Re: Wilkins on the meme:engram relation

From: John Wilkins (
Date: Thu Dec 13 2001 - 22:57:50 GMT

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    Subject: Re: Wilkins on the meme:engram relation
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    On Thursday, December 13, 2001, at 09:33 PM, Kenneth Van Oost wrote:

    > ----- Original Message -----
    > From: John Wilkins <>
    > To: <>
    >> The problem with "cultural evolution" is that the initial version, and
    >> the one known under that label by the social sciences, particularly
    >> anthropology, is the older positivistic Lamarckian view of evolution -
    >> staged development of civilisations, progressionism, and linear
    >> evolution. But if we can divest ourselves of the scala naturae version
    >> of evolution that preceded Darwin, then we can usefully apply the
    >> mindset of evolution to culture. This includes antiessentialism, hidden
    >> hand (but not necessarily beneficent equilibria) and contingency.
    > Hi John,
    > << I don 't want to nitpick but if we take into consideration that each
    > line
    > of thought, each single idea, every assumption,.... does have its own
    > place,
    > does have its own niche and follows that thru', through the eons of
    > time,
    > you have ' linear ' evolution on a massive scale.
    > Maybe we look upon the process of evolution as is it a synergy concept
    > where it is not !?
    > Maybe there are no lines which intersect, interconnect or interrelate.
    > Maybe it is all in the mind of the beholder!

    All reasonable questions, and asked in the context of biology. But the
    primitive entity in evolution is a lineage, not a line. Lineages can
    meander, split, join, go extinct, progress or regress on whatever
    measure you want to use. Lineages can bundle or separate. While it is
    true that the origin and destination of any single idea is separated by
    a straight line, the historical pathway taken between them need not be
    anything like linear.

    The older version of evolution is the one that we call the "scala
    naturae", or the ladder of nature (also known as the great chain of
    being). This assumes, in neo-Platonic or gnostic fashion, that there is
    a scale from simple to complex or from imperfect to perfect. Proper
    evolutionary thought (which I am referring to as Darwinian here) breaks
    with that tradition. All progress is local to existing conditions, and
    what is a "good move" in one circumstance need not be in another.

    Things can get more complex or they can get more simple, or they can
    remain the same or they can remain the same but work in conjunction with
    other things (eg, lichens, which are mutual symbionts; or mitochondria,
    which become simpler once they are fully symbiosed). Evolution is *not*
    a climbing of the ladder to get better. There is no ladder, and we
    wander about buffeted by contingency and local pressures.

    Eschew Oldthink. ;-)

    John S Wilkins
    Head, Communication Services
    The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
    Parkville, Victoria, Australia

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