Brain-culture, memes, and choosing examples

Earlier today, I wrote a post on Bruce Wexler’s book where I suggested that ideology and ‘culture shock’ were not necessarily the best case studies to work with when discussing the integration of social theory with neurosciences. My reasons for this are many, but they boil down to a fear that, if we choose our case studies poorly, we will not offer compelling integrated accounts that bring together biological studies of the brain and humanistic studies of society and culture. It may have seemed that I was not overly generous to Wexler, however, even though I quite like his work, so I thought I’d balance this out by giving some examples of ways that anthropologists have similarly chosen examples that make it especially difficult to present coherent accounts across different scales and perspectives on a subject.

One of the best/worst examples of attempting to prematurely bridge the gap between culture and brain science is the concept of ‘memes.’ First proposed by Richard Dawkins in 1976 (in The Selfish Gene), a ‘meme’ is defined by Dawkins as the smallest unit of cultural information, which spreads from one person to the next through diffusion, sort of like an infection. Dawkins and other ‘memeticists’ (is that a word… or a meme?) are at pains to argue that culture propogates itself, like a catchy tune you can’t get out of your head or a fashion you must have that you then make your friends crazy to imitate, because of the effectiveness of the meme, not because it is useful to the bearers. Proponents also argue that, although there are significant differences with genes, evolutionary theory can also be applied to memes to understand how cultural ideas spread, develop, change, or become extinct.

So what’s the problem with memes?

Where do we begin? In no particular order: 1) genes can mutate and develop independently of each other; cultural ideas are often linked; 2) genes generally don’t change in an individual (although see the case of the girl who’s blood type changed with a liver transplant), memes, in contrast, shift in individuals constantly; 3) genes are empirically demonstrable; memes are, even if we are generous, a metaphor; 4) it is virtually impossible to clearly and unequivocally determine what the ‘elementary particle’ of an idea is; 5) ‘memetics’ renames cultural information but is not based on any consistent theory of how a ‘meme’ is stored in the brain (for example, what about the fact that memory is a reconstitution of information, subject to distortion and systematic bias); 6) the empirical problem that there just aren’t that many compelling scientific projects generated by memetics; and 7) the over-arching danger that this is simply an analogy mistaken for a reality (or two analogies, as ‘memes’ seem to fluctuate between gene-like and virus-like).

But the bigger issue is not the failure of the meme model, but the premature attempt to leap the explanatory chasm between genetic-level structures, evolutionary theory, and ‘bits’ of culture like tunes, religious ideas, or technology. That is, memetics tries to finesse away a lot of intermediate-level analysis and modeling. If you want to explain why a particular tune is catchy and goes on to the Billboard Top Ten, you’re going to have to theorize a lot more and draw in a lot more evidence about things like the recording industry, the history of musical styles, the emergence of particular artists, marketing, recording technology, audience’s aesthetic expectations, the phenomenology of recorded music, culturally-based discussions of music perception, auditory science, and the like. You can’t simply say that the tune is like a gene-virus (a meme) and that it must be a successful replicator because, in the evolutionary environment of American pop radio, it has out-competed other tunes to reproduce. Heaven help us if that is the way we’re going to explain the career of Justin Timberlake.

The point for me is that ‘memetics’ is virtually doomed from the start because the explanatory gulf it attempts to bridge is simply too great. And so like Ptolemy’s category of ‘planets,’ an unworkable, un-theorizable concept because it included the sun, moon, and stars, the ‘meme’ is simply too great a herd of varied beasts to be able to say too much coherent about it.

But Dawkins and memeticists are hardly alone in choosing examples that are just too damn hard to start with in forging a neuroanthropological synthesis. My own feeling is that a lot of early cognitive anthropology has suffered from the same problem, although perhaps to less of a degree and with less problematic results. That is, some of the cognitive anthropology based upon connectionist theory sought to tackle problems that are probably within the scope of our research and knowledge of brain systems; for example, the relation of language categories to object perception (one that Daniel discussed earlier with his posting on color) seems to me to be ambitious but conceivable.

In contrast, trying to explain the neurology of religion seems to me to be a project with a reach that may exceed our grasp for a lot of reasons. Firstly, we, anthropologists, can’t even really agree on what a ‘religion’ is, whether or not all humans have ‘religion,’ what the most essential parts of religion are, or the like. Some studies of religion take a very ‘Protestant Reformation’ line on the definition of religion: religion is beliefs in the supernatural. Other theorists take a more ‘Ethical Society’ approach to religion: religion is a community-based system for regulating behaviour and ideals. And religious people themselves seem to have radically different sorts of things in mind when they talk about religion: for one it seems to be an emotional sense of connection, for another a self-righteous certainty that punitive justice will be handed out, for another it is an expectation of being surrounded by unseen forces, for another it is a system of forces that can be placated, manipulated, negotiated with, and managed. As a person interested in the brain, I can think of a lot of different sorts of mental processes that might be involved in ‘religion’ depending upon which part of it, or which brand of it, you were using as your test case.

