Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Cultural anatomy

If cultures are composed of cultural organisms, what is their anatomy like, and how can they be dissected?

One of the first meme enthusiasts to propose a way of subdividing cultural entities was Douglas Hofstadter, who promoted an "anatomical breakdown" involving the concepts of "bait" and "hook". For more details, see the article: Douglas Hofstadter's contribution to memetics.

In his 2004 book, Ely Asher proposed another "anatomical breakdown" - involving "anchors", "payloads" and "carriers".

The concepts of "promises" "threats", "rewards" and "punishment" also seem appropriate as common components of many cultural creatures. Emotions are often involved in motivating humans to propagate memes, and this basic Pavlovian approach is one of the most common ones.

There's also the genotype/phenotype split to consider. In some cultural creatures there's a well-defined split between what is inherited and its associated products. Such cases typically involve an irreversible developmental program. Think of a cake and its recipe, for example - or server-side software and the web sites they produce.

I think it would be fair to say that cultural creatures come in many varieties, and that it makes sense for some anatomical structures to be domain specific. To give my usual example of different species of culture, FORTRAN programs and origami patterns need not have the same anatomical structures. However, having said that, the search for common anatomical structures in cultural creatures seems like an important one.

In some cases we can classify cultural organs as follows:

  • Sensory organs;
  • Motor organs;
  • Information processing organs;
  • Resource processing organs;
Think of robots, for example, for a place where such classification is appropriate. This path gets us into territory already explored by cybernetics and systems theory.

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