LogoPrice, I. (1999). Steps toward the Memetic Self.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

Steps toward the Memetic Self
- a commentary on Rose's paper: Controversies in Meme Theory

If Price
Facilities Management Graduate Centre
Sheffield Hallam University

1 Introduction

As the editor of JoM-EMIT points out, some authors in memetics have suggested (explicitly or implicitly) that `consciousness' or a `Self' beyond the constructs of memes and genes can choose or design memes (most famously Dawkins' (1976) call to `overthrow the tyranny' of the replicators). The alternative position eloquently argued by Rose holds that attributing variation and selection of memes to some form of conscious self beyond the reach of the meme "not only undermines the value of meme theory as an evolutionary process, but is also a kind of giving up. If we intentionally design and choose memes `why do we need an evolutionary theory of culture at all?".

This essay is written as an invited contribution to the debate, one I am glad to make if only because Ray Shaw and I (1998) have written what one reviewer (Marsden, 1998b) termed a `manifesto for a velvet revolution' against the tyranny of selfish replicators and dropped easily into the language of individual, goal-directed, choice without addressing the question of whether such a self is, in point of scientific fact, a logical impossibility. Here I may redress the balance. The effort comes in three sections. First I seek to clarify the meaning of meme being used. I then ask whether it is necessary to invoke some conscious self beyond memes, some residual dualist homunculus, if individuals, and groups, are to free themselves of the tyranny of the selfish replicators. In these two sections I will seek to hold to the conventional scientific interpretation of truth. Are we arriving at a better explanation for the working of the natural world and human social systems within that world. In the third section, and the third section only I will address the limits of that particular meme of truth.

2 What meme of meme?

Price and Shaw (1996) used memes drawn from organisational theory and practice to seek an illustration of what may be a typical life cycle of memes in other spheres. To create some replication niche for themselves memes, when they first evolve, must enable some form of result, confer some benefit for those who are their first host. Whether this is a universal need may be open to debate but enabling is a useful strategy for replicating. At some point however `successful' memes, where success is judged purely in terms of replication, need not confer any benefit, provided only that they spread. Business fads provide numerous examples.

From the meme's perspective it is not necessary that replication has a high fidelity. Many business fads (and other memes) become labels whose carriers try and attach different meanings to them The `meme' meme is undoubtedly currently enjoying a considerable radiation, one accompanied by a wide, and growing, divergence of meanings attached to it (Edmonds, 1998). Such divergence is probably another inherent facet of memetic replication. Compared to genes, memes have traded replicative fidelity for replicative speed. From the selfish meme's perspective so what? Success, for the `meme' meme is purely the number of individual human minds who now store some form of meaning associated with the word `meme'. If it causes confusion then so be it. At least the `meme' meme is replicated.

The diversity of meaning does though limit carriers of the `meme' meme when they try to inquire into the power of memes and the limits, or otherwise, of memetics as a theory of either the individual mind or of various forms of social organisation involving more than one mind as members. Rose (op. cit.) is again lucid on the confusion which has arisen from Dawkins' original use of cultural artefacts, Cloak's (1975) `m-culture'; rather than the cultural instructions inside the brain which produced these artefacts Cloak's i-culture to exemplify memes. In trying to arrive at a theory of organisational memetics (Price 1995) I have taken the same interpretation as Rose and conceived of memes as ideas or information, in essence the i-culture. Memes, under this interpretation, may be replicated not only via cultural artefacts but also through language (c.f. Cavalli-sforza and Feldman, 1994) and through the implicit unwritten rules found in any form of social organisation. My own memes in this area derive from Hull's (1988) interpretation of the unwritten rules of the scientific process as vehicles for maintaining particular paradigms and Scott-Morgan's (1994) work on unwritten rules.

The confusion should not be allowed to detract from Dawkins' original point, the power of replicators to enable the emergence, and maintenance over time, of forms of order which are out of thermodynamic equilibrium with their environment. Darwin's` Dangerous Idea' (Dennett 1995) seems to offer not only the one truly sustainable `scientific' explanation we possess for the why the biosphere is the biosphere but also the potential for an equivalent explanation of all forms of organisation. The combination of memetics and complexity (Gabora, 1997; Price, 1995; 1999) offers rich potential as we examine not individual memes passed on through imitation, but rich and densely interconnected memetic patterns. An ironical property of complex adaptive systems (CAS) is their tendency to seek an maintain evolutionary stable states. We need to consider, as forms of memetic phenotype, not just individual `viruses of the mind' but also all forms of social organisation (social CAS). Any individual mind is a product not only of particular individual memes but also of the wider social memes too which it has been exposed. Hence for example I view my mind as carrying a memetic pattern imprinted (among other things) by the English language and tradition (with overtones of the Australian sub-species), by early training as a geologist, and by a career spent within managed commercial organisations. One individual mind can be a member of many different memetic organisations. Can that mind also have any form of free-will, any ability to choose between the various memetic strains that have made it what it is?

