isn’t real; he is saying that what you think it is and what it actually is are different. Illusion means “not what it seems like”; it doesn’t mean “nothing is there”.

      1. Consciousness as an illusion of any definition is merely a way to create discussion. The metaphysics of being and our consciousness is a really that: any illusion because five minutes from now will have a totally new conception of what consciousness being illusion all these things might mean. He just wrote a book are we to say that we are to reconceive of what the book is? Because someone wrote in a book that science says this or that brains are that or that neurons are this? It is orderly ridiculous to imply anything about my experience is an illusion. Because what amof I grounding illusion in? Science?

        I am the first to point to science as a type a ground, but I also understand that’s a point to any of its elements and say this is a lesion and this is not an illusion is ultimately based in an illusion itself of what we prioritize as having validity in knowledge.

        It is not that I disagree with science but that I don’t think that anything that is scientific can be any illusion or even indicate an allusion except in as much as I want to posit science as being beyond illusion, which is really a denial of the basic fact of my experience coming up on science itself.

        This idea that consciousness is some how hiding something within the brain where the mind or any sort of relationship that we went to define mind consciousness body brain and spinal cord muscles etc…. The result of any combination of which revealing that something is more true than the next- it’s just basically did nice that I am sitting here coming up with these ideas.

        It’s pretty much an empty argument for empty intellectualism.

        Sure it’s interesting and fun but we have to kind of temper these discussions with the realization that all they are accomplishing is my ability to have more discussions.

        Which is to say it really doesn’t say anything about science

  2. Regards to Memetic, you just can read the whole chapter about it in “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds”. It is Dennett’s defense of the objections you just have made. (Memetic can explain why some memes survives despite do not provide any benefit to the host, for example)

    1. So? I never said that the spread of a bit of culture provides benefits to its host. What benefits, for example, accrue to an “earworm” like “Punch in the presence of the passenjar”? It presumably produces some neurological stimulation that keep it in one’s mind, yet it doesn’t help you to do that. And you don’t need memetics to explain that–it’s neurology!

      I will read that chapter, but I have still never heard of a tangible example of a “memetic analysis” that provided anything that a simple cultural/scientific analysis couldn’t.

      Why are cat pictures “memes”? Because people like cats!

      1. Oh punch, brothers, punch
        Punch with care,
        Punch in the — oh crap.

        Mark Twain still packs a mean punch, even today.

        1. Of course, in the Age of Drumpf….

          Grab, brothers! Grab down there! Grab ’em by the pussy ‘cuz the sisters don’t care!

          …so sorry….



      2. Dennett gives an example in his book of islanders who learn to build seagoing canoes by copying the designs of their elders. Such copies are necessarily imperfect (variation), and the ones that get copied are the ones that successfully return from their sea voyages (selection). Viewing the designs as memes evolving under an unguided Darwinian process immediately gives us insight into how the designs get perfected, and this insight is one that would be missed by an analysis focusing purely on the cultural transmission of canoe-building lore from generation to generation.

        1. This is true of any invention; the better ones survive. You don’t need the concept of memes to clarify that. Same with foods or anything else. Is a canoe a “meme” now?

          I doubt that any scholarly analysis of canoe building would have overlooked this because they didn’t know about “memes”; this is just post facto rationalization of the concept.

          How about Edison’s light bulb? The ones that burned out too early had their filaments discarded. Was that a meme, too?

          1. The “memes” in this case are canoe traits. Rogers and Erlich examined some 95 symbolic and functional traits of Polynesian canoes and found their evolution is consistent with natural selection, with convergent functional traits and variable symbolic traits. No doubt the finding could have been discovered without using “memes”. But meme is just a word used as a convenient shorthand to describe a durable and imitable element of culture subject to variation and selection. I find it a useful way to think about cultural evolution, but agree that the analogy to genes is inexact.

