Re: Substance and Form

Thu, 28 May 1998 13:21:34 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: Substance and Form
Date: Thu, 28 May 1998 13:21:34 -0400 (EDT)

On Thu, 28 May 1998 12:58:11 +0200 Josip Pajk <>

> If the semantic and semiotic problems of "what does it mean" are still
> bothering such "mature" sciences like biology and genetics, that can
> experiment with real substance, as you say, "manipulating DNA chunks", I
> don't see how memetics which is dealing exclusively with imaginary forms
> (ideas) could escape from the problem of meaning. I think memetics IS all
> about that.

Not necessarily. There are two ways to look at this problem. One is
that memetics is a branch of ideational anthropology, in which case the
meme has already been defined according to the terms of that
discipline. This may be almost the 'orthodox' view (insofar as there
is any agreement about what is orthodox in memetics)

The second one is to say that memetics need not be about internal ideas
at all. This, I think, will be regarded as heretical (although I
subscribe to this, as I'll explain).

For the first point of view: memetics as ideational
anthropology; according to the 1982 Dawkins definition of the meme, it
is an informational unit in the brain (Dawkins 1982, p.109). Dawkins
stresses that he wishes it to be congruent with Cloak's (1975)

Cloak (1975, p.63) defines his i-culture as:

'.. an unobserved, enduring structure or set of related structures
internal to the animal' [Cloak italicises 'internal']

This set of structures 'bears a causal relationship to ... behavior'
(Cloak 1975, p.163)

Cloak is an animal behaviourist and represents the 'ideational' school
of that subject; 'ideational' since an emphasis is put on the
'i-culture', the internal set of instructions within the animal.

Ideational theories of culture came into animal behavioural science
from anthropology, where their originator was Clifford Geertz in the
1970s. The ideational school represents a turning away from the !9th
century materialist school of culture which regarded culture as:

'that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals,
custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by an individual
as a member of society' (EB Tylor 1871, quoted by Cronk 1995, p.182).

The modern ideational view, by contrast sees culture as:

'a system of socially transmitted information' (Cronk 1995, p.182), or
as Sperber (1985, p.77) said: 'mental representations' and
'intra-subjective processes of thought and memory'.

Memetics, in its Dawkins 1982 form (but possibly not in the 1976
original), thus stands in the Geertzian tradition of ideational
anthropology (and ideational ethology, if you believe that
non-human animals have such internal memes of non-human animal

So to say, as Josip does, that memetics deals with 'ideas' or
'imaginary forms', is perhaps not quite right. If you think I am
making a pedantic distinction please excuse me, but the ideational
anthropo-ethological i-culture/meme is something a little more abstract
than an idea (eg. see de Winter 1984).

However, having said that, I ought to say that I think there is a good
case for _not_ following the ideational line. The problem with it is
that all the rather interesting blocks of data that have been amassed
by social contagion psychologists and innovation-diffusion
sociologists, are all about _things_ ie. all about precisely the arts,
cutoms, morals, capabilities that the ideational school think are
irrelevant (or at least less relevant than i-culture).

If memeticists want to cross the divide and make contact with diffusion
sociologists, social contagion psychologists etc., then we're probably
going to have to 'get materialist' and shed the ideational millstone
around our necks.

Then we can treat artefacts, behaviours, customs, morals, art, as memes
in themselves. It will mean that ideational anthropologists will turn
their backs on us, but what we have to gain is a vast repository of
data on which to work. The alternative is to spend the next 20 years
(as we memeticists have spent the last 20 years) arguing about the
nature of the abstract ideational i-culture/meme inside of our
heads instead of getting on with some actual scientific work.

Cloak FT (1975) Is a cultural ethology possible? Human Ecology 3,
Cronk L (1995) Is there a role for culture in human behavioral
ecology? Ethology and Scoiobiology 16, 181-205.
Dawkins R (1982) The Extended Phenotype. Oxford University Press.
Sperber D (1985) Anthropology and psychology: towards an epidemiology
of representations. Man 20, 73-89.
de Winter KW (1984) Biological and cultural evolution - different
manifestations of the same principle - a systems-theoretical approach.
J. Hum. Evol. 13, 61-70.

Derek Gatherer

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