Idiot in a Hurry
Memes and Kit Kats: An Evolutionary Prediction
Posted Jul 30, 2018
People who haven't had a good think about the implications of evolution by natural selection sometimes say that it’s not a predictive science. They are wrong. I’m going to demonstrate this (in a small way) now. Not the most thrilling of predictions, perhaps—but its going to be worth millions to someone (not me, alas).
Within a year there will exist a bunch of chocolate bars in red packets. The bar will consist of four oblong fingers, each roughly 4 inches by 1 ½ inches by ½ inch in size. They will be called some sort of two-syllable name with at least one comedy K in it (e.g“Quik Snak” ) although I can’t predict the exact name, or how many of these products will exist.
Why do I know this? For three reasons.
Because evolution by natural selection explores the possible design space in the environment, selecting for those things that reproduce effectively. This means that you can predict (some) things with (near) certainty.
Because evolution by natural selection is substrate neutral—it does not just apply to genes, but to anything that replicates, competes, and shows selection. This applies to genes, but also to packets of cultural information. Memes.
Because Nestle have just lost their fight to have the distinctive Kit Kat shape copyrighted.
I had better explain further.
Evolution by natural selection makes predictions
In 1862 Charles Darwin was sent a Madagascan Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale for those who like to know such things) with an unusually deep—11 1 ½ inches–flower. Its nectar was buried nearly a foot away from the flower opening. Flowers do not give away nectar for free—it’s the reward they give to insects that pollinate them. What sort of creature could pollinate such a flower? Here is what Darwin wrote to his friend about it: “I have just received such a Box full from Mr [James Bateman, a well-known orchid grower,] with the astounding Angraecum sesquipedalia [sic] with a nectary a foot long. Good Heavens what insect can suck it.”
Darwin, and his co-discoverer Wallace, immediately went on to predict the existence of a hovering insect with a hugely long proboscis. They had not seen it—but looking at the ecology—they knew it would be there. They were right. In 1903, some two decades after Darwin’s death, the giant Sphinx moth (Xanthopan morganii pradicta) was discovered in Madagascar. It is about eight inches in wingspan, with a foot-long tongue.
Memes and Genes
When it comes to modeling physical evolution, the jury is back in. It is genes or nothing. The genes-eye view predicts and explains otherwise baffling things (such as altruism) like no other biological theory. However, there is much scholarly dispute as to how we should best model culture. One promising (but controversial) proposal is to apply the massively successful genes-eye view to units of cultural information. This memes-eye view holds that packets of cultural information such as ideas, words, snatches of music, bits of distinct intellectual property, can all be lumped together. Each cultural piece constitutes a meme: A replicator, just like a gene is, but without needing to be made of DNA. If you have ever copied a fashion, had an ear worm stuck in your head, or just learned a new word, then you know just what a meme is. These memes then could compete for replication in the cultural space, in the same way genes compete in the physical ecology.
The ins and outs of this fascinating idea—which first found expression in Richard Dawkins' seminal work, “The Selfish Gene”–are too numerous to go into detail here. Those who want a robust defense of the idea are encouraged to read Daniel Dennett’s latest book, “From Bacteria to Bach and Back.” He takes on the objections (and there are many) in some detail and (I think) mostly successfully. More on that at a later date. For the moment, let’s just say that (at least) sometimes there is (at least) something that gets replicated in cultures, and let's just agree to call that a meme. We can argue about the details later.
Mimicry in the Supermarket
Nestle have just lost their fight to have the shape (not the name) of Kit Kat protected as distinct intellectual property. This opens up some design space for my prediction to work. I am predicting the existence of cultural organisms that will come to occupy this fruitful space in just the same way that Darwin knew that a Sphinx moth must exist to sip that deep nectar. Here is why:
Kit Kat is known the world over—and it is as distinctive as other chocolate bars with iconic shapes. Think Chocolate Oranges, Toblerone, and Walnut Whips. Just mentioning the names conjures up the shapes in your head, and no one is allowed to use those shapes for their products, any more than they could steal the names. The amount of marketing (which is just research and development applying to cultural equivalent of physical design space) that went into all these products is huge. For instance, Mondelez, the folk who make Toblerones, spent $1.25 billion on marketing last year alone. And they aren’t the biggest by a long chalk. They spent a lot of that money driving home that iconic triangle shape, protecting it from others, and reminding us that this is theirs. When they started cutting out some of the triangles, folks got pretty upset and they soon reversed course.