Second, religion is a hard case study to work with because it is a social phenomenon, characterized in part by broad community adherence. This means that trying to explain religion from the qualities of the brain is a bit like trying to explain British politics simply through reference to the qualities of the brain; there’s no way that you could get to the institutions, the parties, the way that elections go, and the like without a more complex model that placed history, social groups, and a wider environment into the dynamic system. Likewise, moving directly from the brain to religion simply leaves too many elements off the table that we will need to understand the phenomenon.

For these reasons, I think neuroanthropology has to choose its cases carefully, focusing on intermediate level phenomena rather than trying, too precipitously, to explain political economics, or social identity, or ideology, from studies of the brain. Like any analytical perspective, we need to prove the effectiveness of the neuroanthropological approach on material for which it is ideally suited before we move on to the more tenuous, exploratory challenges. I think this is also what Daniel was getting at when he asked, a while back, in his post Engaging Anthropology and Social Theory, ‘what strands of social science research offer the most immediacy to our work?’ We need to find the intellectual opportunities, where our style of dynamic brain-culture explanation is on the strongest ground, and the research questions before us demand the sorts of explanations we can provide. So when I criticize Wexler for over-reaching, it’s probably mostly because I fear the tendency so much and worry that it may undermine the long-term legitimacy of our undertaking in the eyes of the skeptical.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

7 thoughts on “Brain-culture, memes, and choosing examples

  1. I’m interested the sub-conscious cultural processing that shapes the impulses between which we consciously deliberate. We can experience a conscious internal dialogue between greed (impulse to buy fashionable scarf) and fear (fear of the financial consequences). But the perception that the scarf is fashionable is itself culturally conditioned.

    In fact, fashion is an interesting sort of cultural conditioning, in that it’s constantly changing. Pointy shoes are IN; they’re OUT; they’re IN. Deciding that they’re IN or OUT isn’t a reasoning process; for a lot of people, it’s as direct an experience as BLUE. (Not for the fashion-challenged, poor souls.) So how do our perceptions change?

    My first take on this would be: new gains status when it’s paired with other indicators of high status — not just visual, but also contextual clues like “she’s a popular person” or “this is a high-status fashion show”. If you change too many things all at once and display them on a person of low status in a low-status context, then we’re going to disdain rather than admire the novelties.

    It strikes me that this is the sort of limited problem that might be easy to study. Observe brain changes or pupil dilation. Do historical research on fashion. Look at external status markers in primate troops, if those change and how, then compare to human results.

  2. Zora, I like the way you put the problem ‘sub-conscious cultural processing that shapes the impulses between which we consciously deliberate’ — it’s just this kind of balanced dealing with the cultural, psychological, and conscious that captures the real lived complexity of thought. But it also makes it very difficult to study and write about. So I’m thrilled to hear about your modeling of this sort of experience.

    I think you’re right, fashion or other forms of fast-changing esteem would be an interesting one to study, in part because there are easily quantifiable and measurable sorts of factors that might be measured alongside the less tangible measures. In addition, because as you point out, fashion trends are subject to quick manipulation, it might be possible to even create experiments that would allow you to see how susceptible these feelings are to social influences.

    However, I would point out that not everyone participates in the fascination with new fashion (as my daughter is more than happy to point out in my case), nor is everyone excited by this. You might have a fun wrinkle in the research looking at those who are ‘fashion conscious’ compared to those who are, how shall we put this?, ‘fashion immune’ (my daughter might say ‘impaired’). In addition, there are whole groups of people — I used to live near large Amish communities, but there are others — who are downright hostile to changes in fashion. It would be interesting to know if the fashion conscious had been conditioned to perceive clothing styles in different ways, using different types of mental processes and associations.

    As my comments might suggest, I think you’re going to find variation in the way that people respond to different fashions, but that itself would be a fascinating result, especially if you could find observable differences (either in behavior, manipulability, or even brain activity) that correlated with the more standard psychological measures of traits (I don’t know if there’s a standardized measure of ‘fashion consciousness’ out there already in the psych literature). The differences might suggest why some people, and groups, are more aware, conscious, and interested in fashion.

