Saturday, 21 November 2015

Hodgson's habits and routines

In 2003, Geoffrey Hodgson proposed that we use the terms "habit" and "routine" as replacements for the term "meme". As with most other meme synonyms, this suggestion doesn't seem to have been very popular. Retrospectively, it appears to me that this proposal has critical technical limitations that put it out of the running.

Hodgson says that "habits" represent individual transmission while "routines" represent group-level transmission. The dictionary seems to think that individuals can have routines as well, muddying this proposed distinction. Hodgson defends the idea that these entities can act as units of cultural transmission. What he fails to defend is the idea that all cultural transmission is mediated by habits or routines. This claim seems straightforwardly incorrect. For example, the Bible is a bunch of memes, but it isn't a bunch of habits. Habits are associated with individuals, but no individual counts the bible as being among their habits. Nor is the bible a bunch of routines.

This makes Hodgson's proposal incomplete basis of a theory of cultural evolution. If adopting his terminology, we would need one theory for the evolution of habits and routines, and another theory for the evolution of other aspects of culture. Or we would need to redefine these terms and give them counter-intuitive technical meanings. Can we patch up Hodgson's proposal by finding another term (apart from 'habits' and 'routines') to represent other inherited aspects of culture? Maybe - but it looks like a dustbin category to me.

The other issue with Hodgson's proposal is that "habits" and "routines" are not necessarily socially transmitted. We already have terms for mental content that isn't necessarily socially transmitted: 'ideas' and 'concepts'. Part of the reason that term 'meme' found its niche is that it expressed a different idea from the terms 'idea' and 'concept'. If 'meme' had been another synonym for 'idea' and 'concept', it would have failed.

I think Hodgson's proposal is now dead. This post is a post-mortem that attempts to explain where it went wrong.

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