LogoPrice, If and Shaw, R. (1999). Memetics and the Edge of Chaos.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 3.

The Authors' Reply to Paul Marsden's Book Review: Memetics and the Edge of Chaos

If Price and Ray Shaw
Facilities Management Graduate Centre, Sheffield Hallam University
and The Extraordinary Performance Company Ltd, Reigate.
I.Price@shu.ac.uk RayShaw1@compuserve.com

In reviewing Shifting the Patterns (STP) Marsden identifies us as taking memetics to the edge of chaos; a comment we welcome if only because our intellectual underpinning for the book draws on that other emergent science - complexity - as much as it does on memetics and standard neo-darwinian evolution. Unlike say Dennett (1995) who sees in complexity and Kauffman's (1993) ideas a search for a skyhook, we see complexity and a general science of selfish replicators as necessary complements to one another in the search for the understanding of the origin and self-maintenance of complex order (Price, forthcoming). Complexity offers the `edge of chaos', as the setting for the emergence of new order and we make no apology for also offering it as the metaphor for the release of individual and organisational possibility.

Marsden is quite correct that we attempt to use what he has aptly termed "the memetic stance" (Marsden, 1998) to prompt solutions to real-world issues rather than write a book on memetics. STP emerged as our manifesto for the release of human potential. Its conception involved the dilemma of our desire to both produce new scholastic ideas and yet to write outside the standard patterns of `management books'; patterns which tend to lump the market into the categories of `scholastic' or `how-to'. The memetic stance seems to us to be indeed an "ontologically minimalist heuristic" (ibid.); one capable of unifying a wealth of broadly evolutionary explanations of human phenomena at all scales from the individual to the `inter-organisational'. Though we wrote mainly in the context of companies we see the message as pertaining to all forms of organisation and are delighted that, within a month of STP reaching the world we had favourable feedback from readers concerned with such patterns as their marriages, drug addiction and better support for children at risk as well as from a more conventional management audience.

However when Marsden argues that "rather than take the conventional view that individuals are the hosts for memes which are transmitted through individual behaviour, STP argues that companies should be understood as the proper hosts to memes" we must take issue and urge a more inclusive perspective. It seems to us questionable to label that the conventional view (see for example Hull 1988, Lloyd 1990) but more importantly we would argue that forms of `company' more complex than an individual are an emergent property of shared memes, transmitted through language and cultural artefacts. They do then indeed become vehicles for the replication of those memes.

Marsden goes on to cite the problems of our:

"unorthodox understanding of the relationship between meme and organisation, ..., particularly with respect to the organism/company (dis)analogy. Organisations are not physically bonded, rather relations between their constituent parts are informational and not physical and thus not confined to predetermined paths. Organisations themselves do not reproduce whereas organisms do. Thirdly unlike organisms, organisations have phylogenies. Fourthly, and perhaps most critically, companies do not have any needs themselves, unlike individuals, so it is difficult to see how evolution can operate at the level of the organisation."

To deal, briefly, with each point, first extended phenotypes (Dawkins, 1982) are not physically bonded neither are, say, symbiotic organisms co-evolving, yet replicator theory explains the resultant complex order. Second organisations, or at least organisational strategies and processes, are very definitely reproduced through imitation (Lloyd, 1990). Third McCarthy et. al. (1997) have demonstrated organisational phylogeny and introduced the prospect of the twin sciences of organisational memetics (Price, 1994; 1995) and organisational cladistics. Finally, while companies may start as vehicles to deliver individual needs we would argue they become institutions with, in a sense at least, their own - or their memes' - needs. Who in an organisation has not heard the expression `what this organisation needs is .......'

