Richard Dawkins re-interprets memes and offers a creative tautology

July 23, 2013

by John Keane

Just for hits

Rickard Dawkins continues his Odyssey in search of scientific truth against the forces of superstition. In the sponsored advertising video Just for Hits he raises interesting questions about the logic behind his reasoning

What lies at the core of this eight minute glossy video? Its title hints at it. At one level it is Just for Hits. That which is designed is designed for a purpose, he declares. If designs are fit for purpose, they survive and spread. He has already borrowed the metaphor of a virus. Concepts intended to spread are fit for purpose if they spread.

I rather like to concept of a meme spreading through imitation. It offers a description (but not necessarily an explanation) of the processes of cultural replication. I am the sort of person who likes to examine possible mechanisms in search of explanations. The principle behind a design, if you like.

The Darwinian principle of natural selection

The Darwinian principle of natural selection is a very satisfactory one which fits observations and permits predictive trials. I prefer it to other wide-range explanations, as does Professor Dawkins. The mechanism is elegantly captured in the notion of blind variation and selective choice.

‘As if’

At very least, I believe that blind variation and selective choice ‘works’ in the natural world. It offers what most scientists would consider a robust basis of an explanatory theory. Its scientific respectability can be examined in various ways. One way is to assess its success as if it describes what results in the variety of the world, the survival of genetic material or natural selection. It works as if the world operated according to its beautifully elegant principles.

The whiff of tautology

I am not the first to be troubled by a whiff of tautology in the way it is applied to explain just about observable aspect of biology (including leadership).

Many years ago, before I heard of Richard Dawkins, I asked a distinguished Professor of Cell Biology whether a gene was a material entity or a metaphor. He told me that was a good question, which I came to suspect was polite way of saying he would have trouble providing an answer.

For the hits

The whiff of tautology is stronger in the concept of a meme. The closest I get to understanding the memetic replicator is that humans have a deeply embedded inclination to imitate. Well, yes. So viral messages ‘go viral’ because they have something which triggers the imitative response.

Creativity

Dawkins suggests that creativity may be part of the story. He reinvents (or knowingly imitates) a mechanism for creativity examined by scholars such as Dean Simonton . Pithily, it is a version of the natural selection mechanism of blind variation and selective choice.

The ghost in the machine

Arthur Koestler was another deep thinker on the act of creation. He offered the metaphor of the brain as a machine, with creativity as the ghost in the machine. This recognizes the mysterious nature of the creative principle. Professor Hawkins has written about his own sense of awe at the evolutionary principle. Koestler would probably agree, although perhaps favouring the aha moment of creative discovery. [Another of Koestler’s classic books was called The Sleep Walkers which examines the way progress is ‘stumbled upon’.]

Acknowledgement

To Guardian journalist Andrew Brown who drew my attention to the tautology in his comment piece about Richard Dawkins’ ‘meaningless meme’.

[Dr John Keane writes on matters relating to leadership and the history of science. He teaches and researches at The University of Urmston.]


Dawkins re-interprets memes and offers a creative tautology

June 25, 2013

Reviewed by John Keane

Rickard Dawkins continues his Odyssey in search of scientific truth against the forces of superstition. In the sponsored advertising video Just for Hits he raises interesting questions about the logic behind his reasoning and the hint of tautology in that logic

What lies at the core of this eight-minute glossy video? Its title hints at it. At one level it is Just for Hits. That which is designed is designed for a purpose, he declares. If designs are fit for purpose they survive and spread.

He has already borrowed the metaphor of a virus. Concepts intended to spread are fit for purpose if they spread. I rather like to concept of a meme spreading through imitation. It offers a description (but not necessarily an explanation) of the processes of cultural replication. I am the sort of person who likes to examine possible mechanisms in search of explanations. The principle behind a design, if you like.

The Darwinian principle of natural selection

The Darwinian principle of natural selection is a very satisfactory one which fits observations and permits predictive trials. I prefer it to other wide-range explanations, as does Professor Dawkins. The mechanism is elegantly captured in the notion of blind variation and selective choice.

