An evolutionary psychology book that shows the discipline’s value—but not the value of memes

September 15, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’ve just finished reading Steve Stewart-Williams’s recent book The Ape That Understood the Universe (Cambridge University Press, revised edition 2019). I recommend it highly as a good way to get not only an introduction to evolutionary psychology, but also to see why the discipline is worthwhile and why its detractors are often misguided. Click on the screenshot if you want to buy it from Amazon US.

I have to hedge my encomiums a bit, because while most of the book—the first part that deals with evolutionary psychology—is excellent, the second bit, only the last 64 pages, is weaker. That’s the bit that deals with memes, the popular but, I think, misguided view that we can understand human cultural evolution by assuming it’s propelled by memes, “units of culture” first dreamed up by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. While memetics sounds good at first glance, and has become incorporated into popular jargon as “an item that’s gone viral on the Internet”, I have always questioned its value as a way to understand how ideas and objects spread in human culture—indeed, supposedly creating human culture. I explained my criticisms in a 1999 Nature book review of Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine, and won’t reiterate them at length here.

But the biggest part of the book is well worth reading, particularly because Left-wing biologists have denigrated evolutionary psychology at length, calling it not only worthless, but meaningless. I won’t name these miscreants, but suffice it to say that their motivations are largely ideological: they think that if human behavior—particularly behavioral differences between groups and especially between men and women (but also behavioral “universals”)—are partly instilled in our genome by natural selection, then that will justify xenophobia, misogyny, and all kinds of bigotry.

This claim isn’t true, of course. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, to say that our evolutionary past justifies how people should treat others, or construct a morality, is deeply misguided: “the naturalistic fallacy.” And to accept that natural selection has molded human bodies and physiology, and has done so within the last 10,000 years (see here), but then to deny that natural selection has affected human behaviors, including differences between the sexes that sometimes parallel those seen in animals, is a nonsensical and unparsimonious view.

Further, evolutionary psychology as a discipline is neither worthless, unproductive, nor tautological. After describing how natural selection operates on genes (including kin selection and the production of cooperative behaviors), Stewart-Williams takes up some topics in evolutionary psychology and shows that the discipline has indeed produced testable and confirmed hypotheses, particularly those involving aspects of human sexual behavior as well as behavior toward kin and group-mates (“altruism”).

Stewart-Williams is no uncritical booster of evolutionary psychology, readily admitting that some of its advocates have gone overboard. But you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, and in an appendix called “How to win an argument with a Blank Slater”, Stewart-Williams takes up and rebuts some of the most common criticisms of the discipline (e.g., “evolutionary psychology is the latest incarnation of genetic determinism”, “hypotheses in evolutionary psychology are either just-so stories or are unfalsifiable”, and so on). Hypotheses in the discipline are often testable and falsifiable, and one of the strongest parts of this book is the description of data that support hypotheses about the evolution of behavior, as well as some description of tests that have failed. Like Darwin, Stewart-Williams is always anticipating readers’ queries and criticisms, and addresses them throughout the book.

The discussion of human “altruism”, always a puzzling topic, is also quite good, with Stewart-Williams lucidly describing the various ways what we think of as “selfless behavior” could evolve (kin selection, small-group tit-for-tat strategies, and group selection, which he considers unlikely). All in all, I strongly recommend you read at least the first 218 pages on evolutionary psychology, as well as Appendix A on arguing with Blank Slaters.

You should also read the last chapter on memetics (“The Cultural Animal”), but do so with an especially critical eye. Although Stewart-Williams’s aim in the book is to explain human behavior and society as a result of both biological and cultural evolution, he’s much more successful with the former than the latter. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have good insights into cultural evolution, for he does. It’s just that the addition of “memes” doesn’t, in my view, add much.

I’ll give just one example. Most of us love apple pie and ice cream, and Stewart-Williams considers this a meme whose spread needs explanation. The classical explanation of memetics is that ideas spread when they parasitize human brains and have features that are good for the memes themselves to spread, though those features may not be adaptive for individuals or society (he uses smoking as one example). So it goes with apple pie à la mode:

. . . the ultimate criterion which determines whether a meme will spread is not whether it benefits us or our groups, but whether it benefits the meme itself.

