Notebooks

## Memes, and Related Ideas about the Evolution of Culture

23 Dec 2020 09:41

Thoughts, like fleas, jump from man to man. But they don't bite everybody.
---Attrib. Stanislaw Lem
Just what is a meme? Dawkins calls it an imitable behavior, but most people who use the notion are more concerned with ideology than how to lay the table, and even Dawkins cites religion as a bundle of memes --- "viruses of the mind," is his phrase. Which brings me to: Metaphorical uses, as opposed genuine research. Spread of the meme-meme (just the other year I saw in the cultural studies section of the local bookstore a tract called Media Viruses whose palpitating dust-jacket makes it appear as though the secret workings of the world are to be laid bare by the author using the magic tool of "viruses of the mind"; and whose index and bibliography don't even mention Dawkins.) And thought-cliches. And pseudo-events. And propaganda. Is the reputation of The Selfish Gene as a piece of crude Social Darwinism a meme?

How far back does the contagion analogy for ideas go? (At least to Pliny.)

Can one have a "memetic illness," the same way some people have genetic illnesses? What would it look like? Organized religion? A millenarian movement?

Recommended, big picture:
• J. M. Balkin, Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology [Full text free online]
• Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, ch. 11
• Stanley Lieberson, A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change [See under sociology.]
• Aaron Lynch, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads throug Society [Review: The Case for the Meme's Eye View]
• Olivier Morin, How Traditions Live and Die
• W. G. Runciman, The Social Animal [Primer on sociology, from an evolutionary/memetic point of view. Summary and revision of the highlights of his Treatise on Social Theory.]
• Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach [Review: How to Catch Insanity from Your Kids (Among Others); or, Histoire naturelle de l'infame. Though Sperber would disclaim being a memeticists, this is one of the two best books on memetics. Sperber also ties all this in neatly to evolutionary psychology and to rhetoric.]
• Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding, vol. 1, The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts [Genuinely evolutionist --- as in, variation-plus-selection --- picture of how science works and scientific method develops; ditto for other intellectual disciplines worthy of the name work. Excellent, and pre-dates Dawkins by five years.]
Recommended, close-ups:
• Raymond Boudon [Studies of the mechanisms which make people receptive to ideas, especially bad ideas, by giving them what seem like good reasons to believe them --- sometimes they even are good reasons.]
• The Analysis of Ideology
• The Art of Self-Persuasion
• John Tyler Bonner, The Evolution of Culture in Animals [JSTOR]
• Nicolas Claidière, Simon Kirby, and Dan Sperber, "Effect of psychological bias separates cultural from biological evolution", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (2012): E3526
• Nicolas Claidière and Dan Sperber
• "The role of attraction in cultural evolution", Journal of Cognition and Culture 7 (2007): 89--111 [PDF preprint]
• "Imitation explains the propagation, not the stability of animal culture" [The model is basic but sufficient for the purpose. I am not sure I buy their fitting procedure, but since it gives very high values for the fidelity of imitation, which nonetheless lead to rapid destabilization, it really doesn't matter. PDF reprint]
• D. J. Daley, D. G. Kendall, "Stochastic Rumours", IMA Journal of Applied Mathematics 1 (1965): 42--55 [The interesting twist here on a standard SIR model is that they assume you stop spreading the rumor on encountering someone who's already heard it, so $I + I \rightarrow 2R$ and $I+R \rightarrow 2R$. This, naturally, makes it very hard for the rumor to reach everyone...]
• Daniel Dennett
• Bruce Edmonds, "The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy — why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results", Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission 9 (2005)
• Herbert Gintis, Game Theory Evolving [IMHO, the best available book about evolutionary game theory, and so about a large chunk of social and cultural evolution]
• Peter Godfrey-Smith, Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection
• Jason Kaufman, "Endogenous Explanation in the Sociology of Culture", Annual Review of Sociology 30 (2004): 335--357 [Only the third of his three sets of theories is relevant here I think; also, those are the only ones which are actually explanations. PDF reprint via Prof. Kaufman.]
• Franco Moretti
• "On Literary Evolution," the last essay in Signs Taken for Wonders (2nd ed. only) [Interesting things to say about how literary forms evolve, but some of his ideas about organic evolution are strange, e.g., that natural selection does not act during radiations.]
• "The Slaughterhouse of Literature", Modern Language Quarterly 61 (2000): 207--227
• Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History [My long (6000+ word) take: Graphs, Trees, Materialism, Fishing]
• Richard R. Nelson, "Evolutionary Theories of Cultural Change: An Empirical Perspective" ["the standard articulations of a Universal Darwinism put forth by biologists and philosophers tends to be too narrow, in particular too much linked to the details of evolution in biology, to fit with what is known about cultural evolution." PDF preprint.]
• W. G. Runciman
• "On the Tendency of Human Societies to Form Varieties," Proceedings of the British Academy 72 (1986): 149--165 [The 1986 Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology. An early version of his general theory. The title, of course, deliberately echoes that of the paper by Darwin and Wallace announcing natural selection.]
• "The 'Triumph' of Capitalism as a Topic in the Theory of Social Selection", New Left Review 210 (March-April 1995): 33--47 [Application of the theory to the classic problem of historical sociology (see: Marx, Weber).]
• "Social Evolutionism: A Reply to Michael Rustin," New Left Review 236 (July-August 1999): 145--153
• "Socialising Darwin," Prospect, April 1998 [Summary of The Social Animal; no longer available online to non-subscribers]
• The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection [Mini-review]
• "The Diffusion of Christianity in the Third Century AD as a Case-Study in the Theory of Cultural Selection", European Journal of Sociology 45 (2004): 3--21 [Nice illustration of one of Runciman's goals, in that it "eschews any attempt at" "law-like cross-cultural generalizations ... in favour of a selectionist analysis explicitly focused on the particular historical environment", while in no way doubting "the existence of universal psychological capacities and dispositions".]
• Michael Rustin, "A New Social Evolutionism?," New Left Review 234 (May-June 1999): 106--126 [Exposition and critique of Runciman, from the standpoint of the weird mix of Marx, Nietzsche and Althusser that NLR is into these days; see above for Runciman's reply]
• Adam Westoby, "The Ecology of Intentions: How to Make Memes and Influence People: Culturology" [Preprint. Westoby was a political scientist and historian who wrote an excellent book on The Evolution of Communism, but that, despite the title, was before he really became interested in memetics. "The Ecology of Intentions" was the manuscript he was working on at the time of his death. Since it is, in its incomplete form, one of the most sophisticated examinations of what a real science of memes would have to be like, one can only regret Westoby's death all the more strongly.]
• Damían H. Zanette and Susanna C. Manrubia, "Vertical Transmission of Culture and the Distribution of Family Names," nlin.AO/0009046
Not exactly recommended:
• Walter Bagehot, Physics and Politics: Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of "Natural Selection" and "Inheritance" to Political Society. [Comments]
Modesty forbids me to recommend:
• CRS and Andrew C. Thomas, "Homophily and Contagion Are Generically Confounded in Observational Social Network Studies", arxiv:1004.4704 [Self-presentation]
To finish writing:
• Henry Farrell and CRS, "Selection, Evolution and Rational Choice Institutionalism "
• idem, "Strategic Action, Noisy Learning, Mad Prophets, and Other Drivers of Instituional Evolution"