Re: reading a book

From: Bill Spight (
Date: Mon 25 Apr 2005 - 00:05:23 GMT

  • Next message: Bill Spight: "Re: Creatures / reading books"

    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 . . .

    Well, there certainly are differences, enough so that many people deny that other animals have culture. But, as we agree that some other animals have culture, what do you think makes animal cultures non-memetic? If anything, the relative simplicity of animal culture should make the memetic structure more apparent.

    >>> 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!

    What do you mean by these primitive replicators, and why don't you call them memes?


    >> 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.

    Well, I expect that I have a broader definition of meme than you, so I think that swing is memetic, but I am not at all sure that swing (as transmitted, not as spoken) is representational. It was not represented in the musical score as a pattern of eighth notes, nor would it have been as a triplet pattern. (If it would have been, then the music would have been written that way. ;-) ) You might say that it is represented in a recording by Benny Goodman, but will listeners a few hundred years from now get it? My guess is no, even if they enjoy the music.

    When Fats Waller told the reporter, "If you gotta ask, you'll never know," (surely not original, BTW), he wasn't just saying, "I'm hip and you're square," although that was part of it. He was also saying that you cannot describe swing in words. You can't explain it, you have to experience it.

    Take the Zen metaphor of pointing at the moon. The pointing finger may help you see the moon, but neither the finger nor the pointing is a representation of anything. Swing cannot be described, but it can be pointed at. With the right sensibility and experience, you can dig swing. Otherwise, you're square.

    Doobie doobie doo,


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