Re: Anthropology and Memetics

Danny Yee (danny@ORTHANC.CS.SU.OZ.AU)
Mon, 14 Feb 1994 14:00:41 +1100

> From: Steve Mizrach <SEEKER1@NERVM.NERDC.UFL.EDU>
> Subject: Anthropology and Memetics
> Without getting into the various theories of culture, I think I would
> like to throw something else into the debate. I think that anthropology
> could use a dose of memetics. (Not related to zetetics.)

I've always been a little skeptical about memetics - not because I don't
think there *is* such a subject, but because culture is more complicated
than genetics in many ways. Other people on this list have pointed this
out already.

> "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 think you should be a little wary about Dawkins' views on biological
evolution. It's not that there's anything *wrong* with them, but there
are other ways of viewing evolution. (So try reading some Stephen Jay
Gould for a different perspective, perhaps.) Also it is not really the
case that "unsuccessful memes die out" - "unsuccessful" is not equal to
"counterproductive". The question of how variation comes into existence
and how it is maintained in a population are also untouched.

> 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.

But a gene doesn't include its own replication machinery, so why define
"meme" to do so? Surely there are possible analogies with viruses, which
don't do so. Also sport mutations that die out are still genes, so
why shouldn't idiosyncratic beliefs be classified as memes, albeit
unsuccessful ones?

Compared to genetics, the replication of culture is poorly understood. I
don't see memetics as helping much there.


> 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.

Ummmm... that definition of species won't get you very far in biology! Some
species span hundreds of millions of years and the entire globe!
You want some reference to barriers to gene/meme transfer, I think...

Danny Yee.