Re: Substance and Form

Paul Marsden (
Tue, 2 Jun 1998 16:36:10 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: Substance and Form
Date: Tue, 2 Jun 1998 16:36:10 +0100

>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.
Derek replied

>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)

Interesting point - perhaps worth defining how Rindos, Sperber et al.
understand their equivalent to our meme. Basically their understanding
(IMO) of units of cultural selection is they are of REpresentations, that is
second order symbolic representations of objects of experience (cultural or
In this sense they are not simply ideational, since they have been
objectified through a system of signification - so I would beg to differ on
your interpretation of representations as exclusively internal ideas. They
may be
internal, or external - the important point is that these artefacts are *re*
presentations of objects presented.

>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).

I don't think this is heretical, I think it is entirely necessary if we are
to operationalise memetics.

>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']

Yes, ok, but surely in empirical memetics we should be measuring m culture,
that is the phenotypic
expression of the internal representation (i.e. traits practices and more
generally patterns in society). This is not just for practical reasons, but
also because selection occurs at the level of the phenotype, that is the
interface between the environment and the objectified memes.


>'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'.

No I don't think this represents (no pun intended) Sperber's position,
culture is not what you have, rather it is what you pass on. That there are
internal, intra-subjective processes is not the issue, but in order for the
evolutionary loop of variation selection and replication to operate, those
internal processes must produce objectified units.


>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).

Agreed, and I don't think the distinction is pedantic - it is (IMHO)
fundamental. My
only quibble is with equating and conflating the selectionist thought of
Sperber with "ideas" and "imaginary forms"

>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).

Yes, I agree entirely.

>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.

Yes, yes yes!

>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.

I concur entirely with the memetic project as you have outlined it, but I do
think we can draw on evolutionary thought in the social sciences, including
and especially the work of Rindos and Sperber - they didn't get it all
wrong - and I do think we are wasting a lot of time reinventing the wheel.
I appreciate and sympathise with Aaron's concern that we need to establish
memetics as a coherent and genuinely innovative analytical framework, but as
a good memeticist - we all know our theory is dependent upon, and is the of
product blind variation and selective retention of, selectionist thought.

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

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