Anthropology and Memetics
Steve Mizrach (SEEKER1@NERVM.NERDC.UFL.EDU)
Sat, 29 Jan 1994 01:11:55 -0500
like to throw something else into the debate. I think that anthropology
could use a dose of memetics. (Not related to zetetics.)
"Memetics" comes from the word "meme," coined by Richard Dawkins as a
counterpart to the "gene." If the gene uses the physical organism as a
vehicle for replicating itself (e.g. it is 'selfish'), then one might say
that the meme uses "culture" as its vehcile of propagation. Dawkins
introduces the meme concept to show how cultural evolution might parallel
biological evolution: successful memes replicate rapidly and over great
areas; unsuccessful memes "die out," largely because they are
counterproductive to the cerebrums which contain them. Dawkins stresses
that once biological evolution halted, humans were now on a totally
different evolutionary track, namely 'memetic evolution.'
I understand a meme to basically consist of two components: a
proposition ("if you are bad, you go to hell.") ("Dan Foss is not a
Canadian.") and a rationale for its replication (just as every cell
contains the DNA and the messenger RNA for replicating it) such as "it is
your duty to spread this proposition" or "telling others of this
proposition will benefit them," etc. Memes are therefore not quite the same
thing as "beliefs" or "ideas," because there can be non-memetic beliefs.
Purely idiosyncratic beliefs of an individual would not be memes, for
example, especially if that person keeps those beliefs to themselves.
In any case, I would say that there are memetic systems (which
correspond to organisms) which contain lots of memes. Most of these systems
could be called religions, ideologies, political systems, economic systems,
kinship systems, ethnosciences,morals, behavioral codes, etc. - in short,
everything we deal with in anthropology. Most of these memetic systems
contain memes which stress their superiority over other systems (e.g. this
religion is the "one true way," etc.) because, obviously, this will cause
the memetic system and its components to spread more rapidly.
Of course, memes and memetic systems can mutate and change, just as
genes do. The memetic system "Christianity" has altered a great deal over
the last 2000 years. Further, "memes" need not be propositions that a
person is consciously aware of. "When you sneeze, cover your mouth," is a
an acquired, shared pattern of behavior, which may not be consciously
reflected upon, but is still a meme. This is not a "mentalistic" theory of
culture; while memes may reside in minds, minds are frequently quite
unaware of their presence.
Just as the gene can motivate biological behavior in many organisms
which is detrimental to the organism but beneficial to the propagation of
the gene, the meme can motivate social behavior which is detrimental to the
memetic system but assures that the propagation of the meme continues,
perhaps in a different system.
I would take a stab at identifying a culture as an entity consisting
of the distribution of certain memetic systems which can be localized in
space and time, just as a species is a collection of certain organisms
(genetic systems) which can be localized in space and time.
Seeker1 [@Nervm.Nerdc.Ufl.Edu] (real info available on request)
Anthropologist, Cybernaut, PoMoDemite, Noetician, Situationiste, et al.
University of Florida, Gainesville, Cosmic Nexus of the Universal Matrix
"'Tis an ill wind that blows no minds!" --Malaclypse the Younger