          2. This is true of any invention; the better ones survive.

            Darwinism, as you know, is more than just the claim that “the better ones survive”. It involves incremental improvement through an unguided process of variation, replication, and selection.

            It’s not true that all inventions arise by this process; some are the products of intelligent design, as Dennett freely acknowledges in the exchange with Papineau.

            The point of the canoe example is that these canoes are not “invented” in the intelligent design sense. The canoe builders needn’t understand the principles of seaworthiness, because they’re not the designers; the sea is, through a process of Darwinism selection. The islanders’ canoe-building lore is just post facto rationalization. A scholarly analysis that rejects the possibility of Darwinian explanation (whether or not they know the word “meme”) would be unlikely to arrive at the right answer in this case.

  3. Regarding whether a zebra understands “why” it flees a lion, I had a girlfriend who was severely afraid of snakes. There was no rational aspect such as “I fear snakes because they might be dangerous”. Never had she lived in the range of a venomous snake. She had never had a traumatic experience with a snake. It was purely instinctive and irrational. And it was intense.

    1. Some have said that fear of snakes and fast moving small objects like spiders is an evolved trait. You can see the adaptive significance if you remember that for most of our evolution humans have lived among dangerous creatures in Africa which could crawl under the wall of a hut or a tent rather easily. Those who overcome such fear probably do so by forcing themselves to take an objective viewpoint.

  4. I haven’t read Dennett’s new book, nor Blackmore’s on memes (but wasn’t impressed by what I heard about the latter). With that out of the way, I deem memes a useful idea.

    Cognitive scientists, like George Lakoff, pointed out that our ideas about the world are not as purely theoretical as they might seem. These tiny models also contain information about us, and our bodies. They are created, and that is almost a truism, from a human point of view, appendages, sense organs, warts and all. To be fair to him, it goes a bit further than that. Smashing cultures to bits and adopting a meme-centric view is useful for overcoming superficial categories that assume pure ideas on one side, and actions on the other.

    One case: I recently read about “Myth”, a book I briefly reviewed in your recent topic on books reviews. The discourse on myth and their role is strongly structured by myth (as ideas, as story) on one hand, and rituals (actions, customs) on the other and their relationship; which was first, which influences which. Such distinctions may not be warranted, and a meme-centric view can change perspective without bothering too much whether something is an idea, story, tradition, activity or custom. All can be thought of as a “think-action”, which is some sort of pattern, first in minds, and then perhaps moving outward through speech or gestures. The concept of memes emphasizes patterns that are replicated in other minds, and thus have certain properties.

    The concept might then be useful to explain some part of cultural activity. In my view, cognitive distortions or quirks are underappreciated still in the humanities. Memes highlight the underestimated aspect that cultural traditions spread not only because they bring benefit, address some need, but are also suitably easy (or hard) to imitate. Customs “hard to fake” (hard to copy) seem to throw sticks into the meme-view of culture, however, they can also be viewed as creating a niche for themselves that is subsequently populated, and more resistant to cultural change. I think, it can be productive to view cultural activity that way (as well).

    1. I still have not been given a tangible example of how the concept of memes has clarified or explained some aspect of culture that could not have been clarified at least as well, or better, by a regular scientific/sociological analysis not using the concept of replicators and “units of culture” (which are nebulous to begin with. Everybody says, “Yes, memes are useful,” but nobody has given be a good example of how they’ve been useful.

      They haven’t been adopted by cultural historians (except for a few people like Dennett and Blackmore) and that tells you something. Even Richard has backed off from their use as anything other than a heuristic analogy.

      1. I think there could be a “there” there with memes, but you’re right that the case hasn’t been fleshed out sufficiently.

        Consider, by analogy, the idea of pressure waves. They’re the bread and butter of acoustics. It’s only recently that they’re starting to be taken seriously by vehicular traffic engineers. That traffic tends to bunch up is kinda obvious, but that those bunches are reasonably understood as waves that propagate? And that such fluid-like dynamics is an important part of optimizing roadway design and various safety functions? Not obvious.

