Monthly Archives: December 2014

Memes and Genes – Transition of Cultural and Social Identities Beyond the Physical Realm

On holiday the last few weeks in the town of my birth with my young children got me reflecting on memes and their role in maintaining personal and cultural attributes across generations and time. We have lived through more than half a century where in science the ‘gene era’ has dominated, perhaps because of the remarkable breakthroughs that have occurred in genetics and molecular biology since the discovery of the nature of DNA and how it replicates in the last half of the previous century. In the gene model of life, everything we are and do is encoded in our genes, and these genes are physically transmitted to our children, who become a copy of ourselves (blended of course with our spouses genes) and who propagate our DNA further through their own children and then on to future generations of offspring.

This gene model makes mostly sense for our physical makeup, but the problem with it is of course lies in the behavioural and social realm, which are intangible and cannot be directly related to specific genetic activity, and which also appear to be both propagated and ‘passed down’ through generations in a manner similar to genes transmission. In the last few decades such ‘heritable’ social behaviour have been described as memes (also described in the past as ‘culturgens’), which are defined as an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, and which act as a unit of culture, idea, or practice that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable or mimicked behaviour. So in the analogy of my children, looked at from a meme perspective, it would be that they pick up behaviour I am exhibiting, or have exhibited in the past and exhibit it themselves in their own future lives. In the analogy of my old hometown, social routines or behavioural actions and potentially prejudices that occur in the time of one generation who lived there will continue to occur in the following generations – for example having Christmas lunch with ones extended family, singing Christmas songs each year on Christmas day, and even taking a holiday break at this time of year as a regular occurrence – all of these behaviours we do as ‘routine’ were done by out parents before us, and will likely be done by our children after we are gone, given they are experiencing these activities as seminal occasions of their early youth and are therefore memes – so memes such as these are in effect ‘propagated’ across generations in a similar manner to how DNA is propagated, but exist as a social entities, or as behaviours, which are external to our own existence and have a ‘life’ of their own. In extreme versions of meme theory, humans don’t exist to propagate their own DNA but rather to ensure the propagation and maintenance of the memes of which they engage with, although of course social and behavioural memes cannot exist without human life and interactive activity. There are also of course different ‘sizes’ or levels of complexity of memes – for example Christmas lunch would be a relatively simple meme, while religion in its entirety would be an example of a complex meme.

Like physical genetic based evolution, where advantageous traits are maintained and develop while negative traits eventually disappear, memes that survive for long periods of time and over multiple generations surely are advantageous to the communities where they exist. However, some memes, such as innate cultural prejudices which exist in communities or cultures over many generations, such as racism or jingoism, can of course be self-defeating and damaging, and one can even argue a case that patriotism for a particular cause or country, which is a another example of a complex meme, can lead to conflict with other countries or cause, and perceptions of superiority in those that are patriotic. Therefore memes like patriotism, let alone jingoism and other prejudicial memes, need to be examined carefully by those who have the power to encourage or enhance their propagation.

Memes are of course of particular interest and relevance to those who move to different places or live in populations with diverse cultures, where one’s own meme experiences may be very different to those around one in a new or culturally diverse environment, or those whose job it is to try and change a particular culture or way of life which is perceived to be either ‘out of step’ with either the ethos of more general / universal social environments, for example society memes which are prejudicial to some of its own society or those of others around them, given that memes by the definition above are self-propagating and potentially conservative / resistant to change.

So going back to the holiday thoughts – when seeing my son or daughter behaving in a way that I realized was a ‘mirror’ of my own behaviour, made me realize how important it is to be aware of memes, and how one’s actions and behaviours can be transmitted across generations. Equally, being in the hometown of my birth made me realize how the more complex social memes are ‘alive and well’ in that place of my youth, and continue of their own will, for good or for bad. Despite many years living in different places and continents, the memes which I noted were still strong and ongoing there had a magnetism of their own, given the memories they evoked of times past from the halcyon days of my own youth, and I realized again therefore how important it is to sift through each meme carefully, in order to determine which memes are positive and which are potentially negative both for one’s own life and wellbeing, and perhaps more importantly, for those around us and in society in general. There is perhaps a need to try and curb the negative both in ones own behaviour, and in one’s social environment in which the memes exist and propagate, in order to attenuate the propagation of the potentially negative memes, either behaviourally or socially. Of course, whether one as an individual has any real control over them, is another story!

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Technology and the University Environment

Seeing our medical students graduate earlier this week, and reading a Tweet later that evening from a University advertising a one year online Masters, got me thinking again of something which has been a lot on my mind lately, namely what the role and benefits of technology are in the University environment. Mirroring the changes to our daily life caused by the advent and astonishing growth and proliferation of first computers and then personal electronic devices, along with the associated internet and electronically interactive features they carry, these computer related and technology led developments have in many way enhanced the way we do business in the University environment. Beyond most of our daily communication being performed using email and other means of internet communication (such as this blog!), there is now a proliferation of purely online courses available at most Universities, and discussion of the benefits and need to embrace potential current and future developments such as flipped classrooms and massive open online courses (MOOCs) occupies a significant portion of our daily debate in University education management discussions.

There are obvious benefits to all of these developments, for example University learning can be extended to a greater number of students, a paperless environment is both cost-effective and more environmental friendly, and there is enhanced capacity to have uniformity and quality assurance of teaching material – these ‘online’ educational developments would ‘banish’ the day of the eccentric Professor giving a rambling lecture on on topic no-one in lecture room could understand, and on a topic that was not completely relevant to the core learning requirements of the course that the lecture was being given for.

