Re: Meme pools?

Bill Benzon (
Sat, 21 Jun 1997 07:27:32 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 21 Jun 1997 07:27:32 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Re: Meme pools?

>Meme pool? Perhaps a more useful designation might be the structure of
>cultural systems.

Well, yes. The issue is just what is the role of memes in this structure.
I have a few observations.

First, historically, evolutionary biology started out as te study of
species diversity, not the study of gene pools. In that context the
classification of species on the basis of appearance (phenotype) was put to
use in inferring ancestry. The gene was "discovered" before molecular
biology. It was inferred to exist though the analysis of carefully
controlled breeding experiments. Mendel compared successive generations of
phenotypes and said "Hmmm, we can explain this if we imagine particles of
inheritance moving from generation to generation in various combinations."
And so the gene was born, without a clue as to how it was constructed.

Could we perform such an analysis in the cultural domain? That is, instead
of saying of just about everything "that's a meme," we look at the species
of culture and identify memes according to whether or not their presence or
absence affects cultural phenotypes. This is not a very well-defined
proposal but...

It does require that we start with some conception of cultural species,
begin identifying them, and classifying them. As Alex says:

>... in order to get coherent
>theory of cultural evolution (or anything else for that matter) we have
>to note the regularities of the field and partition it off accordingly
>into classes, levels and other distinguishable groupings. In other words
>we have to produce some kind of taxonomic order otherwise we have an
>unifferentiated mass of data which is unintelligble.

As many of you know, traditional historical and comparative scholarship
gives us a start on this. Thus, as Alex notes, "style" is a concept
employed in comparative and historical study of the arts -- music,
architecture, painting, sculpture, poetry, etc. Traditional scholarship in
those areas has identified many styles and the genealogical relationships
between them.

Another general point...While every biological species is associated with a
gene pool, the gene pool is one thing, while the phenotype is another.
Selection operates directly on the phenotype, not on the gene pool.

If we're going to construct a theory of cultural evolution using the
biological analogy, then we should think about capturing this aspect as
well. Every cultural species has an associated meme pool, but there is
also a phenotype, and it's the phenotype which is operated on directly by
cultural selection. Just as the biological concept of the gene pool cannot
substitute of the concept of a phenotype, I suggest that the parallel
operation will not work in the study of cultural evolution.

>Three: We have to provide explanatory mechanisms for the historical
>changes that take place between time A and time B. That is, why do
>things look different, etc.

This is very important & very difficult. In my analysis of 20th American
music ( I'm shooting for just
that, an explanatory mechanism which tells us why African-American music
has been so influential.

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

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