Re: old memetics/new memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 16 Jul 1998 16:57:26 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 16 Jul 1998 16:57:26 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: old memetics/new memetics
In-Reply-To: <>

At 04:01 PM 7/16/98 -0500, you wrote:
>>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.

P.S., I should clarify that although the mechanism I identify also involves
freqency dependent receptivities or even transmissivities, it is not a
conformity or social distinction mechanism as hypothesized by Deb.

--Aaron Lynch

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