Re: Sue Blackmore lecture Wednesday 5.15pm London

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 19 Feb 2003 - 21:57:07 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: Sue Blackmore lecture Wednesday 5.15pm London"

    At 09:00 AM 18/02/03 -0500, you wrote:
    >on 2/17/03 10:53 PM, Keith Henson at wrote:
    > >
    > > Ah, so far memetics is close to epidemiology, more a mathematical abstract
    > > understanding of how diseases spread than it is on the details of how a
    > > particular bug makes people sick.
    >So why aren't memeticists gathering real data about real phenomena to test
    >their mathematical models? There are people who do this, but they aren't
    >memeticists, e.g.:
    >Henrich, J. (2001). "Cultural Transmission and the Diffusion of Innovations:
    >Adoption Dynamics Indicate That Biased Cultural Transmission Is the
    >Predominate Force in Behavioral Change." American Anthropologist 103(4):
    >(If you google Henrich's name you should find his website, where you can get
    >a PDF of that paper, and others.)

    I skimmed through this paper. The data and thesis behind it is essentially consistent with memetics.

    Memetics is not a big deal, it is more a viewpoint shift that makes some things less difficult to understand. It didn't invalidate decades of work on cultural elements (like the article you reference) that was done by anthropology people. In fact, it *depended* on the work they had done. Dawkins mentions FT Cloak the "new replicators" chapter of _Selfish Gene_. The viewpoint shift was the same Dawkins had explained in Selfish Gene and gives new meaning to the folk saying "ideas have a life of their own." I.e., cultural information is subject to the same kind of Darwinian forces as the genes that underlie life as we know it. (Dawkins added computer viruses as another example later.)

    > > To get into *why* this meme and not some
    > > other one spread well, you have to consider the class of memes involved. A
    > > better way to chip rock or make pots or shoes spreads by people seeing that
    > > they can spend less overall effort on the new approach than the old
    > > one. That's easy to figure out, since the people can use the extra time to
    > > hunt more or make more babies.
    > >
    > > The pathological cases, like Jim Jones or Heaven's Gate baffled me for
    > > about a decade. You can read the story of how I came to understand how
    > > these worked in the paper at,
    > > but in short form, cults memes induce large amounts of highly rewarding
    > > attention between members. For some people the rewards are on a par with
    > > addictive drugs and involve the exact same reward pathways.
    >You've got an interesting conjunction of information in that article, but
    >it's not closely reasoned scientific argument. Your discussion of the
    >brain's "reward" system is far too vague. And much about dopamine is still
    >obscure. Specifically, the idea that it is a "reward" chemical is not fully
    >accepted. See, e.g.:
    >Ikemoto, S. and J. Panksepp (1999). "The role of nucleus accumbens dopamine
    >in motivated behavior: a unifying interpretation with special reference to
    >reward-seeking." Brain Research Reviews 31: 6-41.
    >Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience. New York, Oxford University

    I may have fine details wrong, but do you doubt that attention is generally rewarding to social animals? Do you doubt that rewards are chemically mediated in the brain? Try here: and search for "Some people seem to be born with vulnerable dopamine systems that get hijacked by social rewards."

    >What bothers me is that you seem to think this is all a slam-dunk, that the
    >fundamental intellectual issues have been worked out and all we have to do
    >is clean up some details here and there. On the contrary, fundamental
    >issues are still very much up in the air.
    > >
    > > My work makes it clear that you have to consider more than memes. The
    > > power of memetics is that it brings out the replicating aspect of
    > > information in human societies.
    >And all it does with that viewpoint is says that information spreads, which
    >is hardly news. Memetics seems to be an earnest attempt to give the mere
    >fact of spreading some mysterious explanatory power.
    > > But besides that viewpoint, you have to
    > > consider in addition a person's genes and their mind, shaped by genes,
    > > memes and experiences.
    >But you have to consider these things in some detail. Memetics doesn't give
    >you any tools for doing so.

    The memetics viewpoint should help clear up thinking in these areas--making it at least a mental tool. Evolutionary psychology is the most fruitful area I see right now for digging into the details. I rather think EP might subsume memetics and for that matter a lot of anthropology eventually. Memetics and EP are associated now by being a common teaching/research interest of a number of professors if you go looking on the web.

    >Rather, it just gives you the doubtful
    >assurance that it will all work out in the end when someone else -- those
    >guys over there, perhaps -- does all the intellectual dirty work and gets
    >the details worked out.

    I happen to think the main outlines are fairly clear, even for the pathological cases.

    I am mainly interested in social predictive modeling at the moment. Ghod knows we need it.

    Keith Henson

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