Re: meme as catalytic indexical

From: M Lissack (
Date: Sat 24 Jan 2004 - 01:13:33 GMT

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

      If you want to argue that "memes" mistakenly associated with replicators and causes are a convenient shorthand to "explain" history fine. But 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. All I have done is offer one possible answer to Bruce.
      I await other positive answers to Bruce.

    Dace <> wrote: The mechanism of cultural evolution is exactly the same as natural evolution. The environment of the meme, which in this case is the human mind, selects some memes over others. Those that survive do so because they are more adaptable to changing environmental conditions.

    Memetics is a historical science. This means that testing of ideas is not necessarily carried out in current experiments. The same is true of any evolutionary theory. For instance, our theories of how galaxies form are tested by looking out into space and viewing galxies at various levels of development. The theory of biological evolution is entirely dependent on our studies of geological strata and past-preserving genes. Even before gene studies emerged, we knew species evolved simply on the basis of what we found in the earth's strata. One species existed at a certain era and a
    "new and improved" version existed at a later era. That's not to say Darwin's theory wasn't tested many times over. But the testing didn't occur in the form of laboratory experiments. Darwin's hypothesis was about events in the past and was tested by searching for signs that these events happened the way Darwin suggested. If we hadn't found signs of one species yielding to a more adapted form-- if instead we found that all the species were created in the present form at roughly the same time-- then the hypothesis would have failed the test.

    Incidentally, creationists have often labeled evolutionary biology a tautology because we can't conduct experiments to test whether evolution is occuring right now or predict what kinds of species will evolve in the future. Elliott Sober thoroughly refutes this view in *The Nature of Selection* (University of Chicago, 1984).

    If cultural evolution is propelled, in part, by autonomous, self-replicating units called "memes," then we ought to see irrational elements in culture. After all, memes are not human and do not reason. If memes have causative power in the development of culture, then we should see cultural forms that make no sense and are potentially harmful, that don't promote the social good but simply follow their own imperative to survive. We ought to see pathological developments in culture that resist all efforts to stamp them out.

    Indeed, this is exactly what we find in the historical record. We see a great many examples of cultural trends that take on a life of their own, that refuse to die even after the social context in which they once made sense have disappeared. Barbara Ehrenreich provides an excellent example of this phenomenon from the late Paleolithic. Up until the end of the last Ice Age, humans were commonly preyed upon by wild animals, especially the big cats. We developed weapons with which to fight and kill these beasts. But when their populations were decimated at the end of the Ice Age, along with the great herd populations they mostly fed on, instead of putting down our weapons, we began wielding them against each other. The battle mentality took on a life of its own. Ehrenreich's thesis can be tested against the historical record. Indeed, the evidence for warfare goes back about 12,000 years, to the end of the Ice Age, where it abruptly leaves off. She describes war as a meme that was unleashed 12,000 years ago and has successfully adapted to changing conditions ever since.

    To take a more current example, NATO was devised to defend against a possible Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Yet, after the collapse of the USSR, NATO remained in place and even expanded into Eastern Europe. The idea of NATO is no longer subject to intelligent scrutiny but has taken on a life of its own. It's due to the success of the pro-NATO meme that our view of the world has been re-framed such that NATO's continued existence can no longer be questioned. This meme has been selected as a result of its exploitation of the desire of US elites to maintain and extend their influence over Europe. The meme has exploited its mental environment in the same way that an organism exploits its natural environment.

    As science is a facet of human culture, we should find persistent irrationalism even among the scientifically-minded. Again, this is exactly what the historical record reveals. Though the Michelson-Morley experiment long ago refuted the existence of a universal "ether," many theorists, who call themselves "natural philosophers," continue to reject Einsteinian physics. Ever since Einstein, physics has grown increasingly at odds with common sense. The "natural philosophy" meme succeeds because it exploits our desire to maintain a common sense physics. Thus a discredited school of physics persists on the basis of memetic propagation rather than logic or sense.

    The dominance of physics in today's science has caused many researchers to assume that scientific evidence must resemble the sort of evidence derived from physics experiments. We might call this the "scientism" meme. Thus, instead of looking at the historical record for evidence of cultural forms that persist despite no longer making sense, we redefine memes as semiotic signs of environmental niches, because these can be analyzed in terms of
    "resources, energy flow, constraints, external and internal pressures, life and death cycles and rates, competition, cooperation etc." This way we can look like real scientists as we make lots of precise measurements and conduct statistical analyses while ignoring actual memes altogether. Memes are "repackaged as symbols" and "stripped of their causal role," losing all significance as they become subject to proper, "scientific" study. In other words, we save the meme by killing it.


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