re. Is memetics necessary (Alex Brown)

Brown, Alex (
Sat, 28 Jun 1997 13:30:12 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'Memetics list'" <>
Subject: re. Is memetics necessary (Alex Brown)
Date: Sat, 28 Jun 1997 13:30:12 +0800

Date: 28th June 1997

Some issues:

1. Richard Brodie writes:

"......How about the spread of religions? How could that be explained
other than as meme evolution? Analyzing the rates of spread and the
components (e.g., how evangelistic, how much tradition, pressure to have
lots of children and spread the religion to them) should give lots of
good data...."

Yes, but explaining the 'spread' of religions in this way will - after
all the data collection - get us right back to where we are now, namely
an HISTORICAL explanation of the spread of a particular religion. That
is not, as I understand it, the point of an EVOLUTIONARY understanding
of culture which seeks to discover the mechanisms and processes which
underlie (all) such phenomena. Rates of spread, evangelism, tradition,
reproduction, etc. are not I would suggest, underlying mechanisms - they
are particular historical constraints, not organizational or system
processes which can be applied to various dynamic processes. In my
opinion, in memetics (so far) we are awash with this kind of
observational data, (like spandrels purporting to be primary
structures), but if I describe something, even in great detail, I am not
automatically explaining it. In other words there is a difference
between the effects of a process and the logic of the process itself. It
is the latter that concerns us. Nor is it enough to say that this or
that idea spreads from mind to mind and that 'causes' the spread. It
didn't. It is the 'spread' re-titled. End result - we are back where we
started, namely at the natural history phase of a science, busily
collecting samples and filling the basement shelves with them.

2. A question really: (In the search for the Holy Grail of Cultural
Theory): I see no conflict between evolutionary theory and complex
systems theory and find them both useful in trying to model cultural
systems. However, I sometimes think that other people feel that these
two perspectives are in some way mutually exclusive. Does anybody out
there know enough about this to suggest what the reason might be for
thinking this?

3. Along similar topic lines: why has the meta-system concept not been
regarded as a potentially significant contribution to the study of
cultural systems.

4. Last point: The advent of language in our past is regarded as the key
event in our transition to 'humanity' as we curently understand it. I
would like to suggest again that it is not the emergence of language
which defines that transition. It is the power of Symbolic Thought which
itself which is expressed in several different forms, Language being
only one of these. It is this key capacity to create SYMBOLS and use
them as a form of communication and exchange which truely marks us off
from our primate relatives. Art, music, social customs, the symbolic
gift, the ritualization of kinship systems and so on, all serve the
function of communication. I think the confusion may lie here in that
some people think that language IS communication whereas it is only one
means of communication. If we take this linguistic view, we will never
understand culture, its diversity or the power of symbolic thought.


Alex Brown

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