This paper attempts to provide three directions for advancing Dawkins' original description of memes as `units' of cultural transmission'. These three directions are
1. There could be different types of memes.
2. Memes are not `units'.
3. The transmission of memes might not be restricted to something called `culture'.
A biological perspective allows for different types of memes with different transmission mechanisms.The disease type mechanism (epidemiology) has been over emphasised and is only one such mechanism.Three types of memes are suggested and given the names recipemes, selectemes and explanemes. Their use is illustrated by the evolution of technology in which black box systems are used to do things requiring recipemes - ideas about how to do it - and selectemes - ideas about what is a desirable output. Explanemes are ideas about the inside of the `box'.
Key words: memes, evolution, culture, technology, biology.
Scientific thinking is so imbued with the P view that it sometimes seems that the existence of an alternative scientific way of looking at things has been kept a carefully guarded secret. One of the few people to attempt an account of B is Ernst Mayr whose `The Growth of Biological Thought' (Mayr 1982) is recommended to economists, sociologists and anyone interested in evolution.
Certain features of the B view need highlighting to provide a background for the B view of memes. These are:-
i) There is no such thing as a single cause for any event or process in biology. For example Steven Rose (1997 p 10) gives five different explanations for a frog jumping away from a snake. These range from its evolutionary history to the biochemical properties of its muscles. The processes by which ideas are transmitted are surely more complex than the reaction of a frog to a snake.
ii) B concepts are fuzzy patterns and advances are made through subdivision. (This is the opposite of P which has mathematically precise concepts and likes to reduce the number of concepts, not increase them).
As Mayr (1982) puts it-
"Particularly important (in scientific progress) is the occasional recognition that a more or less technical term, previously believed to characterise or designate a certain concept, was in reality used for a mixture of two or more concepts, like `isolation' for geographical and reproductive isolation or `variety' for individuals and populations." p43It seems reasonable to suggest that advances in memetics could also be made by regarding concepts as mixtures or patterns rather than by attempting precise definitions.
iii) The need for descriptive studies. Biology used to be sneered at as one of the descriptive sciences. Its higher status today has partly come from adopting a P approach, sometimes referred to as reductionist molecular biology.
Yet Mayr (1982) claims,
"In evolutionary biology almost all phenomena and processes are explained through inferences based on comparative studies. These in turn are made possible by very careful and detailed descriptive studies. It is sometimes overlooked how essential a component in the methodology of evolutionary biology the underlying descriptive work is." p.70What is needed to advance memetics is detailed studies of memes competing and surviving. The history of ideas is a start. This can become the evolution of memes but more is needed; the day to day natural history of memes needs to be added to existing notions of influential ideas, their propagation and recombination (e.g. Lovejoy 1936). Darwin's theories came after years of detailed study, not before.
iv) The nature of evolution. From the P view, evolution is `unfolding' but biological evolution is NOT a gradual unfolding of a predetermined pattern. The growth of an embryo or the growth of an oak tree from an acorn are examples of `unfolding' or development.
Confusing unfolding which is predictable with Darwinian change which is not, is a mistake made mainly by physicists who tend to believe that everything in principle is predictable. Thus a report in the Times Higher Educational Supplement (12 April 1996 p3) describes the computer modelling of the growth of the Universe. The article refers to `the latest step in unravelling the evolution of the universe'. It quotes Carlos Frenk, Physics Professor at Durham University, as saying, "Imagine you could do a computer simulation that would take the fossil record and evolve it until we see the human growing". The article also refers to the 100,000 years old universe as, "the embryo universe".
The development of an embryo is actually quite a different process from the changes that led from the life represented by the fossil record to our present existence. It is only with the advantage of hindsight that we might reconstruct the evolution of humanity. If some scientific being came from outer space and only had fossils up to the time of say the reptiles, there is no way that humanity could be predicted from these fossils. At any stage in biological evolution, the number of possible future states is enormous. Those varieties that do survive and lead to further varieties do so partly by luck and coincidence and because of environmental changes which are also not predictable.