We are then accused of exacerbating problems in the partial gene/meme analogy by conflating `pattern' and `meme'. True perhaps but we in good company. Dawkins (1976) makes very clear his use of `The Selfish Gene' as a metaphor for the interaction of several poorly defined bits of a chromosome interacting in complex chromosome system. We tried to make the same point clear (p159/160). The science of genetics has had a century's start on memetics and manages to embrace both generalist and specific concepts of gene. We would agree the need for a memetics to evolve its own specialist terminology but suggest the generalist conflation of meme, like gene, benefits the wider appreciation of the memetic stance. Research memeticists will undoubtedly evolve their own special memes if only because replicators abhor a vacuum in replication space. The process will, inevitably, be a selection process between variants on the meme of meme and its derivatives. We may for example find ourselves requiring at least two distinct meanings of `host', at the level of mind and of organisation. But then where is the host of the gene? Is it the species, the body, the cell, the nucleus?

We also admit to freely switching between gene and virus analogies (we challenge their looseness). `Double-helix' replicator theory suffers a similar confusion. DNA (gene) based organisms are also hosts to RNA based viruses. If memetics is restricted to the viral level then science needs another word for the wider organisational replicator. The alternative is to keep `meme' general and derive more specific terminology where it is needed. "Confusion over the unit and level of evolution" is not unique to memetics. "It is not at all clear whether rules evolve, organisations evolve or more amorphously, patterns (of rules behaviours and organisations evolve)." Memes, we argue, evolve through the emergent web of institutional rules, language and artefacts that they enable.

Marsden continues:

"If memes are taken to be socially acquired cultural instructions then the cogency of STP largely holds together, and the framework presented is somewhat similar to Cloak's cultural ethology of i-culture and m-culture (Cloak 1975). Indeed the authors might have usefully exploited the clarity of this framework, but instead no reference is made to Cloak. On the other hand, by adopting Dawkins' meme concept uncritically, the authors also add the ambiguity inherent in Dawkins various conceptualisations (see Gatherer 1998) to their own framework."

We agree and were, at the time of writing unaware of Cloak's distinctions. At the level of scientific objectivity those distinctions are indeed important. In STP we were more concerned with utility and the `tyranny of selfish replicators'.

We were likewise unaware, at the time of writing of "Allison's (1992, 1993) work on the spread of non utility-maximising rules through population"s or Burns and Dietz's institution theory (1992a, 1992b, 1996, 1997a, 1997b). We are pleased to agree their relevance and welcome yet another body of organisational observation amenable to the memetic stance or the selfish meme heuristic.

We do though see the `long periods of stability - short moments of terror' (Ager 1973) dynamic of the evolution of the complex geological system on which we all live as a fundamental property of replicator driven systems, a conclusion we sought to substantiate by reference to observations at various scales of existence from the geological to the corporate (see also Price and Kennie, 1997). "Reports of the death of gradualism have been greatly exaggerated, and Gould is" - indeed - "not the only evolutionist around". Unfortunately some of the others seem to us so preoccupied with how evolution ought to operate that they are less concerned with the evidence of how it has operated (patterns / memes again!). The geological - biological debate over places at the high table of evolution may yet mirror itself in memetics.

Then we reach "the most controversial aspect of STP for memeticists is the idea that the self, and importantly consciousness, are not memetic, and that a non-memetic independent freewill somehow allows individuals in organisations to act with true intentionality. In other words, the dualist homunculus is left untouched by the authors' conceptualisation of memetics". We stayed out of that one because of concern for utility rather than `truth'. Too far down that line of reasoning, even if it is neurophysiologically `true' lies the danger of abrogation of personal or social moral and ethical responsibility. We do not however see a need for a dualist homunculus to evoke a mind capable of inquiring into its own existence and own choices. There is a fully self contained explanation. Memetic patterns which permit an inquiry into other memetic patterns residing in the same brain, grant themselves a certain trick in replication space. Some memes have always granted the minds that carried them some power of inquiry into underlying assumptions. Sometimes they got their host excommunicated / burnt at the stake / made redundant or otherwise disposed of but they nonetheless replicated and also, on balance, enabled the progress of cultural evolution. The memes of inquiry live on because they also enable their hosts (at all levels of organisation) to achieve greater results and are an antidote to other, more parasitic, memes. We see much power in Blackmore's (1996) conception of meme-eating memes. In deploying them, people can at least influence the evolution of companies, through both selective transmission and also the creation of new memes derived from a new understanding of the patterns that code for performance. While the school of meme theory, "concerned with deconstructing pervasive homuncularism understanding human behaviour" has undoubtedly brought new insights and explanations of human behaviour we would return to Dawkins' original conception of the meme as an example of the power of replicators to enable and maintain complex order. We hold therefor that there is a science of organisational memetics; one that has the potential to finally provide an explanation for the existence of organisations, by recasting in one simple heuristic numerous other observational stances and perhaps even one capable of giving people the dualist homunculus that they have not previously had. Now there's a thought!


