A review of "The Selfish Meme"

From: Ray Recchia (rrecchia@frontiernet.net)
Date: Wed 25 May 2005 - 12:48:48 GMT

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    A review in parts

    (I haven't posted in over a year, so for those of you who don't know me, I'm an attorney living in the rural northeastern United States. I have an undergraduate degree in biochemistry, and I have been subscribed to this mailing list for over six years)

    Distin does a good job of skewering critics of memetics, pointing out misconceptions and logical errors on their part. I was also pleased to see her attack Dawkin's characterization of religion as a parasite. Memetics should ultimately be about the properties and characteristics of ideas and their transmission, not about the truth or accuracy of a particular set of beliefs. I would say that "The Selfish Meme" is probably closer to my own thinking than prior works about memetics. Distin starts and keeps her focus on mental processes, a welcome relief from the half decade distraction following Susan Blackmore's effort in "The Meme Machine" to make memetics a behavior only field. As I've discussed previously, a purely behavior focused memetics leaves us unable to examine the transmission of abstract ideas unassociated with any particular type of behavior.

    Abstract ideas and abstractions in general are the central focus of Distin's book. Distin refers to them as
    "meta-representations". "Representations", according to Distin are our mental concepts of specific items. So for example, I might have representation of a a stick. A meta-representation is an awareness of a property about the stick that can be applied to a variety of situations and sticks. So for example, recognizing that the stick can be used as a lever, and that levers can be used in a variety of situations. Another example of a meta-representation might be the notion of "color" or
    "quantity", specific abstracted qualities of the stick or sticks that can be applied to any number of different objects.

    Memes in Distin's theory are meta-representations that are replicated between humans. Humans use representation systems to replicate memes
    (meta-representations). Language is representation system that humans are naturally pre-disposed towards, but we are also capable of other developing other representation systems, such as mathematics and musical notation, that are distinct from language but are somehow offshoots.

    I like the notion of meta-representations, and I think that she is correct in characterizing representation systems as the major way in which meta-represenations are replicated. Overall, I think her book is an important one that refocuses memetics on thought processes.

    Ray Recchia

    (more in part II and possible III whenever I get around to it.)

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