Re: reading a book

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Sun 24 Apr 2005 - 18:00:02 GMT

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    Bill Spight wrote:
    > Dear Kate,
    > Kate:
    >> 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.
    > Why not?

    Because there is a qualitative difference between human and (most?) animal culture which even the most ardent anti-speciesist wouldn't deny
    . . .

    >> Similarly human culture, if it is
    >> memetic now, must have evolved from a point at which it was not
    >> memetic.
    > *Must* have? Again, how come?

    . . . and this - together with emerging evidence about the potential cultural sophistication of at least some individual animals - leads me to believe in a continuum between non-human and human culture, with memes evolving from more primitive mental/cultural replicators (or insert alternative word here if you prefer.

    Perhaps "must" was too strong!

    >> 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.
    > Well, psychology, for one field, is full of alternative ways of looking
    > at phenomena. These are not necessarily competing theories, first,
    > because they are not always fully developed into theory, and second,
    > because they are not necessarily competing. An aerial view does not
    > normally compete with a ground-level view. They are complementary.
    > I think that the main value, so far, of memetics is that it offers a
    > complementary view of cultural phenomena. It may never be superior, but
    > still may be useful, nonetheless.
    > Physics provides a good example, I think, in the principle of least
    > action. An example of this principle is that light takes the shortest
    > path. The principle of least action is inferior in explanatory force to
    > the principles of conservation of energy and momentum, which explain the
    > same phenomena. They are also part of the fully developed theory of
    > Newtonian mechanics. They also explain things in terms of efficient
    > causes, while the the principle of least action smacks of final causes,
    > which seem more mysterious. How does light know which path is the
    > shortest before it takes it? Still, physicists find it useful to think
    > in terms of least action and apply the principle to certain types of
    > problems.

    I'd agree with all of this. I like this example!

    > Kate:
    >> 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!
    > I was once asked by a friend, a trumpet player, to play clarinet in a
    > performance of Dixieland jazz. (Neither Dixieland nor jazz is my thing,
    > but I said yes.) At the break during rehearsal the trumpet player came
    > over to me and said, "You have to play with swing. Don't play the eighth
    > notes as eighth notes, play them as quarter note-eighth note triplets."
    > Well, I didn't play them that way, but that description did enable me to
    > play with swing. I got it. :-)
    > I am not satisfied with the usual memetic explanation of how I learned
    > swing. Yes, I had heard Dixieland before, and could be said to have
    > learned it via imitation. However, I do not feel that imitation is
    > enough. In my mind I did not imitate anybody. There is more to it. As
    > Fats Waller said to a reporter who asked what swing was, "If you gotta
    > ask, you'll never know." This knowledge is found in the self. Another
    > jazz saying: "If you haven't lived it, you can't blow it."
    > Not that there is no transmission. As with Zen, there is. But is more a
    > process of recognition, awakening (satori), evocation, not a process of
    > imitation.
    > Best,
    > Bill

    I'd totally agree with you that this wasn't imitation. But you don't have to do a Blackmore and pretend that imitation is synonymous with replication in order to buy the concept of cultural replication.

    Memetically speaking you could describe what happened as the recombination of your existing memes with the information provided by the trumpet player, in the context of your experience past and present - to produce a new understanding of swing.


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