Tuesday, May 12, 2015
A Question of Scale
We have been scientifically investigating our environment since prehistory. The cognitive process of learning is a scientific process, establishing working theories of categories and relationships, testing hypotheses and reworking assumptions to fit new data sets. Formalizing the scientific method allowed us to streamline data-processing, (it was an innovation in memetic structure which paid higher dividends than previous methods of codifying collective learning), but it was not the birth of science.
The "magic" of early civilizations can be viewed as primitive science and primitive maths as much as it can be labeled primitive religion.
But our investigations were limited to our five senses and our human scale. Distances beyond our bi-pedal range limited our conception of the size of our planet, how distant the stars were, etc. Items which fit within our hands were open to investigation, but the cellular level, genetics, the nano scale, had to be inferred and theorized before we developed technologies to view them.
This is the challenge memetics currently faces: it is a question of scale. We do not have the traditional limitations of sensory perception which might frame our initial investigations. Though our discipline is similar to biology, (covering environmental relationships, population dynamics, individual anatomy, organ structure, cell processes, epigenetics and inheritance), we lack the limitations, the initial scope, which would allow us to establish a framework. We see the whole picture at once, and therefore can't see much.
Our instinct is to oversimplify and we are tempted to draw out the analogy of viruses (contagious ideas which have some, but not all, of the defined properties of life)--when the complexity and environmental roles of memeplexes are as diverse as the extremophile bacteria, phayge, oak trees, lichens and marsupials of biological systems.
We seem possessed by the smallest scale of analysis--memeticists are obsessed over the meme, its particular definition and specific parameters. We also seem to think a clear distinction between the meme and its phenotype is beneficial to our discipline at this point in the game. No other scientific pursuit has benefited from such self-imposed limitations at the start. It is like being fluent in German and expecting ourselves to comprehend a dissertation in Thai after one semester of classes.
We must start at the scales more familiar to the human experience, let those areas which perk our interest drive our inquiry further, and work to smaller scales from there. We must learn how to learn, selecting an initial scope for our studies, even if it proves later to be incorrect.