Re: old memetics/new memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 16 Jul 1998 16:01:29 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 16 Jul 1998 16:01:29 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: old memetics/new memetics
In-Reply-To: <>

>Came across a couple of interesting articles recently.
>The first is a review:
>Cavalli-Sforza LL (1988) Cultural transmission and adaptation.
>International Social Science Journal 116, 239-253
>The second is an excellent example of empirical memetics:
>Deb D (1996) Of cast net and caste identity: memetic differentiation
>between two fishing communities of Karnataka. Human Ecology 24,
>In this one Deb identifies two castes of fisherfolk on the
>River Aghanashini in Karnataka province of western India. Each caste
>has its own charcteristic method of throwing its net, either an
>over-the head technique or a round-the-hips technique. The former is
>more useful in deep water but looks quite a bit more difficult.
>Deb proves that the head technique really is harder to learn by sending
>out a few dozen students to spend some days with the fisherman learning
>their methods. The conclusion is that there is no practical basis
>in terms of fishing, for the use of the more difficult method over
>the other, and that it has probably been maintained for another reason,
>possibly as a marker of group identity.
>Deb supports this thesis by looking at other castes that live in
>proximity to each other and finding that more established castes tend
>to use more difficult techniques, whereas the new arrivistes often go
>for an easier one. Performance of the more difficult technique then
>becomes something of a status marker, denoting member of an older and
>more established caste.
>Deb uses the Boyd and Richerson memetic mathematical model to show how
>the empirical findings are predicted by models of biased and
>frequency-dependent meme transmission.
>Although I could quibble a little about the assumptions of the
>Boyd-Richerson model, there's no doubt that the situation Deb describes
>does remarkably fit the predictions. What really stands out in this
>paper is the way that it combines theory, not just with observation,
>but with a practical trial of meme learning. In fact, it seems like a
>good model for other studies on the memetics of skilled
>manual techniques.


I would say that while Deb offers frequency dependent bias as a
*hypothesis* for the more difficult net fishing technique, he does not rule
out other hypotheses. I agree that frequency dependent transmissivities and
receptivities are common, (and can be incorporated as an elaboration into
my own equations), but the specific over-head fishing technique may show
advantageous results at low prevalence that Deb did not consider. Although
both methods netted similar catches at the prevalence levels Deb observed,
an environment in which few people knew the more difficult deeper-water
method could have yeilded more fish per over-head fisher. Over-head fishers
would then attract more imitators until their numbers rose to a point where
competition reduced the over-head catch to the same level as the
shallow-water catch. At low prevalence, over-head fishers could also raise
more children by way of better-fed families. This would also persist until
competition drove the results from over-head netting down to the same
levels as waist-thrown netting.

--Aaron Lynch

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