‘As if’

At very least, I believe that the concept captured as blind variation and selective choice ‘works’ in the natural world. It offers what most scientists would consider a robust basis of an explanatory theory. Its scientific respectability can be examined in various ways. One way is to assess its success as if it describes what results in the variety of the world, the survival of genetic material or natural selection. It works as if the world operated according to its beautifully elegant principles.

The whiff of tautology

I am not the first to be troubled by a whiff of tautology in the concept of natural selection. I struggle with the argument that ‘success’ in evolutionary terms arises because the successful are more equipped to succeed.
Many years ago, before I had heard of Richard Dawkins, I asked a distinguished Professor of Cell Biology whether a gene was a material entity or a metaphor. He told me that was a good question, which I came to suspect was polite way of saying he would have trouble providing an answer.

For the hits

The whiff of tautology is stronger in the concept of a meme. The closest I get to the memetic replicator is that humans have a deeply-embedded inclination to imitate. Well, yes. So viral messages ‘go viral’ because they have something which triggers the imitative response. Their purpose is to exist.

Creativity

Dawkins suggests that creativity may be part of the story. He reinvents (or knowingly imitates) a mechanism for creativity examined by scholars such as Dean Simonton. Pithily, it is a version of the natural selection mechanism of blind variation and selective choice.

The ghost in the machine

Arthur Koestler was another deep thinker about the act of creation. He offered the wonderful metaphor of the brain as a machine, with creativity as the ghost in the machine. This recognizes the mysterious nature of the creative principle. Professor Hawkins has written about his own sense of awe at the evolutionary principle. Koestler would probably agree, although perhaps favouring the aha moment of creative discovery. Another of his books was called The Sleep Walkers which examines the way progress is ‘stumbled upon’

Acknowledgement

To Andrew Brown who drew my attention to the tautology in his comment piece about Richard Dawkins’ meaningless meme.


Habitat, Conran and Creative Destruction

June 27, 2011

As Sir Terance Conran’s iconic ‘love child’ goes into administration, we reflect on the process of creative destruction

Habitat is a much-loved British institution. In the 1960s it pioneered a life-style revolution for a generation of home-makers, bringing a splash of coordinated colour into the design plans of a generation of young home-makers.

Design and Creativity

It serves as an example of the ideas of design theorist Margaret Bruce. Writing in the Routledge Companion to Creativity, she argues [p 40] that “design is the purposive application of creativity throughout the process of innovation.”

Professor Margaret Bruce

Margaret is Professor of Design Management and Marketing at Manchester Business School. Commenting on Habitat for LWD she noted

“I would put Habitat’s problems as being partly in the squeezed middle market not consuming high ticket items such as furniture. Low cost competitors like Ikea came in offering the same style. There are fewer first time buyers needing items for appartments. So Habitat failed to differentiate tself with an attractive proposition. In addition it may not be strong online which has high growth in the UK and its service needed to compete better than it has”

The decline of Habitat

The BBC reported the decline of Habitat

All but three UK Habitat stores are being put into administration in a deal to sell the indebted furniture chain. Home Retail Group, owner of Argos and Homebase, will buy the Habitat brand and three central London stores for £24.5m in cash. Habitat, which was set up in 1964 by designer Sir Terence Conran, has been owned by the private equity firm Hilco since it bought the heavily-indebted retailer from Ikea-affiliate Ikano in 2009.

“Of course I’m sad that my love child, Habitat, appears to be dying, but I am more interested in the future of my own business and design projects – that is my focus,” said Sir Terence.

You can see a video of the story here

Terence Conran

Sir Terence Conran has been one of the most influential British designers since the 1960s. His restless creativity has been implemented in life-style ideas. But unlike some entrepreneurs, Conran moved on. His remark about Habitat as his “love child” seems also to capture the capacity of the creative individual to be both involved and detached. The proud father and the rational economic entrepreneur. It is captured in the famous quote from Graham Green that “there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.”

