Where Are Memes?

This is more a public note to myself than anything else. It’s likely to seem a bit odd to those who haven’t been following my thinking on memes. Cross-posted at New Savanna.

Back in 1996 I published a long article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (link to downloadable PDF), in the, alas, now defunct, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems. In that article I introduced the notion of units of cultural inheritance with these paragraphs:

Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.

What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren’t of much use to people who don’t know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural “programs”. Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist’s phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities which are the substance of culture.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the term “meme” for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer “psychological trait”, or just “trait”, as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing.

I have maintained that position until quite recently, say a week or two ago. I am now considering abandoning that conception. But first, a little more about how I further developed it.

In my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I developed that idea with respect to music, arguing that the neural ‘trace’ (trajectory in neural state space) of musical performances is a cultural phenotype while the memes are those aspects of musical sound around which individuals coordinate their music-making activities. I further developed this idea only a few weeks ago in a series of posts I wrote as background to a post I did for the National Humanities Center on cultural evolution.

Continue reading “Where Are Memes?”

Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities

Bill Benzon of New Savanna has a long article over at On the Human about cultural evolution. It touches on some very important topics, which includes an example of coordinating behaviour:

Consider the bi-modal clapping that routinely rewards a successful performances—music, drama, circus, etc.—in eastern European communities, but which is less common in western Europe and North America. Z. Néda and colleagues (2000) have investigated this phenomenon, recording applause for a number of performances in Romania and Hungary. The applause would start out randomly and then quickly become strongly synchronized. Synchronized clapping would continue for a short while (one mode) and then disintegrate into random clapping (the other mode), from which synchronized clapping would reemerge, and so forth.

He also emphasises the importance of, and the need for, description in cultural evolution, drawing on Darwin’s own situation in the 19th Century:

Consider the situation of Darwin faced in the 19th century. When he began formulating his ideas on the origin of species he had three bodies of knowledge to work from: prior thought on the topic, his own observations over three decades, and the cumulative results of four centuries of descriptive work in natural history (cf. Ogilvie 2006) to which he had access through books and collections. That descriptive work provided models for his own observation and description. Plants and animals, and their lifeways, are very complex. Which traits and features are the most important to observe and describe? That is not an obvious matter, and it took naturalists decades to arrive the useful descriptive methods (cf. Foucault 1973, pp. 128 ff.). Secondly, it gave him the means to abstract and generalize from his own observations, to explore their implications throughout the natural world, most of which, of course, was beyond his immediate experience.

I’m planning on posting a comment tomorrow, but only if I’ve got something worth adding to the discussion. I think there are definitely areas worth looking at, such as the use of phylogenetic techniques in investigating culture, though I’m still juggling in my head whether they are entirely relevant to the conversation at hand. Also, be sure to check out John Wilkins’ comment about memes.