Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Homo Memeticus

In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins famously argued that ideas (memes) are analogous to biological replicators. They replicate, mutate, and evolve, and human brains are their playgrounds.

In this essay I offer an alternative to biological memetics.

Why is an alternative needed?

Unnoticed by memeticists, there is a crucial difference between biological replicators and ideas: in biology, organisms are subject to natural selection; ideas, however, are created and selected by humans. This is an odd situation, which throws a wrench in the normal evolutionary model. Biologists would have to create new models, almost entirely from scratch, to take account of human peculiarities in the reproduction of ideas.

Fortunately, they don't need to. There's already a science dedicated to evolutionary processes guided by humans. This science is economics. (I just rewrote that, by the way.)

Homo Memeticus
"Everyone recognizes that most people respond to costs and benefits in deciding how much to buy of simple goods such as fruit, clothing, or a car. I claim that this common-sense idea applies to all human decisions."
- Gary Becker, The Economics of Life

To simplify their work, economists often use a stripped-down model of humans that is completely rational and informed. This superhuman has been nicknamed homo economicus by detractors.

In this essay I am proposing a slight alteration to this model. I am positing that humans select both information and beliefs in the same way they select other economic goods. (Since homo economicus is completely rational and informed, he never has to select information or beliefs.)

This new model — homo memeticus — looks for the most rewarding information at the cheapest cost. When the costs of a piece of information increase, the likelihood of his "consuming" it decreases. He is utility maximizing, just as homo economicus, but he is not blessed with perfect information.

There are, however, some limits to the analogy with material goods. The market price for many ideas is negligible, allowing other costs to gain primary significance, such as the time and effort needed to understand the idea, or the adverse consequences of understanding it (maybe ignorance is bliss). These costs could apply to material goods as well, but presumably they exert more influence in the realm of ideas.

Homo memeticus also chooses his beliefs economically. Beliefs, though not traded on a market, have many costs. There are the costs of the information needed to understand the belief — for example, the time spent at church to understand Christianity, or the cost of an economics textbook to understand economic theory. There are psychological costs — for example, many people find the belief in human evolution painful, and prefer, psychologically, to believe humans were created by a god. Then there are financial costs — a business CEO will not get far with the belief that he is exploiting workers, and that the only way to rectify the situation is to transform the business into a workers' coop.

The model can be employed like so:
International trade economics is an obscure subject, filled with strange terminology and math. A good deal of time and effort is required to grasp it, not to mention the cost of buying a textbook! And the benefit to the layman is small — how many non-economists make more money or sleep better at night because they know that exports minus imports equals savings minus investments? Protectionism, on the other hand, is an easy theory to grasp. You can almost surely get the theory for free, and it gives you the mental security of knowing that our economic problems can be blamed on foreigners. Any man on the street can pride himself on having serious views about national policies with no schooling whatsoever, and without sacrificing his nationalist prejudices, thanks to protectionism.

The cheapness, simplicity, and psychological satisfaction of protectionism all play a significant role in its spread. In this area, protectionism — in spite of the almost unanimous support of free trade by economists — is the belief best suited to the stereotypical layman (a fact that bugs Paul Krugman to no end).

It is my belief that this simple model, with the help of empirical research, can explain the distribution of human beliefs. And though it is intuitive — obvious, really — it leads to surprising conclusions. More on these later.


Bryan Caplan, Rational Irrationality: A Framework for the Neoclassical-Behavioral Debate

Bryan Caplan, Rational Ignorance vs. Rational Irrationality


Thirtyseven said...

Why are humans not part of "natural selection"? I don't see the separation. Do you think we've stopped evolving? I'm open to that, not attacking.

Also - "There's already a science dedicated to evolutionary processes guided by humans. This science is economics." - I'd recommend checking out the work of Mandelbrot on economics, or Taleb's recent book The Black Swan.

Definitely curious to see where you'll be taking the memetic biology angle from here.

Skeptikos said...

It's not that we aren't part of natural selection, necessarily, I just think the biological metaphor is misleading. It's a much different situation, when humans are directly selecting which ideas to learn and believe, than when organisms are hiding from predators and looking for mates.

