Culture Magazine

Those Pesky Memes: Theoretical Imagery as a Block to Progress in Thinking About Cultural Evolution [Image Schemas in the Annals of Conceptual Confusion]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
What to I mean by “theoretical imagery”? I mean image schemas as the notion is used in, e.g., the cognitive metaphor notions of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. While I think cognitive metaphor theory is badly overextended (thus I was unable to finish reading Philosophy in the Flesh because the nonsense was piling up so fast I couldn’t breathe) that’s no reason to toss out the useful stuff. And one of the useful ideas is that many of our ideas are grounded in simple visual images, called image schemas.
In the case of cultural evolution I’m thinking of orthodox memetics of the Dan Dennett kind, where memes are little packets of “information” in people’s brains that flit about from brain to brain. This nonsense reached its high point with the 2002 publication Brian Auger’s The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think. I retaliated – the martial metaphor is apt since the book was an assault against reason and evidence – with a review entitled “Colorless Green Homunculi” (Human Nature Review 2 (2002) 454-462). But that’s a digression.

Those pesky memes: Theoretical imagery as a block to progress in thinking about cultural evolution [Image schemas in the annals of conceptual confusion]

Container schema

Back on track, theoretical imagery. In this case the imagery is that of a container. Think about biology. Considered as physical entities, phenotypes are relatively large while genes are relatively small. Further, genes are physically contained within phenotypes, not vice versa. When we transfer this implicit imagery into the cultural realm we are led to think of memes as relatively little things that must be enclosed in some relatively large thing, such as the human brain. Hence, we have the common notion of memes as quasi-autonomous agents hopping around from brain to brain, taking over mental real estate, and often driving their “hosts” to irrational acts, like belief in God, psychoanalysis, Marxism, or, for that matter, homuncular memetics.
Back to biology, phenotypes play a certain role in the little story of biological evolution. They are the things that are exposed to an environment where they either thrive or die. If they thrive, then the genes they contain within themselves will be passed onto another generation; if they die, well, that’s not so good for their genes, is it? In this story the environment is the container and the phenotypes are the little things within it.
When we transmute this story into one about culture, where’s the environment? What determines whether songs, stories, works of art, and so forth have a living presence in a group? Surely it’s the human mind, and the human mind is in the brain which is in the head. Now we’ve got a problem.
If memes are the cultural analog to biological genes, then they are little things inside a bigger thing, like the head. Now biology: genes are inside phenotypes, and phenotypes, in turn, are in the larger environment. So, in culture, memes are in the head and cultural phenotypes...They’re in the head as well because that’s where the cultural environment is as well. Whoops!
Does not compute. Does not compute. Does not compute.
What do we do? One strategy memeticists have taken is to trivialize the idea of a cultural phenotype so that, for example, a book becomes the phenotype for the word memes written on its pages, or a record or CD becomes the phenotype for sound waves, and so forth, and its really the memes that are the targets of election. Since they’re inside the head where the selective environment is as well, that’s fine.
Another strategy is simply to drop the notion that there is a cultural analog to the phenotype. In this version, memes are like biological viruses, not genes, and so no phenotype analog is needed. This is what Dan Dennett has done. Brian Auger took it to an extreme form in The Electric Meme, where he speculated – I kid you not – that memes raced one another along axons and only the winners got to make the Big Leap to another brain.
In Beethoven’s Anvil I took a different route altogether. But that required some fairly sophisticated conceptual construction of the sort that’s difficult to make convincing in a short note. Basically, I put the cultural analog to genes out there in the physical environment, where they need to be to mix and mingle and be available to people and stuck the cultural analogy to the phenotype in something like a collective brain. That’s where the tricky construction comes into play.
In the specific case of people making music together, I argued that they movements are so closely coordinated that we may consider their brains as being linked together into a single physical system. Some signals in the system are internal to individual brains while others pass between brains through sound waves in the external world; but it all functions as a single system. When the music making stops, the system decouples into autonomous individuals each with their own brain. But, here’s the point, if it was sufficiently pleasurable, they’ll get together again on a different occasion, re-couple, and do it again, thus re-creating the musical phenotype that had given them pleasure the first time.
I’ll stop here. You can get a richer story in Beethoven’s Anvil (2001). I’ve placed some of the story online here, where you’ll find final drafts of the 2nd and 3rd chapters, which is where I provide some of the conceptualization needed to think about linked brains as a single physical system. There is a now a fairly large literature about coordinated activity in brains of humans interacting with one another. While I'd like to be able to claim my book helped that work along, the fact of the matter is that the idea was in the air at the time. I link to some of that work in posts labeled "synchrony" and/or "coupling".

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