Re: Substance and Form

Fri, 29 May 1998 15:29:24 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: Substance and Form
Date: Fri, 29 May 1998 15:29:24 -0400 (EDT)

Aaron (and Josip and Karthik)

> The term "meme" as clarified in The Extended Phenotype is already quite
> expansive. I agree that artifacts, behaviours, etc. should be analyzed as
> replicators,

Yes, I think we can agree on that.

> and would point out that ideas and artifacts (for > instance)
> should in many cases be analyzed as co-propagators.

It's the phrase 'in many cases' that troubles me here. I would say in
very few cases. For instance, the literature of diffusion sociology is
full of examples of the spread of artefacts (rev. Rogers and Shoemaker
1971 - I know there's a more recent edition of this, but the old one
still gives a good flavour of the field), everything from cowrie shell
currency in Africa to weedkiller and hybrid corn, but there are
precious few examples of the diffusion of ideas alongside the

To what extent can we say that the spread of, for instance cowrie
shells (Jeffries 1948), parallels the spread of any internal meme? If
I accept a cowrie shell as payment for something, do you propose that a
meme or mnemon (in your terminology - incidentally according to Durham
1991, p.189 the term mnemon has previously been used by JZ Young and
Marvin Minsky, do you intend the same usage or a different one?) is
then instantiated in my mind which corresponds to 'accept cowries'?

I can't see the value of positing 'accept cowries' or 'bee pollen
invigorates' (to use one of your own examples) as internal mnemons
which are then used as units for building models (epidemic or
otherwise). What was actually happening was that the cowries were
moving across Africa from hand to hand or by other means. Some people
may not have accepted cowries as currency but might have thought of
them as just pretty ornaments, some might have simply dumped them in a
river to get washed downstream to another place. All these activities
could lead to cowrie spread, as a 'cultural replicon' (as you say) but
the underlying neural events involved in financial transaction, body
adornement or rubbish disposal are all very different. Many different
mnemons, one artefact in diffusion. Likewise with the bee pollen
example, all we can really study is sales of bee pollen.

I may be a crude cultural materialist, but ideational theories like
the current quasi-standard version of memetics, don't really let us
quantify very much. Ideational anthropologists aren't much interested
in scientific approaches. They are qualitative rather then
quantitative in their intellectual spirit, that's why they have no
problems with ideational theories of culture. They want to understand
from the inside rather than analyse fom the outside (if any
anthropologists disagree, I'd be delighted to be proved wrong).

Of course an ideational theory is no obstacle to mathematical
theorising, as you and many others (I'm currently collecting
mathematical models of a memetic nature, and there are at least 8 -
I'll be able to confirm that once my inter-library loans get
delivered) have demonstrated, the problems start when you want to move
from your theories to something practical and discover than you can't
actually count mnemons. The example of spread of Mormonism is not about
counting mnemons, because the actual statistic used is Mormon
membership records, and that tells us nothing about mnemons in the
heads of Mormons.

> I have instead proposed
> that we identify "cultural replicons" as a superset of memes, and cultural
> repliconics as a superset of memetics. This does not require any partiality
> to i-culture or m-culture.

I think it does. If you are talking about a 'calculus of mnemon
instantiations', then you are firmly in the i-culture camp.

Durham WH (1991) Coevolution. Genes, Culture and Human Diversity.
Stanford University Press.
Jeffries MDW (1948) The diffusion of cowries and Egyptian culture in
Africa. American Anthropologist 50, 45-53
Lynch, A. 1998. Units, Events, and Dynamics in Memetic Evolution.
Journal of Memetics 2, 1,
Rogers EM and Shoemaker FF (1971) Diffusion of Innovations: a
Cross-Cultural Approach 2nd ed. The Free Press New york

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