Re: Where does Blackmore's Replicator Power Come From?

Tue, 30 Mar 1999 11:39:04 GMT

Date: Tue, 30 Mar 1999 11:39:04 GMT
From: UEA <>
Subject: Re: Where does Blackmore's Replicator Power Come From?

<<because this leaves the reader and critic in danger of
misunderstanding the whole paradigm and conceptualising
culture as some kind of active parasite. >>

Unfortunately that IS how the paradigm has been presented so
far. There is no misunderstanding. . . . I haven't read
Blackmore's book yet, but it sounds to me by what is being
said here, that she is simply repeating the same mistake -
and of course the mistake doesn't repeat itself - people
repeat it.

I do like the way you characterize it as the "memetic
=E9lan". It is very reminiscient of older fallacies in the
biological sciences. It's interesting how the pattern is
repeated in cultural studies.


Well, yes, a number of nails have been hit on the head here.
First, you would be right in assuming that Blackmore thinks
of "culture as some kind of active parasite", but she goes a
bit further than that. In chap 18 of MM, she concludes that
the self is an illusion and it is the memes that are
essentially running the show - so the word "parasite" is not
appropriate (nor even "commensal").
This brings into light an argument that has been running
since Aristotle and before - that of causality. To Blackmore
the memes are active and the "selves" are passive; I guess
Paul feels it's the other way round, hence his concerns
about the term "self-replication." Roger is right to point
out that it depends which way you look at things.

Either way, one is left asking what drives the activity of
an active thing? The answer is of course very much a
philosophical one, and the introduction of the word elan (as
in "elan vital" or "ghost in the machine") is most
appropriate. I would just like to point out here that since
the dawn of time philosophers have been chasing the ultimate
distillation of this causality - the causa sui, or
cause-in-itself - so to claim that we have it in memetics is
perhaps premature (at least that's my criticism of

My personal view, very much along the lines of Dennett, is
that the following two points are inescapable where
causality is concerned:

1. At some point you are going to have to assume causality
at an axiomatic level. Whether you believe in God, the elan
vital, the big bang or (as I do) the tendency of electrons
to adopt states of lower energy - whatever is your font of
causality, it must be assumed - it cannot be derived
logically from a priori principles (contra, for example,

2. Additionally, whatever causality you believe to exist,
you will never be able to ascertain finally which
"direction" this causality takes by empirical testing. To
cut a long story short, we will never know whether "it is
the memes that are the cause" or "it is us that are the
cause" it just depends, as mentioned, which way you look at

Hence, by extension the replication/self-replication
dichotomy is just a matter of the stance you take. For

YOu won't be able to ascertain by experimentation whether
your memes "caused you to do this" (commit suicide for
example) but you can discern patterns of replication. These
patterns of replication can make you infer a relative
causality rather than determine an absolute one (the latter
of which is what Blackmore, and Dawkins, are looking for).
If the widespread reporting of a suicide is followed by a
disproportionately large number of suicides, we might
conclude that the one had caused the other. BUT, because -
and this is just one example - it could have been the case
that the reporter deliberately gave the suicide front page
so as to see how much influence there would be (or
whatever), we can't say that "the memes killed the man."

Of course, we could say the memes of the reporter caused him
to put it on the front page; but then maybe those memes were
instilled in him by some evil dictator - and so on, ad
infinitum. This infinite regress shows that absolute
causality cannot be determined. To reiterate, relative
causality can be inferred by experimentation (or indeed in
theory), but it does depend on the point of view you adopt.

cheers, alex rousso.

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