Sunday, 12 January 2014

Culture is alive!

Not all memeticists think that it follows from memetics that culture is alive. For example, Daniel Dennett claims that culture shares the living status if viruses, which - he says - are not alive.

However, the Maynard Smith and Szathmary definition of life and the NASA definition of life clearly classify culture as being "alive".

Maynard Smith and Szathmary said life was:

any population of entities possessing those properties that are needed if the population is to evolve by natural selection.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute Definition of Life says that life is:

A self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.

These definitions of life seem buggy to me, but they're pretty close.

It seems true that we should really have a science of evolving systems - rather than a science of life, since "life" isn't really a scientific concept. However, "biology" seems here to stay - and scientists should probably try to make the best of the situation.

However practically any sensible attempt to give a scientific blush to the idea of life, winds up including culture. Not all culture perhaps. Some cultural artifacts have the same status as hair and nails - the product of a living system, rather than independently alive. Other cultural artifacts are more like dormant seeds. Seeds don't have any of the metabolic characteristics of life. They just sit there, doing nothing. However, under the right conditions, they can sometimes come to life. Dusty books in library basements are rather like dormant seeds.

I think that classifying cultural systems as being alive is a feature - not a bug - of these definitions of life. If someone says that this makes "life" less like human intuitions of what is alive, scientists can just shrug and say that scientific concepts are often counter-intuitive.

On the other hand, something like the NASA definition of life defines drainage basins as being "alive". That is a bit of an edge case, but perhaps that is more like a bug than a feature. It certainly seems as though it is a bug from NASA's perspective.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I don't think definitions of life should refer to consciousness. Certainly, very few existing definitions of life do that.

    Defining life is difficult at the best of times. Attempting to link it to the even more problematic and murky concept of "consciousness" seems hardly likely to help matters.