The Utility of Memes

Dave Rindos (arkeo4@UNIWA.UWA.EDU.AU)
Thu, 10 Feb 1994 06:31:34 +0800

On Tue, 8 Feb 1994, Steve Mizrach wrote:

> >Again, your critique here is telling IF and ONLY IF we take the
> >following as givens:
> >[1] "memes" exist as the natural, generative, basis for culture and
> >therefore that cultural change is the result of changes in memes possessed
> >by people (false on the face of it unless this is held to be
> >*definitionally* true -- about such matters I cannot argue)
> Why? It is not "definitionally true" but I don't see why it would be false
> either. Please elaborate. If memes = programming code, and the code is
> modified, the organism will be carrying out different instructions. Hence,
> change in memes = change in culture.

No... I think you are assuming (definitionally, I believe) that change in
culture (observed) == change in memes (assumed). WHY is that extra step
needed? Can we not just apply whatever explanatory paradigm we use to
the cultural events *themselves*? Why add a "meme" to the soup? WHAT
BENEFIT arises from doing so? Might it not be better to speak of the
events themselves? If "meme" like "trait" facilitates the discussion,
fine. But that is not the way I see "meme" used in these discussions.

Maybe I am splitting hairs here, but I think not. In fact, I think a
CENTRAL issue in Method and Theory is at stake. But, then again, I guess
some sort of radical idealism or another has had a long (and I believe
sad) history in anthropology. :{)

> >[2] assume that they are capable of being subjected to such an analysis
> >(highly questionable if nothing material is involved, which seems to be
> >the case -- how does one go about doing the memic equivalent of
> >gel-electorphoresis?? Unlike genes, memes do not have a physical
> >existance and hence are not *objects* for study)

> Again, I miss your point. Do computer programs have a material existence?
In a word -- yes.
> "Objects" do not have to be material. In the computer science world, an
> "object" is anything that can be modelled on a computer (hence,
> Object-Oriented Programming.)

But "objects" ARE material (at least the last time I looked). In fact, all
of these modelled things of which you speak here have a material basis of
one sort or another (even if it IS a programme that is at one or more
removes from whatever happens inside the computer, but that is NOT
important in this context. Hmmm... how very wise of me to have chosen
gel-electrophoresis for my analogy!)

The point I am trying to make here is that I find the "meme" concept tends
to be used as a theoretical entity when we have no good reason to do so.
The fact that I can make up an entity like a meme and make up a claim that
memes change covariant with culture change tells me nothing new.
Certainly, it adds nothing new to the observation! I almost compared the
meme-concept to the ether concept of 19th Century physics, but that would
be wrong -- ether was a consequence of a higher order assumption about the
nature of wave propagation. The meme does not even merit THAT

Put simply what *IS* a meme? Answers based upon observable cultural
behaviours and their consequent artifacts are not acceptable for the
obvious reason that this merely repeats the ASSUMPTION that memes underlie
said phenomena. While the meme may have (some) good hueristic value, that
does not admit it as a scientific concept or give me any idea whatsover
about whether memes "exist." If they are merely some sort of valueless
marker in the analysis, WHY should we choose to consider them? Does it
not make more sense to analyze the cultural events themselves?

In other words, I am asking you to operationalise the meme-concept and
show me what benefit it brings to an analysis of REAL cultural change (or
stability for that matter -- after all, stability is merely change at the
rate limit of 0).

very glad to be out of the law library for a while . . ..

Dave Rindos
Australian Foundation for Archaeological Sciences
20 Herdsmans Parade Wembley WA 6014 AUSTRALIA
Ph:+61 9 387 6281 (GMT+8) FAX:+61 9 380 1051 (USEST+13)