Re: Substance and Form

Aaron Lynch (
Tue, 02 Jun 1998 15:56:16 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 02 Jun 1998 15:56:16 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Substance and Form
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A few more comments, though I doubt that we will resolve large differences
between schools of thought here on this list.

>> "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.

No one is offering a full evolutionary explanation of Protestantism any
more than a full evolutionary explanation of the entire human genome. In
_Thought Contagion_ I have given preliminary hypotheses about just a few
factors in the memetic evolution of certain Protestant sects. Others have
offered hypotheses about the evolution of various human genes. But
demanding a full contact traced account of whatever phenomenon comes to
mind amounts to demanding an exhaustive knowledge of evolutionary
history--memetic or genetic.

>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

Geneticists have deliberately chosen to give close study to Drosophila eye
color because it is a relatively simple and reliable genetic trait. Yet
genetic evolution theory also concerns itself with phenomena that do not
have such absolute correspondences, like intelligence or breast cancer. In
other words, it embraces the idea that there are some genes that increase
the likelihood of a particular trait, and indeed traits that indicate only
an increased likelihood of a gene's presence. There are also microorganisms
that show only imperfect correspondence to disease conditions. Sometimes, a
second microorganism even prevents disease, as with bacteriophages. All of
this comes very close to resembling the situation with mnemons.

>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

There are behaviors for which any of a variety of mnemons may play a role,
much we might suspect that certain mental traits or cancers could have a
variety of genetic causes. I suspect that nearly all people who get tattoos
at least have the idea that it is possible to permanently color the skin.
Young children do not have this idea. And there may be societies where most
adults lack this idea too. If an outsider arrives with a tattoo, you might
see them trying to paint their skin in imitation, but their efforts will
not very easily lead to the idea that it is possible to permanently color
the skin--let alone a good idea for how to do it. Merely identifying a
complex, polymnemon behavior does not show that mnemons are not involved or
cannot be meaningfully studied under any circumstances.

>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.

--Aaron Lynch

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