Re: meme as catalytic indexical

From: Dace (
Date: Sat 24 Jan 2004 - 20:48:58 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: meme as catalytic indexical"

    > From: M Lissack <>
    > Ted:
    > 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.

    Bruce Edmonds wrote:

    Memetics has reached a crunch point. If, in the near future, it does not demonstrate that it can be more than merely a conceptual framework, it will be selected out. While it is true that many successful paradigms started out as such a framework and later moved on to become pivotal theories, it also true that many more have simply faded away. A framework for thinking about phenomena can be useful if it delivers new insights but, ultimately, if there are no usable results academics will look elsewhere. Such frameworks have considerable power over those that hold them for these people will see the world through these "theoretical spectacles" (Kuhn, 1969) - to the converted the framework appears necessary. The converted are ambitious to demonstrate the universality of their way of seeing things; more mundane but demonstrable examples seem to them as simply obvious. However such frameworks will not continue to persuade new academics if it does not provide them with any substantial explanatory or predictive "leverage." Memetics is no exception to this pattern.

    I agree entirely with Bruce, though I would specify a couple things. First, the "converted" discredit memetics by implying that all cultural evolution is memetic, whereas in fact memetically driven evolution occurs within the larger context of developments resulting from conscious, human decisions. For instance, the use of weapons to fight off wild animals in the Paleolithic began as a consciously directed cultural development and only became habitual or memetic over time.

    The second thing is that we must accept that memetics can only provide explanations, not predictions. This should not be regarded as a setback. Just as biologists can never predict which new species will emerge in the competition for survival, no memeticist will ever predict which new memes will emerge triumphant. The lack of predictive power does not reduce the study of cultural evolution to a tautology any more than it does for biological evolution, as some creationists have contended.

    As to providing explanations of cultural developments, I've already addressed this point. What distinguishes memetics from standard social sciences is the emphasis on an autonomous source of cultural development. Due to the struggle for survival among cultural units, i.e. memes, cultural forms take on a life of their own beyond conscious human control. While it's true that memes propagate only by exploiting desires and needs in the human mind, these are largely unconscious and therefore often irrational.

    Memetics is not so much an assertion that cultures evolve-- a banal point that no one disputes-- but that this evolution proceeds according to its own, internal logic as much as by conscious, human direction. This
    "internal logic" is, of course, the struggle for survival among memes. The social sciences do not, as far as I know, offer any explanation as to why cultures evolve in such profoundly irrational ways. If culture in general, even healthy aspects of culture, is perpetuated memetically, then on occasion memes will emerge that are harmful to genuine human interests. Memes are like dogs that occasionally escape their leashes and wreak all sorts of havoc. Not being human themselves, they have no concept of "right and wrong." If memes are real, we ought to see irrational developments in human cultures. We ought to see cultural forms that continue and even gain momentum long after the social context in which they once made sense has long since vanished.

    This is precisely what we do see. I offer a few examples below. There are many, many more, each one providing a case study. It's only on the basis of a wide variety of such case studies that the science of memetics can gain a solid footing.


    > Barbara Ehrenreich provides an excellent example of
    > this phenomenon from the late Paleolithic. Up until the end of the last
    > 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
    > 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
    > life of its own. It's due to the success of the pro-NATO meme that our
    > of the world has been re-framed such that NATO's continued existence can
    > 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
    > 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
    > 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,
    > 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
    > significance as they become subject to proper, "scientific" study. In
    > words, we save the meme by killing it.
    > Ted

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