RE: (Sociology's problems)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu 12 Feb 2004 - 03:04:43 GMT

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    At 09:21 AM 12/02/04 +1100, you wrote:

    >>I see no deficiencies inside the frame of memetics. It is just too
    >>simple to be wrong. The "memetics frame" though is only a small part of
    >>the landscape. If you want to be able to put even a tentative answer to
    >>*why* the xenophobic class of memes emerges in ecological situations
    >>leading up to war, you have to look at the larger
    >>sociobiology/evolutionary psychology picture.
    >>Incidentally, I don't claim particular brilliance in figuring this
    >>out. Motivation was more of a factor. If you want a share of the same
    >>motivation, I would be happy to give you explicit directions. :-)
    >>Keith Henson
    >How is it possible to support both memetics and evolutionary psychology?

    Easy. I make the case that you really can't understand the host side of memetics without evolutionary psychology.

    >The former aims (at least this was Dawkin's aim) to replace genetics as an
    >account of social life. It argues that memes are the basic element of
    >social life, not genes.

    Dawkins argued that memes are elements of culture, like that streets are dangerous places to play or how to make shoes or chipped rocks. I don't know what you mean by "social life" in this context. If asked, I would say that social life is the interactions of social primates. Social customs are memes and determine the details of social life, such as forms of greeting and dress. But social life itself is more related to basic social primate drives (such as seeking status) than it is to replicating elements of culture.

    >Evolutionary psychology/sociobiology is basically a branch of genetics and
    >argues that social life is an expression of genes.

    EP does make the case that our psychological *traits* were shaped by what worked to get genes into the next generation in the typical environment of 100,000 to a million years ago. That much you have right. But how such things as the drive for status gets expressed is highly dependant on non genetic facts, particularly the physical environment and social history of a local group. To put it graphically, an !Kung and a Princeton graduate have rather different ideas of what they need to do to obtain high status.

    >One of the fundamental problems facing memetics is the relations between
    >genes and memes. Did memes arise out of genes?

    Genes built brains elaborating on the mammal/primate traits of being able to learn a *lot.* At some point in the remote past our social primate ancestors began to pass down learning--culture--from generation to generation. It was particulate learning such as how to bash rocks and make sharp edges. I have been reading a lot of Jane Goodall lately. By human standards chimps don't have much culture, but they do have enough to benefit their genes in a feedback loop.

    >If genes are central to biological life

    They are.

    >(which was Dawkin's argument at the time he came up with the idea of
    >memes), and memes are central to social life,

    Learned culture rather. See above.

    >then surely memes must have evolved from genes - where else could they
    >have come from?

    Memes, like genes and computer viruses, are replicators, but they are of an entirely different order than genes. Genes are strings of information in DNA, instructions for to make the chemicals that construct living creatures. Memes are the information that can be used to program the brains of some of those living creatures so they can chip rocks and build spacecraft.

    As to where memes came from, there is a better fossil cultural record than we have of the very earliest days of biological evolution.

    About 2.6 million years ago hominid groups with brains about the same size as chimps were living in Africa. They left massive evidence (article I was reading last week but can't find now) that they were making sharp edges by breaking stones. From the butchering cut marks left on bones in the same deposits, it is clear they were eating a lot of meat with the help of those sharp rocks.

    As to how the first sharp edged rock came from, we can only speculate. It is known that chimps throw rocks and that the hominids who went out into the grasslands for the previous million years carried rocks, possibly to drive predators off kills or to keep big cats from making a meal of 4 foot hominid or both.

    Throwing stones, "manuports" are found in places where hominid transport from distant rock outcrops is the most likely reason they are found (Mary Leakey). As to why the hominids ventured out from the trees, it was probably for meat. (Chimps *really* crave meat (Jane Goodall) and there is no reason our remote ancestors didn't also.) They were probably killing and eating young antelopes, same as baboons do today.

    Given a million years, one of those thrown rocks would have hit something hard and broken. Chimps can figure out the use of shape edges to cut down a reward. The can learn to smash rocks on hard surfaces to make the sharp edges. Some researchers found this out when they tried to teach a chimp to chip rocks and the chimp persisted in making sharp fragments by smashing his stones on the concrete floor (rather than on another rock).

    Some chance observation by a bright hominid that her recovered but now broken in half "lion stone" was useful in hacking off a chunk of a large carcass the group chanced upon during the walk back to the trees where they were sleeping seems to have been enough to start the evolution of our entire meme based material culture. (This is a petrocentric view of course. The bag might have been an important meme too but the supporting evidence didn't survive.)

    >Memetics is supposedly derived from an evolutionary outlook, yet one of
    >the most fundamental evolutionary issues, the evolution of memes, has not
    >been attended to.

    That's a good point. If the above isn't enough evidence for the start of meme evolution and you want me to fill in web sites and book sources supporting this view, let me know.

    Keith Henson

    >Steven Thiele
    >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)

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