        I could be convinced that memes are like that, but the case hasn’t fully been made. They could, after all, be more like the luminiferous aether: something that makes so much sense it has to be there…but actually isn’t.




      2. According to Dennett, cultural innovations (“a new way of doing something”) are not always acquired by reseaarch and design, so the way memes behave can explain a good part of this habits that are spread so fast and without conscious learning. Memes like viruses does not need the approval of the host ¿can any social theory explain this? Dennett says all social theory asume people are aware agents of the proccess of adquiring their habits.

      3. I share your impression. I never liked the concept to begin with. When I read ‘The Selfish Gene’ for the first time, I interpreted the passages about memes as a manner of rendering the mechanisms of genes more tangible, rather than an a serious attempt of explaining cultural mechanisms. The ideas have obviously gone their separate ways, and most people appear to simply refer to the expression of silly ideas and interpretations of manipulated photographs or cartoons combined with short word phrases.
        As far as I can tell, the concept of memes is superfluous in scientific theories and debates, especially because we usually want to stay away from metaphorical expressions in proper science as opposed to popular science, where in the latter case we want to make things more comprehensible for a general and scientifically less educated public for whom it is unnecessary to understand all the details involved.

      1. Interesting. I followed the link and read some of the reviews and apparently both Plantinga and Dennett agree that there’s no inherent conflict between science and religion, and then just focus on Plantinga’s silly argument that evolution alone can’t justify why reason is reliable.

        1. To be fair, the debate wouldn’t have gone anywhere if Dennett hadn’t allowed it. In fact, allowing something for the sake of being able to argue for or against something in the first place is a practical necessity. Otherwise, we’d all have to accept radical scepticism and never ague again. Whether Dennett actually believes that there is no inherent conflict between science and religion is irrelevant to the discussion.

      2. Those imbroglios generated more heat, I think, especially the one with Plantinga. But there seemed to be particular cattiness to Gould’s attack on Dennett, as well as to his response to Pinker’s letter defending Dan. The narcissism of small differences, perhaps? (Or maybe substantial differences generate their own form of narcissism, too.)

  5. Just a thought WRT to Zebras and Papineau’s contention that Dennett claims zebras have nothing but “competence without comprehension”. Bear with me….

    I recently watched a documentary about a Zebra migration to the Nxai Pan national park in Botswana that had been interrupted for a decades by the construction of a road. Following the advice of biologists, the government of Botswana re-opened the migration route. It is the longest and most dangerous land migration of any animal in Africa. It was thought it would take a long time for the traditional migration route to return, if at all. To the surprise of everyone, the Zebras immediately returned to the traditional route and timing of the migration as if the entire process was genetically encoded. Or as Dennett suggests, the Zebras were behaving with “competence without comprehension”.

    A team of biologists covering the migration tagged and followed individual Zebras. They found that although all the Zebras followed the route as they had in the past, some differed in their migration strategies.

    Pregnant Zebras time the migration such that they arrive in the Nxai Pan just as they are to give birth. There the mares must feed a lot to make the milk their foals need to survive. To get there they have to cross terrain with little food or water. Most mares and their small family herds stayed in areas with food and water longer than others before embarking. They then would migrate non-stop to the Nxai strategy. This gives the mares an advantage as the food and water means they can maximize the odds of surviving the trip and being in large groups eases the pressures of predation (the Zebras are picked off by predators as they migrate). The disadvantage is that once at the Nxai they must share its abundance with all the other Zebra, reducing the food supplies for them and their foals who rely very heavily on the mares milk.

    One mare they tagged rejected that strategy and did not stay to eat early in the migration. Instead she led her group to the Nxai well in advance of the rest of the Zebras (Zebras live in small herds run by a dominant mare). This meant that being the first to the Nxai, she and her herd could maximize their access to the rich food supply there. This in turn made them fitter to supply the large amount of milk their foals need to survive. But it comes at the cost of greater risk they would not survive the migration, either by starvation or by predation (being a small herd they were easy targets). There was no difference in the timing of when she and other mares (some were lost on the way) in her herd foaled; they arrived at the Nxai a week early but did not give birth until the others arrived.

