Nick Rose asks the question: if we can intentionally design memes, why do we need an evolutionary theory of culture?
Let us discuss this problem with the help of an example. As a political scientist with a special interest in world politics, I think of International Law as the current stock of norms (that are memes) regulating the behavior of states. That is, International Law is the meme-type carrying instructions as to how e.g. an embassy is to be established, and run, or how an international organization is to be founded, or operated. International Law can be thought of as a subset of world culture (the world stock of memes).
If the norms comprising International Law are subject to a force of inertia they might also be seen as self-replicating: in as much as states generally tend to go on behaving in a predictable fashion, in the way established by customary state practice and relevant precedents. Law practice, and law schools will transmit the meme-type to a new generation of state operatives. It is useful to think of forms in which International Law is codified, such as treaty conventions, or authoritative manuals or textbooks, as forming the "material" meme-type.
The first premise therefore proposes that, in a `natural' but `social' process, the meme-type will tend to replicate itself. But then how does International Law change, adopting new norms and dropping others? The short answer is: by processes of social, including political, selection.
At times, the process can be a massive one. At the end of World War II, an entire new set of rules establishing norms in fields as diverse as the maintenance of peace, regional institutions, the competence of international organizations, trade, finance and investment, and even health and civil aviation, were adopted by the international community. Viewed overall, this selection was determined by the outcome of the global war that had just come to a conclusive ending. Viewed as a macrodecision, the global war was the primary selection mechanism for a new set of international norms, and it was the winning coalition of 1945 that jointly selected this new set of norms. Had the opposing coalition won, a different meme-type, meme-type B, would surely have been put in place.
At more `normal' times, the selection process might focus on one meme at a time. Most recently, the prohibition on the use of land mines has been under discussion world-wide. An international conference that convened to discuss this subject decided to propose a treaty banning such weapons, and the treaty might soon come into effect. The movement that launched this new rule of International Law was surely innovative, and must have involved deliberate foresight, but the process by which such potential innovation was being transformed into international practice was one of extended social selection, involving information campaigns, social organization and coalition-building, conference bargaining and negotiation, and has and will be followed by voting in national assemblies, and ultimately, in national elections (an election campaign is the paradigmatic social-political selection process).
More generally, proposed social innovations (sooner or later) take the form of memes that are launched on the sea of society so that they either replicate, associate with fellow memes, and brave the challenges of a turbulent environment, or else they sink to the bottom of social concerns and are forgotten. That is, they are either socially selected in, or selected out. The fact of origin of such memes in individual or collective experience does not preclude the operation of social selection processes that ultimately add to, or subtract from, the world stock of memes.
In other words, I see no inherent contradiction between the conscious adoption of memes, and the need for an evolutionary theory that treats the social selection processes by which memes come to establish themselves in society, thus becoming part of culture. That also means that an evolutionary theory of culture has its centre of gravity less in individual consciousness and more in events leading to social-structural reorganization.
| Back to Issue 1 Volume 3 | Back to Commentaries on Rose |