Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Memetics and the transfer of Roman culture to be explored in Newcastle conference

Framlington Place at Newcastle University.Image via Wikipedia
Newcastle Univeristy
This year as part of the 21st Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference at Newcastle University scheduled from Thursday 14 April to Sunday 17 April 2011, classical scholars from around the world will explore a variety of topics from gender identity, castration in the Roman world and colonial consumption to the practicalities of supplying Roman fish sauce and examining functionalism, militarism and discrepant experience on Hadrian's Wall.

Conference organizers have posted abstracts of papers accepted for the conference on a new blog, http://trac2011.wordpress.com/.

Richard Dawkins giving a lecture based on his ...Image via Wikipedia
Richard Dawkins, pioneer of
I found the following abstract, discussing memetics, the study of cultural selection and transmission as theorized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 work The Selfish Gene, of particular interest to me.

On the Origin of Behaviours: Examining the Process of Cultural Selection Through Funerary Evidence – Edward Biddulph (OA)

Similar to cultural analysis, memetics seeks to apply the techniques of epidemiology to the spread of beliefs and ideas through populations. They also analyze the relative prevalence of various memes and document their independent origins or common ancestry. Memeticists also seek to further explain, clarify, and quantify the theory of memes; they hope to use their theory to make predictions about how humans behave that go beyond what would be expected by evolutionary psychology or sociobiology, which assume genetic benefit to human behavior.- Cultural Evolution

So, what is a meme?

A meme is defined as "a unit of cultural transmission" (The Selfish Gene, p. 192). In other words, a meme is a cultural idea held by an adherent or host. Examples of memes include "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches" (Ibid). Like genes, memes cause "phenotypes" - in this context it is useful to remember that the meme itself - its genotype - is the pure information it contains, like a musical score or a recipe. A meme's phenotype, on the other hand, is its physical expression - the actual music, the cake baked from the recipe, etc...

...Roman culture contains a number of different meme sets: religion, politics, entertainment, attitudes toward war, etc. The "Roman religion" meme set included the memes that humans' fates were determined by a set of gods and goddesses, that natural disasters were signs of the gods' disfavor, and that the gods could be appeased by animal sacrifice. During the time of the Roman Republic, the "Roman politics" meme set included the memes that representatives of the people should govern, that tyranny was unfavorable to Rome, and that only men of economic status should have a say in government.  - Cultural Evolution

But memes, like genes, work in combination with context. 

One example sometimes given to illustrate the effect of context on the transmission of an idea is the observation that the meme to fear flying did not exist in ancient times because flying vehicles did not exist. I would take exception to this particular example though.

Greek mythology, a widely accepted meme set,  included the story of Icarus who died when he cast wings of wax then flew too close to the sun.  So recognition of the consequences of a failed attempt to fly was obviously present.  But the probability that an ancient Greek or Roman may face a choice to fly or not to fly from a practical perspective did not yet exist. So I would say this meme existed but could be viewed as dormant because of a lack of technological context.

As the Roman Empire expanded, its societal context was constantly bombarded by new ideas and practices from the different cultural groups it absorbed through its conquests.   So I think evaluating how and why Roman society as a whole adopted some customs or ideas while rejecting others  would be challenging research.

"Roman archaeologists have largely remained untouched by memetics, yet cultural selection provides an elegant mechanism for the emergence, persistence and evolution of traditions in the Roman world." - Edward Biddulph

Other abstracts that caught my attention included:

Multiple Masculinities in Roman Archaeology- No Girls Allowed!!

Beer, Blades and the Batavian Ear: The Batavian Myth, Roman Military

Burials and Brooches Collective Versus Personal Identity – Dr. Stijn Heeren (Amsterdam)

 To Curse or not to Curse? Divergent Uses of Literacy in Aquae Sulis

Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme   Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture (Ancient Cultures)   To Be A Roman: Topics in Roman Culture   Ethnic Identity and Imperial Power: The Batavians in the Early Roman Empire (Amsterdam University Press - Amsterdam Archaeological Studies)   Death and Burial in the Roman World   Roman Pottery in the Archaeological Record
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