    Remember the route had been blocked for more than several generations of Zebras so none doing it then had done it before. But they did not forget either the route or the timing, suggesting that they were “hard-wired” for it. Nevertheless, some Zebras behaved significantly differently than others with specific strategies in mind.

    Long winded. The point was that the researchers commented that it suggests that this mare -and by extension Zebras in general- are able to make strategic decisions that overlay underlying in-born behaviors.

    That says to me that Zebras, anyway, ARE capable of competence with comprehension.

    1. If the migration timing is genetically hard-wired, then, since individual zebras have different genes, some will migrate earlier than others. What’s your evidence that earlier migration is a deliberate, strategic decision, as opposed to having slightly different genes?

      1. I’m not sure your hypothesis is any more probable. I think that even zebras with identical genomes and no ability to deliberate would be expected to have a range of migration times due to a wide range of variables.

      2. I don’t suppose there is any direct evidence. Then again, despite what the researchers claimed, where is the evidence that the migration route is actually hard-wired? It sure seems so, but there isn’t any actual evidence of this. It could be that it is not and that the Zebras simply took the route by chance – they moved together then not because they have genes that encode the route to take but because they are animals who are hard-wired to travel in herds and this route was chosen simply because the obstacle was removed.

        The folks who study Zebra don’t believe that though. They think the mare made a strategic decision about her timing, perhaps based on her experience on a different route (remember this was her first time on that route too). I haven’t any more evidence than the researchers who made the claim.

    2. “The point was that the researchers commented that it suggests that this mare -and by extension Zebras in general- are able to make strategic decisions that overlay underlying in-born behaviors.”

      Much like humans seem to do.

      I’m just an amateur at best but my view after a decades long meta-analysis of listening and reading experts, documentaries and personal experience is that virtually all of the cognitive features that we have can be found in other animals to one degree or another. Obviously there are differences. But it really seems to me that they are differences in degree not differences in kind.

      Now, degrees do matter! They can result in novel abilities. But, yeah, I humbly disagree with Dan about this. Competence without comprehension doesn’t seem as plausible to me as a spectrum of comprehension ability.

      1. And it makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, too, since it must have evolved to some degree well before primates evolved or we wouldn’t have it either. (Bestowed by a supreme being on home sapiens alone??)

    3. It seemed to me that Papineau missed Dennett’s point about the zebra’s comprehension. Yes, the zebra knows it’s fleeing from a lion, but it doesn’t know (or need to know) how fleeing from a lion will benefit its lion-fleeing genes.

  6. The idea of memes was introduced a long time ago by Richard Dawkins, if I remember correctly, and the first time I read about them I took them to be merely a rough comparison to the way genes work in biological evolution. Unfortunately, the concept has taken a hold in intellectual circles as well as across the internet that goes far beyond its usefulness. I am sometimes under the impression that people take to interpret the concept of a meme, or the mechanisms it comprises, quite literally. I am unaware of any justifiable reasons other than the popularity of the concept itself all across the internet.

    The term illusion refers to both the seemingly perceivable and perceived unity of consciousness and to the already mentioned so-called Cartesian theatre. There is no such thing as a singular entity we like to call ‘I’, ‘ego’, ‘soul’, ‘mind’, etc. Consciousness does exist in the sense that we are aware of some of the processes underway in our brains and other body parts, but we are only aware of (temporary) results. Most processes go on unnoticed, as there simply is no need for us to be aware of everything. Especially with respect to our survival, this would rather be detrimental.

    In my view, Papineau’s criticisms are as devoid of any new insights as he blames Dennett’s latest work to be.

