Saturday, 30 May 2015

Heredity and development can be profitably treated as different topics

Memetics advocates separating the study of heredity from the study of development in the study of culture. These topics are somewhat muddled together today - by anthropologists and students of cultural evolution alike. I had a go at explaining why this split was desirable recently in a conversation. Here's the relevant section:

The concept of evolution of culture and memetics is generally panned off as "oldschool" in anthropology nowadays. One major criticism of memetics, at least from the side of linguistics/semiotics for example, is that it fails to account for the multifaceted aspects and historical contexts of ideas. In other words, the meme or the idea is simply a one sided idea that is only copied. Memetics in this regard fails to account for translation and interpretation which can have varied consequences.

My reply:

Saying that memetics fails to account for translation and interpretation is like saying that genetics fails to account for transcription and development. Memetics and genetics are sciences that study heredity - cultural heredity and organic heredity respectively. There are other branches of science (with different names) that study things like development and ecology. It is possible to argue that the divisions between these disciplines are in the wrong place or that a unified approach is important, but the criticism that memetics doesn't study every aspect of culture is surely misplaced.

If memes are like genes, memetics should surely be like genetics. Genetics studies heredity - the way in which genes mutate and recombine. Memetics, in turn, studies cultural heredity - the way in which cultural information mutates and recombines. It is absolutely standard practice in academia to break complex subjects up into a variety of specialist sub-disciplines. Increasing levels of specialization has been an important way in which civilization has progressed over the year. No single individual can know everything any more - and science has become a group effort.

Splitting the field of genetics off from development happened in the organic realm around the 1930s - some time after evolutionary theory was first developed. The split was a very productive one (genetics and development have different principles and are profitably studied as separate topics). The idea of memetics is to apply the same conceptual split to the study of human culture. As in the organic realm, changing a recipe and combining it with other recipes is quite a different topic from how recipes turn into cakes - even though both are important to understanding cakes. We now have a science of cultural evolution - but it is still struggling to spawn its equivalent of genetics. This makes a lot of sense - given what we already know about cultural evolution's scientific lag.

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