Re: on imitation

Paul Marsden (
Tue, 24 Nov 1998 09:18:40 -0000

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: "memetics" <>
Subject: Re: on imitation
Date: Tue, 24 Nov 1998 09:18:40 -0000

Date: Tue, 24 Nov 1998 01:57:00 +1100
From: singa <>
Subject: Re: on imitation
> From: 1998 10:22:12 -0000

>>ALEX: To my suggestion that: "I would suggest that it [imitation] is a
>>inadequate key". "Paul Marsden" wrote:

>PAUL: Pure imitation, or in its abstract sense replication does not
>result in descent with modification (evolution) because there is no
> Imitation (replication) is just one of the key processes in the
> 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.

>ALEX: Imitation = replication. This is a very useful clarification.
>However, I would ask what it is in cultural terms that is being
>replicated. Behaviour?

Paul: No Instructions, which (back to Cloak) ARE embedded in contexts, they
are the functional relation of cues and behaviour. Instructions are not
internal rules.

>ALEX: If so I would still ask how we get the necessary
>variety (and therefore change and evolution) that we can observe in
>cultural systems? You have confirmed what I stated earlier, namely that
>imitation/replication does not lead to evolution.

PAUL: We agree on this, but simply because, on its own replication does not
lead to evolution, it does not mean that it is not a necessary component.
Memetics is the application of the evolutionary loop of replication,
variation and selection to culture.

>ALEX: So what does? If we
>use imitation, how do we get variation

PAUL: Depends which school of thought you come from, some would have
irreducible individual free will is the source of creativity, others would
say errors or mutations in the replication process (both are saying the same
thing, but ascribing different processes to this), Errors perhaps ultimately
to due to a nested hierarchy of the evolutionary loop operating internally
(i.e. Campbell, Dennett, Cziko), or simply errors in embedding an act in a
suitable context. (how many times have I put my wallet in the refrigerator)

>ALEX: and were exactly does 'selection'
>fit into this scheme of things if our only 'choice' so to speak is

PAUL: Durham (Rindos, and to a lesser extent Sperber) says selection, i.e.
the selective environment is based on the complex of memes already
culturally acquired, Lumsden and Wilson and the EP mob generally think
selection is based on epigenetic rules, (AKA Darwinian algorithms AKA,
evolved structure of the brain - e.g. incest avoidance) that are genetically
inherited. I think both are important.

>ALEX: In cultural terms we have both diversity and uniformity

PAUL: ...which can be explained in terms of descent (uniformity) with
modification (diversity)

>ALEX: - at two
>different levels. Diversity occurs at the individual level where each
>action (behaviour) is a very particular response (selection) to
>particular conditions. The 'conditions' are the local environment and
>the response is the repertoire of possible behaviours available to the
>individual from interaction and exchange with other individuals.
>Uniformity occurs at the collective level where there are clear
>uniformities/similarities which can be noted between these many
>individual responses. In any cultural system there are 'styles',
>theories, customs, genres, paradigms, patterns of behaviour (or
>meme-plexes) which describe the regularities which inform group

PAUL: Yes, I agree with most of this. I prefer to think of them in terms of
sets of instructions, rather than brute behaviours, recipe knowledge if you
will, but I agree with you. But how do you define a cultural system, what
is it composed of? and what is the stuff it is made of? Uniformity of

>ALEX: Regularities which are the product of communication and
>exchange between individuals within a particular cultural system
>(science, music, art, literature, etc. etc. The cultural system is
>defined by the medium of exchange involved). The function of memetics as
>I understand it is to model the processes which take place in cultural

PAUL: Depends on what you mean by cultural system, but broadly I think I
agree with you. I'd like to be able to write memetic recipe books - list
the instructions (I prefer this to rules because it doesn't imply a lurking
homuncularism) that code for contextually defined behaviour. e.g. what are
the largely unwritten instructions that underlie behaviour in a restaurant,
so that if you have never been to a restaurant you can look at the
underlying instructions that code for activity in the restaurant, and by
following them your fellow restaurant goers will think you are an
experienced restaurant goer. This is a fun project and useful. -
memeticists could start writing useful "Idiot's guides" or "Bluffer's
Guides" i.e. Recipe Books for behaviour. One of my first experiments was
based on Garfinkel's disruption method (based on the logic that one way you
can make explicit instructions is to break them - like you can find out how
a mirror works by breaking it).

