Re: memes and cultural evolution

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Wed, 4 Jun 1997 13:16:40 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 4 Jun 1997 13:16:40 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: memes and cultural evolution

On Rose's 6/4/97 posting, the exchange went:

>Tim Perper wrote:
>>All right. So what are "the old problems about photocopiers and
>>books etc?" In other words, you managed not to answer Elizabeth
>>Coleman's question.
NR replied:
>I'm sorry if I appeared to evade the question, that certainly
>wasn't my intent. I'll try again and hope that everyone will be
>patient with me. Perhaps I was a bit careless when referring to
>'the old photocopier/ book problems' as looking back through my
>file of references I cannot find a single paper or aticle which
>refers to it. I'm sure that Dennett has written about this
>somewhere, but for the life of me a can't remember where.

TP: I wasn't trying to suggest that you were evading the issue, but that
it gotten lost somehow -- and I think it's an interesting question. My
apologies if you thought I was making a personal comment about you!


>The first problem simply stated is;
>"Is a photocopier a replicator?"; after all it *appears* to copy
>things. The answer is obviously no, in my opinion. But I recall
>some debate about this some time back, perhaps on alt.memetics?
>The problem comes down to how you define a 'replicator'; For
>instance, "A bird is just the nest's way of making another nest." is
>certainly wrong, because there is nothing within a nest that
>could be called a replicator. The replicator is quite rightly
>the bird's genes which lead to the construction of nests (the
>extended phenotype of the genes, e.g. Dawkins The Extended

Let me suggest that the concept of "agency" is somehow lurking in these
distinctions. People, being alive and conscious, think of themselves as
being "self-agentic" (a piece of jargon for which I am not responsible),
meaning that we ourselves "do things." We experience our motivations as
driving the occurrence of what we perform on the basis of our motivations.
That's fine as far as it goes. Problems start when we consider the
relationships of such a self-agentic individual with everthing else.

Thus, Elizabeth Coleman mentioned art and art history, so let me give an
example from art. Francisco Goya, the great Spanish painter (1746-1828 --
which I just looked up), was certainly "self-agentic" when he did his
"Disasters of War" etchings. He was neither a photocopier nor a
replicator, but a "creative" artist, right?

Well, when we start to examine the matter more carefully, it becomes
murkier. Goya was a master etcher -- and he had acquired his skills by
long training from his masters, and they from theirs. The paper he used
came from other people, and so did the etching tools. What did he
"create"? The Art 101 answer is that he created the pattern or images we
see, true enough at the Art 101 level. But then we learn of the influences
of other artists on Goya -- the masters from whom he learned his skills of
composition and design. Did he "replicate" those "memes" when he did the
"Disasters of War"? The images themselves -- truly horrifying -- came from
the Peninsular War between the French and British in Spain. Did Goya
"replicate" those events -- memories and images in *his* mind, and
therefore "memes" -- when he did the etchings? Emotionally, the "Disasters
of War" speak of horrors, and so we ask did the "memes" of despair
replicate themselves through Goya? Did the revulsions of decent people
against the war "copy" themselves into the etchings? In some sense, the
answers must be Yes. The deeper we look, the *less* self-agentic Goya
appears to be -- and yet *he*, not someone else, did create the etchings.
And when you look at those etchings, one *knows* one is in the presence of
a powerful personality indeed. In some very real sense, Goya was a NODE
through whom flowed a vast number of streams of influence, and from them
came the "Disasters of War."

I don't think it makes much difference if we call those streams of
influences "memes" or anything else (though we need words of some kind for
them). The real issue (ot at least it seems to me to be the real issue) is
that ALL these events occurred in a complex system (Goya's culture and
time) that was, in some sense, capable of permitting such flows of
influence to occur. To select one or a few of its elements (the "memes" of
etching technique, for example, or the "memes" of revulsion against the
horrors of the war) and say that they are the movers and shakers of the
system -- the "agents" actually behind it all -- is a vast

This does *not* mean that I claim Rose said that was what was happening --
instead, my point is that we need to see that looking for a locus of
primary agency in the memes (or anywhere else) is perhaps the wrong way to
think about it. Aristotle's "prime mover" may be an elegant piece of
philosophy, but it's bad phenomenology. The actuality of Goya and his
times is far more complex, and the human sense of being "self-agentic" may
be accurate as far as it goes, but it does not represent what is actually
occurring at the system level.

The French philosopher Denis Diderot had a charming image for such things
when he described a piano making beautiful sounds, but which went mad
because it was convinced that *it* caused them. The web of causation and
information flow is infinitely more complex than a mad piano who thinks
that it causes music. Likewise, to personify one set of abstractions (as,
e.g., the "memes" of harmony and melody) as "causing" the music by
"replicating" or "realizing" or even "instantiating" themselves is equally
silly. Each of those terms has a valid domain of meaning and use, but
neither piano music nor the pianist's performance is the memes' way of
making more memes. The memes are not the causative "agents" of this
system either, no more than they are "agencies" which, acting through Goya,
caused later generations to make copies of his etchings.

It would seem to me that a better, if still very approximate, description
is to see the system, as a system, as having self-organizing and
self-replicating features, as well as ways of generating innovation. The
memes merely seem to be little circulating bits and pieces of information,
organized by other system components (also known as "people") into larger
collectivities of meaning that in turn circulate through the system. Every
now and then one gets nodes, like Goya, into whom flow many streams and
from whom flow many more. In such an "organismic" metaphor, the memes are
only a small part of the overall process, which involves -- by this time in
biological evolution -- the existence of "conscious" nodes, also known as
people. But I think we need to avoid imitating Diderot's piano: we should
not think that *we* -- or our memes -- are the agencies that alone cause it
all to exist.

I've snipped some of Rose's additional comments about the need for
unconfusing ourselves, because I agree with them thoroughly.

Tim Perper

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