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On Selfish Memes: Culture as complex adaptive system
Saturday, May 13, 2006

This is a paper (pdf) that hits all the buzzwords hard and then hits them some more. We've got evolution, complex adaptive systems, power laws, dynamical systems, fitness landscapes, memes, phemes, and all the rest. The goal is to use memetics (which sounds way too muchlike dianetics to make me comfortable!) to explain culture and society. The chief problem is that (in the papers own words)

culture is multi-layer in hierarchies of description object, parts constituting the higher level of description non-linearly and so on. The important note we have from works on conventional cultural analysis is that culture is developed in the ways of how cultural units influence each other.

...

As a tool of cultural analysis, we can see by now that meme is a representation of diffused cultural unit. It is shown that meme concerns diffusion of the perceived; that is why memetics are close to the discussion about epidemiology of rumors (Lynch, 1998). If a meme pass through someone's brain by the process of perception, there is a process of interpretation and adoption before it goes to the next diffusion. However, the interpretation and adoption is frequent giving different output to be diffused. This is what we can see from our analysis and the above computational experiment and become the micro-properties of memetic process.

(The writing style -- loosely speaking -- doesn't help)

The level of abstraction hides some much philosophical sleight of hand and wooly thinking that no amount of formalism, charts and graphs can save us.

... meme is the cultural unit that imitated as an abstraction and neurally-stored in the brain. Since it is an abstraction, we are not allowed to assume meme as smallest information unit in cultural evolution in general, but it is the smallest information we use on explaining any cultural evolution. Thus, meme can be a very small part of cultural objects (e.g.: note of music, the way use of shoe) and even the big part of culture (e.g.: nationalism, religion). In other words, meme is a matter of analytical tool on explaining culture and its dissemination, propagation, and in general, evolutionary process.

This is one of the oldest self-inflicted tricks in the book of bad simulation: insert that which is to be proved into the foundations of the simulation and be astonished when the simulation acts that way (note that I'm not suggesting bad faith on the practitioner of the paper -- it's just that natural stupidity is something that must be fought against constantly.

In closing, I should mention that this paper is one of the references for a United States Army SBIR Request for Proposal. The RFP is reasonable enough but if this paper is supposed to be guidence... I'm more frightened than ever.


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