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

In 1786, Sir William Jones reported the results of his comparative studies in the Sanskrit, Latin and ancient Greek languages. His conclusion was that all three were descended from a common progenitor (Gardner [17] p. 196). This primitive phylogeny of the Indo-European languages was one of the first strands of evidence for any kind of evolutionary process, and was a factor which profoundly influenced Darwin:
`We find in distinct languages striking homologies due to community of descent, and analogies due to a similar process of formation‘ (Darwin 1871, quoted by Dennett [11]).
The study of cultural evolution was thus technically a predecessor of that of biological evolution, but fell behind in the following century and a half.
Darwin’s contemporary, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), was the first to take an evolutionary view of society as a whole, seeing it as progressing through various stages with Victorian English civilisation rather suspiciously at the pinnacle [43]. Unfortunately, in the hands of his lesser successors, Spencer’s ideas deteriorated into a pseudo-scientific justification for imperialist exploitation of `inferior‘ societies (rev. by Dobzhansky [15]). Spencer, like Darwin, had a broad view of evolution as primarily a result of natural selection on naturally occurring variation producing gradual and progressive change. Those anthropologists who adopted the evolutionary theory of culture also took the gradualist line. One of the first of these was Lewis Morgan (1818-1881), who set out an evolutionary theory of society with three stages, namely savagery, barbarism and civilisation, which he posited as corresponding to the evolution of one species from another (Beattie [2] p. 6). Just as Darwin had concerned himself with the origin of species, so were the evolutionary anthropologists concerned with the origin of civilisation.
A remarkable pioneer was Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917) who was the first to use the comparative method. Preparing a database of customs, practices and beliefs and subjecting them to statistical analyses, Tylor’s `social arithmetic‘ sounds like a premonition of the reductionist approach of memetics ([25] p. 23). Tylor (1871, quoted by Leach ([24] pp. 38-39)) defines his field of study as follows:
`…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities acquired by man as a member of society… … … the first step in the study of civilisation is to dissect into details, and classify these into their proper groups.
Tylor’s use of the word `acquired’ demonstrates that he was interested in all that was transmitted and copied. The `proper groups’ into which he sought to break down this transmitted information include:
`weapons, textile arts, myths, rites and ceremonies… ….laws of marriage and property… …special moral and religious doctrines‘ (Leach [24] p. 39).
Tylor is in the same subject area as memetics and approaches it in the same reductionist spirit. He even sketches an idea of memetic linkage in his concept of `adhesion‘, ie. identification of those cultural traits which tends to be co-transmitted, even in different cultures (Gardner [17] p. 228). Tylor’s only deficiency is the absence of a neo-Darwinian technique with which to study the evolution of culture, which of course was not available at that time.
By the early 20th century the cultural evolutionists had split into two schools, those which saw the development of civilisation as an inevitable progression from a less civilised state which had occurred many times at different locations, and the `diffusionists‘ who put forward the idea of civilisation having originated once in ancient Egypt and radiating out from there (Kuper [23] p. 3). In more neo-Darwinian terms they differed on the question of whether civilisation was polyphyletic or monophyletic. There seems no a priori reason from a memetic point of view to prefer either opinion, but archaeological evidence has resolved the debate against the diffusionists.
The major anthropological theorist at the turn of the century was James Frazer (1854-1941) whose work, The Golden Bough, published in several volumes from 1890 onwards, was a grand synthesis searching for regularities or general laws in cultural evolution. Despite the immense arsenal of examples that Frazer brought to bear on the question, the eventual general consensus was that he had failed, and ever since then one influential strand of social anthropology has sought to deny that anything approximating to general laws may be found in the subject (Beattie [2] p. 44). Memetics holds out some fresh hope that a general body of laws capable of explaining social change may be found, and that that body is already with us, namely Neo-Darwinian theory applied to informational transmission.
