Re: Is memetics historicist?

Ton Maas (
Tue, 23 Jun 1998 20:07:44 +0200

Message-Id: <v03102803b1b575597489@[]>
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Date: Tue, 23 Jun 1998 20:07:44 +0200
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: Is memetics historicist?

>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.

Gregory Bateson tried to shed some light on this matter in his book "Mind &
Nature; a necessary unity". One chapter - entitled "Every Schoolboy
Knows..." - is devoted to the most common fallacies in Western scientific
thought. Nr. 6: "Divergent Sequences are Unpredictable".

"According to the popular image of science, everything is, in principle,
predictable and controllable; and if some event or process is not
predictable and controllable in the present state of our knowledge, a
little more knowledge and, especially, a little more know-how will enable
us to predict and control the wild variables.
This view is wrong, not merely in detail, but in principle. It is even
possible to define large classes of phenomena where prediction and control
are simply impossible for very basic but quite understandable reasons.
Perhaps the most familiar example of this class of phenomena is the
breaking of any superficially homogeneous material, such as glass.
If I throw a stone at a glass window, I shall, under appropriate
circumstances, break or crack the glass in a star-shaped pattern. If my
stone hits the glass as fast as a bullet, it is possible that it will
detach from the glass a neat conical plug called a cone of percussion. If
my stone is too slow and too small, it may fail to break the glass at all.
Prediction and control will be quite possible at this level. I can easily
make sure which of three results I shall achieve (star, cone or no
breakage), provided I avoid marginal strengths of throw.
But within the conditions which produce the star-shaped break, it will be
impossible to predict or control the pathways and the positions of the arms
of the star.
Curiously enough, the more precise my laboratory methods, the more
unpredictable the events will become. If I use the most homogenous glass
available, polish its surface to the most exact optical flatness, and
control the motion of my stone as precisely as possible, ensuring an almost
precisely vertical impact on the surface of the glass, all my efforts will
only make the events more impossible to predict.
If, on the other hand, I scratch the surface of the glass or use a piece of
glass that is already cracked (which would be cheating), I shall be able to
make some approximate predictions. For some reason (unknown to me), the
break in the glass will run parallel to the scratch and about 1/100 of an
inch to the side, so that the scratch mark will appear on only one side of
the break. Beyong the end of the scratch, the break will veer off
Under tension, a chain will break at its weakest link. That much is
predictable. What is difficult is to identify the weakest link before it
breaks. The generic we can know, but the specific eludes us. Some chains
are designed to break at a certain tension and at a certain link. But a
good chain is homogenous, and no prediction is possible. And because we
cannot know which link is the weakest, we cannot know precisely how much
tenstion will be needed to break the chain.
If we heat a clear liquid (say, clean distilled water) in a clean, smooth
beaker, at what point will the first bubble of steam appear? At what
temperature? And at which instant?
These questions are unanswerable unless there is a tiny roughness in the
inner surface of the beaker or a tiny speck of dust in the liquid. In the
absence of such an evident nucleus for the beginning of the change of
state, no prediction is possible; and because we cannot say where the
change will start, we also cannot say _when_. Therefore, we cannot say at
what temperature boiling will begin.
If the experiment is critically performed - that is, if the water is very
clean and the beaker very smooth - there will be some superheating. In the
end the water will boil. In the end, there will always be a difference that
can serve as the nucleus for the change. In the end, the superheated liquid
will "find" this differential spot and will boil explosively for a few
moments until the temperature is reduced to the regular boiling point
appropriate to the surrounding barometric pressure.
The freezing of liquid is similar, as is the falling out of crystals from a
supersaturated solution. A nucleus - that is, a differentiated point, which
in the case of a supersaturated solution may, indeed, be a microscopic
crystal - is needed for the process to start.
We shall note elsewhere in this book that there is a deep gulf between
statements about an identified individual and statements about a class.
Such statements are of _different logical type_, and prediction from one
to the other is always unsure. The statement "The liquid is boiling" is of
different logical type from the statement "That molecule will be the first
to go".

This matter has a number of sorts of relevance to the theory of history, to
the philosophy behind evolutionary theory, and in general, to our
understanding of the world in which we live.
In the theory of history, Marxian philosophy, following Tolstoi, insists
that the great men who have been the historic nuclei for profound social
change or invention are, in a certain sense, irrelevant to the changes they
precipitated. It is argued, for example, that in 1859, the occidental world
was ready and ripe (perhaps overripe) to create and receive a theory of
evolution that could reflect and justify the ethics of the Industrial
Revolution. From that point of view, Charles Darwin himself could be made
to appear unimportant. If he had not put out his theory, somebody else
would have put out a similar theory within the next five years. Indeed, the
parallellism between Alfred Russell Wallace's theory and that of Darwin
would seem at first sight to support this view.
The Marxians would, as I understand it, argue that there is bound to be a
weakest link, that under appropriate social forces or tensions, some
individual will be the first to start the trend, and that it does not
matter who.
But, of course, it _does_ matter who starts the trend. If it had been
Wallace instead of Darwin, we would have had a very different theory of
evolution today. The whole cynernetics movement might have occurred 100
years earlier as a result of Wallace's comparison between the steam engine
with a governor and the process of natural selection. Or perhaps the big
theoretical step might have occurred in France and evolved from the ideas
of Claude Bernard who in the nineteenth century, discovered what later came
to be called the "homeostasis" of the body. He observed that the "milieu
interne" was balanced or self-correcting.
It is, I claim, nonsense to say that it does not matter which individual
man acted as the nucleus for change. It is precisely this that makes
history unpredictable into the future. The Marxian error is a simple
blunder in logical typing, a confusion of individual with class."



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