Re: memes and culture

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu 05 Feb 2004 - 04:32:17 GMT

  • Next message: Richard Brodie: "RE: memes and culture"

    At 01:21 PM 05/02/04 +1100, you wrote:
    >At 08:49 PM 4/02/2004 -0500, you wrote:
    >>>He also insists that we narrow the field by identifying where,
    >>>specifically, the memetics model applies. I fully agree. I think the chief
    >>>reason for the failure of memetics to be widely accepted as a science is its
    >>>attempt to reduce all of culture to a memetic struggle for survival (and the
    >>>corresponding illusion that this can render the study of culture into a
    >>>"hard" science).
    >>I can't think of anyone who takes this hard a line. We know of cultures
    >>have been taken down by external physical events, others that have been
    >>massively affected by disease or changes in climate.
    >Keith, you have just exhibited the 'hard line'. Introducing the effect of
    >physical events, disease, climate, etc, misses the point. Memetics
    >understands culture as an expression (phenotype?) of memes, as if culture
    >is an epiphenomenon.

    Memes or using the older term, culturgens, are replicating information,
    *elements* of culture, like the patterns on pots that anthropologists use to date levels, or making shoes, chipping rocks, or making spacecraft.

    >This is a 'hard line' because it doesn't leave open the possiblity that
    >culture is a creative phenomenon.

    Blink? Why doesn't it? The fact that a meme such as Hamilton's that Dawkins used as an example spread over time indicates both that memes spread in an epidemic fashion *and* that they have creators. There might be exceptions, but I can't think of any memes that were not the result of a creative act.

    Most of the millions of creative acts that people do every day don't become common memes, but then most seeds don't grow up and make seeds themselves either.

    >Actually, the term culture here is a bit of a problem because it is often
    >used to refer to a particular aspect of social life (such as ways of
    >thinking) rather than social life in all its aspects. The fact that the
    >word culture is used so much in memetics, is, I think, not inadvertant. It
    >presents a view of social life that appears more amenable to memetic analysis.

    Memetics is a literally *particulate* view of culture. Memes are the chunks of information, sayings, ways of doing things, skills, etc. that in total make up the material and mental parts of our culture (like the shortcut for multiplying by 9). Some of these elements of our "culture pool" become more common over time and others less so. It is this aspect of memes (culturgens) that mimics the way genes become more or less common over time in a gene pool.

    Technology is a major wiper-outer of memes as well as a creator. The skills (based on memes) to rig a sailing ship are very rare today where programming skills have come from nowhere to be relatively common.

    >Social life, meaning the complex interactions and organisings within which
    >individuals are embedded, is a creative process.

    No doubt about it.

    >If you want to understand social life you need to examine its constituent
    >interactions and organising in detail rather than assume that they are the
    >products of something else with ontological priority, in this case memes.
    >Insofar as memes are ideas, then they are not the primary creators of
    >social life, but are just one feature of the process of social life.

    That sound correct. If I can expand a bit, the origin of social life is based on genes that make us social primates. We live in groups (originally small ones, much larger now). We have, for example, gene based psychological mechanisms that induce us to do things that get attention
    (status) for reasons that are fairly obvious when you look at the reproductive success of higher status primates in primitive human groups.

    Now *exactly* what we do to get attention depends on the particular memes in the culture or subculture we are immersed in. In a hunter gatherer culture, you chipped rocks and went out and killed large animals that would feed the whole tribe. If you are in scientology, you pay for attention through rituals called "auditing" and Training Routines. (Fer kicks look up TR Booger on Google.)

    >For example, the idea of god does not come first and then religious
    >organisation and practices later as a 'phenotype' of memes, rather this
    >idea is part and parcel of the emergence of religious organisation and

    If you have not read it, I strongly recommend Pascal Boyer's _Religion Explained_. I don't think he has the best understanding of memes where he does mention them, but he sure understands how human psychology shapes features of religions. I.e., the features of religions come from a much smaller set than all possible features.

    >All of social life is evolving, not just one aspect of it.

    That's true now with a lot of interacting people. When the population was a lot less dense at least the material aspects of culture that we can see from that long ago (chipped rocks) took a miserable long time to change. After the first burst, rock chipping didn't change for a million and a half years. After fairly minor changes it again didn't move much for most of another million years.

    One place to look for effects smaller populations not just standing still but losing elements of culture is Tasmania. About 4000 people were isolated there when the water came up at the end of the last ice age and they lost a lot of their culture.

    Keith Henson

    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Thu 05 Feb 2004 - 04:39:13 GMT