Edmonds, B. (2002). Three Challenges
for the Survival of Memetics.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,
A Letter on:
Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics
In my opinion, memetics has reached a crunch point. If, in the near
future, it does not demonstrate that it can be more than merely a conceptual
framework, it will be selected out. While it is true that many successful
paradigms started out as such a framework and later moved on to become
pivotal theories, it also true that many more have simply faded away. A
framework for thinking about phenomena can be useful if it delivers new
insights but, ultimately, if there are no usable results academics will
Such frameworks have considerable power over those that hold them for
these people will see the world through these `theoretical spectacles'
(Kuhn 1969) - to the converted the framework appears
necessary. The converted are ambitious to demonstrate the universality
of their way of seeing things; more mundane but demonstrable examples seem
to them as simply obvious. However such frameworks will not continue to
persuade new academics if it does not provide them with any substantial
explanatory or predictive `leverage'. Memetics is no exception to this
For this reason I am challenging the memetic community of academics to
achieve the following three tasks of different types:
These are not designed to cover all the cases where a memetic analysis
might hold or to in any way indicate the scope of memetics. Thus, for
example, although the style of Challenge 1reflects
what Gatherer was arguing for in (Gatherer 1998),
I am not claiming that only such sorts of cases are memetic, only that
to convince people it is in these sorts of cases that we must first establish
the field. Great theories are seldom proved in general or for complex
cases but the battle ground for establishing scientific credibility is
often fought over some pretty mundane territory.
- a conclusive case-study;
- a theory for when memetic models are appropriate;
- and a simulation of the emergence of a memetic process.
If these challenges are met, memetics will almost certainly survive [note 1], if not then it will not die immediately, just
be increasingly ignored until it becomes merely a minor footnote in the
history of science. As memeticists you have to decide! Will you stop
the over-ambitious theoretical discussion and do some of the mundane foot-work
that will actually advance knowledge of memetics processes? As David Hull
said at the Cambridge meme conference [note 2]:
"Stop talking about Memetics and start doing it."
Challenge 1: A conclusive case study
The purpose of this is to clearly demonstrate that there is at least
one cultural process that is of an evolutionary nature, where `evolutionary'
is taken in a narrow sense. This needs to be robust against serious criticism.
In my opinion this needs to achieve the following as a minimum.
Such a case study is not likely to be of a highly ambitious nature
(e.g. explaining complex human institutions), but of a limited nature
about which good quality data is available. There may well be many other
memetic processes in the world but the point of this one is that it is
inarguably demonstrable. Once one such case study has been established
more ambitious cases can be attempted, but more ambitious cases will not
be believed until some more straightforward cases are established first.
- Exhibit a replicator mechanism - this needs to be something
physical and not in the mind. The mechanism must provide a testable cause
of the claimed evolutionary process. It must faithfully replicate with
a low level of error or change (although there must be some variation).
There must be no doubt that particular inheritable patterns have been accurately
replicated many times over.
- The lineages of the replicator must be unbroken for long enough
to allow a process of adaptation to exterior factors to occur. If a meme
originates from a few central sources and is only replicated a few times
away from these, then this is insufficient. Thus if lots of people copy
an idea from a particular book and this does not then take on a replicative
momentum of its own then this can not evolve. Even when there is a demonstrable
ability to imitate and the population statistics suggest that there is
an evolutionary process occurring it can still be the case that no sustained
evolution is actually occurring (Edmonds 1989).
- Over a long time period the success of a replicated meme must
be demonstrably correlated to identifiable comparable advantages of a
meme in terms of the mechanism and context of replication. If reasons why
one meme is more successful than another are only based on vague plausibility,
then this is not enough.
- The dynamics need to be numerically consistent with the applicable
theories of population genetics, e.g. Price's covariance and selection
theorem (Price 1970, 1972).
Possible cases might include some of the following.
- Nursery rhymes. Here there is a demonstrable copying process
of infants rote learning rhymes from their parents and school teachers.
The rhyming mechanism and regular meter helps ensure the accurate replication
across generations, and it might be possible to relate the success of
rhymes to its features (e.g. how easy they are to remember). There is
some evidence going back hundreds of years to the `chap books' in the
first age of popular printing (Opie and Opie,
- Legal Phrases. Successful legal phrases (i.e. those that
succeed in court cases) are repeatedly reused in legal documents such
as contracts and articles. They are copied exactly so as not to open the
opportunity for a new interpretation by a court. A study of their population
dynamics and lineages could be made to show that a substantive evolutionary
process occurred as a result.
Challenge 2: A theoretical model for
when it is more appropriate to use a memetic model
One of the chief explanatory claims of memetics is that, in some
sense, the memes evolve for their own sake more than as simply as a result
of a self-interested choice by the `host' individuals. At the extreme some
memeticists (e.g. Rose 1998, Blackmore 1999) have claimed that human brains
are essentially `nothing but' hosts for such memes - they have no meaningful
mental existence without these self-interested memes. However the extent
of these claims and the `added-value' over more conventional (i.e. biologically
grounded) explanations is unclear. It seems to me almost certainly the
case that if hosting memes in general conferred no biological advantage
to the individuals that `host' them, then they would not have evolved in
this way. The brain is a costly organisation in biological terms and would
not have evolved if it was merely for the sake of other individuals (i.e.
It seems clear to me (a memetic agnostic) that some human beliefs are
more sensibly considered to be of a non-memetic character. For example,
I may gain the information that the number 192 bus leaving Stockport
goes to central Manchester, and I may even tell someone else this fact.
