Joseph Carroll:

“Memes,” for example, spread or “reproduce” in a way that has some parallels with the spread of genes, but no meme—no idea or cultural image–contains a molecular mechanism adapted by natural selection to replicate itself. Ideas and cultural images are themselves inert. They are “replicated” only by serving as stimuli for psychological processes eventuating in symbolic activity that stimulates other psychological processes. The differences in causal mechanisms between molecular replication and this “memetic” process are subtle but fundamental.

In an essay “Evolutionary Psychology and Literature” forthcoming in the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, edited by David Buss (Wiley), we can see why a blogger’s work is never done: memes need to be established over and over; they can never be taken for granted.

Shall we contemplate, for example, the meme whose policies led to seventy years of disaster in Russia but are mourned by Hobsbawm. Of course, those particular memes seem to have the staying power of Rasputin: dead, we hoped, and then we listen to Chavez or Mugabe. But, of course, they appeal to desires we understand; we have seen, however, these are not the best methods to satisfy our needs, especially for community.

But this gets away from Joseph Carroll’s cautionary note to his fellows. Most of us will see it as a truism but it is also a warning against the tendency of all of us, ethnobiologists are no exception, to get carried away. While the success of memes may depend, in part, on our biology, they are not, of course, biological.

Carroll’s introductory context:

Evolutionary analogists take natural selection as a model for a process that applies to other phenomenal domains. Instances include Donald Campbell’s idea that all intellectual creativity can be conceived as a form of random variation and selective retention (1988); Thomas Kuhn’s notion that scientific disciplines speciate or branch into distinct and “incommensurable” species of knowledge (1991); Richard Dawkins’ theory of “memes” (1976, 1982); and Rabkin’s and Simon’s idea that cultural creations “evolve in the same way as do biological organisms, that is, as complex adaptive systems that succeed or fail according to their fitness to their environment” (2001, p. 45). All these theories mistake an analogy for a causal process.

5 thoughts on “Memes”

  1. Ginny,
    While there are subtle differences between the reproduction of cultural memes and their genetic counterparts, one obvious similarity is the role that competition plays in the selection and propagation of both.

    It is said that if a phenotypic trait allows one individual to outlive competition with 1 million members of its same species, that trait will become writ genetically and expressed phenotypically as a favorable adaptation within that species.

    The same goes for ideas and cultural images. Here the importance of intellectual tolerance of one idea out of 1 million, and the open debate this tolerance fosters on blogs like Chicagoboyz, is essential to an honest selective regime for intellectual memes.

    In any war against individual freedom it is the press, and the solvency of free ideas, that is always attacked first.

  2. Ginny, excellent point … many often confuse mere similarity with causality … the cognitive models characterizing analogy provide strong reason why one should reject analogical reasoning beyond the ability to seed new domain thinking. Specifically, structure mapping developed by Gentner suggests that analogical reasoning is based upon structure isomorphic similarity.

    Steve makes a good point that it is not evolution rather natural selection or mutation that is driving some of these processes. teh real challengeis to empiracally tease out the mechanism rather than use analogies.

  3. Ginny and Simon,
    I am reading Ian T. King’s political science text, “Social Science and Complexity, The Scientific Foundations of Holistic-Relational Social Sciences” (2000, Nova Science Publishers, Inc.)

    In Chapter 2, Scientific Metaphor and Public Policy, he defines a rank of outdated, elitist social-engineers, that we may today in America call the “Progressive Left,” as the ultimate logical proponents of the “Newtonian-positivist world view.” In relation to this world view, he argues:

    “While social engineering ultimately promises in its mechanistic understanding of the universe the same kind of control and prediction over the social environment as the natural sciences have (supposedly) had over the natural world, …it has threatened, from a generally “critical” viewpoint, to engender the oppressiveness and sterility of centralized control at the expense of individual autonomy and genuine social democracy world wide.”(P. 19)

    To tie this observation to Joseph Carrroll’s one regarding social meme’s, it is not that metaphor may or may not be used to define social structures or ideas, it is which metaphor is used. King argues convincingly that metaphors are not only useful, but necessary, because established statistical methods are insufficient.

    To illustrate that social engineers are necessarily limited by their use of statistics to study “social conformities” or averages, and hence are incapable of diagnosing the intricacies and minutiae of social mechanisms, he quotes H. Arendt (“The Human Condition.” 1959, Double Day Books):

    “The application of the law of large numbers and long periods to politics or history signifies nothing less than the willful obliteration of their subject matter, and it is a hopeless enterprise to search for meaning in politics or significance in history when everything that is not everyday behavior or automatic trends has been ruled out as immaterial.”

    King summarizes unflatteringly, “Again, it is uncreative, conformist men and women without the capacity for action who constitute the “objects” of a radically positivistically configured social science.”(p. 21) At its worst, King worries, rightly I think, that this world view leads scarily to de Toquevilles “doctrine of fatality,” (“Democracy in America.” 1966. Harper and Row) in which “(t)he promise of the Enlightenment in which science comes to dominate Nature, ends with science dominating humanity too.” (p. 23) This summary reminds me equally of the central command models of a Marxist economy, the anti-democratic succession within the Roman Catholic Church, and the Musolinni dictatorship of Italy, to name a few.

    To define the “right” metaphor to use to analyze the veracity of current memes, King introduces us to the concept he calls Quantum-Holography (Ch. 3). This science of the “oscillations of probabilities” embraces the advancement of “Chaos Theory” to distinguish itself from the Newtonian-positivist model. This unifying concept coherently explains vexing problems that the latter cannot. It is inherently democratic and empowering to individuals, and it avoids the anarchic and nihilistic conclusions that older, long-established linear paradigms inevitably lead to.

    In order to employ Quantum-Holography to metaphorically explain DNA’s intricate stimulus/response feedback mechanism in our chaotic world, King looks to two authors, Briggs and Peat. From their book, “Turbulent Mirror” (1989. Harper and Row) King quotes this:

    “…DNA code seems less a blueprint than an exquisite feedback relay center balancing the negative feedback ability to maintain stability with the positive feedback abiltiy to amplify change. An inhabitant of the edge between order and chaos, DNA feedback is coupled with the feedback inside and outside the individual organism – and instance of the cooperative, co-evolutionary process that sustains and transforms the life on the planet.” (p.161)

    Already this exciting holographic meme is gaining currency in our fluid, chaotic, democratic culture. Certain code words that derive from Quantum-Holography are now established ideas in our cultural dialect. “Butterfly effect” and “fractal geometry” are just two. Stay tuned. Your head will spin at the speed of the change.

  4. I’ve taken half a dozen undergrad and grad courses on dynamical systems (of which chaos is a subset), and I’ve never heard the term “quantum-holography”. Terminology like “chaos”, “butterfly effect”, etc. are not derived from quantum-holography, though they may certainly be used in such a field. Be careful not to mistake the popularity of those terms for the popularity of the QH meme.

  5. Thanks, Lotharbot. Point well taken.
    I think Ian King coined the hyphenated term “quantum-holography” to bridge two mutually supporting concepts and form an umbrella concept. Note that he is a sociologist who is applying the metaphors from quantum mechanics to define social dynamics.

    Pick up his book sometime. It’s a mellow read with lots of good quotes and a great bibliography.

    I may have misused the word “derived.” Certainly “chaos study” and “butterfly effect” are supporting concepts used in the field of quantum theory, if not derivatives of it, as you point out.

    I do believe the popularity of those terms can indicate that the QH meme does have its foot in the door of our cultural consciousness, though. Every meme has to start somewhere.

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