Re: what is a meme?

From: Chris Taylor (
Date: Fri 13 Feb 2004 - 14:28:46 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: Durkheim on historical origin versus current utility"

    > In a lot of words

    See -- you're off already :)

    > 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?

    I'd start with the kinds of explanations that are deployed for religion or any other self-defending complex that discounts evidence (i.e. women are not subhuman, or domestic servants). And _of course_ I'd desire to see anything explained that was previously unexplained. However,
    'Biology' is an abstract and has no wants or desires. Sorry if the shorthand was misleading. My point is that the body of theory and observation of the natural world possessed of most biologists provides them with some nice starting points to get stuck in to the problems at hand.

    > 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.

    Biology is not a coherent enough a discipline to decide anything en masse. However this stuff has been studied at length as I explained in the preceding mail (including a good way to test oneself).

    > 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.

    Nope. Point is we should be looking to reuse theory developed under the umbrella of biology as much as possible, which (I kid you not) is mostly going to come from biologists. Nobody says the physicists that contribute to the study of biological systems should somehow rebrand themselves to avoid causing offence, and it is clear that their knowledge of certain kinds of systems is more fully developed than the
    'in house' alternative. Btw you are welcome to read up on some genetics and try to fit some of this theory yourself -- you don't need to join a club or anything.

    Fundamentally this whole argument comes from your nitpicking of my shorthand statement, which I think you understood the spirit of in the first place, because you are clearly not daft.

    > 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.

    Of what else is society (however defined) composed of, except individuals and the result of their actions? Bugger the redefinition, answer the question.

    Btw I'm no right-wing nutter -- individuals make things (e.g. educational systems, social support, healthcare) in society that persist, even appear to have a life of their own; but they don't pop out of the ether, they are made.

    > 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.

    I just think that different takes on systems are appropriate at different levels -- no way would anyone try to describe or analyse government at the level of the chemical, you turn to the guys and gals who did PPE at college, or you, or whoever. I think memes are a level down, and require a different level of analysis. That's all.

    Finally, good science involves the search for correctness of understanding -- challenging the assumptions of individuals is always worthwhile, but this very human issue is not new, and I'm sure that anthopologists are just as prone, despite their well developed awareness of the fact that they are human.

      Chris Taylor (
      MIAPE Project --

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