This is why some physicists claim that the Darwinian theory of evolution is not a scientific theory at all (the only science is physics; the rest is stamp collecting or social work or cookery or qualitative description, depending on which quote you prefer). Nonetheless, the B view is a scientific view. It can make predictions that can be tested - predictions about the fossil record for example. Any good classification system (stamp collecting) provides predictions. If a new chemical is identified as being secondary a , it is possible to predict some of its properties and ways of making it from other chemicals. Mendeleyev's periodic table, a two dimensional classification system or pattern, predicted the existence of two unknown elements which were soon discovered. This prediction was possible without any knowledge of electrons, the nature of the chemical bond, wave mechanics etc. which are the product of P type approaches. What Darwinian evolution can not do is predict the future results of change; it is not an unfolding development.
v) The importance of variety (of whatever kind). This can be summarised as: Without variety there is no competition. Without competition there is no evolution. Without evolution there is no biology. In contrast, the P view likes things to be the same. Where variety does exist, this is reduced to `deviation' from the `norm'. The emotive connotations of these two words demonstrate the preferences of P type thinkers. Mayr's version of what I label P and B is his essentialist vs. populationist divide. He claims (Mayr 1982),
"The statistics of the essentialist are quite different from those of the populationist...Differences in height among a group of people are real and not the result of inaccuracies in measurement. Darwin could not have arrived at a theory of natural selection if he had not adopted populational thinking. The sweeping statements in the racist literature, on the other hand, are almost invariably based on essentialistic thinking." p.47In other words, variety is to be embraced and not regarded as something that gets in the way of prediction. Different kinds of memes having different methods of propagating and altering have to be the starting pattern for advances in memetics. (B advances from a pattern; only P has a starting point). Armed with a B view of the world, we can take a fresh look at Dawkins original statement on memes.
The `idea' of a railway is not a `unit'. When the Liverpool - Manchester railway was built, many people could `catch' the idea of a railway from looking at it working. This did not mean that they could then go and build railways somewhere else. The amount of information needed to construct and run a railway system is enormous. The meme of a railway is a Russian Doll, which includes knowledge of suspension systems, traction systems, signalling, time tables, track maintenance, safety, finance, customer preferences etc. No single human has the complete `idea' of a railway in a brain or a computer. From the point of view of an observer rather than an operator, the idea of a railway might be thought of as a pattern consisting of fragments of memory assembled around a label - railway. From the point of view of a user, a railway is an idea in competition with ideas about other forms of transport. Whatever is meant by the idea of a railway, it is different for different people and it is not a unit.
Some writers (e.g. Ball 1984 and Durham 1991) have seen memes as being more than unit bits of information or unit ideas. They can be complexes of things, behaviour and ideas but still transmitted as units and firmly placed in something called culture. Now it is possible to define culture in such a way as to include almost everything `out there' but such definitions usually include something about cultural transmission. This brings us to the next point.
A P view of things is pleased by identical fundamental particles - hence units. Such a view also likes fields in which to place its basic units. Culture to Dawkins and others seems to provide the field in which the meme particles move about. Culture, however is not P; it is B. It is not like a gravitational field in which projectiles have predictable trajectories (until humans intervene). It is a biological field in which things grow and compete. A problem with culture is knowing which way round to look at the relationship between culture and humanity. Is culture something created by humans or are humans at the mercy of whatever culture they happen to be born into? Is it an agricultural field, artificially selected or is it a wild field, naturally selected? (Or from a chemical perspective, is there a `bond' between humans and culture? - Bonds go both ways).
From the many definitions of culture, the following might help to show why I think this term does not help memetics -
"culture is viewed as man's way of maintaining life and perpetuating his species, a system of learned and socially transmitted ideas, sentiments, social arrangements and objects that depend for their formulation and continuation upon man's ability to create symbols." (Gamst and Norbeck 1976).Quite apart from the outdated emphasis on `man' having all the fun, I am in disagreement with two aspects of this definition, the inclusion of objects - not ideas about objects but the actual objects - with everything else and the necessity of having symbols for transmission. Now certain kinds of ideas do require symbols. The ideas of science, for example, and explanations in general need words or maths for their transmission. (It might be that having explanations is the one real difference between the human and other animals). This kind of transmission is not always necessary for other types of ideas such as ideas about how to do things. Ideas about playing the piano or making even apparently simple things, like pots, are very difficult to put into words or other symbols. They involve `finger tip' knowledge and ideas about things feeling right. An idea of how to do something can be transferred more easily by doing it than by describing it. Written music, of course, involves symbols but written notes do not tell you how to play the piano. Tunes can be transmitted by written music but more often their transmission has no dependence on symbols. Cymbals can be better than symbols for the transmission of musical ideas.
