Friday, 9 September 2011

William Wimsatt - resources

William Wimsatt is a researcher in cultural evolution. Here he is in action:

Wimsatt is a meme critic. He prefers what he calls "Meme Like Things" (MLTs).

His case is all to do with development - and he presents what we might call an "evo devo" critique. Of course development complicates organic evolution just as much as it complicates cultural evolution.

The science of genetics typically treats development as a black box. The rationale is that development is very complicated and we have little chance of understanding very much of it - and yet there is much that can usefully be understood while completely ignoring it. As a result of this simplification, genetics has made enormous progress in understanding the transmission of heritable traits. Memetics does the exact same thing, for the exact same reason and gets the exact same benefits. So: population memetics and population genetics normally treat development as a black-box and just continue without attempting to flesh it out. This is really just how science works.

Wimsatt is yet another critic that doesn't seem to appreciaate the depth of the parallels between cultural and biological evolution. For example, about 30 minutes into the talk, he writes:

  1. The fact that earlier MLT's (meme-like-things) affect the acquition and interpretation of later MLT's means that thet separability of heredity, development and selection in the architecture of standard pop. gen models is impossible. So the models are far more complex.

  2. In biology, one breeding population does for all traits--you inherit the whole thing at once. For culture, we occupy a succession of partially overlapping reference groups throughout the life cycle, so the institutions and organisations that mediate this trajectory make culturally-induced population structure crucial.

Both of these points are incorrect - and they are wrong due to misconceptions about the organic realm - not the cultural realm.

Earlier infections do affect later ones. Cowpox infections affect smallpox ones. AIDS infections affect pneumonia, tuberculosis and many other infections. Hepatitis D requires a previous Hepatitis B infection - and so on.

In the organic realm, you simply don't "inherit the whole thing at once". Inheritance comes along in dribs and drabs, one food symbiont, gut symbiont, pet or persistent viral infection at a time. The idea that you receive your entire organic inheritance at birth is nonsense - rather it is acquired gradually over the lifecycle as you pick up pathogens and symbionts. In other words: the organic realm is just like the cultural realm in these respects.


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