Re: Kate's book/ "recessive memes"

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Thu 24 Mar 2005 - 09:38:05 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: Kate's book/ memetic recombination"

    Scott Chase wrote:

    >I just received your book and I'm finding it really
    >interesting so far (I'm only around 45 pages into the
    >paperback). You've gotten me really thinking about
    >representations in novel ways. Sperber talked of them
    >in his book, but I'd been posting here about
    >Durkheim's "collective representations" long before
    >reading Sperber, so I'm really hoping you set my
    >individual representations about representations
    >straight during the course of your book.

    Interestingly, I made a last-minute deletion of a section that looked at Durkheim through memetic eyes. I wasn't confident enough in my knowledge of Durkheim to be certain that it would really add anything to anyone's understanding, didn't have time to rectify that and frankly didn't want to open myself up to the disdain of those whose Durkheim knoweldge was better! But I'd be happy to email you the draft if you're interested. (The disdain of one reader strikes me as a more manageable option than the disdain of many.)

    >Anyway I haven't had any serious eye roll moments yet.
    >So far you haven't engaged in the obligatory chapter
    >on Lamarck and how memetics is fundamentally Darwinian
    >by contrast (is Dr. Wilkins in the house?)
    >The part where you present evolution as replication,
    >variation and selection made me cringe a little. I'm
    >not much of a fan of selectionism and if you're really
    >going to unpack memetics as an evolutionary account of
    >culture you need to entertain the possibility of
    >something analogous to Kimura's neutral theory and
    >also to genetic drift, cases in evolutionary biology
    >that call an excessive reliance on selection as an
    >explanation into question.

    Yes - I think I need to look further into this. For this book at least it made sense to me to present memetics in a way that stuck quite closely to Dawkins's view of genetics.

    >I'm at the point in your book where you look at the
    >"flat earth" meme as a possible case analagous to
    >recessive alleles in biology. Was this a passing
    >thought or were you really serious about this one? I'm
    >really nervous about going too far with meme-gene
    >analogies and I'm wondering if this is a case of that
    >kind of excess. If you were serious could you expand
    >upon the notion of recessive memetic alleles?
    >You do realize that with genes there's vertical
    >transmission where we can assess the situation via the
    >use of Punnett squares or branching diagrams. Taken
    >too far we might say that parents could be homozygous
    >or heterozygous for round versus flat earth memetic
    >alleles. If both parents are heterozygous (ie Ff) is
    >there a 25% chance that offspring will be homozygous
    >(ie- ff) for the flat earth allele and express the
    >flat eartn belief in their phenotype?
    >But you do imply on p. 45 (pbk) that the problems of
    >horizontal or oblique transmission would apply to
    >memes, but I'm still not sure what you mean by
    >"recessive" in this context. There's a truth value in
    >the statement that the earth is flat. It has been
    >demonstrated to be false. Yet truth or falsity of a
    >statement or corresponding belief would be something
    >I'm not sure is in any way analogous to dominance or
    >recessiveness in genetics. Recessiveness could be a
    >useful thing in evolutionary biological contexts, such
    >as the case with sickle cell anemia where
    >heterozygotes have an advantage in malarial
    >Taken too literally your example with the flat earth
    >meme would mean there's a specific locus for the
    >belief in the shape of the Earth and that one receives
    >an allele from each parent, so they could have a round
    >earth phenotype if not homozygous for the flat earth
    >memetic allele (f) (ie they are FF or Ff). But since
    >people could have belief states transmitted from non
    >parents the point is moot, right? Then why risk
    >creating a conceptual mess with the biologization of
    >dominance versus recessiveness in memetics?
    >This is a monor point probably not at all crucal to
    >the main direction of your book. Maybe I'm looking at
    >it all wrong. If you can elaborate on dominance versus
    >recessiveness in a way that lessens my apprehension
    >I'm willing to listen. Besides your focus on
    >representations is the important matter for future
    By "recessive" memes, all I really have in mind is the distinction between the information that we may acquire, and its effects on our behaviour. I wanted to point up the fact that we can have all sorts of information that we don't necessarily act upon - and by calling it
    "recessive" I wanted to highlight the corresponding fact that it nonetheless remains possible for it to exert its effects at some future point, when we acquire some different memes and hence change its memetic context.

    Much later in the book (ch. 13) I give a brief discussion of suicide in the light of this distinction - I'll be interested to hear if you think my account holds water.

    I agree with you, by the way, on the dangers of looking for a memetic analogy for every passing genetic detail, and hope I don't fall into this trap too often. I'm interested to hear that my use of the term
    "recessive" has raised this sort of question-mark for you. I certainly wasn't thinking so precisely in terms of loci and a particular meme
    *always* being recessive. You have made me wonder whether a different term might have been better - I'll ponder this further. I do think that the fact we can acquire information, and yet not act on it, is an important point that is sometimes ignored in memetics, though. There sometimes seems to be an assumption that once we've acquired a meme it will automatically guide our behaviour. A meme like Father Christmas is a good example I think: children acquire it and act on it; then stop acting on it whilst yet retaining the information; and then when they become parents their actions are once again influenced by it. I happen to regard this as pretty pernicious, but value-judgements aside it shows how information's effects can come and go depending on context.


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