LogoBeer, F. A. (1999). Memetic Meanings.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

Memetic Meanings
- a commentary on Rose's paper: Controversies in Meme Theory

Francis A. Beer,
Political Science Department,
Box 333, University of Colorado,
Boulder CO 80309.
Tel. +1 303-492-7802

Rose (1998) raises a number of important issues for the developing area of memetics. These include the ambiguous definition of central terms like `meme', memetics' use of central analogies and metaphors from genetics, and the role of philosophical concepts like `self' and `mind' in memetics. All these can be considered as issues of meaning.

1 Definitions and Meanings

"The definition of a meme," Rose begins, "is currently ambiguous.... Without some kind of firm definition the word 'meme' becomes almost meaningless."

The set of problems centering on definition and meaning is serious but hardly limited to memetics. The empirical study of semantics tells us that various modifiers in different contexts subtly transform the definitions and meanings of most words. As our language becomes more distant from direct physical experience of the physical world, it builds upon itself to create and use abstract, general concepts. The core meanings, the constants diminish; contextual parameters gain heavier weight.

This semantic indeterminacy is true for words such as `reason', `validity', and democracy for example (Beer, 1997; Beer, 1994 ; Speel, 1997). It is not surprising, and should not be that the word `meme' is similarly multivalent. The general nature of semantics leads us to expect no less.

2 Analogies and Metaphors

Rose provides a number of alternative definitions of `meme' together with current sources. Yet memetic genealogy is much longer than even his capable review suggests (Best, 1998). The field of rhetoric, for example, has long included the classical term `enthymeme' which dates from classical times. In contemporary usage, the biological term `gene' is a central current orienting analogue or metaphor for `meme'. Genetics thus provides a primary, foundational orientation for memetics.

The field of cognitive linguistics suggests that there are two ways in which this genetic metaphor may work. We may call one of these, the strong program. In this program, memes are considered as nominal categories. Further, there is a direct mapping of attributes from the genetic source to the memetic target. (Lakoff, 1994). In this situation, we should expect all genetic characteristics to be faithfully mapped into memetic space. All genetic attributes, however, do not faithfully reproduce in memetic space. Much of Rose's article, as well as other work focuses on such general mapping anomalies from genetics to memetics, as well as differences in memetic applications in different fields (Beer, 1997). The strong program carries within it the seeds of its own disappointments. Memes may be like genes in certain ways, but they can not be identical if only because of the differences between physical and cultural phenomena.

We may call another model of metaphorical process the weak program. In this program, memes are considered as interval categories, values for which may be derived through statistical regression or factor-analytic techniques. It implies a more subtle, complex, and non-linear dynamic of metaphorical meaning construction. This model is more forgiving since it allows genes to provide a general orientation for the meaning of memes, but does not place memes into a conceptual straight jacket. Instead of fitting memes to genes, it blends them. Further, the meanings of memes and memetics might take part of their inspiration from genetics, but there would be other sources and associations. The fit would be looser. Memetic meanings would be freer to adapt and evolve independently from their origins, depending on their uses and contexts. (LSA; Rohrer, 1997; Turner and Fauconnier, 1995).

3 Selves

This brings us to thorny philosophical problems of the self and others, free will and determinism. These terms have developed specific meanings within the context of genetic theory. For example, while genetics has accepted the identity of the organism, it has also partly relocated selfhood to the genetic level, the level of the `selfish gene'. This genetic self is similar to the individual organism self in many respects, but it differs in several important ways. First, the genetic self is prior to and determinative of the individual self. Second, the genetic self acts randomly and blindly - not consciously and intentionally with goals and foresight.

Memetics moves forward from this position by posing new questions about the self. It asks us to consider the possibility that individuals or cultures may develop selves with both genetic and memetic cognitive capabilities for foresight and prediction, intentionality and goal specification, planning and structured action. This appears to involve a reorientation of the basic genetic model of the self, yet there need be nothing particularly shocking about this evolutionary memetic adaptation. In the first place, as we suggested earlier, memetics need not directly mimic genetics. Indeed, memetics may suggest new directions for genetic theory. Second, such conscious capabilities may be easily integrated into the basic evolutionary framework. Genetic foundations exist for such attributes. Evolutionary psychology, moreover, suggests that normal mechanisms of cellular growth, memory and learning may explain memetic learning.

Are memetic capabilities helpful to survival? Evidence suggests that they probably are. The Darwinian theory of evolution was itself a memetic adaptation. Though it is not often noted, Darwinian theory suggested that human beings were not blind, that the evolutionary theorist, at least, could perceive with some accuracy the structures and processes of nature. Darwinism contains within itself both memetic and genetic models for the self - memes for scientists, genes for nature. Darwinism implied that scientists, armed with proper knowledge, could predict future natural events. Scientists could, further, plan and act intentionally to collect and interpret natural data.

4 Minds

Memetics advances from these origins along multiple parallel fronts. One of these is in the area of "mind." As we have suggested, it seems reasonable that minds include cognitive tools for representation, foresight, choice, and action and that these are genetically, biologically based, culturally and socially developed and programmed. These capabilities interact with other biological systems through complex feedback mechanisms and influence organisms' survival capabilities in different environments.

At the same time, we must recognize that the meaning of `mind', like `meme', is multivalent and metaphorical. `Mind' has different meanings in biological, psychological, linguistic, and philosophical contexts.

To pose the problem as free will versus determinism may obfuscate the complexity of the situation. Free will or determinism may simply exist as different interpretations of the same phenomena in different theoretical contexts. From the naïve perspective of everyday common sense, free will begins at the body's edge. Philosophically and legally, free will is the essential component of our individuality, of our dignity, of our rights and responsibilities. From a biological or medical perspective, free will may represent the effects of unknown variables within deterministic systems; indeterminable interactive effects of multiple known variables within complex systems; or random error of otherwise deterministic processes.

As memetics develops, it will generate new meanings both for itself and for associated concepts and terms. Old analogies and metaphors, for example genetics and genes, may diminish in importance. New ones, perhaps centering on patterns of information, will gain. In any case, memetics will help reshape how we think about ourselves and our minds. For the time being, free will and determinism uneasily coexist. The emerging discipline of memetics will help us track their meanings as they evolve.


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Speel, H.-C. (1997). A memetic analysis of policy making. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1. (http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1997/vol1/speel_h-c.html).

Turner, M. and G. Fauconnier. (forthcoming). Conceptual integration and formal expression. Journal of Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 10, 3. (http://metaphor.uoregon.edu/turner.htm).

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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