Another description of culture is provided by Lumsden and Wilson (1983), who state,
"Human cultures consist of artifacts, such as knifes of a certain shape and function; behaviours, such as initiation rites of a particular form; and mental constructions having little or no direct correspondence to reality such as myths."To lump together knives, initiation rites and myths under the label `culture' may be all right for those who want to see the world that way. I don't. I have a suspicion that the knives are more important and that transmission of ideas about knives is different from the transmission of mythical ideas. Though I am sure that myths need words or other symbols for their transmission, I am also sure that knives don't. A knife is its own picture- a representation not a symbol. Using a knife can be copied directly.
To make any progress, we have to unpack this `culture includes everything' approach to look at different kinds of memes with the possibility of different means of transmission. To those who can not imagine a meme without cultural transmission, I would say, what is the meme of a railway? Does it require a railway culture in order to move from one country to another and if not, why not?
Before attempting to describe different types of memes, it is necessary to discuss another aspect of transmission that has held up memetics, namely a fascination with memes as parasites or viruses.
If some extra-galactic intelligence discovered our earth, they might be expected to be interested in carbon based life. However, if after twenty years they had only studied viruses and parasites we might think they were deficient in curiosity or just weird. Why no interest in ants, elephants, spiders, trees, eagles, coral, sharks or fungi? It is a bit like that with memes; why such little interest in the memes of technology, poetry, design, economics and all those interesting human activities involving ideas. After all, Dawkins' original description of a meme included `ways of making pots and building arches'.
There are two further problems with the memes as viruses school of thought. One is that it ignores Dawkins original use for memes - as the basis for a new kind of evolution, acting on top of genetic evolution. Epidemiology is not in itself evolutionary unless it asks historical questions about the viruses. The second problem is that it has not found a use for memes as such. Ideas about the spread of `foreign' ideas have been around a long time. Have they been improved by the addition of memes? Older readers will remember Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders (1957) and might have come across William Sargant's `Battle for the Mind' (1957) which has the opening remark,
"...this book is not concerned with the truth or falsity of any particular religious or political belief. Its purpose is to examine some of the mechanisms involved in the fixing or destroying of such beliefs in the human brain." p.9Memetics has added some new words to describe the transmission and effects of memes, e.g. Glenn Grant (1990) has bait, dormant, hook, membot, meme allergy, sociotype, vaccime and so on, which are fun but don't really add very much to a discussion of ideas outside religion and politics. This emphasis on religion and politics and the disease-like nature of the spread of `foreign' ideas would not have mattered too much if this tendency had been confined to those Xenophobic Americans wanting to believe that Communism was a dangerous infection capable of sapping the minds of true Americans (e.g. Peter Vajk, 1989) claiming that perestroika was a deliberate strategic deception by the infectious meme of Communism). Unfortunately, the meme of the infectious meme seems itself to be rather infectious. The author of the immortal quote, "Memes share the farmyard with us and it is up to us which of them we let push us around" (Westoby 1994) was not a hawkish American - he was an English Lecturer in Education, with so called left wing views.
Dawkins himself seems to have added little to memes beyond his diatribe against religion (Dawkins 1993) apparently fuelled by his six year old daughter being given instruction by a nun without his knowledge. The big problem with memes as viruses, parasites or even symbiotes is how do you know which memes are `you' and which are `invaders'. Dawkins (1993) glimpses this problem with an afterthought about science. Couldn't the ideas of science be just the same as the ideas of religion; that is `caught' from teachers, books etc.
