Re: memes in literature

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Mon 28 Jun 2004 - 22:35:15 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: memes in literature"

    At 11:20 AM 27/06/04 -0500, Gene wrote:
    >Keith Henson wrote:
    >>At 10:16 AM 23/06/04 -0500, you wrote:
    >>>I have in mind several things. First, I simply want to understand
    >>>memetics better.
    >>I would not get in too much of a sweat over defining memes. I can live
    >>with most of the definitions that are out there on the web. For short
    >>ones, "an element of culture" and "replicating information pattern" work fine.
    >This is good news. However, isn't an objection to the concept that it is
    >so fuzzy?

    It really isn't any fuzzier than the genetic replicator. Dawkins spends a whole chapter in _Extended Phenotype_ and at the end decides that a fuzzy operational definition is the best he can do.


    >>>And last, it should be possible to use memetics as a framework
    >>>for discussing specific works of literature.
    >>I think the concept of memetics is critical, especially when you are
    >>talking about evolving trends in literature. But after more than ten
    >>years of thinking about memetics, I concluded that the study area is just
    >>to small and simple to make a lot of progress understanding the
    >>interesting subjects such as *why* some kinds of literature are wildly
    >>successful and others just don't connect.
    >One concern I have is what is the value of using memetics as a framework
    >rather than traditional genre studies, studies of the reception of a work,
    >and a host of other approaches.

    Memetics is foremost a viewpoint shift. There is nothing wrong with other approaches. I would teach a memetic approach in addition to the other ways.

    >And the "why" is pretty slippery. Writers can be wildly successful while
    >alive, then forgotten after their death, then rediscovered and celebrated,
    >then denigrated, and so on. I think "success" has to be defined within a
    >specific time-frame.

    That's true. But you might want to read Robert Wright on this subject. He argues that good writers are the ones who have an instinctive grip on evolutionary psychology--which is why their work is/was popular.


    >I like this list. But I'm not clear on how genetic survival and memetic
    >survival relate to each other.

    They are obviously coupled. Consider what makes humans different from the rest of the animal kingdom--culture. Most of the time elements of culture, rock chipping, hunting methods and weapons, fire, clothing, agriculture have massively increased the number of copies of human genes

    >The Nazi memeplex was very destructive of its German hosts, for instance.
    >It does survive in fringe groups, of course.

    That's true, but Nazi memes are just typical examples of the kinds of memes that sync up a resource stressed population to kill other populations. Human evolution left us with psychological traits leading to war when resources look like they are getting tight. This stems from the fact that humans have had no predators worthy of the name for millions of years. When Stone Age human populations exceeded the limits of the environment, tribes made war on each other till the population was in reduced below the limit. The story of Easter Island is particularly gruesome.

    >>What elements of culture survive depends on the environment of human
    >>minds, with these stone age psychological traits. Memes with the "right
    >>stuff" to propagate become more common. We seldom hear of the ones that don't.
    >Or the ones that destroy their hosts?

    We usually do hear about the spectacular ones like Jim Jones, Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate. Genetically, a really celibate priesthood might be good for the memes, but it is a total dead end for the genes of the priests.

    >>>Fiction depicting inventions is a clear example. Last Spring, I used
    >>>memetics in discussing the material and social inventions in
    >>>_Water_Ship_Down_ (Richard Adams) and _Small_Gods (Terry Pratchett).
    >>>The students were responive and seemed to find the concept meaningful
    >>>and usable. I'm hoping for a paper out of this material.
    >>Most younger people don't have a problem with the concept. Why would be
    >>a good research question.
    >I had expected some resistance from students to the Darwinian flavor of
    >memetics. I haven't read the anonymous end-of-semester yet, but unless
    >there's something in them, I got no resistance in class. And the class had
    >several students in it unafraid to speak their minds.

    Considering where you are teaching, that is a bit of a surprise. But if you didn't mention Darwin or the dreaded E word, you might have slipped right under their memetic allergies. Were the ones who spoke up fundamentalist/creation science believers?

    This is from 1989, but it might interest you:

    By H. Keith Henson and Arel Lucas

        The widespread and long-lived opposition to evolution by fundamentalist Christian sects is not the first time the religious sector has opposed the findings of science. Copernican astronomy excited centuries of opposition before finally being accepted. Why did the Catholic Church defend the theories of a long dead Greek? Why do "creation science" followers defend a Catholic bishop's calculations of a world only a few thousand years old?

        We would like something better than an intuitive, hand-waving answer to these rather serious questions. We would like to be able to make specific predictions and recommendations. Our attempt to answer the "creation science" question above will be in two parts: Why do humans have beliefs at all? And why does the belief in evolution excite so much opposition?

        In attempting to find answers, we will invoke Darwin in two places. First in asking where human evolution has gone the last few million years. Second to consider the evolution of ideas (which we will also call memes, replicating information patterns, or beliefs) and the forces that shape them. Human and meme evolution is inextricably tangled. This discussion will switch back and forth from one to other in seeking an understanding (in evolutionary terms) of why evolutionists run into so much opposition from certain segments of the wider community. Knowledge of the modern concepts of evolution is assumed.


    Rest at

    (A quick look finds several copies of this old article still up on the net. An interesting fact itself in memetic terms. :-) )

    >>I would very much like to see your paper on this experience.
    >>Keith Henson
    >Thanks. The paper is still a ways off. I do have the handout material I
    >prepared for the class if you're interested in seeing it. It's in PDF
    >documents that I posted online for students to download and does rely
    >somewhat on class discussion.

    If you could put them back on the web for a few days and post the pointer here that would be fine.

    Keith Henson

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