Re: virus: Applying the meme concept to culture and families
Sat, 23 Jan 1999 14:36:02 EST

In a message dated 1/18/99 2:03:29 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

<< Hi Jake,

Greetings. Thanks for your thought provoking and challenging response of 14 Jan - and the time, thinking and effort put into your reply. Much appreciated. I feel as though I am the feet of a Master!>>

Yes, well send your tuition in cash, money order or cashier's check. This philosopher king needs new clothes.


>>But Jake, I'm still lumbered with the verifyiablity/falsifiability test. OK
I've tested the concept out in conversations with other families and so far the model seems to stack up. Alas, any scientist would cringe at a test as loose and casual as this. But I still think there is something valid in the model.

But Jake, surely the "science" of memetics is still in its infancy? There are many examples in other sciences of phenomenon that had to wait for technologies to come along that would eventually provide concrete proof of phenomenon's existence and solid evidence of the its precise characteristics.<<

I enjoyed reading about your study of family history. I think this is a begining of the general direction that this needs to go in. Although I am not sure that I would even call it a "science" at this stage.

Perhaps a very useful philosophy. I can at least say that it seems to generate good explanations that do not cop out to supernaturalisms or mysticism and sems to respect (not violate - and tends to conform to) the general understandings of legitimate science. In the words of Daniel Dennett, we are not looking for skyhooks here (Darwin's Dangerous Idea for context). In the world of philosophy, this is a very welcome developement for an area of endeavor that has been notorious for not dealing with reality in practical ways.

The mark of a good philosophy is one that generates good practical hypotheses (practical meaning that some of them are going subjectable to verification/falsification) and generates good questions. I think that a good first test for memetics might be a historical approach first. Looking in the historical record for memetic patterns and see how well this can explain things.

Of course the problem there is that we can easily be accused of inventing "just so" stories. However, with the vastness of the historical record, no one individual or even a small cadre can be expected to cover the whole thing, and if certain types of "just so" stories seem to be recurring through out many different historian's efforts in many different fields of history, then it might seem that this might count as some degree of verification for the scheme in general. If very few consistent themes of "just so" stories seem to be emerging, in other words little evidence of consensus, this might count for some degree of falsification for memetic endeavors.

For a while I think that memetics will understandably be considered a philosophical bastard child of biology. Never the less, I think that memeticists should strive to "culturize" memetics as much as possible instead of relying purely on biological analogy. This means retaining those parts of biological metaphor that are truly critical to the algorithm of evolution, and discarding those parts of it that are really just biological details. Though I initially was drawn to the "virus" metaphor, I think it must be discarded in the culturization of memetics for these very reasons. It focusses too much on biological details and thus confuses what is truly important for cultural considerations.

I do think retaining the replicator / expression dichotomy is important, but where we will locate them will not necessarily follow biological expectations. Here is how I see it breaking down.

replicator; genotype - location - DNA ("inside") expression; phenotype - location - selective physical environment ("outside")

replicator; memotype - location - cultural artifacts/representations ("outside")
expression; phemotype - location - selective cultural/mental environment ("inside" - ostensibly in our brains, though the eventual development of artificial intelligence may do this one day as well)

One of the things that the process of culturizing memetics will do is help illuminate what is truly crucial to evolution and what is just biological details. If it succeeds in doing this, memetics may provide new insight to biological evolution, by studying evolution itself outside of the medium of biology where it was first empirically studied. If understanding of biological evolution is demonstrably enhanced through our exploration and our thinking in memetics, then this would be another type of verification that memetics might be more than just the dream of philosopher kings and queens.

>>I'm not so sure about the Lamarckian aspect you mentioned. Yes Jake,
apparent Lamarckism of course. But if we accept Dawkin's concept that memes are replicating ideas then clusters of memes will adapt to survive in new environments. Harrises, that in the process of expressing the 'moving meme', who migrated to a hot, tropical Australia in 1909 had to incorporate memes from existing settlers who had survived - memes that would have been quite different from those that kin folk who had gone to Canada would have replicated from the Canadians around them.

But I can't see how this should be a Larmarckian process. When Dawkins was introducing the meme in his book "The Selfish Gene" (p 206) he wrote about the replicator "achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind." So it's the merging of memes that we are seeing in the Antipodes and in the northern wastes of new found lands. Memes once useful in 19th century Victorian England could have been fatal. Traits like self-confidence, assertiveness, and individuality that society would have frowned upon, on the other hand Jake, would have encouraged survival. Extremely rapid evolution as Dawkins suggests perhaps but hardly Lamarckian.<<

The way I understand Lamark's thinking, put in terms of our modern understanding of genetics - It would be where alterations in the phenotype (the expression) that ocur within the selective environment translate into alterations in the genotype (the replicator). If I become a body builder and bulk up before I reproduce, and that excess muscle mass becomes expressed into my genotype and then passed on to my offspring, that would be Lamarkian. It doesn't happen in biology.

I don't know whether it happens in culture. I only pose the question that it might. Do we really alter the memes that we replicate, or are our acts of "creativity" just a happenstance selective recombinations of memes that were already there to begin with? Is blind variation and selective retention in culture - still just as blind as it was in biology? I am not offering an answer right now - and part of it is because I am not sure that I have one.

>>Your comment that "Memes and genes form "alliances"", was a breakthrough for
me. I had never put the two together like this. It moved my thinking ahead by a quantum leap - and your contribution to the development of my ideas is a vivid example of precisely why I joined the <> list. Jake, you've given me there another angle from which to examine characteristics of family folk going back many years. Thank you. <<

If you have read anything about the Minnesota twins studies, I think meme/gene alliances can probably explain all of the "erie coincidences" that those researchers kept running into. Twins separated at birth - wearing highly similar clothing, naming their children the same names, having their houses arranged in a similar fashion and so forth. Part of the explanation may be our own selective perception - we tend to notice the erie coincidences far more quickly than the many not-so-erie differences. And while I do not think that explains the "erie coincidences" fully, I think the rest of the explanation can be found in memetics.

Most of these twins - even though they may have even lived in completely different socio-economic classes in different parts of the country, or occassionally even in different countries, most of them still encountered largely the same partially homogenized culture that permeates all westernized nations.

Culturally, America (and thus to some extent western Europe) is almost everywhere now. So not only did these twins have the same genes, they probably encountered local societies that had many interesting cultural similarities that we now almost take for granted. What would be more interesting would be to study twins separated at birth - one of which was raised in Waco Texas, and the other in Beijing China. Or one of which was raised in New York City, and the other in a hunter gatherer tribe in the heart of Australia. I bet the "erie coincidences" become far less. Unfortunately the opportunities for these types of studies are probably dwindling.