Re: imitationb

Fri, 20 Nov 1998 09:35:45 +0200

Date: Fri, 20 Nov 1998 09:35:45 +0200
Subject: Re: imitationb

> From Alex (
> Date: 19th November 1998
> There seems to be a tendency (at least among some of the list members) to
> assume that the process of 'imitation' provides a conceptual key to
> understanding the formation of human cultures. I would suggest that it is
> a very inadequate key. Given the fact that culture is a collective
> function - a product of numerous interacting individual agents, how can
> the process of 'imitation' which I understand from previous discussions on
> this list to involve a one-to-one copying of behaviour provide the
> requisite degree of variety and complexity that human cultures show? Do
> the various cultural systems that make up a society (music, literature,
> science, architecture, political organization) derive their uniformity of
> behaviour from one individual imitating or copying another? If each
> behavioural act within these systems was identical to another, then
> imitation would possibly be the answer. Yet clearly this is not the case.
> The uniformity of behaviour which we note in cultural systems and
> which allow us to identify them does not lie at the level of the
> individual act or the simple analog mirroring of behaviour. Again, if the
> individual agent is forced to imitate - then who do they imitate?
> Everyone? Since there are so many different behavioural acts or products
> within the same cultural system, if the individual imitates all of them,
> the result would be violent oscillation (a nervous breakdown). Do
> ndividuals really 'imitate' each other in that most collective of cultural
> functions - language? If so then all our e-mails would be exactly the same
> (with a few random errors in translation thrown in to give a semblance of
> variety).
> Imitation does not allow for the evolution of the cultural system and the
> necessity of change and requisite variety. It is no surprise to me that
> many of the research areas referred to on this list as relevant to
> memetics (cultural evolution?) centre on animal communication and social
> structure or the behaviour in the infant/parent relation. This kind of
> analog communication may well suffice to describe these relatively closed
> social systems, but there is no way that it will allow us to explain the
> complex evolving structures of human society where communication involves
> digital processes and the selection- combination of discrete units
> (memes). These are processes which allow the maintenance of the structure
> of the system while generating requisite variety, change and evolution. We
> would really have to stretch the current definition of 'imitation'; to
> breaking point to get it to
> operate as a digital process. Selection - combination is intimately linked
> to the symbolic function - the representation, modelling or mapping of the
> organism's environment and the adaptation of behaviour to suit which would
> seem to be a primary function of human communication and ultimately of
> course human culture. (The environment of a cultural system is other
> systems).
> Equally, it is worth noting that there seems to be little or no discussion
> in memetics of context or environment (other people collectively or the
> constraining effect of prevailing social, cultural
> or linguistic structures) in which cultural transmission takes place. To
> use the linguistic analogy - what I can say or express is constrained not
> only by my biology but equally by the structure of the language which I
> use which is ‘not mine’, but a collective product. There is in other words
> an almost complete neglect of the codes (cultural, social, political,
> linguistic) which constrain the character of individual messages. Frankly
> (and logically), trying to figure out these codes by isolating and
> analysing individual messages (behaviour) is a waste of time (ask NSC or
> GCHQ). Even more so is the attempt to figure out the generation of such
> collective codes (religious, political or social)
> from an analysis of the neurological functions of the 'messenger' or the
> simplistic one-to-one virus/host - contagion theory which seems to reject
> the non-linear multiple exchanges which are required to produce social and
> cultural paradigms and their evolution.
> In my view, this kind of problem (in this case, the misapplication of
> analog and digital processes and the elimination of context) in memetics
> is generated by the almost universal tendency to atomise the system under
> discussion. That is, in the classic reductionist sense of attempting to
> explain the behaviour of a system by describing the behaviour of its
> component parts. The only way to understand a code of any sort is to
> understand the communicational/interactive processes between the possibly
> large number of messengers involved in its production. It is of some
> interest here that the supposed 'thrust' of memetics, so we have been
> told, is to reduce the significance of the
> 'cultural individual' in the production of cultural systems. One might
> think therefore that there would be a shift upwards in scale to the
> communicational systems level to look at the regularities which emerge
> from the production and exchange of many messages - such as the mergence
> of meta-systems. Or, perhaps a more elaborate theory of the constraints
> imposed by rule-governed behaviour? The digital communicational processes
> of selection and combination? Complexity
> theory, self-organization/autopoesis? What do we get? What is the
> evolutionary explanatory model proposed by memetics? Analog signalling or
> behavioural imitation - derived from studies of animal behaviour?
> Contagion by one-to one contact (minus any evolutionary processes) and
> similar to the chemotactic behaviour of ants (animals again!)?
> Neurobiology or AI-type neural systems which dissect the messenger to find
> the code?

> Where is the model which is at the same level of complexity as the system
> which it models and where indeed is the evolutionary model which would
> explain change and growing complexity in cultural systems. The 'truth, as
> they say, is out there', but if memetics is to study culture, maybe it
> should look at it. Its all around us - and its big.
> regards
> Alex Brown

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