`No', says Dawkins (1993):-
"The rapid spread of a good idea through the scientific community may look like a description of a measles epidemic. But when you examine the underlying reasons you find that they are good ones, satisfying the demanding standards of scientific method.For scientific belief, epidemiology merely comes along afterwards and describes the history of its acceptance. For religious belief, epidemiology is the root cause." p.23To me this really does not help. How do you know that a reason is a good one? You have to have ideas about what is a good idea - selectemes. Such ideas can be `caught' as easily as any other kind of idea. As Dennett puts it (1995):-
"it cannot be `memes versus us' because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are.The independent mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth." p.365Dennett removes the polarity between us and the invaders by seeing our notion of self as the result of `infestation'. The idea that the mind begins its life as a clean slate or an empty vessel waiting to be filled goes back a long time (e.g. John Locke (1690) wrote about the mind being at first a `yet empty cabinet' which was furnished by experience.) This notion leads to thinking about the source of the ideas that are supposed to fill the empty mind and some people have seen a quasi independent culture as the filling agent. It can be seen that the two uses for memes - memes as nasty invaders of an independent self and memes as the units of culture without which there would not be a `self' - are as different as sociology and psychology or as macro and micro economics. They ought to meet but they don't. My aim is to find something different from either of these limited perspectives.
I want to know the difference between a belief that is somehow based on evidence and one that is not. I want to know how ideas change with time - how they evolve. To answer these kinds of questions, I need a biological evolutionary approach using different kinds of memes involving different transmission methods.
Jean and Peter Medawar's book(1978) has a chapter on exosomatic evolution which starts,
"Everybody has observed that the human artifacts which serve as tools are to some extent extensions of the body".They are probably rather optimistic about the observational power of `everybody' but that is just a way of saying that they can not remember how they got such an idea. Way back in 1872 Samuel Butler expressed this idea in `Erewhon' (almost `nowhere' spelt backwards but pronounced with three syllables) pointing to a spade as an external limb, a note book as an external memory, a magnifying glass as an external eye etc. The Medawars then add on to Butler's concept of evolutionary external organs the point that it is not the tools (organs) that evolve but ideas about tools:
"It is very clear that these exosomatic parts of ourselves undergo a slow systematic secular change of a kind which it is perfectly possible to describe as involution' - exosomatic evolution - provided of course one realises that it is the design of these instruments that undergoes the evolutionary change and not the instruments themselves, except in a quite unnecessarily figurative sense".Instead of drawing a parallel between genes and designs (both are `instructions' that affect the production of something), the Medawars add on ideas from cultural evolution. They say:
"Ordinary organic evolution is mediated through a genetic mechanism but exosomatic evolution is made possible by the transfer of information from one generation to the next through non-genetic channels. By far the most important of these non-genetic agencies is language. It is because of the primacy of language... that exosomatic evolution is often referred to as cultural or psychosocial evolution". chap.6So culture and language are still in the picture. Ideas about technology, however, can be transmitted without words and without invoking some cultural `field'.
Competition between ideas leading to some ideas being replicated, modified or added to can be discussed without reference to `culture' (which is not the same as saying ideas are culture free - just that some ideas, like some microbes can be transmitted between cultures even though both ideas and microbes can flourish within an appropriate `culture')
Technology moves across cultures quite easily. If your tribe is attacked by a new tribe armed with bows and arrows which kill humans and animals then your tribe absorbs the idea of bows and arrows. You don't have to learn the language of the new tribe to do this nor do you need the special prayers and ceremonies which the new tribe associate with making the bows and arrows; you have to watch them being used and perhaps capture some. Bows and arrows can be imitated.
This is not the same as saying all artifacts can be easily imitated; nor is it the same as saying artifacts are culture-free. It is just saying that the meme of using bows and arrows is better described as a technological pattern, a Russian doll idea of how to do something rather than a unit of cultural transmission. Since I think about technology as a way of doing something better than it could be done by an unaided human, a convenient class of memes is ideas about ways of doing something. I propose to call these recipemes.
Once we have different ways of doing different kinds of things, we have ideas of success and betterness. Some things and some ways are `better' than alternatives. I propose to use the word, `selecteme' to mean ideas that form the basis of selection. Selectemes are competing ideas of betterness. They provide the mental environment in which other memes compete for selection. (Selectemes, of course, compete with other selectemes!) The transmission of selectemes is closely bound to something that might be called a society - in an early version, I tried calling them societemes but decided that was too restrictive.