But in this concept and example of ‘banishing’ the rambling eccentric Professor lies the paradox and inherent concern raised from this future utopian electronic, online environment for Universities in the future, that forcibly struck me when I was watching the students at their graduation ceremony, and in particular the smiles on the faces of each of them, as they got their degrees and diplomas, and the vocal jubilation of the parents when they children were walking accross the stage – that what University environments are also for is developing the human dynamic in both students and in those prileged to work with them as lecturers and teachers. I don’t believe the memories of those students walking accross the stage on Thursday in a few years time will be of the time spent in their rooms staring at their lecture notes or electronic lectures on their laptop. Surely these times were crucially important for them to develop their technical knowledge as required by the course they registered for. But, what they will remember, and perhaps as important for their own personal development, will be the memories of the physical time spent on the campus of the University they went to – sitting around on the grass in summer commiserating with each other on how hard it was to understand that eccentric Professor in the lecture that just happened, the time their student group sat together and went through their notes together to pass exams, the role model clinical doctor who inspired them with his or her bedside lecture on the causes of lung cancer, and perhaps more importantly, the effect of the cancer on the patient and how this also needed to be thought of and managed (such great teachers would surely become future positive role models for them), and all the fun and social times one has as a student during ones years physically on campus – jumping into the campus fountain during Freshers week, cheering on the medical student rugby team on inter-varsity sport day, or heck, maybe even that first cup of coffee in the medical school cafeteria with the person that would eventually become their life partner.

So perhaps like in every component of life and society, balance is everything, and while as Universities we need to embrace and use technological development to enhance our teaching and learning practice, we also need to perhaps remember the human development side which has the potential to occur on campus in our students, and make sure we maintain a University environment where not only students develop the technical skills which will be vital for their future success in their chosen career, but also an environment where personal and social skills are developed either formally or informally, with memories created of a unique period of their life that will serve them well in the challenges they face in their future workplace and social milieu, which will almost certainly not be only technically related.


Teleology and Determinism – Concepts Banishing Randomness And Chance From Our Daily Lives

An interesting recent discussion with an old colleague and collaborator from the University of Worcester, Andy Renfree, on the teleology of entropy, got me thinking in a more general way about the concept of teleology and its twin concept determinism. Teleology is defined as the explanation of phenomena by the purpose they serve rather than by postulated causes, or perhaps more succinctly, it is defined as the description of the doctrine of design or purpose in the material world. Determinism is defined as the doctrine that all events, including human action, are determined by causes regarded as external to the will, and that every for every event, including human action, there exists pre-existing causes for it that could lead to no other event other than the one that is being examined. From a teleological or deterministic perspective, if you look carefully at all human activities, as scientists do, one can explain all human behavior as being caused by prior events or circumstances, and all human creations as being purposive. For example the teleological reason for the existence of a house is to provide shelter for those that live in it. The teleological reason for the sensation of hunger is to ensure that one takes action to ensure one ingests food to allow the requisite energy is available to maintain human essential functions. Every single human action can be explained in a teleological manner with either a bit of logical thought or careful scientific analysis.

This obviously becomes problematical for many folk as it does not allow for the possibility of randomness or chance, denies the capacity for free will, and has the potential to undermine an individual’s sense of personal autonomy, given that this sense of autonomy is underpinned by the perception that they ultimately are in control of their own destinies, and the concepts of teleology and determinism suggest that control of one’s destiny and actions lie in prior events and previous activities that have necessitated a change or a particular action which is be manifested in any action the individual is currently performing, even if often the actions often feel spontaneous rather than planned.

Awareness of these universal concepts can either therefore be liberating or stifling for different folk, depending on their world view and the value they put on their requirement for personal autonomy. It has a positive for folk that do acknowledge it though, in that one cannot excuse chance or randomness for any of one’s actions, and requires one to evaluate each of ones actions in the light of what prior event or events led to them occurring, in a manner that will lead to an improved response to a similar action that occurs at a later stage. Of course this learning or change of behavior would itself be teleological and deterministic. As the old proverb goes – for the want of a nail the shoe was lost, for the want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for want of a rider the message was lost, for want of the message the battle was lost, for the want of a battle the kingdom was lost. Behind, or perhaps one should say before, every event there exists a ‘nail’ that causes it, and life as we know it would not exist if not underpinned by teleology and determinism.


Entropy – The Forgotten Universal Principle

A part of our roof becoming detached in a storm last week, and the crashing to the ground of concrete supporting the roof structures, reminded me of the principal of entropy which has been in my mind recently for different reasons. There are a number of definitions of entropy, but the one I am referring to is that entropy is the measure or description of the inevitable and steady deterioration of a system or society. A number of tangible examples of entropy occur in our daily life, for example a house that is not lived in gradually disintegrates, our bodies if not exercised regularly function increasingly less optimally , and indeed an arm immobilised in plaster cast for a too long period withers and the immobilised muscle and other body tissues eventually dies. It can also be found in social systems, for example political parties which stay in power too long become inefficient and corrupt, businesses if maintained too long with a certain way of doing their core work eventually become outdated and redundant, social networks break down without maintenance and injected individual energy, and personal relationships wither and die if an individual does not pay them enough attention.

The reason or reasons why entropy exists or what its teleological purpose is not immediately clear, but what is self-evident that all systems or societies need injected energy and planned attention in order to be not only enhanced, but even maintained, in order to resist the underlying ‘force’ of entropy breaking it down. For those in any sphere of life who are resistant to change, or don’t make regular, if not constant effort to change their current life environment, should perhaps take note of this basic, often forgotten principle. The evidence of its actions are all around us, and the only mystery is why it is so unacknowledged, in contrast to its partner universal principles, evolution and homeostasis, in so many folk who it acts on and has the potential to damage in a continual way.


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