Re: what is a meme?

From: Douglas Brooker (
Date: Tue 03 Feb 2004 - 20:16:55 GMT

  • Next message: Dace: "Re: the meme/brain problem"

    Chris Taylor wrote:

    > 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?
    > Uh-huh.
    > > 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.
    > ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Fine, this is fairly clear; glad to have got up your nose.

    In a lot of words you set out in the above qualifications that maybe should have been attached to your original statement in the first place. ("This sort of thing makes clear why this area _should_ be left to biologists.") How can biology possibly explain chauvinism? Would it want to? Don't take it personally, it's common enough in any academic discipline, few of which make these aspects of their culture an object of their own study. It's an area of particular interest, maybe it would be in the remit of what you've described as the 'dark side' of biology, an area that historically suggests strong reasons for calling biologists - or any discipline to account at all times.

    In your response, you provide a good account of how biology is nurtured by other disciplines, has a rich history, has borrowed widely, is a very big tent, collaborative. Thanks. So what exactly are we understand then from your original statement that the field "_should_ be" left to biologists? Your qualifications take the statement in the opposite direction - suggesting it would possibly be accurate to recast the original statement in the negative. In this case, we either seem to be left with contradictory messages or a problematic definition of the boundaries of biology.

    There are a lot of takes on the meaning and usefulness of the idea of 'social life' or 'society'. (Is it a leap on my part to conflate the two?) You know it's a perennial debate. You're welcome to your beliefs but within and without academia it's perpetually unresolved, so your dismissal of other approaches is on the absolutist side. Someone in a recent message referred to a "dogma of biology," maybe the idea the social is just the sum of individuals is one of these dogmas, maybe shared by many in the biology tent or a part of how the group defines itself. But what is the consequence of saying this? How can you explain biology in these terms, especially when you've just described something of its culture, its origins and history, without pulling biology into contentious areas of discussion like the political and moral dimensions of defining 'social life'? You've made a choice from amongst different views about the social, if this model is best for you, that's fine. We all like to think that the world revolves around our interests and offers the most meaningful experience of things, but we should not lose sight of how they are choices, coincidences, inherited traditions or positions we adopt to find acceptance in the group which we find ourselves.

    You suggest anthropology should rightfully be classed under the umbrella of biology. Mauss, anthropologist, sociologist would agree about the necessary role of the biological. From my perspective of anthropology classing anthropology under the biological umbrella would mean biologists have to account for their individual selves in their work - something different than the 'better output' focussed methodological work you describe above. It was to gather information about this anthropological aspect of biology (and other disciplines on cropping up on this list - the Indexical people look interesting) along these lines that what you metaphorically refer to as
    "bile-soaked nonsense" was directed. So, thanks for your reply.

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