3 The memetic self

A more generalised theory of replicators applied to the complex system that is the human brain / mind would hold any one brain / mind combination to be the product of some mix of our genetic and memetic inheritance. Where the boundary is crossed, if indeed it is, is yet another of the unanswered questions of memetics. As I understand it one school of cognitive evolutionary psychology (e.g. Pinker 1997) seeks to argue a genetically specified capability for perception, image coding, memory, language and information processing as capable of yielding a conscious mind without recourse to memes. I prefer Dennett's view of a genetically coded brain converted to a mind when it becomes the resting place for memes. Price and Shaw (1998) exapted a De Bono metaphor in the image of a landscape, eroded over time to provide streams, rivulets, and rivers interspersed between higher plateaux as a simple example of a self-organising, locked-in, system. As rain falls on a virgin landscape so it tends to find the paths of least resistance: the soft rocks and minor depressions of the undulating territory. Over time accumulations of rainfall carve out stream and river beds and settle into pools and lakes. Any new rainfall will no longer find its own way but will rather take, and reinforce, the routes which already exist.

Just as the rainfall follows established routes, so perception follows established ways of seeing. Technically, even if the light sources which perturb the back of the retina are identical, what will be noticed from all that could be seen, will depend on the perceptual lens through which someone views the world. The optimist's half-full glass is the pessimists half-empty one! What is `there' is not independent of the viewer. What is there is what we have been trained (or conditioned or have learnt) to see. Our training in terms of our mental models means that we will not see certain other things which do not fit with the memes we carry. We may discard, indeed we can be blind to, anomalies that do not fit. The self-organised pattern which we call our thinking grants a particular perceptual blindness and rigidity to our perceptions of the world - the very foundation of such things as stereotypes and prejudices - common to all human experience and found, for example in the way one department in a company may view another.

What holds for light waves perturbing the retina, holds equally for acoustic perturbances of the eardrum. Exploring the analogy further we could say that an idea, a single thought, an utterance, a meme in fact, is like the single raindrop. It falls with others upon a pre-formed perceptual landscape. Isolated thoughts gather together in a string - a pattern of co-existing memes - which we might compare to a few drops congregating together in a splash of water. With sufficient mass the splash of water starts to flow into streams and rivers which are, if we like, the connectors between the raindrops and the pools and lakes, if not the oceans, of our thoughts. The pools and lakes we may view as concept pools and theory lakes. Thus a self-organising system is inherited and developed in which the flow of perception takes a certain course, it follows a certain pattern, a largely given paradigm.

Patterns in the brain influence seeing (or more accurately perceiving). Patterns, and seeing influence behaviour so that behaviour follows certain patterns. It may be argued that we see the world less as it is and more as we are, and that we act perfectly consistent with how we see the world. There is a certain alignment with our thinking, our perceptions and our actions-in-the-world. Thinking, seeing, and behaving tend to follow pre-existing patterns.

Yet that pattern carries some ability to inquire into, and make sense of, the environment around it. An inquisitive ability, albeit a limited one, seems to be one of the evolutionary tricks of our species biological endowment. Genetic selection hit (for reasons which may be fortuitous - e.g. see Morgan 1997) on a combination of a large brain, an enhanced vocal capacity, an opposed thumb and an upright posture. Whether the experiment would have succeeded if it had not provided the environment for accelerated, memetic, evolution is a moot point. Our hominid ancestors had to live in a world where many faster and physically stronger predators must have regarded them as an alternative lunch. Tool making, communication, and a faster rate of learning from each other and their environment proved advantageous evolutionary adaptations. Equally a tendency to accept, without question, the mores, beliefs and behaviours which granted any individual membership of a particular tribe, or other social group conveyed a different form of selective advantage. There was safety in numbers. Ones own replicators were less likely to end up as some other replicators' lunch.

The inquiring (within limits) mind and the socially acquiescing (within limits) mind is thus perfectly explicable as a natural evolutionary development; a product of Darwinian selection. That mind enabled the species which carried it to outgrow the limits of their genetic inheritance, and periodically to challenge the limits of their memetic inheritance. Such challenges did not always come easily. The history of the development of ideas is replete with examples of the painful ends which awaited those who challenged prevailing epistemological orthodoxies. While Dawkins phraseology, `escaping the tyranny of the selfish replicators' may be accused of a certain literary excess (a useful memetic trick) it is not necessary to invoke a self outwith the meme-gene combination to explain self-awareness or questioning of a particular status quo. It may not even be the combination! An intriguing possibility is that curiosity, the inquiring brain, is an inherent part of our genetic inheritance whilst conformity is memetically induced. It is probably memes more than genes that limit our ability to question a prevailing reality.

