Re: Memetics vs. History of Ideas

Bill Benzon (
Mon, 16 Jun 1997 20:03:44 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 16 Jun 1997 20:03:44 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Re: Memetics vs. History of Ideas

Mark Mills "speaking":

>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?

I think it aspires to do so, yes.

>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
>between epistemologies.

Yes, I do think several epistemological & ontological flavors are
represented on this list.

>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.

You mean that the last 60 years hasn't been a Golden Age of Darwinian thought?

More seriously, golden ages aren't eternal (though perhaps those in them
think their particular age will be). They come and they go. Scholars who
are interested in them are interested in the whys and wherefors of the
coming and going, not in waxing nostalgic about golden ages past.

>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.

I'd say more like 50K to 100K years back.

When comparative linguistics got started back in the late 18th and early
19th century, one of its aims was to discover or reconstruct the original
human language. That aim was given up later in the century because it
generated speculation far in excess of evidence. However, this aim has
been making its way back into respectability over the last 2 decades or so.

>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.

Note, however, that popular culture has been quite a vigorous field of
inquiry independently of Dawkinsian memetics.

>Within these is a promise of a 'world history' without ethnic bias. This
>is not a promise of universal agreement, though!

Traditional history telling has been closely linked to nationalist
aspiration and so it does tend toward ethnic chauvinism. One would
certainly hope the cultural evolution not do this.

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

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