With catlike tread (sumac) Mon 17 May 99 10:52
I love the passage in which you quote Oliver Morton on memes: "...the science writer Oliver Morton...replied to the question 'Why do I keep meeting clever sexy women who believe in memes and make me feel a plodding old pedant because I don't?' with the following memetic breakthrough: 'Because memes have found that sexy women spread them well and have found that the adaptation (intellectual vigour) needed to conquer a marginal niche (plodding old pedants) is an unreasonable use of their resources. Memes adapted to plodding old pedants become so complex and epicyclic that they cannot be passed on, and thus die out.' "I think that makes Morton the founder of selfish meme theory." I think meme theory fits the life cycle of the bumpersticker fairly well.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Mon 17 May 99 15:06
Oh yes. there are some things it fits. But people like Sue Blackmore want it to be a general theory of all culture; and it won't do for that. She sees it as a bridge between psychology and anthropology, sociology, history -- everything else that was in Herodotus -- and I just don't think they can be reduced like that.
hoofprints d' (satyr) Mon 17 May 99 17:52
> What's wrong with "idea" Nothing at all, but, to my mind, it doesn't substitute, being a superset category. (All memes are ideas, but not all ideas are (single) memes.) Ideas generally have the attribute of being something about which people can reasonably disagree, whereas I view memes as being such simple components that there's not really anything to disagree with, aside from their very existence, and perhaps the effects which precipitate as they combine wantonly with other memes to form new ideas. But it's a small point. "Idea" will do fine.
With catlike tread (sumac) Mon 17 May 99 21:04
Andrew, two small points relating to the UK origin of the book: 1 -- how can Americans get copies? 2 -- I think I got all the other references, but what on *earth* did Dawkins mean when he wrote that the attack on sociobiology by Lewontin et al in *Not in Our Genes* was "a sort of scientific Dave Spart trying to get into Pseud's Corner." Who? Where? Consarn it, fellers, quit blinding me with science!
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Tue 18 May 99 01:12
#29 (1) Amazon.co.uk will cheerfully ship it round the world. A helpful and profitable link can be found on my site at http://www.darwinwars.com/bookintro.htm (2) "Dave Spart" is the token leninist ranter in Private Eye, a satirical magazine. Since 1970 or thereabouts, he has given the parody Trotskyist view on all questions of the day: turgid, jargon-filled, self-righteous and self-contradictory. Pseud's Corner, from the same magazine, is a place where pretentious clippings are reprinted. It has been partially superceded by "Luvvies", which contains choice quotes from actors about the sheer utter ghaaaaastliness of their chosen crucifixion. I mean profession. Doesn't seem to be any Spart on their web site, but you can see the latest Pseuds corner from http://www.private-eye.co.uk/frames/index.htm
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Tue 18 May 99 01:34
Re memes, part two. Some of the memeticists list all sorts of very large ideas as memes. Dennett, for example, gives the theory of natural selection, and, I think, gothic cathedrals. This is a consequence of defining them as "anything which can be copied". I've come to the conclusion that he is right to do so because, if memes are functionally defined as "the things which are spread by a selection process" then it seems reasonable to expect that these processes could operate on all sorts of cultural things at all sorts of levels of complexity. The joke is that this Catholic attitude to selection processes: that there are lots of them going on at all sorts of levels, is, in biology, the one championed by Eldredge and to some extent Gould. So it gets anathematised there by the same people who promote it when looking at cultural evolution. I think, though, that talking of cultural selection in temrs of "memes" makes people look for things analogous to genes (which would demand something analagous to phenotypes as well). You can find some things like that. Curiously, religions, tabus, or rules of conduct, fit the bill much better than most other meme-candidates. You could, for example, have a rule in central Africa that says "God created you for monogamy" and this would spread through the population today because of its effects on conduct -- those who followed it would not get Aids -- rather than because it has intrinsic merit. But such rules of conduct are unusual precisely becasue they come in discrete chunks. Most cultural things are much fuzzier. I don't think ideas can be decomposed into atoms in the way that meme theory suggests. Of course, meme theory itself is incredibly vague and general. to talk about it suggests a rigidity and coherence which just isn't there. I wil post and hide a piece I have in the next Journal of Consciousness Studies commenting on these matters with, I hope, greater coherence and clarity.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Tue 18 May 99 02:53
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Tue 18 May 99 02:55
Post #32 is about 2000 words from the forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consciousness Studies about Sue Blackmore's book "The meme machine". It is hidden, for obvious reasons.