    Besides, why do some people so desperately want humans to be unqiue? We do not have to be, as uniqueness is not what we are here for.

    1. Yes. Memes. While it took me a while to figure out the popular things of memes, the intellectual (orginal) version I thought was quite cool; I viewed the ‘gene’ type idea more as cultural currency. A unit of cultural exchange. But popular culture screws with everything. Lol. I mean, in the 80’s it was ‘radical’. Like totally tubular!

      1. According to my personal interpretation, the meme cult (if I may call it so) on the internet only has an indirect connection to the original idea. If a manipulated picture of a cat with a birthday cap and a caption is a meme, then it really doesn’t do much, if anything, to ensure its survival. And while such a thing may spread like wildfire for a little while, it usually also goes away as soon and as quickly as it came. Genes do not do that, though this may depend upon the scale we use. In millions of years, most genes have, relatively speaking, also gone away as soon and as quickly as they came.
        Of course the idea was radical back in the day. New ideas are always perceived as radical, as they deviate from that which has been established up to that point.
        I’m sorry if my reply sounds a bit too serious. I’m only noticing this now as it’s finished. ^^

        1. The term ‘Radical’ Was taken up by popular culture in north Los Angeles ‘valley’. By young people that came to be known as ‘valley girls’ (see the Frank Zappa song of the same name).
          So far as a unit of culture: the Brevity of the popular memes could evidence the motion of modern culture itself; the question I think would concern how we are able to understand what these seeming disparate forms put together might mean. Because apparently we do understand them, the humour is often due to the fact that we know all too well their reference, even though they come up spontaneously

          1. The popular “memes” concept strikes me as good evidence that consciousness is an illusion (first described as an illusion emerging from normal mental activity by the psychologist William James, I think.)

          2. Thanks for the explanation as to the use of ‘radical’, I wasn’t aware of that, first because I’m German and second because I was only born in 1983.
            I agree with your speculation regarding the brevity of popular memes, it is what I was referring to earlier when I pointed out that the concept of memes in the original sense and in the popular sense had gone their separate ways. Popular memes take advantage (if that is the right expression) of shared experiences (often, but not necessarily within the limits of references understood by specific groups) by twisting the meaning of well-known things by combining them in unexpected ways – which, if I’m not completely mistaken, is the very definition of humour. In simpler words, it’s funny because we didn’t expect the parts involved to be combined in this manner. Then again, there appears to be one more defining characteristic missing, since the description above may also entail shock, awe, and sadness.

            1. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=p-LArv-sEQU

              I just listen to that studio version and she doesn’t say radical in it. Lol. I thought that they did say totally radical. But nevertheless “totally radical ” and just the word “radical ” was an expression that came out of the valley which is north of LA . Encino is a city north of LA in the San Gabriel Valley and the people that would talk like that one calledValley girls in Val’s.

              I’m from LA, but the West Valley San Bernardino , and to this day I still use the term “rad” and even “radical” to mean cool or I think that is really great.
              But I won’t use the term “awesome” strangely enough. Lol

              1. Well, I’m admittedly not really into the meme cult, and until now, I haven’t really bothered with German memes in particular, but after a while, I found this:


                The photograph shows Gernan chancellor Angela Merkel. The upper caption reads, ‘Not funny’, the lower caption reads, ‘remember that’ or ‘keep that in mind’. The lower caption has been altered to read ‘Merkel’, the chancellor’s surname, instead of ‘Merke’, the latter being the imperative singular of German ‘(sich) merken’, which translates to ‘remember’ or ‘keep in mind’.

  7. Memetics boils down to this: memes spread because they have properties that allow them to spread. The rest, and the important bit, are the reasons why some aspects of culture spread and others go extinct. You can analyze all that without ever mentioning the concept of memes.

    But in the gene analogy, genes being discrete is a good deal of the reasons why species are, I take it? If so, in principle memes (and words) being discrete could help explain why cultures (and languages) analogously split and diversify.