Many people, of course, don't accept all the selectemes that are offered them. Some have Friday night selectemes that are different from those that are present on Monday morning. So how do we select our selectemes. P-type thinkers will immediately see an infinite regression of minor selectemes being selected by higher order selectemes which are... . However, in a B world, things form non mathematical patterns. A selecteme is a Russian doll type pattern which forms a whole. When we feel that something is wrong, we do not think, "I will not do that because it would be stealing and stealing is against my religion which I have chosen to abide by even though I do not believe in God and in any case I might get found out and that would bring shame which I do not like..." No, we either just feel it would be wrong or we feel it is worth the risk. Either way that feeling can be described as a pattern of selection which the pattern of proposed action either fits, does not fit or is repelled by. When a pattern of action fits a pattern of selection, we have a `click' which Maria Abu-Risha (1999) calls Purposive Pattern Recognition. An important point is that patterns are not units nor are they always made of the same units. The pattern of the letter A can be constructed out of many things including a hole.
Recipemes and selectemes can be combined in black box systems. A black box can be a rubber tree, a chemical reaction, a loom, a bow and arrow or anything that has inputs and outputs under some degree of control. Recipemes are ideas about inputs into boxes (raw materials, energy and conditions) and about alternative boxes. Selectemes are ideas about outputs and their relative desirability. Since boxes can be connected - the output from one being the input to another - there can be long chains of recipemes and selectemes. The loom maker makes a loom using selected materials made elsewhere; the weaver selects a loom to make cloth from selected yarns made elsewhere; the tailor turns the cloth into clothes and the clothes are purchased and worn. At each stage there are recipemes - ideas about how to do things - and selectemes - ideas about what sort of loom, yarn, cloth and clothes might be desirable or undesirable.
In addition to forming long chains of inputs and outputs, recipemes and selectemes can form Russian doll nesting structures. The human body is a special black box. Part of its input is food. If someone decides to bake a cake, selectemes for healthy life style and sensuous enjoyment compete, leading perhaps to a creamy, fatty chocolate cake or a fat-free cake made from organic whole meal flour. Inside these selectemes and recipemes will be other more specific ones. Which recipe for a healthy cake or a delicious cake might be used? Someone might have a selecteme for Delia Smith; someone else for mother's trusted recipe. The person making the choice does not work through a decision tree. They do not think, "I am in favour of being healthy so I must have a healthy diet and that means using a recipe from `Recipes for a Healthy Life' in which is a rather nice cake which I have made before and my friends enjoyed". No, they just think, "I'll make that cake again". The actual cake when made and eaten by other people might influence future choices made by others. Recipes do get copied and ideas of what is a `good' cake can be changed. Such changes usually involve real cakes rather than symbols of cakes.
So we now have a view of the world consisting of interacting black boxes. Humans attempt to alter this world through thinking and doing. Black boxes can be observed and their inputs can be altered. Different inputs give different outputs some of which are judged to be desirable or more desirable than existing outputs. Different black boxes can be tried out. Ideas about inputs and boxes are recipemes. Ideas about desirability of outputs are selectemes. These ideas compete firstly in one mind and then in the world and then in the minds of other people.
Some explanemes lead to suggestions for new black boxes or improvements in existing boxes. Some are `just - so' stories. Some provide words to enhance communication. Some are highly sophisticated and live in special institutions. Explanemes are competing ideas that are used in answering questions about why things work, work better or don't work. Recipemes just tell you how to make something. Explanemes provide a story about what is going on. The transmission of explanemes always requires a language - maybe maths - maybe symbols - but you can not tell a story about something without a story telling language. Stories do translate from one culture to another and so do special symbols such as algebra which moved from an Arabic origin to a European usage.
