Re: Watches & Necklaces

From: Dace (
Date: Wed 28 May 2003 - 02:12:14 GMT

  • Next message: Ray Recchia: "RE: reply to Benzon"

    > From: Keith Henson <>
    > At 03:06 PM 26/05/03 -0700, Dace wrote:
    > > > From: "rhiggins7" <>
    > snip
    > > > the disitinction here seems extremely arbitrary and
    > > > contrived to propogatte an "Us vs Them" belief structure within the
    > > > community.
    > >
    > >It's not the least bit arbitrary. Not all information flows memetically.
    > >Much of it flows according to standard models of information transfer,
    > >developed and refined over many years by social scientists. To claim
    > >all shared ideas are memes is to defy conventional science.
    > Let me help you with an example. "Objects fall when released" is
    > a shared idea, but in most cases not a meme since it is learned by any
    > small child playing with blocks. I.e., you don't have to teach this fact
    > of life to each new generation because they learn it by experience.

    "Shared" is too broad a term. I meant ideas or information transmitted from one person to another. Not all of these are memes.

    > >This is why
    > >memetics is often rejected or simply ignored. To avoid confrontation
    > >the well-established science of information transfer, we must define
    > >which ideas are memetic and which are not, i.e. which ideas actively
    > >replicate and which ones are passively replicated through standard means.
    > "Culturgen" is a term predating "meme" which means the same thing. A
    > culturgen is an element of culture that is passed on, like patterns of
    > decoration on pottery or the means of making pots, chipping rocks to make
    > tools or ways to make shoes. These culturgens or memes are no real
    > to explain because they are useful to learn, but they do require being
    > passed down as elements of culture. That makes them memes.
    > "Bleeding" as a medical practice was harmful in virtually all cases, but
    > too was a meme that was passed down from generation to generation. As a
    > meme it did not induce behavior to teach others to bleed people.
    > Now suicide cults memes are *clearly* harmful and they induce those who
    > hold them to actively try to infect others. I think your claim is that
    > only memes are those in this class, or others that induced behavior to
    > spread the meme. There certainly is a difference between such classes of
    > memes. There are genes known as segregation distorters that result in an
    > all male population of mice that have similar effects. But they are still
    > *genes.*

    I don't mean to claim that all memes are pathological. But memetics is no different than any other field. You learn a lot from pathological examples. Yes, culture is by and large not pathological. Otherwise, it would be cult.

    > I think the case is much stronger to consider all replicating information
    > patterns in culture to be memes and *then* start fixing them along a
    > helpful symbiote to nasty parasite spectrum.

    Let's say someone asks you the time. You consult your watch and say, "Half past five." While information has passed from one mind to another, no meme is involved. The meme is the habit of wearing watches, and this habit is successful because it exploits our need, in the context of modern, urban society, to know what time it is. A pathological meme might be a fashionable new habit of wearing a broken watch that's always set at half past five. This meme, which would succeed by exploiting our need to be trendy, might hurt someone under its influence because he forgets his watch is dead and thinks it really is half past five, causing him to miss an important meeting. So memes can be accidentally beneficial, but there's always the potential for harm. Memes are essentially parasitical. Some parasites, like mitochondria, turn out to be beneficial and symbiotic. Others are pathological. The point is that with memes, human consciousness is in the back seat.

    Only the most sickly culture is completely shut off to human perception and intelligence, bound to its memes with no possibility of reflecting on them. And even here the memes were once normal ideas or behaviors that made sense at one time but picked up their own momentum and became ingrained and then harmful.

    When an idea is exchanged purely through reasoned discussion, it's made new in each mind. It's like a collection of beads that all look roughly alike. When an idea travels memetically, however, it's more like beads on a string. They don't just look alike. They represent a single thread of causation that replicates the pattern from mind to mind. You don't have to think about wearing a dead watch set at 5:30. You just do it. You do it because all your friends are doing it. So you never intervene, laying claim to your power of self-determination and reason. You just follow along, another bead added to the necklace. It's this connection from parent to offspring that marks the meme from the simple idea and memetics from conventional social and cognitive science.

    > There certainly is another spectrum you could rate them on. For example,
    > really good joke would be more likely to induce people to spread it than a
    > poor one.

    A joke is an interesting type of meme because it requires reason but in a form that's been perverted in some way. Though jokes are unreasonable, you can't understand them without having a capacity for reason. They succeed by exploiting our need for play, and the more playful, the more successful.

    > How would you rate the method of multiplying numbers under nine by
    > nine? It is so useful that parents are induced to teach it to their kids
    > even if the schools don't.

    Culture evolves through human intelligence as much as memetic competition. A cultural form that's fallen out of favor can be revived through human agency, after which, once it takes hold again, may proceed memetically.


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