Two examples will illustrate the point. [JAC: I give just the first.] The first is apple pie and ice cream. The apple-pie-and-ice-cream meme has prospered in human societies because it powerfully activates the brain’s pleasure centers—more powerfully, in fact, than anything in our natural environment. Eating too much of the stuff isn’t good for us, but that’s irrelevant. The meme proliferates, not because it’s good for us but purely because it’s good for itself—purely, that is, because it’s good at proliferating. To be clear, it doesn’t want to proliferate or know what’s good for it, any more than genes do. It’s apple pie! The idea is simply that if we want to understand which memes come to predominate in a culture, then rather than looking at how memes affect our fitness or the fitness of our groups, we need to look at how they affect their own chances of being passed on.

But to assert that the apple-pie-a-la-mode meme has properties that make it good at proliferating is simply tautological, and not in the way that the spread of genes is said to be tautological. What, exactly, about this meme helps it spread itself among Americans or Brits? What makes it good for itself? As far as I can see, nothing. What makes it spread is simply that apple pie and ice cream taste good, and taste better than alternatives like, say, donuts and ice cream. While Stewart-Williams admits that this dessert “activates the brains’s pleasure centers,” the real explanation for why this dessert “meme” is popular would involve understanding why it tastes better than alternatives. As I wrote in my Nature review of Susan Blackmore’s book:

. . . Blackmore’s enterprise has two fatal flaws. First, she has got the chain of causation backwards. The claim that memes created major features of humanity is equivalent to the claim that the main force driving the development of better computers has been the self-propagation of software. In reality, computers are usually designed for speed and capacity, which then permits the development of new software. Similarly, the self-replication of memes does not mould our biology and culture; rather, our biology and culture determine which memes are created and spread. What a world of human psychology is obscured by Blackmore’s mantra, “If a meme can get itself successfully copied it will”! To me, memetics boils down to the following obvious theory: ideas tend to spread if they cater to our desires to have love, comfort, pleasure, power, sex, the attention and admiration of others, a meaningful life and a way to evade the awful fact of mortality.

This brings us to the biggest problem: memetics seems completely tautological, unable to explain why a meme spreads except by asserting, post facto, that it had qualities enabling it to spread. One might as well say that aspirin relieves pain because of its pain-relieving properties. The most interesting question — why some memes spread and not others — is completely neglected. Why did Christianity take hold during the waning days of the Roman Empire? You won’t find the answer, or any way to attain it, in memetics. (This, by the way, makes memetics utterly unlike biological evolution. The spread of genes through natural selection is not tautological because one can predict their fate through their known effects on replication and the reproduction of their carriers.)

Nothing is gained in understanding the spread of apple pie and ice cream by considering it a “brain parasite,” which Stewart-Williams does.

I think Stewart-Williams recognizes this problem with memetics, for he deals with it in Appendix B: “How to win an argument with an Anti-Memeticist”. Here we find the following passage, which starts with a criticism of memetics in italics and then the his rebuttal in plain text.

The hallmark of a good scientific theory is that it generates research: it makes novel predictions about the world, which lead scientists to make otherwise unexpected discoveries. Memetics, however, has been woefully unsuccessful on this front. Indeed, the field’s flagship journal, The Journal of Memetics, had to close its doors because it didn’t get enough submissions.”

[Stewart-Williams’s answer]: This is the “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” criticism. Of all the criticisms on offer, it’s probably the one that worries me most. In the end, though, I think it fails. It is certainly true that memetics has yet to deliver much in the way of new research. It’s also true that many specific meme-based explanations have yet to be adequately tested. However, when it comes to evaluating a theory or explanation, what we ultimately want to know is not how many publications it’s generated, or how many surprising discoveries, bur rather something more basic: whether or not the theory is true.  That, in the final analysis, is what science is all about.  And despite the current research shortfall, there’s good reason to believe that, at least in its general outline, memetics is indeed a true and accurate theory.