Explanemes may be expressed in a specialist vocabulary to assist communication about black boxes, their recipemes and appropriate selectemes and they may fit into an environment of curiosity. Competition between explanemes takes place within the mind of anyone who is wondering `why?'. Competition also takes place within complex organisational structures of the kind that are usually called institutions. Scientific institutions provide an environment for the competition between scientific explanemes. This way of looking at science has been neatly described by John Ziman (1998) as,
"a peculiar type of social institution, devoted to the production of public, communally acceptable knowledge about the natural and social worlds through a delicately balanced tension between originality and criticism".Ziman's description of science meets the requirements of an evolutionary system (though that is not his intention). Originality is a variety production system. Criticism is the arena of competition. The `winners' are reproduced through becoming communally acceptable. His delicately balanced tension is also descriptive of biological evolution in that the rate of mutation of genes is not so high as would lead to the loss of successful characters nor so low as would lead to a lack of adaptability.
An explicitly evolutionary approach to science has been provided by David Hull (1988) who claims that the pressures that shape the rise and fall of species are similar to those acting on scientific ideas. He makes use of a selection system involving replicators and interactors. His conceptual replicators could be seen as memes but there is a potential clash here with those such as Susan Blackmore (1999) who see memes as units of imitation. Scientific ideas are passed on but not by imitation. The potential clash is avoided if we have different types of memes with different methods of transmission. Explanemes differ from other memes in that they are not transmitted by imitation. They are still memes, however and they form part of an evolutionary system which sometimes involves institutions.
It is not just the explanemes of science that compete within institutional frameworks. Other types of memes also have special institutions with `a delicately balanced tension between originality and criticism'. Thus manufacturing industry provides an arena for competition between different technological recipemes. The institutions of regulation, law and government oversee competition between those selectemes that are written down and enforced.
Basalla also discusses the transistor and shows that the first commercial transistors were regarded as improvements on the old style crystals which had preceded the thermionic valve. Literature from Bell in 1948 announced, "In the Transistor, two point contacts of the `cat's whisker' or detector type, familiar to radio amateurs, are made to the semiconductor". The point contact transistor was soon replaced by the junction type but it provided an evolutionary link. In Basalla's four component system, the concept of continuity is the weak link.
Just what does it mean to say that something is based on something else? This is why we need memes. If we take the Medawars' point that it is ideas that evolve then we are looking for a system which allows ideas to compete, propagate and change.
The first question has to be, why do we need memes to have an evolutionary theory of technology? Why not just stick with ideas and their history? You can have a history of ideas without using memes. It has been claimed that Arthur Lovejoy invented the history of ideas as an academic discipline (he certainly founded a Journal) but the introduction to his `Great Chain of Being' (1936) clearly states that he was looking for atomistic `units'. Since advances may lie in the direction of scrapping the notion of idea units, Lovejoy's approach will not help.
Ideas change over time; they evolve. Selectemes (ideas about what is best) evolve and other memes have to adapt to their changing environment. Thus the planners of the Concorde shared the selecteme that faster meant better. So the worlds first supersonic civil air travel became possible. However, the selecteme for fast lost out to other selectemes to do with both economy and noise. Different selectemes compete for the mental space marked `the idea of the best' and different recipemes compete to supply ways of achieving the desired result. Some ideas are more competitive in association with a reason; so we find that explanemes are required to assist.
To summarise, memes are needed for evolutionary explanations of human activities. They compete, replicate and vary. They are involved in much more fascinating activities than those suggested by epidemiology. The concept of memes becomes more sophisticated and powerful when broken down into different types of memes with different ways of competing and being replicated. Lack of space prevents discussion of where new ideas come from but it should be obvious that the different memes whilst sharing the common features of an evolutionary system have different variety production mechanisms. New explanemes sometimes result in a Nobel Prize. New recipemes can be patented in the name of their inventor. New selectemes are rarely associated with a named individual (there are some notable exceptions such as Schumacher's Small is Beautiful) but many new ideas seem to crop up simultaneously. There is a need for studies of meme mutation; we don't need any more epidemiology. Evolution and memes need a `B' view of the world. The spreading of identical units through a cultural `field' is far too `P' to be much help in the complex adaptive world of humans, their artifacts and their changing ideas.
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Education Supplement, 24th April p25. See also Public Knowledge.
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