    So rather than discount the ‘fashion-challenged’ (we are ‘poor souls’ perhaps, but a good deal less poor materially), they might be a great measuring stick for the changes in the brain and behavior that go into being fashion aware. Your project sounds fascinating to me, as long as you don’t ‘naturalize’ fashion awareness. Your reflection on the links historically with hierarchical societies is a good one, but then you’d also have to look at moments when ‘de-fashioning’ or a move towards more muted and conservative fashion also took place, such as in relation to the rise of the Protestant bourgeoisie rejecting opulent models of fashion among the English aristocracy. You’d have lots of interesting case studies that I can think of off the top of my head (e.g., fashion under Mao in China, the rise of ‘metrosexual’ fashion in the US, Amish kids who leave the community, middle-aged academics whose daughters try to ‘hip’ them to fashion… the mind boggles.).

    Good luck with it, though, if you look into it, and PLEASE keep us posted. It’s just the kind of project we want to learn more about.

  3. Alas, it’s not a project. I’m not an academic, just a dirt-poor “independent scholar”. Right now my main energies are focussed on Victorian literature, Bollywood, and the archaeological and climatological history of the Helmand watershed.

    I’ve got more ideas than I can use. Anyone is welcome to them.

    Ah, as to societies in which fashion is downplayed — fashion is still there, it’s just played out in subtler details. I’m sure Amish women notice who has the latest thing in cap-strings, or the nicest new “plain” fabrics.

    I agree that there are moments in which large status upheavals in society are reflected in fashion (Mao jacket, neo-classical muslins rather than elaborately draped and panniered brocade gowns). Wouldn’t one want to work on those AFTER we knew more about smaller changes?

  4. Dear Zora —

    I think you are probably diminishing real cultural differences when you suggest that all societies still have ‘fashion.’ For example, we know that material culture can be VERY consistent over long periods of time. The current feverish changes in fashion seem to be driven primarily by capitalism, as even in very recent periods, only certain segments of the population were attuned to ‘fashion.’ For example, witness the attempt to generate greater ‘fashion consciousness’ in men, and thereby to convince men that they need to put away perfectly good clothes because they are ‘out of style’ and purchase something that is ‘in fashion.’ Admittedly, in certain segments of the population, fashion consciousness and a certain pace of change are considered normal, but I really don’t think that you can say that ‘fashion is still there’ in the same sense.

    Clearly, people read clothing in important ways (see, for example, Terry Turner’s piece on the ‘Social Skin’ and body decoration in the Amazon), but these forms of bodily display are often about group identity (and can be very conservative) rather than ‘fashion.’ I suspect that these differences are actually quite profound, and they may signal that a different set of emotions, intellectual tools, and motivations are being mobilized by bodily decoration.

    And good luck with the ‘independent scholar’ path. That’s a rough one, but it doesn’t seem to have dampened your energy! Sounds like you’ve got an enormous range of interests — a great anthropological sampling of different phenomena.

  5. I don’t quite buy all of your reasons for discrediting memetics.
    Granted, it does have problems, but I do find the possibilities of using biological descriptions for culture/mind interactions to be quite insightful.

    Can you give us some examples of better metaphors for mid-level brain function, as we already understand it? We all need better ways to visualize what the science shows…. thanks!

  6. @Keith… Keith, a big part of the problem with memes is simply ignorance – ironically. It’s fascinating to hear ‘rational atheists’ – that rather self serving forced marriage term – howling at Creationists for commenting on evolution without having the proper academic insight, and yet not realising that just deciding you can ‘do social science’ – ‘because you’re rational’, or ‘because Richard Dawkins is a biologist’, is a very similar mistake. The complex problems with using organic models of society have been discussed and dissected for a very long time – and simply ‘I find them useful’ isn’t any justification for them. Durkheim found them useful too – so, although that’s not the start of the story by any means, it would be a good place for you to start examining some of the methodlogical issues.

    One thing to consider is whether Richard Dawkins, and other meme-fiends (oh look, I’m starting a meme – I wonder where it came from) make theories about their pet model of culture, thinking that they’re actually making theories about the thing it is supposed to be a model of. Boy is that ever a classic social science error.

    As for phrase-types like ‘I’d like to see YOU come up with a better metaphor!’ – that’s like saying, I’d like to see YOU make this mistake in a better way! Keith, it would still be a mistake. Instead, in social science we try to have an over view of the complexities of the issues involved – not simplistic models to pander to those who didn’t want to do the eye-work with the pile of required textbooks.

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