Re: Substance and Form

Aaron Lynch (
Fri, 29 May 1998 19:44:18 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 29 May 1998 19:44:18 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Substance and Form
In-Reply-To: <>


>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=20
>very few cases. For instance, the literature of diffusion sociology is=20
>full of examples of the spread of artefacts (rev. Rogers and Shoemaker=20
>1971 - I know there's a more recent edition of this, but the old one=20
>still gives a good flavour of the field), everything from cowrie shell=20
>currency in Africa to weedkiller and hybrid corn, but there are=20
>precious few examples of the diffusion of ideas alongside the=20

I don't have the 1971 edition, but Rogers 1983 definitely talks about not
just artifacts and behaviors, but also propagating information in human
hosts. (Though he does not use the term "host.") To quote from the preface
by Rogers himself, (p. XIX), "...The diffusion of innovations, thus, is
essentially a social process in which subjectively perceived information
about a new idea is communicated." Later sections talk about the spread of
"knowledge," "software information," "opinions," etc. These all qualify as
mnemons in my usage.

>To what extent can we say that the spread of, for instance cowrie=20
>shells (Jeffries 1948), parallels the spread of any internal meme? If=20
>I accept a cowrie shell as payment for something, do you propose that a=20
>meme or mnemon (in your terminology - incidentally according to Durham=20
>1991, p.189 the term mnemon has previously been used by JZ Young and=20
>Marvin Minsky, do you intend the same usage or a different one?) is=20
>then instantiated in my mind which corresponds to 'accept cowries'?

One mnemon that probably co-propagates with the behaviors and artifacts is
a belief that cowrie shells are precious, though I do not have a relevant
study at hand. (Also, I seem to have misplaced my copy of Durham 1991, and
it is charged out of local libraries. So I will not presently hazard a
comparison between my own, Durham's, Young's, and Minsky's usages unless
you post a quotation. I first used the term in 1991, submitted 1990.)

>I can't see the value of positing 'accept cowries' or 'bee pollen=20
>invigorates' (to use one of your own examples) as internal mnemons=20
>which are then used as units for building models (epidemic or=20
>otherwise). What was actually happening was that the cowries were=20
>moving across Africa from hand to hand or by other means. Some people=20
>may not have accepted cowries as currency but might have thought of=20
>them as just pretty ornaments, some might have simply dumped them in a=20
>river to get washed downstream to another place. All these activities=20
>could lead to cowrie spread, as a 'cultural replicon' (as you say) but=20
>the underlying neural events involved in financial transaction, body=20
>adornement or rubbish disposal are all very different. Many different=20
>mnemons, one artefact in diffusion. Likewise with the bee pollen=20
>example, all we can really study is sales of bee pollen.

Back when you were very young, someone probably explained to you =A31 notes
were more precious than other pieces of paper. Explanations such as these
probably affected the information stored in your brain. On the other hand,
send 100 kg. of =A31 notes into some societies, and you might be able to
observe them being used for cooking fuel--unless you are very careful to
spread some ideas along with the papers. The great social distance from
those using cowries in Africa may make the co-propagating ideas less
apparent to people in Europe and North America, but this does mean that the
ideas are absent.=20

>I may be a crude cultural materialist, but ideational theories like=20
>the current quasi-standard version of memetics, don't really let us=20
>quantify very much. Ideational anthropologists aren't much interested=20
>in scientific approaches. They are qualitative rather then=20
>quantitative in their intellectual spirit, that's why they have no=20
>problems with ideational theories of culture. They want to understand=20
>from the inside rather than analyse fom the outside (if any=20
>anthropologists disagree, I'd be delighted to be proved wrong).
>Of course an ideational theory is no obstacle to mathematical=20
>theorising, as you and many others (I'm currently collecting=20
>mathematical models of a memetic nature, and there are at least 8 -=20
>I'll be able to confirm that once my inter-library loans get=20
>delivered) have demonstrated, the problems start when you want to move=20
>from your theories to something practical and discover than you can't=20
>actually count mnemons. The example of spread of Mormonism is not about=20
>counting mnemons, because the actual statistic used is Mormon=20
>membership records, and that tells us nothing about mnemons in the=20
>heads of Mormons.

What you can count are hosts of mnemons, each of which corresponds to a
single mnemon instantiation. This does involve making functional
definitions, as with surveys and polling methods. Yes, there are cases
where counting hosts is more difficult than counting objects, but I have
also pointed out problems in usefully counting instantiations of certain
artifacts. Using Mormon membership data is indeed an indirect gauge of
belief prevalence, but indirect measurements are performed in all sorts of
sciences. Ultimately, we want to design a survey that asks questions such
as "Jesus visited North America: [Y/N/?]," "The Book of Mormon was revealed
in golden tablets to Joseph Smith: [Y/N/?]," etc., with only respondents
answering in certain ways being considered "Mormon." Such surveys are still
indirect measures of the prevalence of ideas, but this does not mean that
the ideas do not exist (or that they are useless abstractions). Bear in
mind that quarks, magnetic fields, etc. are also measured indirectly. You
cannot "actually count" quarks, for instance. Even cowrie shells are
measured indirectly, too, based on the opinion of a human observer who
might sometimes count counterfeit cowries, similar shells, damaged shells,
too small shells, etc. When using a survey to classify respondents as
Mormon or non-Mormon, you can also ask questions such as "how many children
do you have?" The result will again be an indirect measurement of actual
numbers of children. Methodology will always be an important topic for
empirical research.

>> I have instead proposed
>> that we identify "cultural replicons" as a superset of memes, and=
>> repliconics as a superset of memetics. This does not require any=
>> to i-culture or m-culture.=20
>I think it does. If you are talking about a 'calculus of mnemon=20
>instantiations', then you are firmly in the i-culture camp.

I am specializing on matters of i-culture, but this does not imply
disrespect for the study of m-culture. Within the field of i-culture, I
also specialize mainly on the memes I call "thought contagions." Dawkins
specializes on biological evolution, but respects the importance of
cultural evolution as well.=20

>Durham WH (1991) Coevolution. Genes, Culture and Human Diversity. =20
>Stanford University Press.
>Jeffries MDW (1948) The diffusion of cowries and Egyptian culture in=20
>Africa. American Anthropologist 50, 45-53
>Lynch, A. 1998. Units, Events, and Dynamics in Memetic Evolution.=20
>Journal of Memetics 2, 1,=20
>Rogers EM and Shoemaker FF (1971) Diffusion of Innovations: a=20
>Cross-Cultural Approach 2nd ed. The Free Press New york

Rogers, E. 1983. Diffusion of Innovations, 3rd ed. New York: Free Press.

--Aaron Lynch

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