Re: memes

Fri, 9 Dec 1994 14:57:47 CST

On Fri, 9 Dec 1994 13:31:35 CST Rob Quinlan said:
>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).

I am very uncomfortable with this "usefulness" requirement. It sounds
like the old idea of defining culture as a "system of adaptation" or
as the "extrasomatic means of adaptation." Sure, most of culture may
be adaptive and most memes may be useful, but I don't think it's useful
in either case to make those characteristics parts of their definitions.

It also runs counter to observations of memes that aren't useful.
Durham in the book that I recommended in an earlier posting has a
good discussion of this whole issue. His overall conclusion is that
we should expect the organ of ours that deals with culture - the
brain - to have evolved to choose memes so that mostly they're
useful to those doing the choosing, but sometimes there's "imposition"
of memes by one group that has the power to choose memes for another
group (female circumcision seems like a possible example of this),
and sometimes people simply choose bad memes, often because they
can't perceive all of the meme's bad consequences. He gives the
example of endocannibalism among the Fore and how it set the stage
for the disastrous spread of the degenerative nerve disease kuru
among that group. The link between the cannibalism and the disease
was a tough one for even Western medical experts to figure out,
and although the Fore knew something was wrong and attempted to
deal with it they didn't (at least initially) spot the link with
the cannibalism meme, which was maintained for other reasons
that did make logical sense to them (e.g., human meat tasted
good, i.e., like their favorite and most familiar meat, pork,
to them).

>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?

I've written a comment on that paper. On the whole, I think that paper
joins Durham's book in providing empirical evidence that the approach
has something useful to offer, but also in demonstrating (as the
authors themselves point out) that it is also limited in terms of
what sorts of phenomena it can explain. I also include in my
comment some more critical ideas that I also had in that 1993 AAA
paper that Rob mentioned.


Lee Cronk
Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843-4352
Office: 409-847-9254
Fax: 409-845-4070