It just so happens that economists have built very extensive models of this scenario, so it seems only natural to use economics as the basis for memetics. (There is an evolutionary approach to economics, too, but it isn't nearly as well developed as the mainstream neoclassical version.)

So, in short, in order to create an actual, predictive science of memetics, you need to account for human behavior. The memetics that I've read totally misses this point -- the authors seem to assume that they can explain the whole story without ever addressing the humans.

(I also think they tend to confuse learning an idea with believing it -- especially when they talk about religion -- though I didn't mention that in the post.)

You aren't the first person who misinterpreted me, so maybe I should rephrase that section.

I can't say I'm very interested in financial economics right now, honestly. I'm currently focusing on microeconomics and sociology -- mostly to try to understand the spread of ideas and beliefs.

The next post I'm planning covers the supply side of ideas. I would already have it posted, but I'm going through some sociology to make sure I don't screw anything up too badly.

I have a variety of topics in mind for later, though there's no telling which ones will work out.

By the way, you are a hero of mine. Holy crap! I feel pretty honored to get a comment from you! No exaggeration, where I'm at now is largely the result of a crazy-thinking process that can be traced straight back to Brainsturbator.

Thirtyseven said...

"the authors seem to assume that they can explain the whole story without ever addressing the humans."

^^I'd definitely agree on that.

As for the financial economics: physics gets fine tuned over the years because it must correspond to measurements of reality. If it doesn't, you know you need to rethink your assumptions...your axioms.

The recent economic crash is signifigant because it's a very visible real-world failure of the kind on linear/classic axioms that the market was based on.

Most economics is as sadly divorced from reality as the most academic writing on memetics can be.

It's also worth mentioning that "economics" is the money version of "political science" - they both exist mostly to justify the actions of the powerful. There's multiple "schools" of economics, but for the most part all they've got on record are successful computer models, and real-world disasters.

Skeptikos said...

From what I've seen, the current mess is much more complex than you give it credit for. Multiple factors were involved, and it's hard to tell if the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (the deregulation most people blame) hurt or helped or what. Arnold Kling's explanation is the best I've found so far.

This sector of the market is pretty unique-- uncertainty and psychology play an abnormally large role. Here's a financial markets course taught by Robert Shiller, which I haven't had a chance to watch yet. I can't say this is a field I'm proficient in, but I think you're underestimating it.

I'm not sure what parts of economics and political science are supposed to justify the actions of the powerful (powerful businesses are famous for lobbying for market restrictions, which economists usually oppose)... or why economists and political scientists would go along with that.

One of the applications I was trying to apply my theory of ideas to was sociology of science. I decided my model didn't have anything new to say about that, but I learned some cool things.

Assuming that scientists' work is motivated by reputation, (seems pretty reasonable, since most have a nice salary, so they can worry about these things, and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing), then they have an incentive to point out bad ideas. When they do, they get a great reputation. (Milton Friedman is a nice example of this, since his reputation is based largely on his refutation of old-style Keynesianism.)

So what makes economics -- just like physics -- work is that scientists have a reputational incentive to debunk bad ideas.

I'm not saying economics is perfect, but it should be pretty reliable. And I don't think many economists (except maybe Nouriel Roubini) are claiming they can predict the stock market.

Thirtyseven said...

The core of my argument is in your last sentence -- these economics can't predict the market. What they can do is make up narratives and theories after the fact, which attempt to explain events their models couldn't predict.

As for science serving the interests of the powerful, I'm kind of baffled about why you think social sciences are immune to that. Most tech research is driven by weapons or consumer products, medical research is driven by patentable drugs, and most University funding is corporate.

Skeptikos said...

Economists may not usually be able to predict the stock market, but there are many things they can predict. The gas shortages when Nixon imposed price controls, for example, were predicted in advance. Milton Friedman predicted the stagflation of the 70s. Greg Mankiw predicted parts of the current mess.

I find it hard to believe that corporate funding of universities would affect the conclusions of economists. If economists' views are being determined by corporate funding, why are most economists Democrats? How could corporations influence them, when most have tenure?

Besides-- you agree that evolutionary biology and geology are legitimate sciences, right? These fields use the same postdictive approach as economists -- and a strong case can be made that economics actually has more empirical data to work with than these fields.