But how can we know if a theory is true if it doesn’t propose tests or potential falsifications? Stewart-Williams tentatively accepts the truth of memetics because he says it makes sense: cultural entities appear “designed to benefit themselves”, even if they harm individuals or groups. (Yes, too much pie is bad for you, or, as the jolly Almus Pickerbaugh said in Arrowsmith, “too much pie makes pyorrhea.“)  But how, exactly, does the apple-pie-and-ice cream “meme” benefit itself? Can you predict this in advance from simply the existence of the combination? Well, perhaps you could predict it if you knew how its gustatory constituents interacted with human brains, but that’s a psychological explanation that has nothing to do with the “self spreadability” of the pie-and-ice cream meme.

In the end, you have to judge whether a theory is true based not on intrinsic plausibility but on whether it survives empirical tests. In my view, the empirical “tests” of memetics boil down to post facto explanations of why something spread based on some characteristic of the cultural unit itself. And here memetics has, as Stewart-Williams admits, failed. It doesn’t explain much and doesn’t seem falsifiable because memeticists always seem able to confect a reason why something had to spread, independent of human tastes, needs, or psychology. It is intrinsically an unfalsifiable theory.

I’ve written a lot about memes because it’s a bugbear of mine, not because it’s the major topic of Stewart-Williams’s book. It isn’t. And so I recommend that you read the book, if for no other reason than to see why the critics of evolutionary psychology are largely misguided. But you’ll also learn a lot about how natural selection works, and how it’s forged an appreciable part of human behavior.

42 thoughts on “An evolutionary psychology book that shows the discipline’s value—but not the value of memes

  1. I’ve read this and I agree that it’s a worthwhile read.

    I do, however, have to quibble with your criticism of Blackmore: “The claim that memes created major features of humanity is equivalent to the claim that the main force driving the development of better computers has been the self-propagation of software. In reality, computers are usually designed for speed and capacity, which then permits the development of new software.”

    In fact, advanced software design tools are critical and necessary for the development of advanced hardware. There’s clearly a bootstrapping process. If hardware developers had to depend on old fashioned paper-and-pencil drafting tools, as they used to back in the days of discrete components, we wouldn’t be close to today’s hardware technology. It would be impossible to design and manufacture today’s advanced integrated circuits without software, and this applies to several areas in addition to mere design and layout tools, such as simulation for design verification.

    1. In fact, advanced software design tools are critical and necessary for the development of advanced hardware. There’s clearly a bootstrapping process.

      Isn’t that the requisite precondition for the hypothesized artificial-intelligence “singularity”?

      1. If and when AI is used to more-or-less autonomously design better hardware, and in particular hardware better for it to run on, that closes a self-reinforcing causal loop. I’ve long been a skeptic of AI and of the singularity argument, but after recent developments in unsupervised learning (I’m thinking of AlphaZero), my skepticism is weakening.

        1. I think your skepticism should be higher. The modern miracles of AI still don’t really know anything. GPT-3 is a party gimmick. It can’t do much that is useful. More to the point, it doesn’t know anything other than word statistics and none of its current algorithms has any promise at all. AI can’t really move forward without a theory of knowledge and learning, something which doesn’t yet exist.

    2. “In fact, advanced software design tools are critical and necessary for the development of advanced hardware. There’s clearly a bootstrapping process.”

      I wouldn’t call it a true bootstrapping process because the two things are pretty much unconnected. No one says “We need to build a faster computer so we can create better software design tools.” People build faster computers to make programs of all kinds run faster and enable more complex programs to be created. Similarly, people build better software design tools in order to design all kinds of software, not just software used to design faster computers.

    3. Yeah, but that ain’t the half of it. The improvement in modern computing is in fact due mainly to improved software. And it’s computing, not computers per se, that makes the proper analogy. As an engineer, I definitely care more about having excellent and wide ranging computing available to me, rather than having the most teraflops or whatever. It’s the services, not the hardware, that ultimately matters.

      1. That’s well put. In a nutshell, through software, computing leads to better computing, which leads to better software, which leads to better computing …

        A computer without software is essentially a rock.

  2. Thanks for the comprehensive review.

    memetics seems completely tautological, unable to explain why a meme spreads except by asserting, post facto, that it had qualities enabling it to spread.

