Macromemetics

Macromemetics

Abstract
1. Introduction and Summary
2. Western Philosophy Divided
3. The Hierarchical Structure of the Meme Pool and Popper"s World 3
3.1 Meme pools and the total cultural apparatus of societies
4. The Cultural Evolutionary School of Social Anthropology
4.1 Evolutionary Analysis of Civilisations
5. Memetics and 20th Century Philosophy
5.1 Memes and Pragmatism
5.2 Popper and Evolutionary Epistemology
5.3 Saussure and Signifiers
5.4 Foucault and the Episteme
6. Conclusion: The Role of Memetics
References

A unanimously acceptable definition of `culture‘ has always been difficult to obtain (see the review by White [47] for a history of the controversy). Two broad strands of opinion may be identified; those that believe that culture is what people think, do and produce, and most importantly see culture as a learned and retransmitted entity (Leach [24] p. 9), and in contrast those who see it as primarily an advanced biological adaptation to the environment. The latter school has recently been strengthened by support from sociobiologists (Wilson [49]). Although this is a major controversy in anthropology, from the point of view of memetics it is perhaps not necessary to reach a final decision in favour of one view over the other. Sociobiologists see culture as the product of selection on behaviour, but that the primary consequences of that selection are genetic, and only secondarily memetic. For sociobiologists, culture is only likely to be efficiently replicated when the appropriate genetic basis is already there. For instance, a sociobiologist might point out that belief in the undesirability of incest may stem ultimately from the undesirable medical consequences of inbreeding. Those who are genetically predisposed to avoid incest (eg. through genetically influenced feelings of disgust) may do so highly efficiently, and thus raise less inbred and consequently healthier children to whom they will also pass their incest-avoidance genes. Incest avoidance is an almost (but not quite, eg. ancient Egypt – Hopkins [19]) universal feature of human societies, which tends to support the opinion that it is an adaptation with an ultimately genetic origin. However, the resulting behaviour of incest avoidance may still be treated as a meme, ie. one may learn an incest taboo from a person who genetically avoids incest, even though one may not be oneself genetically predisposed to avoid incest. The incest avoidance meme is also subject to selection, and will spread if incest avoidance produces healthier progeny who then learn incest avoidance themselves. The question of learning versus sociobiology thus seems to lose some of its difficulty when viewed from a memetical standpoint.
Conversely, ideas, like genes, that are maladaptive to individuals may still spread within populations. Incest avoidance memes, like incest avoidance genes, increase the fertility of those who carry them, but suicide cults are obviously highly counter-adaptive to the individuals who sacrifice their lives under their influence. However, a suicide cult meme may procure an advantage to the culture in which it occurs, where the incidence of such suicide is tightly culturally controlled. For example, kamikaze fighter pilots were a formidable military weapon for early-modern Japanese culture. On the other hand, the James Jones mass suicide in Guyana was a unique event which eliminated the entire culture in which it occurred. A genetic predisposition to suicide may exist (possibly associated with some genetic form of depressive illness), but suicidal behaviour may also be learned by indoctrination. Thus, both adaptive and maladaptive behaviours may be considered as selectable memes, whether or not there is also a genetic basis. Genetics has also traditionally focused, until very recently, on the individual as the unit of selection. Part of the appeal of memetics is its compatibility with gene-centred models of selection (Dawkins [9], Williams [48]). Focusing on the spread of memes permits explanation of behaviours which are maladaptive to the individual.
In summary, the traditional divide between culture-as-transmitted-information and culture-as-advanced-adaptation may not be so serious, if transmitted information is also subject to selection. Nature versus nurture debates of the past generally relied on the assumption that only nature was subject to Darwinian selection. Nurture, ie. transmitted information, was generally regarded as being independent of external forces, a pure product of human superstition and/or rationality, or alternatively subject to dialectics of a Hegelian or Marxist variety. Memetics, by positing a strictly Darwinian process for nurture, thus questions the division between environment and biology, since both are evolving under the same dynamic.
Meme pools may exist in isolation for thousands of years, as was the case for many of the indigenous peoples of the globe before the European expansion beginning in the late 15th century. As Benzon [3] has illustrated, the isolation of early migratory groups of humans would have resulted in both genetic and cultural divergence, by both genetic/memetic drift and selection for adaptation to local conditions. As the globe became more populated, isolated meme pools regained contact. When Christopher Columbus stepped ashore at Watling Island in 1492, contact was established between two meme pools whose nearest common ancestor was at least some 12,000 years in the past. New meme pools may result from the contact of previously isolated ones, or one meme pool may virtually swamp and displace another, as was the case in the Americas in the aftermath of Columbus. Much anthropological investigation has been carried out in `acculturation’, ie. the consequences of culture contact, usually between an indigenous society and a Western colonising power (Beattie [2] p. 241). If memetics is to be of any value for the study of society as a whole, it is important to judge to what extent memetic phenomena may be seen at work at the level of the meme pool. This is not likely to be an easy task: macroevolution is still the most challenging problem of biological evolutionary theory, and is exacerbated by the fact that macroevolutionists are limited to observation rather than experimentation (Stanley [44]). Fortunately for would-be `macromemeticists‘, much study has already been devoted to evolution of cultures as wholes. Unfortunately, much of that work is by now rather old and somewhat out of favour. Nevertheless, a reassessment from a memetic point of view is desirable.

AuthorDerek Gatherer
2018-08-21T17:23:37+00:00 August 1st, 2002|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 27|0 Comments