Re: what is a meme?

From: Chris Taylor (
Date: Tue 03 Feb 2004 - 14:21:13 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "RE: groupthink gauntlet: MacArthur's ill-fated drive toward the Yalu"

    I meant to reply to this bile-soaked nonsense a while ago, but
    (salaried) duty called and I answered...

    >> That (split) post took a long time to say that this is a hard problem.
    >> It also had some real howlers in it such as:
    >>> it is impossible to get an account of social life by adding up the
    >>> actions of individuals.
    > Where’s the howler in it?

    Of what else is social life composed than individuals? Theist are we?

    >> This sort of thing makes clear why this area _should_ be left to
    >> biologists.
    > It may make something clear to biologists. You must be one, no?


    > What methodology did I use to reach this latter conclusion. Is it
    > scientifically valid? What was the conclusion's empirical basis?

    (1) I matched the profile you have in mind I suppose, through my use of language. (2) No it's not scientifically valid taken in isolation. (3) My email (including, potentially, my address?).

    > Could you explain in more detail, for non-biologists, why biology takes
    > precedent over other disciplines in this area? How can a biologist
    > credibly refute the claims made by other disciplines when those
    > disciplines are outside of the expertise of a biologist?

    The fact that two apples plus two apples does not equal five apples has nothing to do with apples per se. I would not cede the argument to a farmer because they know more about apples than I.

    Anyway, as has been said subsequently in later posts, fields borrow from other fields. For example, the diffusion equation turns out to have huge usefulness in population genetics. Without chemistry, biochemsitry as a subdiscipline of biology would not exist. Without the other physical sciences (especially geology) modern biology would have remained much closer to the kind of phenomenological natural history that it was up to the 19th (20th even) century, collecting instances and cataloging them.

    'We' didn't just import knowledge from elsewhere, we imported a whole subdiscipline (or five). Consider the role of Hardy (a mathematician) and Weinberg (a physician), or Pearson, Galton(ish), Malthus, Maynard Smith, Franklin/Wilkins/Watson/Crick, blah blah yadda yadda...

    Get over it. Science is collaborative, which includes collaboration between disciplines -- each dealing with that to which it is best suited. If memes are what _I_ think they are, biology (especially in it's computer-friendly form) has the best tools at the moment. And anyway anthropology should rightly be classed as under the biological umbrella. We have ornithologists, malacologists, primatologists, what is the _qualitative_ difference? Don't be afraid :)

    If you want a current example; most of the cutting edge theoretical biologists are basically physicists or mathematicians by training, and the whole of bioinformatics has been overun (some would argue created by) computer scientists and mathematicians (especially statisticians), but I don't hear many serious players voicing the patently farcical position that cos these people don't have biology Ph.D.s, they are
    'foreigners' who should not be allowed to contribute. We actually go out of our uway to get in good CS/math people and train them to get them up to a certain standard in biology, so that they can contribute to the argument. How's that for the exact opposite of your bigotry?

    >> The danger of argument by analogies is clear, but while we are finding
    >> our feet this isn't a problem. The argument about terms is just a
    >> frame for the argument about the nature of the beast we seek to
    >> understand.
    > Is there a biological measure of when we "will have found our feet" so
    > we will know when to stop using analogies. Will you make an
    > announcement?

    Oh please. You are doing yourself no favours here.

    > Or, more likely will there just be the emergence of some
    > sort of "consensus" amongst biologists, half-noticed, the kinds of
    > intra-discipline consensuses that underlie hard (and soft) sciences, but
    > which are largely unstudied or unremarked upon by scientists
    > themselves. Or also likely, that the whole enterprise will be forgotten
    > except in some future doctoral thesis about the history of marginal
    > academic movements of the late 20th Century.

    Wow the claws are out now. This is why you shouldn't flame without having a cup of tea then re-reading it.

    > If there is a metaphoric "beast" that you don't understand how do you
    > know it is a matter for biologists?

    So we wait for perfect knowledge before we decide, retrospectively, who should have been 'allowed' to think about these things?

    When you can't reach the end in one jump (sorry to disappoint) you proceed incrementally along the most apparently sensible path.

    > It may be of interest to biologists
    > but for many it is not clearly a “biological” subject, and that biology
    > can’t yet understand it suggests you’re ‘barking up the wrong tree’ or
    > possibly unconsciously attempting to morph into social scientists:
    > witness the phenomenon of the hyphenated biologist.

    Look, the phenomenology (frankly) of anthropology, sociology and psychology directly parallels the state of natural history before people arrived on the scene (in large part from other disciplines) to unpack some of the black boxes. We now have some theory that works in biology because of this, and can progress. I don't understand your problem with the same thing occurring in the particular study of human animals, singly and in groups, acting as +/- commensalistic hosts to informational life.

    [Bear in mind that my particular take on memetics goes way beyond the baseball-caps-backwards sort of thing that has more in common with the epidemiology of skin diseases than anything.]

    > You might consider inviting some anthropologists into your laboratories
    > who will be able to describe to you the cultural activities in which
    > biologists scientists engage while all the while you believe you are
    > conducting science.

    I think people already did that. And I think most of us are self-aware enough to take account most of the time (the recent work of Joan Roughgarden is a good place to check your assumptions, as an exercise). This is also of course why productive interactions with widely spread
    (in terms of their specialty) collaborators are keenly sought (where appropriate) by those who know how to do good creative science.

    > P Rabinow, Essays on the Anthropology of Reason, Princeton UP 1997,
    > looked at the French CEPH and suggests some of the fruitful work that
    > can result.
    > "the natives did not have a stable point of view but were themselves
    > engaged in questioning their allegiances, their dispositions. Their
    > culture was in the making. Further, it was partially my culture. Their
    > self-questioning over how to shape their scientific practice, the limits
    > of their ability to do so partially overlapped with my own scientifc
    > practice."

    But WHY were they like that? Does the apparent homology remind you of anything? The issue here as I see it is convergent evolution versus common descent. Very biological :)

    In future, please try to keep your close-minded over-defensive half-formed knee-jerk ad hominems to yourself. Cogent argument paves the way to respect (whether right or wrong). Ted is a great case in point -- I even fell into the trap and slagged him off a couple of times (cf. cups of tea), but he took it like a gent. Of course I can't agree with most of what he asserts, but even if someone else's thoughts do no more than make you examine your own, you have gained from the interaction.

    Finally, I'd like to state, categorically, that I have the greatest repsect for those who study human minds, in isolation and interaction, because they have _by far_ the hardest job, and amongst the most interesting subject matter there is. There are many on this list, as you are no doubt aware, and their contributions are of high quality, partly because they have the most in depth knowledge of the evidence, gained through many years of observation, comparison and classification.

    Also, under AOB, I'd like to completely dissociate myself from the dark side of biology trying to _help_ explain all this, i.e. evolpsych, which should imho confine itself to studies of brainstem-related stuff (primal fear, basic pattern recognition and so on), and what effect that has on minds constructed of memes (the commensalistic/parasitic, telencephalically based us).

    Boomshanka, Chris.

      Chris Taylor (
      MIAPE Project --

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