With catlike tread (sumac) Tue 18 May 99 10:17
That's a great review, Andrew. I agree with your view. I would stipulate that bumper-sticker thinking, where the meme analogy makes more sense, is not as rare as one would like, even though I agree that this is not the major kind of thinking going on in human affairs. So I think it's significant, for example, that "DON'T KILL BABIES" is a terser, simpler, more appealing message than "A WOMAN HAS THE RIGHT TO CONTROL HER OWN BODY."
hoofprints d' (satyr) Tue 18 May 99 16:21
> Some of the memeticists list all sorts of very large ideas as memes. Maybe we're in agreement about too much being made of the idea. You could make an arguement for anything that can be held in the mind altogether as qualifying as a meme. You can also make an arguement for chromosomes being the basic unit of inheritance... I like my memes simple, and combining.
Wendy M. Grossman (wendyg) Tue 18 May 99 16:52
FWIW, when I saw Dawkins talk about memes (at Conway Hall, c. 1993?), he applied them to everything from the craze for hula-hoops to religious ideas and clothing choices. What annoyed me was that it seemed an entirely unnecessarily complicated way of looking at these things; what infuriated me was his insistence that children are "gullible." Children vary, in my experience, and they're as likely to be hard-headed literalists as credulous and damned few of them are the kind of blank slates he seemed to imagine. I know he *has* kids, which made it even more puzzling, although it suggested to me that I wouldn't like to be *his* kid. Didn't Dawkins later come out in favor of cloning with the idea that his child clone could be taught not to make the mistakes he did? I thought that was just *unbelievcably* unrealistic and absurd. Don't know if this makes me a Gouldian, although I am a huge fan of his book The Mismeasure of Man. wg
the real Andrew Alden (alden) Tue 18 May 99 21:53
I can see that Simon Conway Morris is part of this whole multilogue. His "Crucible of Creation," about the Burgess Shale, opens with a scathing argument against Dawkins as an extreme, sterile reductionist and Gould as something of a fraud, perpetrated to insinuate marxist ideas into the larger culture. I've only finished chapter 1, but the lines of attack are made clear. Gould argues, he says, that the evolution of humans as we know them is extraordinarily unlikely and would not recur if we "ran the tape of evolution again." "But Gould's aruguments on the quirkines of human intelligence are not only presented as part of an evolutionary argument, but also I believe to buttress an ideological viewpoint. In brief, his assessment of Man as an evolutionary accident is to lead us into a libertarian attitude whereby, by virtue of a cosmic accident, we, and we alone, have no choice but to take responsibility for our own destiny and mould it to our desire. At the very least, the activities of the last century as one of unrestricted ploitical experimentation should give us pause for thought. The implication of an evolutionary process transcending the scientific evidence does indeed provide a metaphysic, albeit one that is etiolated and impoverished, but it should be decisively rejected. We do indeed have a choice, and we can exercise our free will. We might be a product of biosphere, but it is one with which we are charged to exercise stewardship. We might do better to accept our intelligence as a gift, and it may be a mistake to imagine that we shall not be called to account. "As I noted above, we muddy the waters of the debate if we fail to acknowledge that the processes of evolution have metaphysical implications for us. This is because uniquely there is inherent in our human situation the possibility of transcendence." I would say that he lays the bones of things bare.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Tue 18 May 99 23:15
Yes. It was one of the books, and he was one of the people, which I wished I had had time to read and interview. I believe he is a Christian. It is certainly true that Dennett, for example, quotes his attacks on Gould most gleefully without mentioning the ones on Dawkins. But these disputes are not really about science and religion. they are about science and metaphysics.
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Tue 18 May 99 23:29
(cont) and because we don't have a good public language for talking about metaphysics, especially in england, the science is twisted to do things it shouldn't. cf Mary Midgley: "few scientists would treat their cars as badly as they treat their conceptiual schemes." It seems to me that Dawkins's belief about the gullibility of children is itself a kind of bastard cousin of Gould's existentialist/marxist ideas. Both want to give quite unrealistic powers to the autonomous adult while all beings with lesser power are vicitms of false consciousness or gullibility. This is in fact the generally assumed anthropology of post-xian societies, stretching all the way across to consumerism and gun-nut libertarianism. What I find odd is that this implied metaphysics cannot stand up to a biological or sociobiological view of humanity. I don't see how anyone could absorb Dawkins' biology and swallow his metaphysics. When there are good evolutionary One good reason for believing in memes is that they bring out the social quality of our inner life. If I had to chose between Sue Blackmore's belief that the self is an illusion and John Lennon's belief that art is self-expression, I would plump unhesitatingly for Sue. But I don't see the choice is forced.
Wendy M. Grossman (wendyg) Wed 19 May 99 04:45
Sue is an interesting case: she's all her life had to balance her mystical leanings with the reality that as a person she is a hard-headed, uncompromising researcher. Her first book, Adventures of a Parapsychologist, detailed her painstaking efforts to find psi, and her slow, grinding conversion to skepticism because she simply could not find any evidnece for what she hoped was true. I am currently reading <sumac>'s and Jeffrey Masson's book on the emotions of animals, and it, along with Gould's tales of the efforts of white, male scientists to show that they are the smartest things on the planet, makes an interesting display of how scientists' presjudices can ruin their science. I get into a lot of discussions about "belief" in science, but have only just now in writing this thought of the simple answer: science is not a religion but a method. wg
the real Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 19 May 99 14:48
Yup. And history is full of good scientists whose success went to their heads. So, why is't religion just a method too? Couldn't it be?