I went into the London tube (metro, subway) in rush hour, and got on a
crowded train, full of corporate monsters in grey suits. Having to stand
up, I was in close proximity to a number of other people, and from time to
time I would just kick them hard on the shin. Guess what? They apologised
to me!!! (Very British) In fact you can kick somebody on the shins up to
three times in a row on the London tube, and they will apologise to you!
Now I know that is rather inconsequential, but it makes explicit an
instructions that underlies human behaviour in a particular context, and I
don't think these regularities are due to genetically acquired instructions,
rather they are socially acquired, that is they have been culturally
replicated through communication. The next stage is to account for why this
instruction was replicated, instead of another, i.e kicking me back.

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

>ALEX: 'Power'? I'm afraid I detect here a slippage from the systemic (or
>scientific) arguement to the social.

Paul: No you don't. It depends how you define power, the capacity to
control the behaviour of others can be integrated into evolutionary culture
theory. (Ownership (in a non-homuncular sense - i.e. structural access) of
the means of replication and selection.

>ALEX: By the
>way, 'cues' cannot be hardwired into anything. They are, logically,
>signals from 'outside' - from the environment to which an individual

PAUL: Yes!!! Sorry I must not have been making myself clear. This is why
behaviour IS contextually defined.

>ALEX: Inevitably they are unpredictable in character.

PAUL: I don't agree. If you take account of the context, they are
predictable, most people are VERY predictable.

>ALEX: This is what happens when we de-contextualize the system.

PAUL: Who wants to decontextualise the system

>ALEX: Yes. As I have also said, 'there are many diverse cultural
>repertoires out there' (architecture, politics, philosophy, sexual
>relations, and so on), but they do not interact in the way you think
>they interact. They each have different languages (media of expression).
>How, for instance does music affect your science? I cannot build
>buildings with words, only concrete and steel. As I suggested above 'cue
>and behaviour' is too Pavlovian and mechanistic an approach to handle a
>communicational system as complex and context-dependent as culture. You
>cannot get evolution (an elaboration of a program) out of that. You can
>only get 'more of the same' change.

PAUL: They are all transmitted culturally so the media is the same, the
vector is different - mass media, and the code might be different (language)
but it is all culture.

>Alex: Yes. But,culturally the imitation of what?

PAUL: Instructions.

If you prefer modelling to replication or imitation then fine, but I think
we are talking about the same process.

>>PAUL: Don't mistake a failure of imagination for an insight into
>>necessity. Perhaps "There is no way" but we are chipping away at the
>> edifice of culture,

>ALEX: Yes, but that edifice has already been scaled from so many
>different directions. There are so many available and useful theories
>which describe the processes of cultural evolution which can be
>integrated into a truly coherent theory that this 'chipping away' has a
>somewhat nostalgic ring to it. Been there, done that.

Has it, by whom and how?

>I think part of
>the problem is that memetics has been from its origins trapped in a
>so-called 'scientific' (in fact: atomistic/technological and mechanistic
>mode derived from authority figures like Dawkins, Dennett et al, who
>themselves do not take these literalist positions). This is a rather
>dated position considering that what we are dealing with in memetics is
>information systems, logical levels, complex symbolic systems, orders of
>learning, ecological relationships and the analysis of context-dependent
>systems. We can with some effort and more economically explain culture
>through evolutionary processes, but not by ignoring the fundamentally
>collective/communicationaland symbolic nature of the animal.

Paul: If you can show me a way of using symbols in a way that doesn't invoke
a ghost in the machine, then I might agree with you. Until somebody comes
along with a more productive standard scientific epistemology, then I'll
stick to what we've got - because it works.

>ALEX: In an operational sense,
>emergence refers simply to the reorganization or coordination of an
>antecedent system. Nothing is added. The meta-system is exactly this. It
>is the establishment of a new level (the meta-level) of controls or
>rules derived from an assimilation of previous behaviours. IT is not
>magical. It is systematic.

PAUL: Good, but what is the first level form which all the other system
levels emerge? Our stab in the dark is assess the usefulness of the
evolutionary loop of replication, variation and selection, or in the Causal
logic of natural selection, "self-embedding" (Cloak) Emergence is magic
unless you start by describing the intitial conditions of the first system.

Cheers, Alex - you're making me think!

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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