Ager, D.V. (1973) The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record, London: Macmillan.

Allison, P. (1992) Cultural relatedness under oblique and horizontal transmission rules. Ethology and Sociobiology, 13:153-169.

Allison, P. (1993) The Cultural Evolution of Beneficent Norms. Social Forces, 71:279-301.

Blackmore, S. (1996) The Psychology of Awakening, International Conference on Buddhism, Science and Psychotherapy, Dartington. http://www.memes.org.uk/meme-lab/DART96.htm

Burns, T.R. and Dietz, T. (1992a) Cultural Evolution: Social Rule Systems, Selection, and Human Agency. International Sociology, 7: 259-283.

Burns, T.R. and Dietz, T. (1992b) Human Agency and the Evolutionary Dynamics of Culture. Acta Sociologica, 35:187-200.

Burns, T.R. and Dietz, T. (1996). Emerging Order and Disorder: Modernization and Globalization in an Evolutionary Perspective. Report, Uppsala Theory Circle, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden.

Burns, T.R. and Dietz, T. (1997a). Evolutionary Sociology: Selective Environments, Human Agency and Institutional Dynamics. Conference on Sociological Theory and the Environment, Zeist, The Netherlands, March 20-23, 1997 (Research Committee 24, Environment and Society, the International Sociological Association).

Burns, T.R. and Dietz, T. (1997b). Human Agency and Evolutionary Processes: Institutional Dynamics and Social Revolution. In: B. Wittrock (ed.), Agency in Social Theory. London: Sage Publications.

Cloak, F.T. (1975). Is a cultural ethology possible? Human Ecology, 3:161-182.

Dawkins, R. (1976,). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1982).The Extended Phenotype. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D.C. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, New York: Simon and Shuster.

Hull, D. (1988). Science as a Process. Chicago: Univerity of Chicago Press.

Kauffman, S.A. (1993). The Origins of Order: Self Organization and Selection in Evolution, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lloyd, T. (1990). The Nice Company, London: Bloomsbury

Price, I. (1994). The genetics of the learning organisation. In P. DePotter and T.L. Campbell (eds.), Proceedings of the First Conference of the European Consortium for the Learning Organisation, London: Gower.

Price, I. (1995). Organisational memetics?: organisational learning as a selection process. Management Learning, 299-318. http//members.aol.com/ifprice/ifresch.orgmem.html

Price, I. (forthcoming). Images or Reality? Metaphors, Memes and Management. In M. Lissack and H. Gunz (eds.) Managing the Complex, Westport: Quorum Press.

Price, I. and Kennie, T.R.M. (1997). Punctuated Strategic Equilibrium and Some Leadership Challenges for University 2000. 2nd International Dynamics of Strategy Conference, SEMS, Guildford. http//members.aol.com/ifprice/pkacstrat.html

Price, I. and Shaw, R. (1998). Shifting the Patterns: breaching the memetic codes of corporate performance. Chalford: Management Books 2000. http://members.aol.com/ifprice/stp.html

Marsden, P. (1998). Memetics and social contagion: Two sides of the same coin? Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/marsden_p.html.

McCarthy, I.P., Lessure, M., Ridgeway, K. and Fielder. M. (1997). Building a manufacturing cladogram, International Journal of Technology Management, 1:269

© JoM-EMIT 1999

This is a reply to Paul Marsden's book review: Memetics on the Edge of Chaos A Review of Shifting the Patterns: Breaching the Memetic Codes of Corporate Performance (by If Price and Ray Shaw). Information about the book can be found at: http://members.aol.com/ifprice/stp.html.

Back to Issue 3 Volume 1