Re: reading a book

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Sat 23 Apr 2005 - 12:21:54 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: reading a book"

    Scott Chase wrote:

    > --- Kate Distin <> wrote:
    >>we read a text of
    >>course we bring our existing memes to it.
    > We bring our existing knowledge bases into the mix.
    > I'm not convinced that memes are included or that they
    > outnumber cases where transmission has happened but
    > not replication.
    > If a meme purist recognized a case where transmission
    > occurred without replication, could they still label
    > this fragment a "meme"? If so could they be considered
    > consistent? At what point are we departing from the
    > truly memetic?

    I'd hesitate to describe myself as a purist of any sort, but I certainly don't see any threat to meme theory from the claim that some cultural information may not be memetic. After all many people would want to describe many animals as having culture, without being willing to label it as memetic. Similarly human culture, if it is memetic now, must have evolved from a point at which it was not memetic.

    More generally the challenge to memetics is to be able to present a convincing account of any given instance of cultural tranmission, in a way that is both consistent with meme theory (including talk about replication) and also trumps alternative, non-replicative accounts in explanatory utility. I haven't yet come across an element of culture that has defied description in a way that's consistent with meme theory; it's the explanatory superiority that has yet to be proved I think.

    >>content of the text may
    >>be recombined with these existing memes to produce
    >>new memes - which we
    >>then incorrectly assign to the text. (And then when
    >>we go back to the
    >>text later we are surprised and a little humbled to
    >>find that our
    >>recollection is not justified by the text!) But
    >>this doesn't mean that
    >>it's not *possible* for the information contained in
    >>the text to be
    >>replicated in our minds. If a child wanted to know
    >>what his teacher had
    >>meant by "Einstein's famous equation", and her
    >>parent showed her a book
    >>in which was written "E=mc2" - and if later she
    >>proudly tells her
    >>grandparent that she knows what Einstein's famous
    >>equation is, and
    >>repeats it correctly - then in what sense has the
    >>information in the
    >>text not "really" been replicated in her mind?
    > Would she be doing any better than a parrot? At what
    > point does what Einstein *meant* by this formula or
    > what the formula entails become grasped? By a high
    > school physics student? By an undergrad physics
    > student? By a PhD in physics?

    Well, the example was about information contained in a text, which a parrot would struggle with . . . but yes of course there is a difference between knowing the formula and understanding its meaning. These are two different pieces of information, and the child has proved herself to have grasped one of those pieces of information even though she may never grasp the other. Even though she doesn't understand what it means, she has adequately grasped the information that "Einstein's famous equation is E=mc2". *This* piece of information has been replicated in her mind, even if the other information (about its meaning) has not.

    > In the grasping of the implications is there true
    > replication? If someone notices a new way of applying
    > a scietific theory not previously recognized is this
    > replication, since it was based upon application of
    > the theory itself?

    Or is this a case in which a novel context enables some of the potential effects of that piece of information to be implemented?

    > Darwin based some of his thinking on Malthus. Did he
    > replicate Malthus's thinking patterns? Maybe he
    > transformed them instead, given his background in
    > natural history.

    Malthus's ideas were replicated in Darwin's mind, but when recombined with what was already there (and/or what came to be there later) they produced new ideas. Novel memes.

    > Dawkins based some of his thinking on Darwin. Did he,
    > in his hyperextension of Darwinian principles beyond
    > realms imagined by Darwin, replicate Darwin's
    > pre-Mendelian thinking patterns? Maybe he transformed
    > them instead, given his background in ethology.

    He metarepresented them! He saw a pattern in the information and examined it in a novel context.

    > Isn't an analogy itself, like the infamous gene and
    > contagion analogies for memes, a transformation as it
    > take place when notions are transferred across realms
    > of thought?

    Again, I'd say that it's a form of metarepresentation. We see a pattern in one context and use that pattern to help us to examine something in a different area.

    >>can argue about her
    >>understanding of what the equation means, but she is
    >>now able to repeat,
    >>write down, convey to others the symbols that she
    >>read in the text.)
    > I think this is an example where memeticists tend to
    > cling to clearcut examples and try to extrapolate
    > these to cover the rest of culture. As Gould would
    > argue for spandrels, it's not a matter of a simple
    > case scenario, but relative frequency. Would
    > replication wind up being the exception to the norm of
    > transformation or recreation? That's a lot more
    > difficult to assess.

    Or, to put it memetically, how often is cultural replication 100% accurate and how often is mutation involved? Don't know.

    >>How much the information in a text "sticks and
    >>spreads" - how much of an
    >>effect it is able to produce on the reader's
    >>behaviour - will also be
    >>influenced by the reader's existing memes. But
    >>again this is not to do
    >>with transformation, but with the affects of context
    >>on a replicator's
    >>selection and effectiveness.
    > Being a meme agnostic I think it's better to look at
    > alternative hypotheses, including transformation and
    > recreation.
    > When reading a text our encoding into memory could
    > introduce an element of transformation and when we try
    > to recall the text later we are re-creating it. Memory
    > is prone to distortion and we like to fill in gaps for
    > consistency. Some memories are just plain false and
    > subject to bad cues or leading questions. Anything
    > that fits into our noggin-space has been subjected to
    > filtering and biasing. It may not as tidy as
    > memeticists would like it to be in most cases, but
    > replication could occur sometimes.
    > _

    I don't think it matters to memetics how tidy things are in our heads. The human brain is a great medium for some sorts of information but for others it's pretty rubbish and has created alternative media to help it out. We use written musical notation to help us to recall and reproduce extensive pieces of music; we use maps to help us with a different task; etc.

    The important question still revolves around the utility of any explanations that are generated. As I've said above, I haven't come across a purported example of transformation/recreation that couldn't consistently be redescribed in terms of memes and their replication. The real test of these alternatives, though, is how far any of them advances our understanding of what happens in human culture. Unfortunately for memetics many of the explanations that have thus far been offered (e.g. Dawkins's own rather predictable but nonetheless unconvincing "memes vs mental viruses" attack on religion) have not done much to advance the cause!


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