Re: To be or not to be: memetics a science?

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Wed Apr 03 2002 - 16:47:11 BST

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    From: "Grant Callaghan" <>
    Subject: Re: To be or not to be: memetics a science?
    Date: Wed, 03 Apr 2002 07:47:11 -0800
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    >To the best of my knowledge, memetics is founded on the recognition of a
    >second replicator, the meme. Similar to replicators of the first kind:
    >memes are also necessarily subject to evolution. Memetics tries to describe
    >this process of evolution in which this replicator thrives, which currently
    >human culture and may very well turn into an AI-kind of turf one day.
    >Another perspective which may be considered typical for memetics
    >is to take on the viewpoint from the meme itself: the meme's eyeview
    >(possibly inspired after Dawkins' gene's eyeview expounded in The Selfish
    >In this rather controversial interpretation of culture the focus is laid on
    >the meme which exploits its habitat of rendered robotic and slavelike hosts
    >in a
    >metaphorically and perceived selfish way to achieve domination over `rival'
    >A disadvantage of this approach however is that it understates or even
    >the coercive force memes need to have in order to successfully persuade
    >potential hosts to adopt and propagate them.
    >But that's a different story altogether. My point is that genetics has
    >opportunities to
    >test their theories regarding gene-dynamics. By symmetry, one might expect
    >to be able to do the same thing regarding meme-dynamics. And that's
    >precisely the
    >question I'm trying to address here.
    The way I see the parallel between genetics and memetics starts with Mendel
    who noticed that the regularities of basic features in certain plants were
    governed by chance. Before that, the subject was based almost entirely on
    taxonomy and the comparison of features, starting with Aristotle. Mendel's
    work provided a mathematical basis for observing those features that
    taxonomy had catalogued. This led to Watson and Crick discovering a
    physical basis for nature's regularity and Darwin's grand theory of
    evolution (in the reverse order).

    From the memetic point of view, no one yet seems to have provided a basis
    for a taxomony for memes, which to my mind is caused by the failure to agree
    on the definition of what such a taxonomy would describe. The scientific
    method consists of experiment and observation which are then reduced to a
    hypothesis which is published and argued about by others until they reach an
    agreement as to what was observed and what it means. But if no one can
    reach agreement on the definition of a meme, it will be impossible to pin
    down what is being observed and develop any hypothesis that people can agree

    It seems to me that this is what stands in the way of memetics becoming a
    science. You can't measure what you can't pin down. What features identify
    memes and allow us to separate them into categories? What do these
    distinguishing features consist of? Is there any consistent way of dividing
    them up? Is it possible to produce a taxonomy of what we can't define?

    Anthropology provides a method of classifying tools which I think would make
    a good basis for looking at memes. If we define a meme as a tool which a
    person uses to operate within a culture, there is at least something to
    observe and categorize. We can separate cultures in terms of the tools they
    used in the past and the line of evolution by which those tools developed
    into the global culture we operate within today. When we compare cultures,
    we can see which tools are capable of transference and incorporation to
    larger spheres of influence. At some point we should be able to find
    regularities in this process that are amenabe to mathematical description.
    I think that's the point at which memetics has the promise of becoming a
    science. The trouble is, I don't see any movement in this direction among
    the people who are discussing the subject.

    That, at any rate, is my view of the way things are going. I may just not
    have enough information to make an informed judgement on the subject.




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