Re: Substance and Form

Tue, 2 Jun 1998 11:34:07 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: Substance and Form
Date: Tue, 2 Jun 1998 11:34:07 -0400 (EDT)


> "Largely irrelevant" admits of further definition. Such salient behaviors
> as turning to face Mecca several times a day versus attending a church on
> Sunday really call out for explanations. Also, a belief in the importance
> of Islamic law may also clash with, say, a belief in the validity of Hindu
> caste systems. Let's hope this doen't lead to nuclear war.

I agree that beliefs are important, I'm not arguing from a Skinnerian
behaviourist standpoint (Skinner 1972). The data that Cronk
(1993) discusses is about professed belief. In your
neo-Quinean questionnaire proposal, you are proposing to use professed
beliefs to get at real beliefs, which then influence behaviour.
However, professed beliefs are not real beliefs. Real beliefs cannot
be quantified. All that we are left with is behaviour. Professed
beliefs as linguistic behaviour; nuclear war as another kind of
behaviour. Mnemons simply drop out of the middle.

[from a previous post of yours]
> What you can count are hosts of mnemons, each of which
> corresponds to a
> single mnemon instantiation.

I'm still unconvinced that you can count mnemon hosts. It's difficult
enough counting cultural traits. For instance, proportion of people
dying their hair blond; this will change so quickly that we cannot
provide any meaningful figure that won't be irrelevant next week.
The best we can do is quantify hair dye sales (no hosts, just
quantity of dye).

The best example I can think of which might fit your insistence on
mnemon-host duality is a tattoo, because it's indelible. Once you have
one, getting rid of it is a considerable problem. There is an epidemic
of tattooing among my undergrads, I would reckon that the frequency is
probably close to p=0.3. In my age-group and background the frequency
must be p<0.01. My undergrads in Cambridge were also considerably less
tattooed (probably around p=0.05), so a comparative study around class
and age groups would be interesting.

But what are the mnemons? I suggest that any of the following
thoughts may be passing through the potential tattooee's mind:
a) tattoos are nice
b) if I back out mow my friends will think I'm a coward
c) too drunk to know or care what is happening

I could go on thinking of others, but there is no point. What is going
on in the head of the undergrad as he/she enters one of Liverpool's
many tattoo parlours, is scarcely quatifiable or even definable. We
have an epidemic of tattoos, not an epidemic of mnemons of any kind.

> Specific memes that fail to contribute much to the long-term spreading of
> the overall meme package may evolve to lower prevalence, so that there
> could be rather little difference between a Christian who calls herself a
> "Presbyterian" and one who calls himself a "Lutheran."

That's true. But what use then is the mnemon theory in explaining the
evolution of Protestantism? If I'm interested in that, I want to
know what were Luther's roots in Augustinian philosophy, I want to
know why the Reformation failed in France, I want to know about
how Kierkegaard's ideas influenced existential theology, I want to
know what effect that had on the growth of the Nazi-collaborating
church, I want to know how Barth redefined the whole field in the
post-war era.

You seem to be admitting that the mnemon conception of memetics can say
nothing about any of those things since, as you say above, the largely
ignorant mnemon host scarcely know whether they are Lutherans or
Calvinists. But without an analysis of those concepts we have no
meaningful theory of cultural evolution.

> Correct me if I am wrong, but I was under the impression that genes are
> never observed directly. Rather, restriction enzymes, oligonucleotides,
> etc. are used to infer the presence of certain nucleotide sub-sequences,
> the presence of which is then used to infer the existence of a longer
> sequence. It is not a simple matter of turning on the electron microscope
> and having a look. Even with infections, the observation is often quite
> indirect, as with the testing for antibodies whose presence leads one to
> infer the presence of a particular microorganism.

The problem with that argument is that invisible genes and
visible phenotypes are in strict one-to-one (or strict one-to-two
for autosomal recessives) correspondence. For instance 100
white-eyed Drosophila equal precisely 200 mutant white alleles
(the trait is autosomal recessive). 100 haemophiliac boys equals
100 mutant Factor 8 genes (X-linked). Likewise with infections,
one cholera patient equals one event of cholera transmission. But
for one motor car, how many motor car mnemons are there? For one
Statue of Liberty, how many Statue of Liberty mnemons? For 100
abortions, how many of your 'abortion is a mortal sin' mnemons?
None? What is some patients start to feel a little mixed-up three
days after the operation? There is no strict mnemon-phemotype

Give me phenotypes and I'll quantify genes, no problem - the fact that
I can't see the gene with the naked eye is not important, because
the gene is an abstration that refers to a concrete reality,
ie. the reality of DNA in nuclei. But give me cultural artefacts
and behaviours and I don't even know where to begin quantifying

Cronk, L. (1995) Is there a role for culture in human behavioral
ecology? Ethology and Sociobiology 16, 181-205.
Quine, W.v.O. (1960) Word and Object. Technology Press, MIT.
Skinner, B.F. (1972) Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Cape: London.

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