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Thu 20 May 99 01:15
Because it has more potential aims and methods than science? I can imagine mysticism as a method, teachable and producing repeatable results. Indeed there are things like Ignatius Loyola's SPiritual Exexercises which have that kind of effect. The same is true of certain Buddhist practices. But "religion" is such an enomrous and amorphous field. I don't see what either has to do with bible-bashing xianity, or that with the spiritual practices of th eearly Puritans, and let's not forget shamanism and all the sacrificial religions there have ever been. Essentially, the scientific method is about getting a reliable third-person description of the world. Religion is interested in first-person effects too. So I don't see that there could ever be a complete technology of the sacred -- a technology being the result of an applicaiton of the method. A Jesuit might disagree.
With catlike tread (sumac) Thu 20 May 99 13:25
Andrew, would you to care to explain why Social Darwinism is like Vogon poetry? And, on a more serious note, is sociobiology more about personalities (of scientists) than other scientific areas?
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Thu 20 May 99 13:37
Well, the line about social darwinisim being like vogon poetry is my paraphrase of SJ Gould's explanation for the rise of Creationism: that the Darwinists seemed to the economic losers of early 20th century America to be saying no only that might would prevail, but that it was right was well; and tha they must learn to see the beauty iin it. "Resistance is useless. Now you must listen to my poetry." I still think this is a fair explanation of what happened, as well as a good joke. As for whether sociobiology is more perosnal than other forms of science: this brings us back towards religion. Sociobiology is not just about human beings in the general, or in the abstract (though that may be all it can reliably describe). It is also about human beings in particular. It is about my place in the universe, and about your unique story there too. This is what gives such classic works of Darwinian subversion as Elaine Morgan's their power. Sociobiolgical explanations, like religious ones, but unlike most scientific ones, can be tested against personal experience, especially when they are couched in terms of "selfishness". So people arguiong abou them do believe there is an anusual amount at stake.
With catlike tread (sumac) Fri 21 May 99 10:05
Andrew, you ruthlessly divide sociobiologists -- and everyone interested in these questions -- into Gouldians and Dawkinsians. Are you meeting with resistance to this classification? Which one are you? And how can a person tell which one they are?
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Fri 21 May 99 12:47
I guess people hate this classification, though Gould and Dawkins are doubtless a little flattered. It accurately reflects a social division among the early sociobiologists and their opponents: they felt themselves to be an embattled avant-garde within the profession, and I think most of the important figures were friends. But the lines of ideology and friendship do not often coincide tidily. Maynard Smith speaks well of Lewontin, a former colleague at Sussex, to give one example. Nor is there a neat left-right mapping. Huey Newton, the former Black Panther, was a pupil of Robert Trivers, the discoverer of reciprocal altruism, for example. The personalities did have an effect -- for instance in the two camps' differing attitudes to religion; but that was a battleground largely irrelevant to the science, and so in some ways eminently suitable for antler-matching. Perhpas the deepest way of looking at the divide is to say that the Gouldians think that philosophy is more important than science, and the Dawkinsians reverse this postion. By that criterion, I am firmly a Gouldian; but to the (small) degree that the disputes between the two sides are scientific, and understood by me, I find myself a Dawkinsian. I really did try very hard indeed to render the scientific and philosophical positions of the two sides accurately and sympathetically; I think that broadly I succeeded. Matt Ridley and David Hull both though I got the science broadly right. So did Steven Rose. It's true that Hull, in his Nature review, caught me in the most enormous braino about sex and chromosomes. But on balance, I have been reviewed by a porfessor of biology and a professor of philosophy as well as one of the best science writers in England, and they have all thought me reasonably fair. I couldn't hope for better. (cont)
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Fri 21 May 99 12:53
If you want to test yourself on whether you're a Gouldian or a Dawkinsian there's a long and a short test. The long test (in the book) requires that you actually read them. At the end, you don't ask which you agree with. You ask which of them has committed the most misleading metaphor. Then you know you belong in the opposite camp. The short test is to ask whether metaphors matter. If you think that they are merely the fancy clothes on a body of truth, line up there with Professor Dawkins. If you think that they are flesh on a skeleton of theory, sign up with Professor Gould.
Angus MacDonald (angus) Fri 21 May 99 13:10
Okay, are we talking about a living body or a corpse, there?
Andrew Brown (andrewb) Fri 21 May 99 13:54
living, in both cases. The question is whether it could live without metaphor.
the real Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 21 May 99 14:11
I don't think much of your metaphor, so what does that make me?
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