Re: definition of meme

From: Wade T. Smith (
Date: Sun 25 May 2003 - 18:22:07 GMT

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    On Sunday, May 25, 2003, at 05:48 AM, Kenneth wrote:

    > The memetic agency could be the ability to recognize the
    > characteristics of a particular venue to control and for answering to
    > a specific situation.

    When I went down this same road, I wondered about things like birdsong, which is also explained as an 'agency' as you've described it above, although, yes, 'the ability to recognize' needs to be truncated. But, deep in my anthrocentric head, I reject that animals have culture, and thus, there could be no 'memetic agency' (the ability to recognize) in a bird, as memetics is a theory about culture, not about behavioralism, which would be enough to explain culture if one wanted it to, I suppose. Granted, this means that birdsong _can_ be explained as imitative behavior and instinctual algorithms of the birdbrain, acting upon stimuli from its environment. And yes, I think birdsong is effectively and reasonably explained by these mechanisms, with no need for abilities of recognition.

    The fact that birds react with birdsong to their environment (or to their biological and environmental venue in a more precise phrase) led me to look at other animal behaviors which were instinctual but yet differed with every application, and which also did not require abilities of recognition, and I decided to list spiders' webs. While the basic behavior of spinning and attaching and weaving a web is an instinctual one for any orb-weaving spider, the web itself must conform, must be constructed in a reactive way, to the immediate environment, because no spider makes its web in precisely the same spot every time, as the exigencies of wind and weather and surface are never the same. But, any instinctual behavior needs to react to changing environmental conditions, and if it can't, it will not survive, therefore evolution has provided sufficient algorithms, at least in many species, to deal with the aleatory in nature, and where and when environment changed too rapidly or too much, species did not survive. That we have fossils of extinct species is a fact. That we have cultural artifacts that are also extinct is also a fact. Whatever causes extinction in biology should have a mirror mechanism in culture, and, since the biological and environmental venue is the primary cause of extinction in evolutionary theory, the cultural venue needs to be the cause of extinction in memetic theory. And I had vivid and empirical knowledge of an extinct cultural venue- the Tlingit, as we all have reported knowledge of lost languages and cultures. (And I daresay I could show any one of you the first type of DictaPhoneŽ cartridge, and there would be no recollection of its use, as the cultural venue that created it is mostly gone- but I doubt any of you would shed a tear at the loss.)

    And, of course, "Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?"

    And so, as these sorts of reactive behaviors were obviously part of the animal kingdoms, among at least two very distinct species, and homo sapiens is part of the animal kingdom, then such instinctual mechanisms must be part of our reactive systems as well, and, indeed, much of sociobiology is concerned with this very question, and where the lines will be drawn between instinctual reactions and social behaviors and even cultural institutions is still not clear, although we have a fairly thin line of a fairly deep shade of grey at some places.

    So, it is not enough to have reactive, or imitative, or both, behavioral mechanisms to explain culture, there needs to be something else, and this is where the memeinthemind model and the performance model of culture diverge. The memeinthemind model demands, in addition to the instinctually reactive and imitative behaviors of homo sapiens, an agency within cognition that is in addition or attached to self-consciousness and language, that it calls a meme, and the performance model accepts that homo sapiens has self-consciousness and language, and does not attach any other agency to the cognitive gestalt, to use Joe's phrase. As Keith has said, memetics does not need to explain the mind, but it does need to form some explanation for how a mind functions as a part of culture. A race car driver does not need to explain or understand aerodynamics, but he does need to responsibly supply feedback about how the car performs, such that his information can be interpreted and utilized by the engineers, who do understand aerodynamics. (And thus, comprehension is not requisite for cooperation, culturally. The biologic analog to this is also obvious- the heart does not need to comprehend the eye, and both cooperate with the body- the spider does not need to comprehend the wind, and nevertheless cooperates with it by making larger holes and less strands.) The driver is an agent of the cultural venue that is car racing. He needs to have language and social behaviors similar enough to the rest of the agents of the venue to participate as a performer, and the culture itself needs to supply the physicalities that will be utilized in his performance- the car, the track, the machineries to construct and repair and manipulate the car, and all of these could not have been formed without careful instruction and learning from the utilization and artifactualization of such physicalities. There is no way a racing car can be perfected with just a series of thoughts. Interaction with a cultural venue, and the ability to maintain and utilize and change this venue must also be present. The spider does not manipulate the venue, it reacts to it. Humans manipulate the venue, and, AFAIK, are unique in that respect.

    So culture itself is a recursive process involving three participants- a performer, an observer, and the venue within which they perform and observe. And all of these things did not spring up from some other dimension, they all arrived here at the plodding and careful pace that evolution demands- one change at a time, surviving or not, maintained, allowed to continue, and continuing.

    And so, since culture demands all these things, the meme itself, that smallest of all possibilities for culture's evolution, _has_ to be the recursive process itself, and that is the performance by a performer, observed by an observer, within the venue that allows their combined presence. There is no possible reduction of these agents to explain cultural evolution.

    > I needed some directed performances to survive.

    You sure do. The stranger in a strange land will not survive if he remains a stranger to it all.

    - Wade

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