On imitation

Paul Marsden (PaulMarsden@email.msn.com)
Fri, 20 Nov 1998 10:22:12 -0000

From: "Paul Marsden" <PaulMarsden@email.msn.com>
To: "memetics" <memetics@mmu.ac.uk>
Subject: On imitation
Date: Fri, 20 Nov 1998 10:22:12 -0000

> From Alex Brown:brown@vuni.lefke.edu.tr (singa@cc.emu.edu.tr)
> 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.

Okay I'm listening, and I think you are wrong - let's take it from here.

> 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?

Pure imitation, or in its abstract sense replication does not result in
descent with modification (evolution) because there is no modification.
Imitation (replication) is just one of the key processes in the evolutionary
loop of replication, VARIATION and selection. The specific mechanisms in
the social world of all these processes must be understood to account for
the diversity and structure in the social world.

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?

Depends what you mean by uniformity - I see a whole lot of diversity out
there and that is what interests me. History is not just one damned thing
after another, it's one damned thing INSTEAD of another. Selection is

>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?

Nope, there is a selection process based on power, who to imitate IS a key
question for memetics - IMHO.

> 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).

Nope, if you read Cloak, he suggests that only if there is no prior
instruction (defined as the functional relationship between cue and
behaviour) when exposed to a cue, a new instruction is likely to be
replicated, i.e social learning. One task for memetics is to understand
which cue's we are hardwired to attend to - this is where I think EP and
memetics have something useful to say to each other.

> 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).

No, the whole point about culture is that there are many diverse cultural
repertoires out there, which when they interact produce new relationships
between cue and behaviour.
> Imitation does not allow for the evolution of the cultural system and the
> necessity of change and requisite variety.

No, imitation (replication) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for

> 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).

Don't mistake a failure of imagination for an insight into necessity.
Perhaps "There is no way" but we are chipping away at the awe-inspiring
edifice of culture, and one day I think we will be able to explain some of
it using the evolutionary loop of replication, variation and selection. I
hope that my work on imitative suicides and imitative sociopathic behaviour
from an evolutionary perspective might allow for insights understanding,
explanation and prediction, not afforded by other perspectives.

>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.

Nope, they have the same problem in evolutionary biology, it can be obviated
by using large samples, (ie all this macro-memetic stuff I harp on about in
the Memetic Suicide Paper)

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).

I'm not sure I know what you mean, but if you are saying that the
symbolic/representational nature of culture precludes the operationalisation
of an evolutionary model of culture then I do not agree. Whilst I don't
agree that this is the most useful way forward for all the reasons Derek and
I have been debating with Aaron and Mario some big heavyweights in ECT
(evolutionary culture theory) do agree with Aaron and Mario namely Durham,
Sperber and Rindos.

> 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.

Agreed! This is why I think Cloak's concept of cues is SO important.

> 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).

So let's all give up and go home...

>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.
They might have non-linear emergent properties but transmission is a
discreet event.

> 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.

Okay so what do you want to do, study systems full of people positively
radiating emergent properties and stop there? What we need is emergence
without magic as Rob Clewley's excellent paper suggests. I'm a reductionist
because I don't want to pin theories of culture on sky hooks, I want cranes
to build with. Science is methodologically reductionist because it is a
method, it cannot be anything else but methodologically reductionist, but
that does not necessarily imply ontological reductionism.

>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.

Explanation requires reduction,otherwise you leave out what needs to be
explained, and the reductio ad absurdum counter to this does not work
because our domain assumptions are the causal logic of

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 emergence
> 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,

This sounds like an interesting memetic project.

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.

Try evolutionary World Systems Theory or Sanderson's Evolutionary
Materialism - both have a stab at this.

>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.
Yours is probably bigger than mine, but does that preclude me from getting
on and doing my own smaller micro-theoretical activity? Culture may be big,
but it only exists as a product of individual acts (unless you are not a
physicalist of course... and physicalism does not preclude emergent
properties), and useful insights can be made from one on one activity. Size
does matter, but it's what you do with it that counts. Of course yours
might be producing vast quantities of emergent properties, and i may be
shooting blanks - but at least I hope to be able to explain why....

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
e-mail PaulMarsden@msn.com
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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