Re: new review of memetics/sociobiology/EP

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Fri 03 Feb 2006 - 09:53:53 GMT

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    Derek Gatherer wrote:
    > This was written for a continental-philosophy/lit-crit journal called
    > Parallax,
    > )/app/home/journal.asp?referrer=parent&backto=browsepublicationsresults,952,1257;
    > so the presentation is fairly elementary. The publisher's rule, by the
    > way, is that once it has been downloaded 50 times, I have to take it
    > offline.

    Thanks for pointing us to this paper. It is the clearest and most useful guide to the spectrum of views in the field that I've read.

    Unsurprisingly perhaps I'm not so sure about the problems you raise for memetics. You talk about the need to quantify meme frequencies in populations, and say that's not possible if memes are ideas in heads, because we can't see them. But surely we can detect them in other ways, even though as you say we are a long way off detecting by physical observation what's going in a brain. If I want to know whether someone has a particular meme then I can ask them or, less directly, observe their behaviour. Behavioural observation is as you say not ideal; but if you include what they write/say as part of that behaviour then things become more manageable.

    I think the problem rests on a false dichotomy between memes-in-heads and memes-in-artefacts. If memes are portions of cultural information then they can be found both in heads and in *some* types of artefacts - the artefacts that carry information (books, blueprints, scores; but not wheels or tables). And we can quantify meme frequencies by looking for the information: does this person remember X? Is X contained in this book?

    The other problem as you point out with the idea of quantifying meme frequencies in *populations* is the impermanence of the meme-individual relationship, in contrast to the permanence of the gene-individual relationship. But if we look at things the other way round then the problem evaporates. Rather than assuming that what we should be doing when studying memes is looking at frequencies in populations, and then worrying because there is no ongoing on-to-one relationship between memes and the individuals who make up populations, we should look first at the nature of memes. Since they are not permanently attached to individuals it would seem that it makes no sense to study them in the same way that we would study genes. The reason why we study genes in the way that we do is that they *are* tied down in individuals. But since memes aren't, we need to widen the scope of our study and include all the places that they are to be found - which will include books, etc. And of course because the memetic picture shifts so much more quickly than (on the whole) the genetic picture does, it will be harder to take an accurate snapshot - and maybe this means that the whole concept of frequencies in populations is too static as a means of studying memes, and we need to find something more dynamic?


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