Re: Dead third hand objects.

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Thu, 10 Sep 1998 14:44:44 +0200

Date: Thu, 10 Sep 1998 14:44:44 +0200
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: Dead third hand objects.

singa wrote:

> From:Alex Brown
> Date: 10th Sept
> On Mon, 07 Sep 1998 Mario Vaneechoutte wrote:


Your reaction to what I have written nicely illustrates how difficult it is not to
misunderstand each other in this kind of internet discussions and it also nicely
illustrates how the same words have different meanings in different disciplines.
1. To biologists, artefacts are material things, e.g. the end product of a series of
behaviours and activitities, like a birds nest. Almost nothing of what you name would
qualify as an artefact the way I am used to use this word. Sociologists seem to use the
word in a different manner.
2. I am being accused now of being a splitter, who suggests to look only at neurons.
You should realize that my writings were meant to indicate that studying only
behaviours and material artefacts, while not taking into account what happens inside
the mind is limiting memetics unnecessarily. Since this was the position of Derek
(which I find too extreme) and one of his arguments was that it is impossible to know
anything about the mind (a general attitude among psychologists it seems). Therefore I
argued that looking inside the mind is becoming more and more possible. That is all.
You completely misinterpreted what I tried to explain. Of course that may be due to my
poor explanations as well.

So, I think I could largely agree with what you write below.

Best regards


> > 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.
> regards
> 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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This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)