Re: Dereck Gatherer's recent paper to JoM

Mon, 7 Sep 1998 12:32:18 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: Dereck Gatherer's recent paper to JoM
Date: Mon, 7 Sep 1998 12:32:18 -0400 (EDT)

and the second comment is from Tim:

On Sun, 6 Sep 1998 00:53:28 -0700 Tim Rhodes <>
> Dereck,
> Let me say first off that I quite agree with the conclusions of your paper
> ("Why the Thought Contagion Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of
> Memetics"). It follows a line of thinking similar to one I've been
> promoting on another memetics mailing list (Church of Virus threads:
> "Extrocranial Memes" 8/3-8/18 and "The Meme and the Hypothesis" 8/16 -8/19).
> I admit gladly that your agruments do mine shame, being much more polished,
> reasoned and better constructed than mine on this topic. And, because we
> are in agreement, your genius is of course clearly apparent. :-)
> That being said, I have some questions and thoughts. You wrote in section
> 4:
> " These memes are behaviours, or artefacts that are the products of
> behaviour, and not abstract informational instantiations in individual
> brains.
> And, crucially, individuals do not have any of these memes. They build them,
> say them, do them, make them, assent to them or deny them, but the memes are
> entirely outside the human beings that generate them. These meme frequency
> statistics are not per capita of human populations, and therefore do not
> constitute a body of data which is formally analogous to that of population
> genetics. For this reason, there can be no population memetics."
> And, where it is true that there can be no population memetics using human
> beings as the "population", this does not, however, prevent us from
> constructing a population memetics of which cultures and sub-cultures form
> the populations in question. Although we are not able to speak of the how
> often with a meme appears per capita of human population, this should not,
> theoretically, prevent us from quantifying a meme's frequency per capita of
> the total memes present in a sub-culture. We need not completely discard
> the analogy to population genetics. But we will need to rethink the
> "species" in whose population a meme frequency occurs.

The Cavalli-Sforza paper (Guglielmino et al 1995) which is in the
ref. list of my paper, adopts an approach quite similar to this,
defining a cultural trait as either present or absent in a
population. Therefore there are no 'per capita' meme frequencies to
worry about. The memes are 'per population', or 'per culture'.

Another correspondent tells me however, that there is a bit of a
problem with definitions of cultural traits used in that paper
because they are taken from Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, a classic
text of the 1960s. But ongoing research at Stanford suggests that
these cultural traits are not learned as units, but are in fact
rather arbitrary chunkings of a more subtle pattern of learned
behaviours, so caution again must be exercised. The Stanford people
are, of course, very interested in cultural _transmission_, and
sometimes are a little vague about whether what is being transmitted
is just a behaviour or something 'internal'. But I reckon their work
can be taken in a behaviourist context most of the time.

> You also write in section 8.6:
> " I still stand by my view of religions as `large, integrated complexes of
> memes' (Gatherer 1998, p.205), but I should now say that beliefs are not
> among those memes. The memes in question are the observable, copiable
> aspects of religion, such as prayers, rituals, artefacts, liturgies, dogmas
> etc."
> But does this prevent us from defining a belief system as the presence of a
> certian minimum number of memes (specific prayers, rituals, artefacts,
> liturgies, dogmas, etc) and then working from there? We might at some
> point, with MUCH more emperical data under our belts [1], be able to say for
> example, that among members of belief system X memes of the type a, b and c
> are transimted 27% faster than between the members of belief system Y.
> I don't think this is out of line with theory and may prove an interesting
> line of though worth exploring in the future.
> [1] I can't stress here enough the need for hard data FIRST. Although I
> suspect we all intuitively believe this to be the case, until we have some
> actual numbers to back it up any thoughts in this regard will (and must)
> remain purely and wholly within the realm of speculation.

In the article from which I quote myself (which was written in 1995
but only published this year), I attack Dawkins' Mind Virus approach
to religion while still accepting that the beliefs are the memetic
content of the religion. I think that the religion = mind virus idea
is untenable _in any case_ (whether you're a thought contagionist or
not) , and really reveals a lack of reading in even the most basic
psychology of religion.

Nevertheless I am in the position of having undermined everything I
have previously written, since all of my previous work was in the
context of an 'internal' memes approach. But I suppose these things
happen. I wasn't getting anywhere with it, and I could see that
nobody else was either, so it had to go.

Thanks Tim

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