When is a meme not a meme (Price-TP/MC)?

Dr I Price (PEWLEYFORT@compuserve.com)
Mon, 9 Jun 1997 07:32:35 -0400

Date: Mon, 9 Jun 1997 07:32:35 -0400
From: Dr I Price <PEWLEYFORT@compuserve.com>
Subject: When is a meme not a meme (Price-TP/MC)?
To: "INTERNET:memetics@mmu.ac.uk" <memetics@mmu.ac.uk>

Continuing the IP/ TP/MC dialog, snipping heavily your last message to tr=
and keep it manageable:

>IP You could equally say Mendelian genetics was simply updated
>practical pig breeding.

TP/MC: And you'd be quite correct. In fact, practical agricultural
genetics is extremely significant in the history of genetics (we obtain
virtually the entire apparatus of quantitative genetics, including the
statistical technique called "analysis of variance" from agricultural
genetics). The reason why Plato (or any other philosopher) is important =
memetics is that Platonists have been harvesting in these fields for two
millenia and more, with some interesting results. Another reason is that=

Platonism is NOT the only epistemology (or ontology) that can be put

Agreed. It has always struck me that Hull's arguments about science as a
selection process could be extended to philosophy which - and I mean no
offence here to philosophers - has its own 'memetic' [or epistemological]=

Red Queen Effect. The unwritten rules of the philosophy 'game' demand, or=

at least encourage, epistemological diversity; not necessarily a bad thin=
unless, when carried to extremes it obscures rather than helps. Do
philosophers carve out there niches in philosophy eco space by agreeing
with others?

TP/MC >I am not at all sure I understand your comment that "the meme
'explains' Platonic idealism" -- minimally because I'm not sure what you
mean by "explain." But that's secondary, perhaps, to the major issue:
memetic Platonism (or Platonic memeticism) is only ONE way to look at how=

information affects people. To assume, by unexamined fiat, that Platonis=
and memetics are identical is to foreclose all further discussion.>

I was trying to pick up on an earlier comment of yours which seemed to sa=
that because memetics was no more than Platonic idealism we should disca=
it, at least in the 'stronger' version. I would see it as offering a
plausible explanation of Platonic idealism and other observations of how
ideas/language/ etc affect social organisations.

>Given the original definition of the proposed 'meme' as "literally
>parasitising a brain turning it into a vehicle for the meme's replicatio=
>it seems to me presumptous to redefine a meme thus.

TP: I have no problems being presumptuous, if that is what you call someo=
who wants an *concrete* example of an idea -- or meme -- that actually
parasitizes someone's brain. But we also need some qualifications. We
need to exclude various viruses, like the agent of kuru, which literally
and in fact *does* live in brain cells (to their detriment). We also nee=
to exclude forced conversions to a religion, achieved by threatening the
unconverted with death if they don't convert.>

H'm then do you exclude threatening the unconverted with eternal damnatio=
bribing them with eternal salvation after they have suffered a Hobbsian
short and brutal current life, and various other strategies adoted by
religions/ religous memes?

TP/MC >Well, here's a possible example -- what about language acquisition=

infancy and childhood? Young children actively seek and accept the sound=
and words of the language spoken around them. To be sure, linguists like=

Chomsky have argued that the brain/mind have existing mechanisms
("generative grammars") that create or produce language in people and, a
fortiori, children learning language. Language acquisition looks to me t=
be an example of how a living organism seeks information of an especially=

rich sort from its environment, but this view emphasizes the *agency* of
the organism rather than the of the memes. Can memeticists produce a
*memetic* theory of language acquisition? It would seem that language
acquisition and use would be a *very* fruitful test case for memetics.>

Having watched a 3 year old daughter simultaneously aquire Norwegian and
English and switch automatically from one to the other I resonate with yo=
example. Whether or not Chomsky got it right it seems to me that the chil=
mind is an example of the 'virgin landscape' I used in my metaphor; one
that is progressively patterned by the language[s] imprinted upon it. The=

language memes then stake out their territory. As others have observed on=

this list there is a mass extinction of languages happening in the world
right now. OK you could remove the word meme there in which case a langua=
itself becomes that which replicates/ is replicated but along with langua=
comes a particular set of national cutlural norms and it is probably
language more than genes that shape nations. There is for example a much
sharper memetic divide between say England and France than there is a
genetic divide.