So, why am I so sure that these new products will arise that mimic Kit Kats? Because that much free R&D–the pushing of that meme into the culture–is not going to go unexploited. It doesn’t when it comes to genes.
Consider this, the natural world is filled with examples of organisms’ piggy-backing on other organisms' threat displays—threat displays evolved over millions of years to send out reliable signals of “I’m poisonous” or "I taste bad" or “I can sting”. The genes that carry the danger get linked to those that carry the threat signal. That’s a valuable signal, and if you can mimic it—without having to pay for the associated danger like a stinger—you get a comparatively free lunch. Even better, you might get to not be someone else’s free lunch. An example would include a (harmless) hover-fly looking enough like a wasp to deter many would-be predators.
Let’s Play: “Let's Pretend”
This phenomenon is called “Batesian mimicry” in biology, after the work of Henry Bates on butterflies in the Amazon rainforest. There is also Mullerian mimicry—where two species share a threat display to ward off predators, but said displays are honest in each case. For instance, equally horrible-tasting Viceroy, and Queen butterflies both display these properties and look alike. It is an area of live biological research to pin down whether Batesian or Mullerian (or the more uncommon Emsleyan / Mertensian, Wasmannian, Browerian, Gilbertian, or Vavilovian) mimicry is occurring in particular cases. The implications in terms of evolutionary biology can be of interest for a number of reasons, and keep scientists happy for whole careers.
Idiots in a Hurry
Back to memes. Such mimicry patterns can be consciously exploited by human beings. An egregious example are products that are enough like another more prestigious one, making it easy to be mistaken. Such strategies can run the risk of copyright infringement. How does this get tested? Through exploring whether mistakes could reasonably occur.
The law sometimes uses thought experiments as a test of said reasonableness. A classic example is "The Man on The Clapham Omnibus," meant to conjure up a picture of an everyday suburbanite of normal moral sentiments. The legal definition of copyright infringement is more robust and to the point. Roughly, “Could an idiot in a hurry mistake one [product] for the other?” Thus, a can of red soda with a white stripe and a distinctive logo saying “Cake” could be successfully prosecuted as being easy to mistake (by an idiot in a hurry) for the iconic product.
A quick look around my local ALDI supermarket reveals dozens of products that are sailing pretty close to the legal winds on this. A packet of Frosted Flakes with a happy lion on it, looks an awful lot like a box of Frosties. Their marketers might reply that, although they evoke thoughts of the more famous product, they cannot be literally mistaken for them. This claim could be framed in terms of Batesian (or possibly Mullerian) mimicry—but applied to cultural (e.g. memetic) elements rather than genetic ones. Some might even claim that their product is better than the original.
We could potentially test this empirically–via threshold of perception paradigms–whether one product is literally more likely to be mistaken for another by customers. Whether that is true or not (and it sounds like a fun thing to test) the mere evocation of positive associations that the other larger company has worked so hard and spent so much to acquire is not going to pass by unexploited. The design space of Kit Kat mimicry thus lies open to be occupied by mimics.
Check back in a year (and if you find any examples of such mimicry please send them on).
If it hasn’t happened by then, I’ll eat my Kit Kat.
Someone has pointed out to me that in the USA Kit Kat are made by Hershey under licence (not Nestle). I assume (Im not an intelelcutal property specialist) that what I say above will only apply to Europe: The shape may well still be protected in the USA
For more on Nestle's legal fight see:
Bates, H. W. (1862). XXXII. Contributions to an Insect Fauna of the Amazon Valley. Lepidoptera: Heliconidae. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London, 23(3), 495-566.
Kritsky, Gene (1991) Darwin's Madagascan Hawk Moth Prediction. American Entomologist, Volume 37, Issue 4, 1 P 206–210, https://doi.org/10.1093/ae/37.4.206
Mitchell, V. W., & Kearney, I. (2002). A critique of legal measures of brand confusion. Journal of Product & Brand Management, 11(6), 357-379.
Smith, J. M., & Harper, D. (2003). Animal signals. Oxford University Press.
For soem data on chocolate marketiing see: https://www.statista.com/statistics/286592/mondelez-international-advertising-expenditure-worldwide/
For more on memes see:
Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene: with a new introduction by the author. UK: Oxford University Press.(Originally published in 1976).
Dennett, D. C. (2017). From bacteria to Bach and back: The evolution of minds. WW Norton & Company.
Blackmore, S. (2000). The meme machine (Vol. 25). Oxford Paperbacks.