Memes for common technologies, common languages and common belief systems sustained and enabled various forms of social organisation from, say, early foraging / hunting groups to any of the worlds major nations or religions. If one takes this memetic stance to social organisation it becomes logically difficult to interpret history as other than the record of memetic evolution; an observation which, in turn, offers a perspective of the extent of the tyranny of the selfish replicators. Hobbes' famous characterisation of the life of man as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" reflects the fate of most members of the memetic species, living subsistence existences with any surplus devoted to the perpetuation of the prevailing memes and the power / caste structure which carried them. In the process most members of the human species became, in large measure, victims of the memeset they found themselves members of. Too great a challenge to an existing status quo has always carried the risk of retaliation by the `powers that be', that is the agents of the `memes that be'. The inquiring mind risked the loss of anything from membership of a particular group to life.

Memetics seems to me to offers the prospect of an explanation of the inherent danger of runaway ideological tyrannies, and in and of itself it is thus an antidote to them. Science is itself a memetic selection process (Hull, 1988), and one not free of its own tendency to seek the largest share it can of available resources for its own replication. It is certainly subject to parasitism by malignant and socially repulsive memes like eugenics. It has though enabled a position where we have, in a way that none of our ancestors did, a more accurate understanding of the world around us and our place in it. Perhaps it is only through the memes / genes for the inquiring mind and an appreciation of the power of selfish replicators that we may at last escape at least some of the tyranny.

4 Beyond the science meme

I have tried to write, in the previous two sections, from a perspective of scientific truth. I am inculcated by the science meme and would normally defend the utility of that meme in the pursuit of that form of truth, at least in most contexts.

Switch the context though and even the memes of scientific truth can become limiting. The unchallenged assumption that there must be a single `truth' or `right way' becomes a means of defending a particular world view or of creating a particular, self-fulfilling, reality. Assertions with the generic format of declaring something to be true, can hold those who make them stuck in a certain reality, parasitised by a certain mind set, victims of a particular memetic pattern. The phenomenon works at scales from the individual to the societal. More can sometimes be gained by asking not `is a particular perspective true', but `is that perspective valid', and `are there alternatives which would enable me to achieve a different result?'. To a believer in memes it is difficult to see any particular religion for example as true, yet one can perhaps see many religions as valid, if only because, by providing a rationale for desirable codes of social behaviour they enable certain common value systems. Achieving even a semblance of commonly accepted ethical standards may be harder in a world without religion. This is not to say that there are not many circumstances in which religions limit the minds of those infected by them, but merely to allow an inquiry into the possibility of contexts in which religion might enable, not limit.

The assertion of truth contains also a dark side. An ever present danger in the logic of saying we are all creatures of our memes is the denial of individual responsibility for ones actions, so any action, or even `any action not strictly prohibited' one individual takes to exploit others is excused. Whether greed and ownership are memetic or genetic is a moot point but truth can be harnessed in the service of the unbridled growth of either.

Because memes may be scientifically true - as the explanation for the complex system that is the human mind - it does not seem, to me at least, to deny that mind the property of inquiring into itself. Indeed, finally abandoning any self outside memes and genes seems to demand more, not less, self awareness. The memetic self either abrogates responsibility for its behaviour `It wasn't me - I'm just a vehicle' or accepts that the last chance to escape responsibility for ones actions in the world has past. Memetics meets morality.


1. It is not strictly relevant to the discussion but it may be that this process should be modelled in terms of `hitchhiker' memes - different subsets of meaning that try and get a free ride in replication space by attaching themselves to an existing terminology. Our 1996 paper used the example of the `Learning Organisation'.


Dawkins, R., (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (2nd Edition, 1989).

Dennett, D. C., (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Dennett, D. C., (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea. London: Penguin.

Edmonds, B., (1998). On Modelling in Memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/edmonds_b.html

Gabora, L., (1997). The origin and evolution of culture and creativity. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1, http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1997/vol1/gabora_l.html

Hull, D. L., (1988). Science as a Process. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Marsden, P. (1998a). 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

Marsden, P. (1998b). A Review of: Shifting the Patterns: Breaching the Memetic Codes of Corporate Performance by If Price and Ray Shaw. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/marsden_p2.html

Morgan, E., (1997). The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis. London: Souvenir Press

Pinker, S., (1997). How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton

Price, I., (1995). Organisational memetics?: organisational learning as a selection process. Management Learning, 299-318.

Price, I. and Shaw, R., (1996). Parrots, patterns and performance [The learning organisation meme: emergence of a new management replicator]. In T.L. Campbell (ed.) Proceedings of the Third Conference of the European Consortium for the Learning Organisation, Copenhagen.

Price, I. and Shaw, R., (1998). Shifting The Patterns: Breaching the memetic codes of corporate performance. Chalford: Management Books 2000.

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

Scott-Morgan, P., (1994). The Unwritten Rules of the Game. New York: McGraw Hill.

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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