Religions propagate in a similar way [get them by six and they are ours f=
life as the Jesuits are reported to say]. Indeed religion and language
often coexist. The meme concept gives me at least [and someone else also
made the point a few days back] a way of explaining, or combining both
linguistic and belief based propagation [plus various others].

Language can also be important at a lower level of social organisation. O=
of the paths which got me interested in memetics was a school of
organisational change work which embraces the re-languaging of
organisations, and the degree to which organisational meanings are
'languaged into existence'. It works in some contexts [especially
peripheral organisational isolates incidentally]. Memetics seems to offer=

an explanation.

I'll skip the fried potato discussion, having inadvertantly deleted someo=
elses elegant post about contexts


>TP/MC I want it VERY clear that the phrase Price quoted -- "Memetics may=

or may
not be silliness" -- is out of context and incomplete: it had an all
important introductory clause: Until the issue of how memes work has bee=
settled. I add this observation so that no one is tempted to engage in t=
*selective deletion of memes* during this discussion.>

Apologies for any confusion causes. I fully agree that the issue of how
memes actually work is an [the?] acid test. However if I may borrow just
one example from my own past geologists spent a lot of time ignoring the
evidence for Continental Drift because no one could explain 'how it
worked'. Lack of a plausible explanation should not stop us exploring
whether postulating the existence of memes makes sense of a disparate set=

of observations.

I frankly think *very* little in Price's metaphor is changed if we write
"... become social and cultural norms, and preserve themselves and are
replicated through their influence...">

Agreed, but memes seems a handy short hand for 'social and cultural norms=
unwritten rules, paradigms, meaning spaces, mental models, fads, language=
technologies, paradigms, epistemologies, industrial recipes' and any othe=
items that people have claimed evolve in some form of selective

>TP/MC But memetics, at least for some people, takes the change very
for the change from the active to the passive verb reflects an important
statement of philosophy. For the Full Fledged memeticist, the memes are t=
prime movers, and people are their vehicles. It is *that* image of
meme-as-puppet-master that I am challenging, and challenging repeatedly i=
my postings.>

I am probably further to the replicator end of the replicator vehicle
continuum than you are but it seems to me obvious that in both genetic an=
memetic [if you will allow the comparison] domains the one or other debat=
is asking the wrong question. At one level seeing things from a 'meme's
perspective' helps me at least make sense of [not repeat NOT justify] a l=
of things. Being aware of the power of a meme to be a puppet master helps=

us avoid becoming [or remaining] puppets.

>TP/MC One last point may be worthwhile. Price asked "So what?" about th=
connection between memetics and Platonism. The answer, once again, is no=
that Platonism is a Bad Thing, but that (a) it should be acknowledged and=

(b) one needs to understand that it is not the only viewpoint possible. =
fact, I sense a tension, if that is the right word, between two views in
Price's own comments. In his expository discussion, he presents the meme=
as Platonic entities, but in his metaphor, people are both sculpted
recipients of information *and* sculpturing agents in transmission and us=
of information. I suggest that the sculptured/sculpturing metaphor for ho=
people are affected by information is far more accurate than the Platonic=

view of meme as puppet master.<

I think you are correct to sense some tension. The closest I have reached=

in my own deliberations [and I acknowledege my colleague Ray Shaw for the=

phrasing] is that collective memes [aka memomes or memetic patterns]
enable, but also limit, individuals and organisations. Being aware of
memes, whether as metaphor, possibility or fact helps, it seems to me, i=
being more of a sculptor and less a sculptured.

I have tried to explain these ideas in more detail in a collection of
papers accessible at the address below.

If Price
Active Personal Learning, Guildford UK

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