Rob Quinlan (C611417@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU)
Fri, 9 Dec 1994 13:31:35 CST
Steve Mizrach (sp?) brings up an interesting question w/ the memes can o'
worms. I'd like to elaborate, but as it's crunch time here I'll have to
stick to a nut shell outline (probably just as well).
I have two problems w/ coevolutionary/meme/cultural evo. approaches. 1. I
am uneasy treating culture as a group of aggregated traits that change in
frequency over time. I'd rather think of culture as a subset of the
environment that acts on an individual's phenotype through development in
pretty much the same way the physical environment acts on the phenotype.
E.g. growing up in an high altitude environment results in a phenotype w/
bigger lungs, and growing up in a Spanish speaking environment results in
a Spanish speaking phenotype. 2. Until recently coevolutionary approaches
have tended to treat people as passive recipients of culture. In a paper at
the '93 AAA Lee Cronk made the analogy (re coevolution) that culture is to
people as lint is to a sweater. I think Boyd and Richerson's paper in Smith
and Winterhalder _Evolutionary Ecology and Human Behavior_ 1992 is a beginning
at the convergence of coevolution and other Darwinian anth approaches, beacause
they are beginning to consider the role of people w/ evolved minds in the
transmission of culture. However, for me coevolution is a confusing, round-abo
ut way of dealing with the culture-people relationship.
With all that said, I think there is a way of thinking about memes that is
(for me) useful. Dawkins talks about a meme as a unit of information
resident in the brain. Most importantly, a meme is a replicator like a gene.
With that in mind I think we should restrict the concept of a meme to things
that are obvious replicators -- so they have to be small, have a high degree
of transmission fidelity, AND they have to be useful (beacause minds will
evolve ways of resisting harmfully parasitic memes).
A joke is a good example of a meme. It's small. It has high transmission
fidelity (because if it changes it's probably not funny any more). It has
a physiological response (laughing). It replicates. And it's *useful*.
Here I'm refering to Alexander's 1987 paper on evolution of humor in _Ethology
and Sociobiology_. (Alexander doesn't support meme theory. I refer to his th
eory of humor.) In a really small nut shell he says that jokes are employed
in status shifts between individuals such that a joke cracker elevates his
status relative to others present. Now, I would argue that minds are
evolved to detect a useful meme and ignore the rest. So you hear a good joke
and you replicate it in the service of the status increasing mechanism of your
brain/psychology/mind. The meme spreads. In this regard some other things
that qualify as memes are fashion thingies (like combat boots w/ peasant dresse
s etc), political sound bytes (thousand points of light, I like Ike, etc), and
maybe catchy little tunes. Anyway that's about all I have time for now.
I'd really like to hear from some archeologists on this one, because I think
they have been some of the strongest supporters of coevolution yet. Any
coevo oriented archeos out there?
P.S. I noticed that there's a coevolution paper in the next issue of CA. I'll
be interested to see how that works. Thus far coevolution has IMHO suffered
from a lack of emperical work. Do people know of other emperical works?