Re: meme as catalytic indexical

From: M Lissack (
Date: Wed 21 Jan 2004 - 22:41:57 GMT

  • Next message: Dace: "Re: meme as catalytic indexical"

      the question is do memes replicate or are they the semiotic sign of something else that replicates?
      if they do not directly replicate then we can instead consider their role as catalysts which effect the success, resilience, and replication of the things of which the memes are semiotic signs
      memes as replicators has been a marvelous way to talk about memes but not a useful approach for research or prediction (thus Bruce's three challenges)
      if memetics can meet Bruce's challenges without a redefinition great -- i do not believe it can and so have offered an alternative
      if you accept Bruce's challenges than they need an answer but that answer mine or another
      to merely proclaim over and over again that the hsitory of memes has been fine is to ignore the future of the field
      either explain why you reject Bruce's challenges, offer another answer to them than mine, explain why my answer will not or cannot meet Bruce's challenges or accept my reasoning that ONE way to meet the challenges Bruce offered is through memes as catalytic indexicals rather than as replicators

    Keith Henson <> wrote: At 11:15 AM 20/01/04 -0800, Michael Lissack wrote:
    >At no point do I ever suggest doing away with the word 'meme'

    You don't, nor have I suggested you have taken this stand. I do say that you appear to want to hijack the word away from the original meaning and from the way it is used by the vast majority of those familiar with the
    "meme about memes."

    >I am suggesting that giving memes the quality of being replicators

    That's the essence of what Dawkins proposed.

    >and a teleos of "desiring" to multiply

    That's just silly. Neither genes nor memes have the capacity to "desire" anything with or without quotes. Neither are genes really "selfish," that's just a literary shorthand to stand for the longer and obvious observation that genes or memes that increase in numbers during replication and selection cycles become more common in the gene pool/meme pool.

    > is incorrect and the source of many of the problems standing in the way
    > of the advance of memetics.

    You are right that taking an author's shallow anthropomorphic shorthand in the place of a deeper understanding of something that is fairly simple does get in the way of understanding both modern Darwinian theory *and* memetics. "I have discussed this and other over-literal misunderstandings in my paper 'In Defense of Selfish Genes,' . . . " Richard Dawkins
    ( But I doubt it stands in the way of progress in either area. It does seem to stand in the way of popular understanding though.

    >Reasoning by analogy must be done carefully. If you only focus on the
    >similarities you forget that analogies by definition also contain
    >variances which must also be addressed.
    >Meme=gene was brilliant but too simple. The baggage from replication
    >properties is more than 'memes' can cope with.

    Meme=gene (meme equal gene) is just wrong, and there is no possible way Dawkins would be support such a suggestion. Memes and genes are both members of the more general class replicators, more specifically information replicators but they have a different "locus of action." A computer virus is different from a biological virus in a similar way. One needs a particular kind of computer, the other a particular kind of cell to replicate.

    >Meme remains the preferred word but the status of memes as replicators is

    If you need to put a tag on something in the way you want to modify the meaning of "meme" please make up a new word. Memes as replicating information patterns, replicating elements of culture, etc is *well established.* I can only speak for myself, but I don't think you are going to get support for your proposed mutation of the "meme about memes" from Cloak, Vajk, Lynch, Brodie, Dennett, Blackmore, Grant, Wright, or any of the other people who have written serious works about the subject in the last 20 years.

    To take this to a meta level, what motivates people is gaining status. What improves the world is non-zero sum-ness. Now there certainly would be a status gain to the person who succeeded in changing the definition of meme, but it would be a zero sum result. I.e., any gains a person got from this activity would be matched by loses of Dr. Dawkins and others who support the current "standard" meme about memes. (You would be showing that they are all just wrong in some fundamental way.)

    But there are areas in memetics, particularly in the interface with evolutionary psychology, where there is lot of "low hanging non-zero sum knowledge fruit" to be picked.

    Memetic "gain" i.e., does a meme spread or die out, obviously depends on details of human psychology. Fads, for example, seem to be driven by the psychological attractiveness of novelty. Other traits, such as the pre-war spread of xenophobic memes seem to be dependant on environmental triggers such as declining income per capita. This *probably* maps into looming privation of the kind that would have triggered wars between competing small bands of human ancestor social primates for the last several million years.

    When solitary grasshoppers of certain species get the proper signals of high population density while growing up (encountering a lot of other grasshoppers) they undergo a major developmental change to the gregarious migrating locust form. The *morphological* changes in color and temperament are so extreme that for a while the migrating locus form was thought to be a different species.

    It is an absolutely appalling but seeming inescapable conclusion from evolutionary psychology that humans have analogous behavioral mode switches that are activated under some physical or psychological conditions. (I.e., you don't have to have real privation to switch into the "going to war mode," being psychologically convinced that bad times are coming or that you are about to be attacked may be enough.)

    Studies in such areas as mob psychology and war psychology as they relates to environmental triggers are disparately needed. Interpreting the Hutu/Tutsi genocides, the Easter Island population collapse, and the recurrent pig slaughter/wars cycles in Papua New Guinea in such terms would generate a fundamental literature where memes (as replicators) are a natural element.

    Keith Henson

    PS. Anyone is welcome to jump into any part of the above. There is far more work to do than I can manage and I am more than willing to give credit and recognition to others who want to work in this area.

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