Cultural evolutionism did not quite die in the aftermath of Frazer, but persisted to a certain extent in the work of Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) and Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). These thinkers tended to see societies as organic wholes, a view often referred to (not always congenially) as `functionalism‘. Whereas the memetic approach sees societies as meme pools, the functionalist metaphor was more that of a physiological system. Cultural components of societies were seen as the organs of a body rather than as memes under selection (Mair [25] p. 36). One of the adverse consequences of this was the tendency to see societies as balanced homeostatic entities which played down the process of change ([2] pp. 56-59).
It should not be thought that modern anthropology is totally adverse to the concept of memetics. Anthropologists have devoted a great deal of time to understanding the belief basis of culture, which is ideal material for memetic analysis. For example, much study has been carried out into the potlatch, a custom of the Kwakiutl people of Canada’s western seaboard. The potlatch involves the conspicuous consumption, and occasionally destruction, of wealth and the products of labour (Beattie [2] p. 198). Even more extreme examples have been identified by anthropologists. For instance, in 1856 the Xhosa nation of southern Africa, under great pressure from European encroachment, came under the influence of a prophet who ordered them to destroy food stocks and cattle. Many starved to death as a consequence (Beattie [2] p. 263). The anthropological literature also provides interesting examples of other phenomena of memetic relevance. One interesting instance is the rapid spread of the Ghost Dance religion among the Plains Indians in the late 1890s. The Plains Indian culture was itself a fairly recent development which resulted from the westward retreat of the indigenous peoples of the eastern seaboard of the USA from the process of European colonisation. New meme pools were created as previously isolated tribes banded together in new political and social units. Interestingly, the Navajo people who were indigenous to the mid-West and, unlike the Plains tribes, were not a new and transient cultural entity, were completely resistant to the Ghost Dance religion and apparently much amused by it (Beattie [2] p. 261). The Ghost Dance illustrates how societies of diverse memetic origin and subject to intense pressures may evolve memetically in unpredictable and sudden ways. The Navajo, by contrast, were more memetically homogeneous and under less pressure from the European colonists. Another example which was consequent on the contact of previously isolated meme pools with colonial powers was the so-called `cargo cult‘ of Melanesia which spread rapidly throughout the region in the early 20th century.
These examples illustrate how complex memetic analysis may become. Claude Levi-Strauss refers to `la pensee sauvage‘ or `mytho-logics‘, implying that the memetic constitution of a culture may have virtually nothing in common with our own Western meme pool. Exactly what constitutes the basis of our meme pool can be found in the work of Peter van Inwagen [46], who has deduced a `Common Western Metaphysic‘, a set of assumptions agreed upon by all Western thought, whether religious or scientific. The phrase `mytho-logics‘ is used to imply that even the rules of logic, the memetic nucleotides alluded to earlier in this article, may be different in non-Western societies. The logic is mythical. Other anthropologists do not take such an extreme view but nevertheless are prone to make much reference to Wittgenstein’s arguments about `language games‘ and `family resemblances‘ (Leach [24], Wittgenstein [51]). Wittgenstein will be dealt with further in the section on philosophy. Levi-Strauss’s conclusions, although tremendously influential, are by no means undisputed. Lucien Levy-Bruhl was a forerunner of Levi-Strauss in his idea that primitive societies had fundamentally different systems of reasoning to their Western counterparts, but had abandoned this view by the end of his life (Gardner [17] pp. 223-259).
The fact that modern anthropologists have occasionally thought along lines that have brought them very close to what we would now term memetics is illustrated by White [47]. Writing about a definition of culture in a purely anthropological context, White postulates the unit of culture to be a `symbolate‘, which is defined as `a thing or event dependent on symboling‘. Symbolates produce both `somatic‘ culture (ie. beliefs, behaviour, rituals, customs etc.), and `exosomatic‘ culture (ie. artefacts, buildings, clothing, machines etc.). The symbolate thus corresponds quite well to Dawkins’ definition of the meme as including `ways of making pots or building arches‘, as well as beliefs, religion etc. The reason why White’s system, like that of his proto-memetical predecessor Tylor mentioned above, does not quite correspond to memetics is that no explicit reference to selection or evolution of symbolates is made.
However, in his reference to somatic and exosomatic symbolates, White provides categories which correspond to the phemotype and the memotype (Speel [42]).

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