  8. The universal definition of “consciousness” is, “self-awareness.”

    It’s easy to suggest that a sunflower, for example, is aware of the Sun, but, also, that the sunflower is not aware that it’s aware of the Sun. It has the simple awareness we identify as the stimulus-response cycle, but no recursive awareness of its own awareness.

    You need communication to be confident of the self-aware nature of another entity. If you can ask the equivalent of, “A penny for your thoughts,” and get a coherent answer, that’s pretty much the gold standard. As such, we can reasonably conclude with overwhelming certainty that Coco the gorilla is conscious.

    Lacking language, it’s still a good bet if the entity demonstrates some ability to predict the thoughts of others — social awareness. It would seem quite peculiar for an entity to know what those around it are thinking without knowing what it itself is thinking. By this metric, basically all social animals are conscious…and, by extension, those in predator / prey roles, as well.

    Granted, a zebra’s comprehension of its own inner mental landscape may well be fuzzy…but, at the same time, almost all humans are almost always lost in thought and in a reactive mode, too. Drumpf is an example of such in the extreme, but all of us are like that to a greater or lesser extent at least some of the time.



  9. I have read Dennett’s book. Papineau seems to have utterly misunderstood Dennett’s central thesis. Dennett does not deny intelligent design or top-down culture (the Bach in his title.) Rather, he explains how the mental apparatus for such an amazing capacity could have evolved from the bottom up (competence without comprehension.) I hope Dan takes him to task.

    1. Yes, that was my impression as well. Papineau simply didn’t understand the book he was reviewing.

  10. I really enjoyed the exchange. The “consciousness is an illusion” can really be misinterpreted, and it’s nice that Dennett was able to clarify it.

    Regarding memes, what ultimately sold me on their vacuity was that “units of culture” are unlike genes in that they don’t have a genetic substrate, and thus are at best a weak analogy to how genes operate. So it’s not useful to use memes as an analogous Darwinian process when they don’t meet the basic conditions under which a Darwinian process acts.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by a “genetic substrate”. Genes are made of digital information. That information happens to be encoded in DNA molecules, but it’s the information content, not the molecules, that undergoes replication and selection. If I send you a DNA sequence by email and you synthesize a DNA molecule from it, that counts as a successful replication of that gene.

      Memes also consist of digital information, often encoded as language, stored in brain states, and replicated by a variety of means. As such they’re subject to selection. I’m not seeing what piece of the Darwinian machinery you think is missing.

      1. Let’s go through the problems one by one:
        – Genes are stored in combinations of A, C, G, and T. What are memes stored in?
        – Genes are transmitted via the act of reproduction, which is a high-fidelity act of transmission. How do memes accomplish this?
        – For selection of genes to occur, there must be a differential survival value associated with the genes. How does this work in memes?
        – Finally, cultural revision isn’t much of a Darwinian process at all, but bears the marks of competency and comprehension in their changes. This is not Darwinian, but Lamarkian.

        There’s a good case to be made that the Darwinian process can help understand some cultural change in particular circumstances. Dawkins gave a good example in one of his books about a copying error in Auld Lang Syne that would qualify. But as a general theory of culture, there’s just too much non-Darwinian about “units of culture” in their form, their transmission, and their change, to hold to memes as a serious explanation.

        1. Dennett addresses all of these issues in his book. But briefly:

          – At least some memes can be represented linguistically. Language is a form of digital encoding, with words, letters, and phonemes taking the place of codons and base pairs.

          – High-fidelity transmission of digital data (including language) is entirely possible. We’re doing it right now.

          – Memes are selected for their ability to get copied, just as genes are.

          – If you read Dennett’s exchange with Papineau, then you already know that he considers cultural evolution to be a mix of Darwinian processes and Lamarckian intelligent design. His thesis is that the unthinking Darwinian part had to come first to build up a repertoire of mental tools that could enable thoughtful design.

          Seriously, read the book before dismissing his ideas as vacuous.

