Levels of analysis etc. (Was Re: Significance of memetics)

Rob Clewley (Rob.Clewley@bristol.ac.uk)
Mon, 23 Nov 1998 18:11:01 +0000 (GMT)

Date: Mon, 23 Nov 1998 18:11:01 +0000 (GMT)
From: Rob Clewley <Rob.Clewley@bristol.ac.uk>
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
Subject: Levels of analysis etc. (Was Re: Significance of memetics)
In-Reply-To: <Pine.SOL.3.96.981122134907.3240B-100000@rocky-gw.oswego.edu>

Dear Robert,

On Sun, 22 Nov 1998 levy@Oswego.EDU wrote:

> If memes interact forming structures at that level of complexity, is this
> grounds for an anthropomorphic study of culture?

It is easy to fall into the anthropomorphic trap when discussing memes,
but increasingly it has been demonstrated how this can be avoided with
carefully chosen concepts and a view of the potential integration of
memetics with solid scientific theories from social psychology, and in
part from a careful use of mathematical ideas like systems theory.

You might like to refer to some of the reading lists posted recently on
this discussion list (like Paul Marsden's previous post). However,
specifically angled towards the issue of memetic "mysticism" and
anthropomorphism, I would direct you to a couple of my personal choices:

Dan Sperber's "Culture Explained: A Naturalistic Approach".

Dan Dennett also discusses issues of reductionism and levels of analysis
which is probably easily applied to memetic thinking (although I'm
afraid I can never remember which of his papers are the best starting
point. Perhaps Nick Rose could jump in here! I suggest a paper perhaps,
because his books are often a bit to daunting if you just want answers
to these specific questions).

I also presented a paper at the memetics symposium in
Belgium this summer which I think might help. I discussed several points
concerning the proper appreciation of the levels of analysis which
memetics involves itself with, and how these can fit into the larger
scientific picture. As it is, the paper is very short (which might be a
good thing for some), but I am preparing a ten-or-so page version which
I will be submitting to JoM soon (see my web page). In particular, re:

> Perhaps culture is the
> outcome of many interactions between self-organizing memetic "persons"
> whose boundaries are less defined than that of the typical individual.

..... I would like to think that this is a fairly standard idea already.
Although it is right that we should be aware of this basis in terms of
boundaries, systems, self-organisation and whatever, it has been made
clear in recent publications that social contagions can be studied at a
functional level in their own right for the purposes of uncovering a lot
of understanding about "cultural evolution" (e.g. Paul Marsden's JoM

> If this is the case then we should notice this more directly when more
> comprehensive languages are developed, alowing for more externalization of
> internal representation and assimilation. One implication is that the
> transfer of high level semantic structures can result in bonds between
> minds, transfering the control over the activity of a group of bodies to
> to the level of the self-organizing group mind.

In fact it has been discussed at length on this list that now is not an
appropriate time to be getting our hands dirty with a so-called
"micro-memetic" theory which is based in individual psychology, or
harder still of course neuroscience (if you really want to banish the

I am not saying that your statements are necessarily false, but that
these "insights" are hard to interpret. What is a "self-organised group
mind"? We have little enough understanding of the workings of a single
mind, where we have to grossly generalise with abstract theories which
avoid neurological detail, and test only by statistical properties of
"large" sampled datasets. There are even fewer options to progress with
clear predictions and tests if we start to use theories of
"self-organised group minds" as one of our keystone concepts. One day I
hope this will indeed be possible, but a lot more will have to be known
about the mind-body problem. In the meantime, it's back to statistics.

The bread and butter of memetics as an active scientific theory is
certain to become the Wilkins-like "evolutionary", or "macro-", memetic
approach. I imagine this will remain so for some time (and let's face
it, population genetics is still a fruitful research area despite
the rise of molecular genetics).

At least Sperber, Dennett (and of course many others) have touched upon
issues of a micro-memetic theory. And personally I will continue to
explore what _can_ meaningfully be said about social systems from the
point of view of mathematics, self-organisation, integrated multi-level
approaches, etc.

So I urge you to read over the recent issues of JoM, and the discussions
of possible memetic experiments on this list, and my recent paper :),
since my references here are rather incomplete & idiosyncratic!


Rob Clewley.

Applied Nonlinear Mathematics, and Neural Computing Groups,
Dept. of Engineering Maths, University of Bristol,
Queen's Building, University Walk, Bristol
BS8 1TR, United Kingdom.

(+44) (0)117 928 9798 / 9743
( Fax ) (+44) (0)117 925 1154

"Most general statements are false"

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