Memetics - where we are now (part 1).

t (JakeSapien@aol.com)
Tue, 20 Jul 1999 17:51:37 EDT

From: <JakeSapien@aol.com>
Date: Tue, 20 Jul 1999 17:51:37 EDT
Subject: Memetics - where we are now (part 1).
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk

Sorry for the long message - I will break it up into two EMs for easier=20
reading - but they are really one long message.

In a message dated 7/19/99 8:04:51 PM Central Daylight Time,=20
mmills@htcomp.net writes:

>>Let's put the definitions aside for a moment.=A0 It would be silly for me =
to=20
go on without knowing your opinions regarding the status of memetics in=20
scientific
communities.=A0 That's what I'd like to know.=A0 How do you think memetics =
stands
in the larger scientific community? <<

Well first of all, that we are viable at all says a whole lot about the=20
politics of the larger scientific community. At the most fundamental level=20
politics in the larger scientific community is based on philosophy. If we=20
forget that we become roadkill. No one who hopes to base a career in=20
memetics can afford to forget the philosophical implications of what they do=
,=20
or fail to put the results in philosophically sensitive terminology.

I think that *philosophically* it has a lot merit in the scientific=20
community. It takes the best metaphorical abstraction that can be drawn out=20
of biological evolution and and creates philosophically viable concepts for=20
cultural evolution. That abstraction has been laid out by Dawkins and=20
Dennet. That is the combination of the evolutionary algorithm, and the=20
selfish gene as the most proper replicator to be considered in that algorith=
m=20
(as opposed to individuals, groups, or species). Most of the opposition fro=
m=20
biologists to a science of memetics, would probably be directly related to=20
their opposition to selfish gene theory of Dawkins. Gould isn't just=20
contrary to the idea of an applied memetics, he's opposed to the very=20
abstraction upon which memetics is based. The only other opposition that we=20
would get from biologists are those that think that culture is fundamentally=20
an extension of biology - the hardcore socio-biologists.

Philosophically these are the tenets that keep memetics from just being a=20
fashion statement: 1) Biological evolution; 2) The evolutionary algorithm; =20
3) A selfish replicator that operates within that algorithm; 4) The=20
acknowlegement that culture is evolutionary; 5) The acknowlegement that=20
culture is distinct from biology; 6) Therefore the evolutionary algorithm an=
d=20
a corresponding replicator must be working within culture. That is what=20
keeps memetics philosophically and thus politically viable.

If somebody comes out in absolute opposition to all talk about memetics (not=20
just cautious skepticism mind you), you can be rest assured that they=20
disagree with one of these tenets. We also have to be aware that just=20
because somebody is skeptical, does not mean that they are philosophically a=
n=20
enemy. But that person can be turned into an enemy if we start extending=20
this into MORE philosophical statements.

Examples of this would be Blackmore's (and perhaps Dennett's) insistence tha=
t=20
selves and consciousness and so forth are not just shaped and influenced by=20
memetics, but owe their very existence to memes - the having of a self and=20
the having of a consciousness themselves are memes. Aside from my=20
disagreement with those positions, I think that at this point - whether they=20
ultimately prove true or not, such statements are at best highly speculative=
,=20
and are not philosophically crucial to memetics currently. Furthermore they=20
tread into areas that have already been the subject of cognitive sciences fo=
r=20
quite some time. Perhaps we ought to listen to what other cognitive=20
scientists have to say before we automatically throw our lots behind=20
Dennett's and Blackmore's heady statements.

Most of the just skeptical people are going be in the behavioral and=20
cognitive sciences. The ones that have any vision already know that=20
sociobiology poses a serious challenge to their field of study. A working=20
field of memetics would certainly be a welcome intercession to the growing=20
hegemony of sociobiology, and something that I think many cognitive=20
scientists would be at least theoretically interested in if they could find =
a=20
philosophical home within it.

Now what does all this have to do with memetics as a science and not just a=20
political/philosophical movement within sciences? Well right now that is=20
mostly what we are - a philosophical movement - even considering=20
peer-reviewed journal and some valiant attempts at empirical and technical=20
work. That may be what we will be for some time, though there is no reason=20
in principle that I see that should prevent us from becoming something more. =20
I just think that we will need to be patient. Lot's of people are going to=20
express interest mixed with skepticism. Many people will listen, but not=20
take it seriously. Even Dennet and Dawkins have their own interests to=20
consider, and will probably not always be the best proponents for memetics,=20
even though they will always be seen as the "godfathers" of the field of=20
study.

I personally am pleased to see Aaron Lynch's technical approach. In the=20
words of many a hopeful diplomat, I am "cautiously optimistic". I would=20
however be a little bit surprised if that is the final word on it. While I=20
personally must say that I am not the technical wizard to be criticizing it,=20
some of Lynch's more cognitive assumptions in his less technical discussions=20
that introduce the technical work, about "sameness" and "instantiations" and=20
his attitude toward metaphor and its lack of incorporation within his=20
thinking on memetic mechanism seem a little bit out of synch with a lot of=20
the things that I have read about cognitive science. I would have to assume=20
that these same assumptions would affect the way Aaron would apply his=20
technical approach to any given situation.

That doesn't by any stretch of the imagination mean that his mathematical=20
approach is doomed, and I don't think any memeticist-to-be should condemn it=20
as a whole if they haven't tried it and understood it - and I certainly=20
haven't. If anything, it may just mean that its application may need some=20
adjustment.

. . . continued . . .

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