          1. It’s disappointing to be told that I simply haven’t read something when I have. Dennett dedicated an appendix to his defense of memes in Breaking The Spell, as well as in the main text of the book. Dawkins has written on it in multiple books.

            The problems I have are with the detail of it. It’s all well and good to say “words are memes”, but the point about the analogy is how it can teach us about the transmission of culture. And that’s where it gets difficult, and a meme’s eye view doesn’t give the clarity that the gene’s eye view does. The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and trying to understand culture through a meme’s eye view doesn’t work the same way as understanding biology through a gene’s eye view.

            Language has at least some transmission value, but it’s imperfect and imprecise; words when they are transmitted don’t mean the same thing from brain to brain (to borrow from Dennett, it sorta does), the role language plays in transmission is not to further the ends of the words itself but mainly the intentions of the language user, and how the language evolves over time isn’t better understood in a Darwinian view.

            The point I was making initially is that memes are not really analogous to genes in a way that makes the concept useful. There are definitely parts of culture that are analogous and susceptible to Darwinian forces, but that doesn’t make memes as a whole a good explanation of culture.

            And that’s the problem with memes. No-one is saying that there’s no analogy between genes and transmission of culture, but that memes don’t have the explanatory power that genes do because culture is not the same. Some cases work well. Some cases have a degree of truth to them. Then other cases don’t at all. It’s because cultural transmission is vastly different from genetic transmission, in form, in purpose, and in outcome.

            1. “There are definitely parts of culture that are analogous and susceptible to Darwinian forces, but that doesn’t make memes as a whole a good explanation of culture.”

              It doesn’t make memes a good explanation of culture as a whole. It does make them a good explanation of those parts of culture that are susceptible to Darwinian forces, and that’s all we require of them to be a useful concept.

              Jerry’s position seems to be that memes have no explanatory power whatever. As far as I can see, that’s equivalent to saying that Darwinian processes play no role in culture at all. (If that’s not your position, then I apologize for misreading you.) If we accept that Darwinian processes do play a role, then it follows that something is being replicated and selected, and I see no reason not to call that something “memes”.

              1. My position is that we need to be careful in drawing the analogy between genes and memes because culture so rarely mimics the gene’s-eye-view that gives such explanatory power to biological explanations. Memes just don’t have the explanatory power of genes, and that’s a problem when trying to understand culture through memes. I can’t speculate on what Jerry Coyne would make of my assessment compared to his own – all I can say is what I am wary of memes as an attempt to explain culture.

  11. This debate is entirely sterile. Both Papineau and Dennett are blithely ignorant of the nature of consciousness. The quote from Power allows the simplest avenue toward understanding:

    “But for internal representations, we do not experience the medium AT ALL. Only the content”

    This is quite false, though Dennett admires its succinctness and Papineau does not demur. We DO experience the “medium”, since even if I am utterly deluded about the content, I cannot doubt that the “medium” (i.e. consciousness per se) exists. So why are these highly respected “lovers of wisdom”, along with pretty much everyone else, so confused?

    The problem is that whereas I know about the content of consciousness through a very familiar mental access, HOW I know that I AM conscious is uniquely inaccessible mentally. Thus I call Papineau and Dennett “ignorant” because they ignore their own direct experience. I recommend a regular meditation practice: Osho’s Dynamic meditation is far the most efficacious.

    I can put this more tersely: heterophenomenolgy is bollocks because “third persons” don’t exist.