Creative Destruction

The demise of Habitat also demonstrated how creative change brings about destruction of the old and at the same time carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Habitat was such a powerful idea that its niche position was eventually invaded by slicker and more modern alternatives such as Ikea.

Acknowledgement

Image is of the Habitat store in Cheltenham from skip to the end.com


The Royal Wedding and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers

April 30, 2011

A Royal Wedding brings together the worlds of performance art, fantasy, creativity, design, and entrepreneurship. One little-explored theme is the back-engineering going on centred around the design of the bride’s dress by teams of creative copyists intent on bringing their products to the market within days.

Teams of designers were in place. This is much the same as what happens in the world of product development with design teams anticipating the shape of things to come in the next Apple launch, or the latest twists and turns in tennis gear. From the first glimpses of the new designs, together with years of study, the designers discern the essence of the creative leaps involved. The possibilities for sincere flattery are assessed and enacted. Issues of financing, sourcing of materials and supply-chains mulled over

Intellectual property?

An interesting point. What are the guidelines. One designer told the BBC [Sunday April 30th 2011] that was alright as long as she just didn’t copy it too closely. That’s a new interpretation of the complexities of IP legislation for me. Yet the creation of the bride’s dress was never intended to produce a prototype for subsequent marketing.

Invasion of the body snatchers

I need some journalistic licence here for the connection between the main story and that other much-loved piece of art, the 1956 movie The Invasion of The Body Snatchers. Are the designers of copies of the dress to be compared to aliens, hatching their lookalike creations from plant-like pods? Or are there deeper symbolic possibilities. The original film, set in California, was reviewed as a critique of alienation and suppression of human rights under McCarthyism.

The lacking

And yes, this tale of The Royal Wedding and The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has another curious difference from other stories of the Royal Wedding. I leave these matters for LWD subscribers to mull over. Why not let your imagination loose on them?


Creative in Paris: but where was the Général?

July 5, 2010

Tudor Rickards and Susan Moger

June 2010. The University of Paris hosts a creativity conference. In fact it hosts two at the same time. Buy one, get one free?

We stayed at the Place du Pantheon. How appropriate. We were able to pay homage to the ‘Grands Hommes’ of France, (and rather fewer Grandes Femmes it must be said) of the last two hundred years. Pride of place to Voltaire and Rousseau, resting in state in the cool basement of the vast edifice. At ground level, the pendulum of [Leon] Foucault still gently demonstrating the rotation of the earth, as it has done since the 1850s, give or take the odd period of malfunction such as when its 67 meter wire snapped after a century of service to science education.

But where was the Général?

Grands Hommes de France. But where was Napoleon? Moved to an even more majestic tomb. …and Charles de Gaulle? An attendant sniffily reminded us that the Général had opted for his famous little village of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises as his last resting place. Mais oui, merci madame.

Meanwhile

Meanwhile, half way across Paris, two conferences were swinging into action, even sharing a registration area. ‘Our’ conference was termed a community workshop organized through the editorial board of Creativity and Innovation Management Journal, and hosted from several faculties of the University of Paris. There was a strong representation from MBS, with the keynote address on creativity and leadership from doctoral alumnus Gerard Puccio, director of The International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY, Buffalo.

Margaret Bruce also presented, sharing a workshop on the value of design, with James Moultrie, Cambridge University, and Gerda Gemser of Delft University of Technology. James was, in addition, winner of the annual best paper award of CIM with co-worker Alistair Young. His workshop topic was a fresh estimate of he contribution of design activities within the UK economy (in the region of 5%). His paper demonstrated an ingenious method of comparing the factors from two major theories of creativity (by Teresa Amabile and Goran Ekvall) in empirical studies of organizations within the so-called creative industries.

What’s Hot in creativity studies?

So what’s hot in creativity studies at present? The relationship between creativity and leadership. Identifying creative talent and its contingent factors. Organizational creativity, and the special nature of the creative industries and their role in economic recovery. Creativity and design, entrepreneurship and innovation.

The themes are familiar ones, but a renewed vigour might be detected as more traditional means of designing social and economic change have been found wanting in an era of financial meltdown.