However, the chains of referral are likely to be very short - that is to
say, it is likely that individuals will not rely on obtaining this type
of information from long chains of communication due to the likelihood of
errors being introduced. Rather they will tend to go back to the original
source - the centrally originated timetable. The `fitness' of this information
lies not in any intrinsic propensity for being communicated but rather due
to its utility in utilising the bus system for personal transport, i.e. its
For other information it may be more appropriate to model a pattern of
information as if it had an evolutionary life of its own, separable from the
advantage it confers on its `hosts'. For example it may be that the success
of nursery rhymes is more strongly correlated with its memorability rather
than any utility - that almost any monotonous rhythmic words might be as
good as any other for the purposes of getting children to sleep or teaching
them language, so that the reason why particular rhymes spread is due to
their replicability. In such a case a memetic model might explain the variety
and dynamics of rhyme spread in a way that is not possible with models based
on individual advantage.
What is needed is some (falsifiable) theory that (under some specified
conditions) tells us when a memetic analysis is more helpful than a more
traditional one. Such a theory would have to meet the following criteria.
The possible shape of such a theory is not clear to me, but I could
imagine a theory that somehow compares the fitness contribution of a
meme w.r.t. the meme and its fitness contribution of it w.r.t. the individuals
who `hosted' it.
- It would have to make some sort of prediction of when a memetic
model was appropriate - i.e. it had explanatory or predictive value -
and when not. In other words when it is helpful to model a pattern that
has been copied as a self-interested meme.
- The theory would be workable on information that was sometimes
possible to obtain, i.e. not based on unobtainable information (e.g. the
composition of mental states).
- The theory would have to be understandable in terms of the
credibility, appropriateness and clarity of its core mechanism. The assumptions
under which the model works would need to be fairly clear and practically
- The theory would need to be validated against observable phenomena,
not just established by the plausibility of its assumptions.
Challenge 3: A simulation model showing
the true emergence of a memetic process
The purpose of this is to show that patterns of information could
have come about in a believable way. If the key imitation processes are
`programmed in' by the simulation designer then it would be unconvincing.
Instead the simulation needs to be designed so that others would judge
it to be a credible model of a situation that is likely to occur in the
real world, but so that an evolutionary process composed of information
messages emerges as a result of the interactions between and within individuals.
The criteria that such a simulation model should meet are the following.
Such a simulation demonstrates the possibility that a memetic process
could emerge in a population of credible individuals. The more abstract
or less realistic the design of such a simulation, the less convincing it
will be. It is unlikely that such a simulation will be over-baroque or
very general, but of a more mundane nature.
- The micro behaviour of the individuals needs to be credible.
That is they need to reflect patterns of behaviour that third parties
[note 3] would accept as being really possible. Thus
behaviour based on strong a priori assumptions (e.g. utility optimisation)
or unmodified off-the-shelf algorithms (e.g. Genetic Algorithms) would
not be suitable.
- The emergent behaviour must be demonstrably evolutionary in
character by the criteria in Challenge 1. That
is to say there must be substantial and repeated accurate replication of
patterns. Patterns replicative success must be demonstrably due to their
characteristics. There must occur long, unbroken lineages for the evolution
to act on etc.
- The emergent memetic process must not be directly `designed into'
the simulation. This can be a difficult criterion to judge but, at a
minimum, there should be: no built-in and inevitable processes of replication
or imitation; the emergent evolutionary process should be contingent upon
certain conditions and settings; and the behaviour of the individuals not
obviously distorted to encourage the evolutionary process to occur (i.e.
they retain some descriptive credibility).
Such a simulation could be composed of a population of interacting and
self-interested individuals that are evolving in a reasonably complex environment.
It would need to be shown that a secondary process of, first, imitation
and, later, evolution, arose out of their interactions, so that, eventually,
the secondary evolutionary process would become substantially self-driven
rather than in the direct interest of the individuals (in the sense of Challenge 2). The emergence of a memetic process
goes beyond just comparing whether pre-determined genetic or cultural operators
won out (or were more effective) - it is the equivalent of exhibiting a
simulation of the emergence of life from the interaction of chemicals.
- That is unless subsumed within a new theory that
is more general and powerful.
- Reported by Andrew Lord, and confirmed in
a personal communication with David Hull. For a more prosaic version see Hull's
contribution (Hull 2000) to the resulting book.
- By "third parties", I mean academics outside
the field who have no particular interest in promoting (or, indeed, denigrating)
memetics, for example biologists.
Blackmore, S. (1999) The Meme Machine.
Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press.
Edmonds, B. (1998). On Modelling in Memetics.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,
Gatherer, D. (1998) Why the Thought Contagion
Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics. Journal of Memetics
- Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2.
Hull, D. (2000) Taking Memetics Seriously: Memetics
will be what we make it. In Aunger, R. (ed.), Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics
as a Science, Oxford: Oxford university Press, 43-67.
Kuhn, T. (1969) The Structure of Scientific
Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Price, G. R. 1970. Selection and covariance. Nature
Price, G. R. 1972. Extension of covariance selection
mathematics. Annals of Human Genetics 35:485-489.
Rose, N., 1998; Controversies in Meme Theory.Journal
of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,2.
Opie, I. and Opie, P. (eds.) (1997) The
Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford; New York : Oxford University
© JoM-EMIT 2002
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