Re: Substance and Form

Paul Marsden (
Tue, 2 Jun 1998 16:35:46 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: Substance and Form
Date: Tue, 2 Jun 1998 16:35:46 +0100

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

Derek replied

>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

Surely the fact that selectionist thought in social science has tended to
focus on material as opposed to cultural artefacts is only becasuse material
artefacts, like fossils leave a physical trace, and a phylogeny can be
constructed. It is altogether more difficult to trace the evolution of
ideas (althought the history of ideas school has tried). However, the
phylogeny of cultural as opposed to material artefacts is the focus of
evolutionary sociology, where a cultural artefact may be operationalised as
a trait, practise or more generally an institution. In other words by
focusing on the patterns of change and consistency in society a phylogeny of
culture may be constructed.

>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'?

No bt a second order representation of the cowrie has been replicated in a
new brain in the process of symbolic interaction.

>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.

Can't we study the structural epidemiology of belief, as objectified in

>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).

I do disagree - and no they don't only want to understand "from the inside",
they are interested not in what you have but what you pass on, and therein
lies the possibility for an empirical understanding of representations "from
the outside". I am just as much a cultural materialist as you - perhaps
even more 'barefoot', but I don't understand why you have a problem with
representations. When you see Aaron Lynch, surely you are not arguing for
naive realism - that there is somekind of direct umbilical link between you
and Aaron, or, more alarmingly perhaps, that Aaron actually presents himself
in your head? I'm not saying there isn't an Aaron brain event, but that
brain-event is a REpresentation, a second order construct, and what is
interesting for memetics is the structure and spread and evolution of the
Aaron representation amoung those who have never met him. This can be done
because language objectifies, anonymises and typifies experience, and can
thus be measured.

>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

Please send me this list!

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.
Yes, I agree, it is about the epidemiology, the evolution of incidence and
prevalence of cultural traits and practices in society - in my view a
central element in the memetic enterprise.

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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