    Oh, I think that for some memes we can come up with non-tautological reasons for why they spread. The meme “Believe, and kill all nonbelievers” is an obvious one; it spreads because it eliminates humans that don’t carry it. Plus even just the threat posed by a neighbor carrying the meme may give fencesitting humans a strong incentive to adopt it. Or to think of a less extreme, more realistic example, the spread of wokeism can be pretty obviously explained as a survival adaptation, in any local environment where wokeism denies jobs or other forms of “social success” to those who are not woke.

    So, I think some memes may be viable analogs to genes. But certainly not all of them. You’d have to look for how selection might operate on their adoption/non-adoption, and if there’s no strong selective advantage to adopting them (or strong disadvantage to non-adoption), they probably aren’t gene-like.

      1. Hmmm, well, I wasn’t specifically thinking of that example, but to take it on, I’d say that once you have powerful individuals (or a lot of individuals) with the “Christianity – convert or die” meme, the wholesale adoption of “Christianity – convert or die” can be explained non-tautologically as having local survival value. If you’re asking whether that explains it’s origins when there were initially other, stronger ‘convert or die’ memes out there, or if it explains why the specific content of Christianity was adopted vs. some other content (like Arianism), the answer is probably “it doesn’t.”

        In any event, I think my idea is testable. You’d want to compare the spread of memes that punish “non-accepters” vs. memes that don’t, and see if the former spreads faster or more successfully. If so, maybe that tells you the former type of meme is more gene-like. As an aside, my initial thought is that the author is wrong to put “[eat] apple pie and ice cream” in the category of gene-like memes, since there doesn’t seem to be any penalty for not having it.

        1. The major religions of the world which survived have ethical systems that effectively maximize fertility. The religions which have died out, which may seems way cooler regarding contemporary social issues, did not.

          If you look at religion as a group strategy to maximize the fertility of that group, as well as the potential geopolitical implications of fertility, it provides some clarity on the historical importance of religion and perhaps religious warfare.

          Christianity outdid Judaism because Christianity assimilated better to gentile cultural orientation than did Judaism. It beat the pagans, because they had higher fertility and perhaps due to rejecting child marriage, as well as control over elite education.

          1. Christianity outdid Judaism because the former, from St. Paul on, placed great emphasis on converting the unconverted—a classic example of memetics in action.

            A drive for “Judaization” was typical of only one short period in post-biblical Jewish history, the reign of the Hasmonean king and high priest Alexander Yannai (103 to 76 BCE). [Even then, there was fierce opposition to Alexander’s rule, resulting in civil wars.]
            Otherwise, Judaism often makes conversion difficult, if anything.

            1. Paul was so successful because he removed Judaic ethnic customs from the Movement, which meant that pagans with their own customs could become Christians without losing their own customs, festivals, foods, etc. Paganism got a Christian face-lift essentially, and fortunately for us, the Christians preserved a large part of the ancient (pagan) Greco-Rome Cannon.

      2. Really? Isn’t that pretty much exactly how Christianity took over and helped destroy the Roman Empire.

        Obviously that’s a bit of an exaggeration, and it was more “believe and persecute anybody who disagrees with you”, but aggressive proselytising and intolerance to disagreement have clear survival value for a meme.

        Christianity seems to have been uniquely aggressive and intolerant, and the old tolerant religions had no way to fight it.

        See The Darkening Age (Catherine Nixey) and The Myth of Persecution (Candida Moss).

        1. The Roman Empire fell in 1453 at the hands of the Ottomans. The Western Empire fell a lot earlier, and the Roman Empire was used a propaganda object in the sense of the “Holy Roman Empire” in the West, of it was neither, but that was ahistorical political move by the Roman See.

          There hasn’t been a non-Christian Empire in Europe since Constantine, and there really hasn’t been an Empire in Europe since the rise of secularism and nationalism. Frankly, nationalism is a lot better at destroying empires than Christianity.

  3. I agree with Dr. Coyne in his critique of memes. They are not the cultural equivalent of genes, nor do they have causative power the way genes do.

    On the other hand, before alphabets, and certainly before mass literacy, humans used images, and those images were important centers of cultural organization (the turtle clan versus the wolf clan, etc.). Territorial markings, social identity markers, status markings, advertising, branding, etc. Hugely important to human social organization, geopolitics, capitalism, etc.

