Re: Is memetics historicist?

Aaron Lynch (
Tue, 23 Jun 1998 15:39:44 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 23 Jun 1998 15:39:44 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Is memetics historicist?
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>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?

For some applications, I like to think that memetics embodies at least one
other approach besides the "laws of history" one. We might call it the
analyical/computational, or perhaps even "sociophysics." It is where, even
with a new meme, you measure certain propagation parameters corresponding
to specific types of micro-events, and then compute the future course of
collective phenomena. Thus, rather than looking at previous instances of a
country switching to Islamic law, you might measure the birth rates, child
inculcation rates, dropout rates, peer to peer conversion rates, mortality
rates, etc. of Muslims in a specific country to compute if/when it will
have a majority of Muslims of voting age. This method allows you to "plot
history ahead" without assuming that the case at hand will duplicate any
past episode.

By analogy, we might assert that the formation of each solar system is a
unique event in the universe, but then also assert that given a gas-dust
cloud, its future evolution might be computed by analyzing the forces at
work on each little parcel of matter. The method will not always catch the
unforeseen effects of a nearby supernova, etc., but it is nevertheless a
non-historicist approach to plotting the future.

>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:

--Aaron Lynch

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