Re. Is memetics necessary?

Brown, Alex (
Tue, 24 Jun 1997 15:12:08 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'Memetics list'" <>
Subject: Re. Is memetics necessary?
Date: Tue, 24 Jun 1997 15:12:08 +0800

Date 24th June 1997

Three issues:

1. The subject of language comes up now and again on the list and, (its
probably my imagination) but it seems to me be taking on the role of
some kind of 'memetics carrier'. There is a suggestion that (spoken or
written) language is the way that memes (read 'cultural behaviour') are
transmitted throughout society. A mistake surely? Language is only one
of many modes of cultural expression available. Each cultural domain has
its own mode of expression. One does not produce paintings, music,
movies, Coke bottles, architecture, mathematics or social interaction
with words. I suspect that there are two reasons for this tendency: 1.
the usual attempt to reduce complex phenomena to single 'causes'. 2. The
semiotic power of language (its ability to represent all other phenomena
in its own terms) gives it a seemingly all powerful reputation. However,
the reality is that in the exchange of cultural information WITHIN any
domain: it is the forms themselves whatever they are (a song, a
building, a set of equations, a mode of behaviour in particular
circumstances) which are exchanged and thence recombined with others.
Language may find its proper uses when communication and exchange take
place BETWEEN domains because of its semiotic freedom. It can act as an

The curious thing is that the very thing that a close study of language
could contribute to the study of cultural evolution seems to be
virtually ignored. Namely, the processes of selection, combination,
repertoires (selective retention, or memory to you and I), grammars,
syntactic and semantic constraints, rule-governed behaviour, stylistic
variations, evolution over time, and so on. In other words the processes
and mechanisms which govern this particular cultural phenomenon. I would
say that the same kinds of processes exist in other cultural domains and
we should be trying to find the structural similarities between them.
That I would imagine is what the scientific study of culture might well
be about.

2. Tim Perpcorn in his 'Meme Pools and Sexual Reproduction' gives, in my
opinion a classic and entirely necessary analysis of the complexity of
social and cultural behaviour by identifying the multitude of possible
'causes' (ie. constraints) which inform social behaviour. As he says:

".....When we examine masturbation, we cannot examine one meme in
isolation. Instead, a single meme is only an entry point into the
complex totality. One ends up studying an interconnected system of
sexual and reproductive beliefs, behavior, experience, and preferences,
of which masturbation is only a very small part, all enmeshed in
religion, in contraception and its history, in changes in men's and
women's notion of the ideal family, in shifts in sexual expectations of
ourselves and others -- and we have not even mentioned the "demographic

We suggest that when memetics studies mixtures as complex as this -- and
ALL human social phenomena are as complicated! -- our understanding must
match the richness of the system we study...."

One would have thought that by now that such a view - the idea of
multiple determination of behaviour - would be clearly understood and
integrated into social or cultural analyses. Yet it would seem that in
memetics there are those still believe in the 'magic bullet theory'
where a single memetic transmission (blast?) causes the obvious
complexity of observed social behaviour. It doesn't. If it did, human
society would be impossible since social behaviour would necessarily be
convulsive: getting hit from every and any direction and responding to
each one. All we need to do is look around at the remarkable
regularities and stabilities of human society to see that this does not
happen. The environment offers multiple constraints on any given piece
of behaviour and in order to handle this kind of phenomenon, as Tim
says: the theory must match the richness of the system we study. (Here
we go again: complex systems/cybernetics et al. Maybe the all-purpose
unifying paradigm is already available, even more so since it is not
dependent on anyone branch of science for its theories or terminology. A
scientific analysis of cultural processes does not have to rely on
particular sciences to give it credibility. Science is a formalized
method of rational thought. (A logical system). It does not have a
particular content. (A bit like systems theory really)).

3. Is memetics necessary? Well, defined as the study of cultural systems
and their evolution, the answer is yes. However, what may not be
necessary is to reinvent the wheel. If there are tested models and
theories which can explain similar complex phenomena, then a pragmatic
approach would be to see how they can be used, merged and customized to
explain cultural processes. ( I believe that when Darwin was trying to
figure out the mechanisms of evolution, his wide reading brought him the
theories of Adam Smith, Malthus and he had also been chatting with
Charles Babbage. In other words what he did was to sythesize related
theories and apply them to a particular issue. Now we reverse it. We
apply his theory to a wide variety of dynamic systems). Maybe memetics
should centre its attention on evolutionary systems.


Alex Brown

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