    1. Isn’t the thought ‘I am conscious’ (verbal or non-verbal) exactly the content of the medium consciousness at any given moment? How do you experience consciousness without content? We are only aware of being aware because of being aware, not because of awareness itself – if the distinction even makes any sense. I think the illusion consists in the belief that there is a permanent entity to be called ‘consciousness’, ‘awareness’, or whatever else. Besides, I’ve never read ‘consciousness is an illusion’ as ‘consciousness does not exist’. The debate rather seems to revolve about what it actually is, what its qualities are. You are right in saying that the question as to how anyone knows they are conscious is mentally inaccessible, but this boils down to an old philosophical issue which, I assume, we don’t want to discuss all over again. In any given scenario, we don’t know that we’re conscious, we only assume or think or believe or feel we are, never mind that there appears to be a spectrum of indefinite degrees of how conscious we are ranging from ‘barely’ conscious’ to ‘highly conscious’ or even ‘extremely conscious’. The artifacts and pitfalls of natural languages don’t help the matter, either. We can say ‘bring something to someone’s consciousness/awareness’, but all we really say is that someone is made conscious/aware of something’. Consciousness thus seems to be only an abstraction of particular states of mind instead of a separate entity, which in its turn renders the idea of there having to be a medium superfluous.

  12. Personally I do not like the word illusion when referring to consciouness.
    Consciousness to me is a construction built of perception and memories within the brain, useful for brains survival. To the brain it is as real as a skyscraper or battleship as long as it is useful.

  13. Memetics aside, cultural evolution has attracted quite a bit of academic interest in the last couple of decades. If Jerry doesn’t mind, I’d like to post a few links for those who are curious.

    There is a newly founded Cultural Evolution Society. This is the society’s Facebook page, which is the society’s official page. They’ve surveyed their members and come up with a statement of Grand challenges for the study of cultural evolution, Nature: ecology and evolution. The society’s first meeting is being held this September in Jena.

    Tim Lewens has published a good overview (2013) in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Topics covered: 1. What is Cultural Evolution? 2. Natural Selection and Cultural Inheritance 3. Historical Pedigree 4. Memes 5. Problems with Memes 6. Cultural Evolution without Memes 7. The Explanatory Role of Cultural Evolutionary Theories 8. Population Thinking 9. Evolvability 10. Cultural Phylogenies.

    Harvard’s Joseph Henrich has recently published The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter, which is a readable introduction to, shall we say, “orthodox” cultural evolution. Tyler Cowen has a very good interview with him (video and transcript). A variety of humanists have been working with “big data” under the general rubric of “digital humanities”. Very little, if any, of this work is being done under the rubric of cultural evolution, but much of this work is relevant. You might want to start with the newly formed Journal of Cultural Analytics: CA.

    Back in 1968 Ted Cloak made a presentation entitled “The Wheel” to the American Anthropological Association. He later wrote it up and made a PDF available on the web under the title Cultural Darwinism: Natural Selection of The Spoked Wood Wheel. This paper is important for historical reasons, but also because it does something that’s relatively rare in the study of cultural evolution: a detailed descriptive study of a cultural artifact. In this case it is the spoked wheel. Cloak’s paper opens with a description, including many photographs, of how a Trinidadian wheelwright makes a wheel. Then, and only then: When I began thinking about the phylogeny of the spoked wheel, therefore, I had difficulty imagining how this could have occurred incrementally. It did seem reasonable to assume that the species “wheel, spoked” had evolved from the species “wheel, solid”. But there are a large number of absolutely essential differences between these two species. As a cultural Darwinist, I needed to find transitional forms between the two and to show that these forms would be adaptive. In other words, I had to show that the phylogeny of the spoked wheel was not teleological but rather could be explained in straight natural-selection terms.

    My own paper, “Rhythm Changes” Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture, which I’d mentioned above, is in a similar vein. I’ve published and blogged on cultural evolution more than a little over the years. This blog post is a brief introduction to that work. I have a particular interest in so-called major transitions.

  14. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has just published a collection of articles on cultural evolution: Sackler Colloquium on Extension of Biology Through Culture. The articles can be downloaded free. I’ve not had a chance to read any of the articles, but it looks like an excellent collection, including pieces on culture among animals (monkeys, apes, songbirds, whales, dolphins, insects) in addition to humans, with pieces on neuroscience, learning, childhood development, cognition, and language.

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