Re: Substance and Form

Fri, 5 Jun 1998 13:15:22 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: Substance and Form
Date: Fri, 5 Jun 1998 13:15:22 -0400 (EDT)


I'll have to reply to your comments in three individual posts, as I
need to include your own text, and I can't get my email to merge your
three messges into one for easy quotation.

Paul wrote:

> 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.

Yes, phylogeny! Or maybe we should say phyloMeny...? Armed with my
tatty library copy of Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, and a freeware copy
of Phylip, I have been struggling with this one for a while.
Initially, I had decided that the easiest societies to analyse would be
the simplest, so I spent much of last summer rooting around the data
on archaeological sites from the English Palaeolithic. I tried to
classify societies according to whether they had a certain stone tool
culture or not, on the rationale that tool design was more likely to
spread horizontally in a Rogerian diffusion model than to be reinvented
repeatedly. However, I soon ran into the problem that it is never
possible to say for certain that a particular group of cave people
_didn't_ have a certain tool - all we can say is that we haven't yet
found an example of tool type x for population y. Since my phylomenies
(ahem!) could change quite markedly by the addition of one tool type or
another to a particular society, I had to concede that my cultural
trees are probably not going to tell us much about the evolution of
Palaeolithic society in England.

For this reason, I moved on to Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, which at
least has complete data sets for its population groups. However, it
does make the tree construction a little more complicated. I was also
quite alarmed to see that Cavalli-Sforza had written the following
(Guglielmino et al 1995, p.7585)

'....It [ie. Cavalli-Sforza' method] does not try to reconstruct the
history of the origins of innovations in the tree of descent; this is
sometimes a difficult proposition, given that the spread of a group in
a new area rarely can be represented by a tree branching without
reciprocal connections.'

which does make me wonder if I am perhaps barking up the wrong tree on
this one?

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

I would say yes, but only if the symbol is something we can objectively
identify and if possible quantify. Eg. the number of prayer books
manufactured in Victorian England that have silver crosses on the front
of them - since that tendency was noted by Trollope (I'm stuggling to
remember which novel, I think it was the first one in the Barchester
Chronicles but the title escapes me - The Warden, that's it!) to be a
reflection of the spread of Anglo-Catholicism.

I wrote:

> 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).

and Paul countered with:

> I do disagree - and no they don't only want to understand "from the inside",

Well, in that case you have to perhaps explain to me what Geertz means
when he says: (Geertz 1973, quoted by Durham 1991, p.32)

'... the whole point of the semiotic approach to culture is to aid us
in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live.'

Gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live?
Sounds like understanding from the inside to me. And is it really 'the
whole point' as Geertz says?

Of course, we both agree it isn't the whole point, so I'm being
rhetorical, but I mention it just to point up the differences of
emphasis between the inside-out and outside-in approaches.

> they are interested not in what you have but what you pass on,

Good. I am in absolute agreement. Memes are not what we have but what
we transmit. (I'll be pursuing Aaron further on this one in
another post).

> 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.

I object to none of this, as long as it _can_ be measured. We should
be clear however, that we are not measuring internal mnemons.

I said:

> >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
> >delivered)

and Paul requested:

> Please send me this list!

Yes, I will start a new thread on that one, in a week or so perhaps.


Guglielmino CR et al. (1995) Cultural variation in Africa: role of
mechanisms of transmission and adaptation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA
92, 7585-7589.
Durham WH (1991) Coevolution: genes, culture and human diversity.
Stanford University Press.
Murdock GP (1967) Ethnographic Atlas. University of Pittsburgh Press.

and not forgetting:

Phylip - a suite of freeware programs for the construction of
phylogenetic (and indeed phylomemetic) trees. Available from:

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)