    The image as a sign can stand for the object of desire, but to the extend that the image inflames desire, it can only be understood teleologically, as the final cause of a pattern of behavior. This would be entirely different from how genetics works. I suspect that the attempt to turn “memes” into “genes” is an attempt to gloss over the teleological nature of the image, and it won’t work.

    Obviously, from a reductionist perspective, this would have to illusory, and reducible to efficient and material causes, which would make the image drop out. Another version of the intentionality problem, but if you could solve it for a proposition, you can also solve it for an image. [E.G. the solution would be a reduction, not pretending the image functions like a gene.]

      1. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia:

        “In philosophy, intentionality is the power of minds and mental states to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs.”

        I dislike the mind-language, but certainly an icon (say a picture of an ice cold Coca-Cola) can be used to generate a desire to drink an ice cold Coca-Cola, even if you can’t drink the picture. The advertising works by the image standing for something else.

        Quine addressed intentionality in “Word and Object” published in 1960, and concluded that either intentional idioms are autonomous and a physicalist ontology must be rejected, or intentionality is baseless or ephemeral. Daniel Dennett has attempted to follow up in this problem after Quine.

        Obviously, an advertisement intended to stimulate desire for a product is inherently teleological, it is intended to create a desire within the audience to seek the end of consuming a Coke. Soaked through and through with intentionality, of things standing for other things and mental states desiring other things, and organisms engaging in goal-based behaviors.

        A simple point is that language follows conventions. A linguistic convention is not anything like a law of science, meanings can change, be inverted, shift etc., but linguistic conventions are not random. They cannot be modeled with a random system, nor can they be modeled based on physical laws (they do not function like a billiard ball striking another ball). In other words, they are between determinism and randomness. You either need to posit something more (final causes if you follow ancient philosophy) or you have to reduce them to something based physical laws, in which case they drop out, like the crowd when you get closer and realize it is just a bunch of people.

        1. Part of the limitations of Skinner’s approach to behavior was that he tried to model all behavior as essentially reflex, but acquired reflex. This was very important because a reflex is very much like a deterministic, Newtonian system. If behavior is just reflex + socially-acquired reflex, you get rid of anything like intentionality (the bell rings, the dog drools).

          The problem is behavior is context-based. It is extremely difficult to actually construct an operative definition of violence (for say movie censorship) because what is violence is heavily dependent on context. A threat in one context is a joke in another context, etc. Showing surgery is different from a slasher film.

        2. or you have to reduce them [linguistic meanings] to something based physical laws, in which case they drop out, like the crowd when you get closer and realize it is just a bunch of people.

          Emphasis added to highlight the non-sequitur. Not everything which is emergent – and therefore has an alternative, micro-level description – drops out. For a basically right-headed explanation of why your argument won’t work, see Daniel Dennett’s paper “Real Patterns”:

          (Which is not to say that I agree with everything dreamt of in Dennett’s philosophy, or even in this one paper.)

    1. I wrote this just the other day in another forum: I would hesitate to conclude anything about memes without considering Dennett’s most recent treatment of the topic in “From Bacteria to Bach…” (2017). His conception and defense of memes is the most well-developed.

  4. I agree that it is an interesting and well-written book which convincingly refutes the arguments of “blank-slaters”. I just hope he is safe in Malaysia from the social-justice mob.

    Some evolutionary psychology seems to be a branch of speculative fiction, finding credible explanations for behavior as adaptions to the life of early hominids. This is fun but is it science?

    For example one could speculate about why some young males react aggressively towards men who behave in a feminine way, for example because they are gay. An explanation might be found in adaptation to life in small groups of wide-ranging male hunters and female child-minders and gatherers. Associating with the female group rather than joining the hunt might provide males with greater access to females and thus mating opportunities.

    1. “Associating with the female group rather than joining the hunt might provide males with greater access to females and thus mating opportunities.”

