Re: Polichak on memetics

Date: Thu 29 May 2003 - 18:24:56 GMT

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    > > From:
    > >
    > > Since I cannot acces this article, I would greatly appreciate its
    > > being posted in its entirety.
    > So would I. But since I don't have a scanner and don't feel like
    > typing in another 3000 words on top of the fifteen hundred I already
    > typed in, it's probably not going to happen.
    > However, I will type in a bit more. Polichak presents a powerful
    > argument against memetics, one which cannot be ignored by those of us
    > who wish to see it taken seriously by the larger scientific community.
    > Until memetics stakes out its own territory, it cannot get a
    > foothold. If it simply provides an alternative explanation for a
    > phenomenon-- transmission of cultural information-- already well
    > accounted for in conventional science, it will remain a fringe
    > science.
    > But Polichak's article also comes across as a hit job. He seems to be
    > attacking memetics on every possible front, even where he's clearly in
    > the wrong. You get the sense he's just another reptilian academic
    > defending his turf. Here's a telling excerpt, from pp 47-48 of
    > Skeptic (Vol 6, No. 3):
    > >>>
    > Scientific investigation of culture and information processing by
    > humans is still in its infancy. Numerous attempts to examine and
    > model how genes interact with the environment and influence cultural
    > development have been made (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992;
    > Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Richerson & Boyd, 1992). These works,
    > as their authors or editors acknowledge, are only beginnings and are
    > necessarily incomplete. We clearly do not yet understand the full
    > extent to which genes and environment can account for human culture
    > and human brain activity. As such is the case, it might seem
    > premature to many to postulate an entirely new class of replicating
    > entities to account for the as-yet-unknown inadequacies of the more
    > widely accepted approaches to the development of the human brain and
    > culture. Yet this has been the method of memeticists from the very
    > start. Dawkins writes, "we do not have to look for conventional
    > biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual
    > dancing, though these may also be present. Once the genes have
    > provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid
    > imitation, the memes will automatically take over" (1976/1989, 200).
    > Dawkins postulates the existence of a new class of entity, then
    > assumes its existence and decides that we can therefore ignore the
    > effects of genes and biological evolution, whatever they may be. It
    > seems that we should look for conventional survival values for
    > religion, for example, before we decide that it makes any sense to
    > look for non-conventional survival values. Dawkins and his later
    > followers have failed to present any strong evidence that conventional
    > approaches are inadequate. They have instead asserted this as if it
    > were a fact and used this assertion to then assume the existence of
    > memes. >>>
    > Here Polichak argues that we shouldn't try to come up with an
    > alternate, evolutionary explanation for human culture when it's still
    > possible that culture will turn out to be a product of our genes
    > interacting with environment. Does he actually believe that cultural
    > developments are in some sense reducible to our genes? Even the
    > arch-reductionist, Dawkins (Mr. "Survival Machines"), rejects this
    > ludicrous approach. I think we've gotten past the point where anyone
    > takes seriously the notion that there are genes for hula hoops or
    > wearing baseball caps backwards. Polichak is way out of the loop
    > here, and his credibility is seriously eroded in this passage.
    > But his most revealing error is his attack on memetics for its
    > avoidance of the unconscious. Here he is on page 50:
    > >>>
    > Cognitive psychologists regularly hypothesize and find evidence for
    > thought processes that are largely or entirely unavailable to
    > conscious introspection. For example, Allbritton and Gerrig (1991)
    > hypothesized that when people read stories with unfavorable outcomes
    > (e.g., a bomb exploding) they are mentally generating alternate
    > outcomes that affect their ability to recognize the actual outcome.
    > These alternate outcomes are not generated in any way of which readers
    > are necessarily aware... With regard to memetics, one can then ask:
    > Does subconscious mental activity (which comprises most of the
    > activity of the brain, Baars, 1988) count as memetic in any way? It
    > does not seem to. The Memetic Lexicon states that "an idea or
    > information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone else to
    > replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All transmitted
    > information is memetic" (Grant et al., 1995, 2). Ignoring the
    > inconsistency of this quotation (certainly information can be
    > transmitted without causing someone to repeat it; most information
    > falls into this class), it implies that the mental alternatives
    > generated are not memes, and similarly that most of the mental
    > activity that occurs in the human brain is not memetic. However,
    > difficulties with this position arise when we consider that the
    > consequences of these counterfactual thoughts were demonstrated by
    > Allbritton and Gerrig, suggesting that they were then transmitted. >>>
    > In the course of his attempt to refute memetics, Polichak has
    > identified a meme. We might call it the tragedy-counterfactual meme.
    > When we read a story or see a movie with a painful outcome, we
    > generate scenarios in which the character we identify with gets a more
    > favorable outcome. I know exactly what Polichak is refering to, and
    > I've been doing this all my life. The end of Chinatown is a perfect
    > example. If only the bullet had gone a little to the left or the
    > right. Ah, but it's Chinatown, so what can you do?
    > What Polichak has identified is a specifically Western meme. Unlike
    > the passive Buddhist, who accepts as inevitable the wheel of suffering
    > and merely tries to escape it, the Westerner can't tolerate painful
    > outcomes. This can have negative consequences in terms of emotional
    > adjustment, but it also produces a more "proactive" culture with
    > greater survival value. Polichak is certainly correct that this
    > cultural habit is transmitted, and it has played an important role in
    > the rise of the West (Guns, Germs, and Steel notwithstanding).
    > Just when he thinks he's driving the final nail into the coffin,
    > Polichak reveals the potential of memetics for explaining human
    > culture. The unconscious is the fertile field in which memetics can
    > take root. What is the unconscious but a living fossil of human
    > culture? Memes are specifically those habits that are collective
    > rather than personal. Indeed, we may regard memes as the particles
    > comprising the collective unconscious. This is the portion of our
    > unconscious minds that reflects our cultural background as opposed to
    > our personal habits. Whether personal or collective, what begins
    > consciously is repeated and habitualized in the unconscious. The
    > cultural unconscious is the kingdom of memes.
    > The success of consumer capitalism can be ascribed, in part, to its
    > systematic exploitation of our unconscious vulnerability to memes.
    > But we must recognize the two-fold nature of memetic engineering. An
    > ad is just an idea to the people who create it and make money from it.
    > But the ideas of sex and youth and belonging are memes to the
    > consumers who buy into them. What is idea for the engineer is meme for
    > the engineered. Of course, we're all vulnerable to memes, and
    > sometimes even the engineers get taken in by their own creations.
    > Culture is primarily a product of human consciousness. But what is
    > conscious today is habit tomorrow. We depend on memes, as we depend
    > on personal habits, to keep our cultures running smoothly without the
    > need for continual, conscious input. Human agency gives way to
    > memetic agency. To claim that all culture is memetic is to make
    > memebots of human beings. Keith doesn't see the distinction between
    > conscious agency and memetic agency because he doesn't recognize human
    > self-determination in the first place. The unfortunate result is to
    > claim for memetics not only culturally-transmitted habits but the
    > intelligent thought that generates them. Memetics becomes a theory of
    > everything and therefore of nothing.
    > Ted
    Thanx much. I found your comments upon them more interesting than the article excerpts themselves.
    > ===============================================================
    > This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    > Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see:

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