Dead third hand objects.

singa (
Thu, 10 Sep 1998 15:12:04 +1000

Date: Thu, 10 Sep 1998 15:12:04 +1000
From: singa <>
Subject: Dead third hand objects.

From:Alex Brown
Date: 10th Sept

On Mon, 07 Sep 1998 Mario Vaneechoutte wrote:

> I completely agree with these thoughts of Aaron. It is not because our methods
> for discovering the workings of the brain are still limited (although far less
> than Derek and possibly Paul claim: neuroscience is advancing rapidly), that we
> should study only behaviours and the material artefacts which follow from this
> behaviour.Imagine that biologists would have decided to consider bird nest
> building and bird nests as genes, because it was too difficult to study the genes
> theirselves. That is what Derek proposes: the brain is too difficult, so let us
> call the artefacts the memes. Wouldn't we better work on methods to catalogize
> ideas inside heads, than catalogize dead third hand objects (which has been done
> already anyway). As Aaron says, there are a lot of methods to do so. How about
> asking questions?...............(snip)

"Dead third hand objects"!! This is presumably some kind of definition
of culture which is the thing I thought memetics was supposed to study -
the evolution of this thing. I assume that this is a slip of the tongue
or shorthand for that vast range of human endeavour which includes
music, social rituals, movies, fashion, architecture, war, political
systems, philosophy, science, technology, religion, furniture, food and
literature.....etc.etc.etc. Dead third hand objects indeed! This is a
complex and dynamic system in a constant state of change. What do
scientists do when they leave their labs? What they do is to emesh
themselves in this web of cultural systems of which science is but one
aspect. They go to the movies, vote, eat, choose clothes for themselves
and get involved with innumerable social rituals which make up the
culture of their times. They are, in other words, totally integrated
into their culture. How this vast array of behaviour and activity can be
reduced to 'dead objects' I don't know. I also don't know how it can be
understood or reduced to neuronal actions within a single human brain.
How does that explain this vast collective enterprise or the processes
involved in its evolution? If I scan the brain of one scientist will
that explain science - its history and evolution? I doubt it. if I study
the atom can I therefore grasp the complexities of the physical world. I
thought this atomistic approach to complex systems had gone out with
Newton's alchemy. Apparently not. There is still this absurd belief that
if I understand the workings of the brain I can therefore understand the
vast complexities of culture which are the product of a collective,
CUMULATIVE and interactive process of human communication. Is it really
the case that if you understand one component, you understand all? I'll
give you a thousand years to prove it.

And in another post Mario writes: "One should not confuse these textual
artefacts which have 'digital' informational content with pottery and
church buildings". Presumably written or mathematical symbols (digital)
are okay as an information source but analogue stuff is beyond cultural
analysis. If so, then we've all got a problem next time we watch a
movie, look at a photograph, scan an advert, select an icon from the
screen or look at road signs when we are driving. This analogue
information is not decypherable it would seem. So too apparently are the
behavioural signals, body language, facial expressions and group
dynamics of normal social intercourse. These are not digital either, so
I guess we are in trouble again and will be treated like the ultimate
nerd in social circles. In psychiatric terms, someone who cannot
decypher these analogue social signs would be termed a schizophrenic.
Analogue or iconic information is information nevertheless. We can all
recognise our mother's face or recognize the difference between a street
in Paris and a street in Kyoto. Real objects in other words.

Here we have this beautiful contradiction in memetics: how do we study
culture without studying culture? Problemo, right? Well apparently not
if you see memetics as a branch of neuroscience. Because then, culture -
all of it - can be reduced to brain chemistry and PET scans. Through
these devices we can now thankfully understand the great cultural
collectivities which produced Beethoven, Bach, Shakespeare, Newton,
Einstein, Darwin, Marx, Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and of course The
Beatles. I did not fully realise that the patterns and processes which
underlay these achievements could be so easily modelled.That the results
of the cumulative communication and exchange of experience between a
vast number of individuals over thousands of years which has led to the
present complexities of culture could be so economically measured and
explained. We live in a truely wonderful age.

Forgive me, but I suspect that this explanation is no explanation at
all. The fairly predictable flickering of neuronal images on a scanner
at the mention of stimulative words (mother, money, sex, god and so on)
wont tell me a damn thing about the emergence of the great uniformities
of behaviour which layered and exchanged over long periods of time
produce contemporary culture. What we have here is technology
masquerading as scientific analysis. Why? Because its easy. So much
easier than mapping the patterns, regularities and interactions of
behaviour which produce emergent phenomena. So much easier than
inventing a new theory of evolution to explain human culture. Its easier
to call in an air strike to solve the problem. Figuratively: "We had to
destroy it in order to save/explain it". There is a fairly simple
pragmatic point of view here. If we say we are constructing a model of
some phenomena (such as culture) it might be useful to occasionally
study the phenomena itself rather than direct our attention to other
things. Sooner or later we have to get down there and get our hands
dirty with the real objects of our attention. I thought this was the
difference between ancient and Modern science. The latter does not
philosophise about the object but measures it, studies it, analyses
regularities and patterns within it and generally kicks it around till
it reveals the processes which brout it about. We can philosophise
forever about these entities called ideas but ulimately we are left with
observable behaviour and artefacts (frozen behaviour). This, I would
think is the scientific view. Everything else belongs in the X-Files.


Alex Brown

1. Is memetics the study of cultural evolution or not? (or is it a
cheaper version of neuroscience?)
2. Can culture be defined as above or does it involve the full range of
human behaviour and artefacts including

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