Date: Mon, 16 Jun 1997 17:58:26 -0500
Subject: Re: Memetics vs. History of Ideas
To Shai Ophir and others interested in the utility of memetics compared to
traditional historical perspectives:
>Can memetics explain historical phenomena and changes in cultural ideas in
a way that could not be explained before?
This is an important question, one that will have to be answered credibly
if memetics is every to be taken seriously. The question really deals with
the issues of epistemology and ontology. Does memetics use a different
epistemology and ontology than classical historical theory? Does this new
epistemology offer any advantages?
Setting aside the question of memetic's utility for a moment, let me point
out the difficulties facing any epistemological change. Epistemological
change presents a number of difficulties. How does one communicate a new
ontology when the listening of the receiver is a filter than only hears
confirmation of the existing internal ontology? How does one communicate a
new epistemology when the receiver's existing epistemology resorts to
magical explanations of conflicts in observable evidence? How does a new
epistemology overcome the agents (people, institutions, artifacts)
maintaining the existing ontology?
Even if memetics turns out to be extremely useful, its emergence as a
respected science (epistemology/ontology) will be a difficult struggle and
consume a great deal of time and energy. That seems to be one useful
prediction memetics can make.
I'll frame my response to your question in the light of epistemological
change to explain my understanding of the current debate over defining what
a 'meme' actually represents. There are those that liken it to 'a unit of
replication,' 'a unit of communication,' 'a virus,' 'a brain parasite,'
'replicating idea,' and a host of other metaphors. Each of these has
their own merits, but they are only metaphors, individual words. The key
to understanding the intellectual dialog is an understanding of the battle
We can get something of a perspective observing what epistemological change
has been taking place in Western Culture over since Darwin published the
Origin of Species. In brief, Darwin said everything changes. This causes
a great deal of trouble for Platonic epistemology and its derivatives. In
particular, the concept of 'golden ages,' so popular in the Platonic
mindset, simply goes into the dustbin.
Reviewing the past 130 years, Darwin's new epistemology has gone through a
difficult struggle, particularly in the arena of public opinion. Accepted
within intellectual circles immediately, it faced many challenges. First,
there were those that sought to defame Darwin for his incompatibility with
existing religious epistemologies (and Darwinists returned the favor).
Second, there were the 'social Darwinists' who were ready to use
evolutionary terminology for their own self-interest (Anglo 'white
supremacy,' Hitler's eugenics). It is fairly easy to show that the social
Darwinists were locked into traditional epistemologies, using Darwin's
vocabulary without an understanding of the 'system' it represented. For
them, Darwin's vocabulary was simply a new set of words for magical
incantation. Thus, they represent an attempt to subsume evolutionary
ontology into the existing Platonic/rationalist epistemology. The result
It wasn't until the 1930s and the synthesis between Medelian genetics and
Darwinian evolution that a credible model could be promoted in the
educational environment, credible because the new epistemology could be
taught with laboratory experiences to collaborate the spoken message. This
collaboration between physical evidence and linguistic ontology is time
consuming and difficult, but it provides a foundation that is extremely
durable. The success of this teaching method is a valuable issue to keep
in mind while considering memetics.
It should not be surprising that memetics emerges from this setting.
Memetics is an extension of the evolutionary epistemology into cultural
affairs. Dawkins, regularly engaged in teaching evolutionary epistemology
to biology students, simply expands the scope of his world view from
biological organisms to 'cultural organisms.'
I'll quote Dennett to explain this:
"In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins urges us to take the idea of meme evolution
literally. Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genetic
evolution, not just a process that can be metaphorically described in these
evolutionary idioms, but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural
selection exactly. The theory of evolution by natural selection is neutral
regarding the differences between memes and genes; these are just different
kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates."
Dennett, Consciousness Explained, pg 202
I need to expand on Dennett's use of the word 'replicators' in the last
sentence. As we have seen in recent posts here, the word 'replicator' is
vague and easily interpreted to mean conflicting things. To clarify what
Dennett is getting at, I'll assume he is saying memes are like genes except
in different media. Thus, the term 'code-recording-objects' can replace
Thus, I rephrase Dennett's last comment as:
The theory of evolution by natural selection is neutral regarding the
differences between memes and genes; these are just different kinds of
code-recording-objects evolving in different media at different rates.
Further, I'll draw a parallel between the history of biological
evolutionary thought and memetic evolutionary thought. Today, as in the
period between 1860 and 1930, we have the observation that an area of study
(cultural change) has evolutionary aspects, but we are unclear of the
mechanics. The situation is identical to Darwin's. As in the pre-1930s,
agreement is not widespread and many think it unnecessary to resort to
physical mechanics. The real debate in evolutionary biology continues
along these lines. Many question the details of the synthesis between
Mendel's genetics and Darwin's evolution. I doubt that many question the
genetic link, but the issue of relative importance still provides plenty of
room for debate.
With so much debate over evolutionary mechanics in biology, is it useful to
look for a mechanical process behind cultural evolution? It means delaying
an immediate jump into interpretation, and use of the 'science.' Noting
the disasters caused social Darwinist, I suggest it is extremely important
that look to the physical evidence. The use of 'meme' as an 'evolutionary
idea' or 'replicating idea' leads nowhere. The increase in linguistic
complexity offers no advantage over classical history. Under the
microscope, there is not difference between the two the Platonic and
memetic model. There is no epistemological change, so there is no real
difference in perspective.
Assuming we can make the leap into an epistemology of cultural affairs that
assimilates the evolutionary perspective and relies on physical mechanics,
what do we potentially gain?
Here are a few topics that come to mind:
1. New insights into the relationship between language and history.
Language preserves a great deal of 'old code.' We will be able to look
back into deep human history (potentially a million years) through linguist
analysis in the same way astronomers look at the big bang via ancient light
just now reaching earth.
2. New insights into the role of 'popular culture,' an area generally
discounted by traditional recaps of 'great men' activities or the
'zeitgiest.' Bringing the memetical approach to popular culture is little
more than a rendition of physics' 'butterfly effect' in cultural history.
Within these is a promise of a 'world history' without ethnic bias. This
is not a promise of universal agreement, though!
To conclude, I will have to repeat my assertion that memes are objects with
a stable and identifiable shape in time and space. It is only by honoring
physical analogy between memes and genes that we are likely to make the
epistemological change and thus improve our perspective. The exploratory
work of genetics provides the model. The recent development of computer
theory provides a second powerful model. Memetics will progress as we take
advantage of these models.
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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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