      This reminded me of one the best Kids in the Hall skids they ever did:

  5. The “apple pie and ice cream” meme is a very Anglo-Saxon one. In Central Europe (certainly what used to be the old Austro-Hungarian Empire) the ice cream would be surely substituted by whipped cream. Apple pie would be replaced by strudel (or by a chocolate rich dessert). Non-Western palates would be even less sympathetic to the meme.

    The point is that memes — or at least some memes — are very much social constructs.

    1. “The point is that memes — or at least some memes — are very much social constructs.”

      Memes are social constructs by definition. In fact, “meme” and “social construct” are pretty much the same thing. Or am I missing something?

  6. I’m not clear on why memes would be used either – even if there is a framing that can kind of shoehorn in the ‘meme’ explanation, at best it seems like an unclear framing that could be spoken about more clearly in different language.

    For example, it seems fairly obvious that memes couldn’t spread unless humans had a proclivity for groupthink, mirroring, and imitation. Starting the framing in those terms seems clearer to me. There are no doubt things that are imitated widely because they’re self-evidently a good thing to most people (Apple pie and ice cream. Although not sure why the author chose that example as we put ice cream on almost every dessert in this country, so that it is sometimes served with ice cream doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy.)

    Once some baseline spread has begun, it could be that you have various other mechanisms for spread. If they are seen as in vogue with those in power, for example, they might spread out of admiration or fear. When it comes to religion, I suspect it was a matter of utility – a sort of portable culture that meant those on distant trade routes could be relied upon to share your mores and thus make collaboration easier (it seems to me that the majority of today’s major religions all emerged at approximately the same time, historically, making me suspect there was something about those particular conditions that called for it.)

    Again, it may be possible to frame all that in terms of ‘memes’, but to my mind it’s clearer to simply say – ideas are bound to change by various metrics (how much pleasure they bring, utility, fear of punishment, etc.) as they spread because that makes them spread faster – putting the emphasis on humans as the agents spreading ideas vs. the ideas themselves as pseudo-agents. I guess you could say that ideas ‘mutate’ via humans, but this seems like an unnecessarily complicated way to speak about it, vs. just saying that human ideas are based on human needs and preferences, and the more successfully they fit those, the more successfully they spread.

  7. “And despite the current research shortfall, there’s good reason to believe that, at least in its general outline, memetics is indeed a true and accurate theory.”

    This is the hand-waving meme at work. He has said nothing of value about memetics, but his hand waving makes it seem like he has. “there’s good reason” he says, without providing any. “at least in its general outline” he says, thereby excusing all shortcomings. “a true and accurate theory” he says, which does not address the question of whether there is any value in it.

    Memetics is a dead end, unless someone comes up with a theory of what makes apple pie with ice cream a meme, but not apple pie with maple syrup, nor cherry pie with ice cream.

  8. Apple pie and ice cream sounds insane to me.

    Apple pie and custard is the One True Way.

    It does indeed sound like a lousy example of a meme, given that its something explicable biologically anyway.

    1. “What, exactly, about this meme [apple pie and ice cream] helps it spread itself among Americans or Brits?” – as a Brit, I’ve only ever had this combination once, and that was in the US as a teenager. Maybe it’s spread over here since, but I’m not particularly aware of it.

  9. Well, apple pie and ice cream are delicious together – the tart (hot?) apple pie – fruit – glorious milk cream, frozen, and the sweet sweet sugar that we humans love so much.
    It gives us great pleasure.
    What memetic is needed to explain this?

  10. Book sounds good, I’ll try to get a copy soon.

    The thing that turned me off memes was thatc disconnect between the gene’s eye view and the meme’s eye view as Dawkins wrote about in The Selfish Gene. If memes don’t have that ability to ‘code themselves’ as genes do, then the causative power of the gene-centred view of evolution doesn’t transfer to memes.

    I’m sure there are cases where aspects of culture would have some analogy to the biological processes, but that it may apply some of the time puts it as just one of many descriptors of cultural life. It doesn’t necessarily make it a useful explanation, or even an appropriate explanation when it’s used.

  11. Is not the scientific enterprise a good example of meme theory? A science meme (idea)succeeds and reproduces (as citations etc) based on its ability to explain observations and connect ideas into a whole, the criteria we have set for survival. Those science memes (eg, the luminiferous ether) that fail such tests go extinct.

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