re: Adventure Memes/Duration Memes

Thu, 28 May 1998 09:16:45 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: re: Adventure Memes/Duration Memes
Date: Thu, 28 May 1998 09:16:45 -0400 (EDT)


If I interpret you correctly, the distinction you make between
adventure memes and duration memes is essentially the same as
Sperber (1985) makes between what he calls 'epidemic and endemic

Sperber writes (1985, p.74):

'For instance, a representation can be cultural in different ways:
some are slowly transmitted over generations; they are what we
call traditions and are comparable to endemics; other
representations, typical of modern cultures, spread rapidly
through a whole population but have a short life-span; they are
what we call fashions and are comparable to epidemics.'

The use of epidemic modelling in what we would now call memetics
(although of course it wasn't in those days), dates back I think
to the work of Rashevsky in the early 50s. There was a whole glut
of papers in a journal called Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics
(I am still chasing them up), on epidemiological models of
cultural change. For example Rashevsky N. (1949) Mathematical
biology of social behaviour I. Bull. Math. Biophys. 11, 105-113.

This is epidemic modelling, and there are no shortage of current
epidemic models. For endemic modelling (your duration memes) we
have to turn to Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981, p.53) who write:

'The theory of endemics is still in its infancy. It may be of
importance for....improving our understanding of the maintenance
of social customs and habits that are...present over long periods
of time.'

Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman suggest an adaptation of the endemic
model of Dietz (this is 1972, but in a rather difficult-to-find
book - in any case it is given in Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman p.
51. equ. 1.10.6)

Just how 'endemic' some socieities are (in your terms how much of
our cultural baggage is durational rather than adventurous) can be
seen by a glance at Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza's (1983) analysis
of the Aka pygmies. Virtually every cultural trait (ie. meme, if
you agree on the correspondence) that they examine is known to
upwards of 90% of the population. The only exceptions are cooking
skills which are only known to 46.7% of adult males (vs. all adult
females) and hunting skills which are only known to 77.5% of adult
females (vs. 100% of adult males) Helwett and Cavalli-Sforza
(1983, p.931)

In fact. the only convincing demonstration that these authors make
of a recent cultural 'epidemic' is the change from bow-and-arrow
to crossbow in hunting. This spread recently and rapidly through
the whole population (possibly due to the selective advantage it
gives to hunting ability).

Cavalli-Sforza LL and Feldman MW (1981) Cultural Transmission and
Evolution. Princeton University Press.
Hewlett BS and Cavalli-Sforza LL (1983) Cultural transmission
among Aka pygmies. American Anthropologist 88, 922-934.
Sperber D (1985) Anthropology and psychology: towards an
epidemiology of representations. Man 20, 73-89.

Hope this helps.

Derek Gatherer

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