Is memetics historicist?

Tue, 23 Jun 1998 14:14:00 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Is memetics historicist?
Date: Tue, 23 Jun 1998 14:14:00 -0400 (EDT)

It always struck me as a little ironic that Karl Popper, who wrote 'The
Poverty of Historicism' should also be the author of 'Objective
Knowledge: an Evolutionary Approach'.
There's no doubt that Popper's picture of scientific change as an
evolving system of ideas was massively influential in the genesis of
both memetics (Dawkins acknowledges him explicitly in The Selfish
Gene) and also evolutionary epistemology. But Popper also rejects
any possibility of predictive power in the social sciences, and
characterises all attempts to produce a predictive social science
as 'historicist' - believing in non-existent laws of history.
Section 27 of The Poverty of Historicism is devoted to a criticism of
evolutionary ideas in the work of Spengler and Toynbee, who are modern
(or at least early 20th century) representatives of a cultural
evolutionary tradition going back to Spencer and even before -
proto-memeticists, we might say.

Popper's main criticism seems to be that each historical instance is
_too_ unique to be considered as an example of any general principle.
So we have:

'Now I do not intend to deny...that history may sometimes repeat
itself in certain respects, nor that the parallel between certain types
of historical events, such as the rise of tyrannies in ancient Greece
and in modern times, can be significant....But it is clear that
all these instances of repetition involve circumstances which are
vastly dissimilar, and which may exert an important influence upon
further developments. We have thererfore no valid reason to
expect of any apparent repetition of a historical development that
it will continue (italics) to run parallel to its prototype'
(Popper 1961, pp.110-111)

By contrast, more recently we have E.O. Wilson, who like
Cavalli-Sforza has his foot firmly in both the genetic and memetic
camps (with the emphasis slightly in the former) reviewing the
history of slavery in precisely the terms that Popper so derides:

'..the institution of slavery alone has been enough to ordain the
spectacular sweep of their [ie. slave societies] life cycle. The fact
that slaves under great stress, insist on behaving like human beings
instead of slave ants, gibbons, mandrills or any other species, is one
of the reasons that I believe the trajectory of history can be plotted
ahead, at least roughly.' (Wilson 1978, pp. 80-81)

Popper doesn't get a single mention in Wilson's book. Yet without
Popper, there might have been no Dawkins meme-theory at all, and then
no (memetic) Wilson? (I don't doubt that Wilson would have
still been a great biologist, but he might never have become
interested in cultural evolution.)

Did Popper inadvertently revive the very historicism he wanted to kill
off? If we ever have good 'laws of memetics', will that enable us, in
Wilson's words, to plot history ahead, at least roughly?

Therefore, are we historicists?

Popper KR (1961) The Poverty of Historicism. Routledge and Kegan
Paul: London.
Popper KR (1972) Objective Knowledge: an Evolutionary Approach.
Clarendon Press: Oxford.
Wilson EO (1978) On Human Nature. Harvard University Press:

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)