Re: memes defined operationally (from article)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 15 Jan 2003 - 02:58:25 GMT

  • Next message: Bruce Edmonds: "JoM-EMIT new commentary and reply on de Sousa's Chess move sand the memomics..."

    At 10:25 AM 14/01/03 -0800, Philip Jonkers wrote:

    >--- Keith Henson <> wrote:

    snip (agreements)

    > > "Meme" is similar to "idea," but not all ideas are memes. A
    > >passing idea which you do not communicate to others, or one which
    > >fails to take root in others, falls short of being a meme. The
    > >important part of the "meme about memes" is that memes are subject to
    > >adaptive evolutionary forces very similar to those that select for
    > >genes. That is, their variation is subject to selection in the
    > >environment provided by human minds, communication channels, and the
    > >vast collection of cooperating and competing memes that make up human
    > >culture. The analogy is remarkably close. For example, genes in cold
    > >viruses that cause sneezes by irritating noses spread themselves by
    > >this route to new hosts and become more common in the gene pool of a
    > >cold virus. Memes cause those they have successfully infected to
    > >spread the meme by both direct methods (proselytizing) and indirect
    > >methods (such as writing). Such memes become more common in the
    > >culture pool.
    >You justifiably draw the parallels with genes. You exemplify genetic
    >evolution. Since this is about memes, I would suggest you do the same
    >about memes. Perhaps you can give examples about pushy Yehova's witnesses
    >or about those home-invading tupperware guild we saw in the eighties.
    >Needless to say, memes associated with systems such as Yehova's cult or
    >tupperware proliferate better using aggressive (or should I say
    >'annoying') marketing tactics.

    There is quite a bit about this in this 16 year old article--which incidentally was one of the earliest widely circulated articles on memes.

    (I posted it yesterday with a little comment, but it seems that 40k articles don't pass the list software)


    > >2003 comment. I could elaborate, or use different examples, but this seems
    > >good enough for a working definition.
    > >
    > >Keith Henson
    >Other than those minor technicalities it sounds like a sound elaboration
    >to me Keith.
    >Greetings from Plymouth UK to you all,


    Keith Henson

    PS, here is the lead in to the part Philip commented about.

    Other than the business of bringing in evolutionary psychology to explain how and why people are subject to infection with lethal memes, my understanding of memetics has not changed a great deal in the last 15 years. Keith Henson Jan. 2003

    This 40k article on memes is one of few I have written in the past 10-15 years not webbed anywhere. It was originally published in
    _Analog_, August, 1987. A somewhat edited version was reprinted in
    _Whole Earth Review_, Fall, 1987 (with some great art work). A short version was anthologized in WER _Signals_, (1988?) and about a year later the Reason Foundation sent reprints of the WER version to about half the high schools in the US for debate resource material. [Reason Magazine asked me to write an article on memes which was rejected after they had a management change. That article is widely webbed as
    "Memes, MetaMemes and Politics."] (Permission is granted to put this and my other articles on web sites.)

    Analog anthologized the '87 article (slightly updated) in the 1990 hardback, ANALOG ESSAYS ON SCIENCE, Copyright (c) 1990 by Davis Publications, Inc. For some reason I could not find an electronic copy, and my copy of the (out of print) book has been missing for years. I finally found a library copy and scanned it in. I did not update it because it is of historical interest. A few 1997 comments are in {}, footnotes are in [].

    Where it mentions the Soviet Union it is definitely of out of date. :-)

    H. Keith Henson, Feb. 1997


    AUGUST 1987

    {Lead-in by Stanley Schmidt}

          In his Foundation stories, Isaac Asimov proposed a future science called "psychohistory," in which the collective behavior of human populations could be predicted with high precision. In our time, the social sciences are often viewed as sharply different from the physical sciences because they cannot do much predicting. Is this an inherent limitation on the social sciences, or might it be possible to put them on a truly predictive basis by means that have not been formulated yet? There are a number of lines of research suggesting that it might. One of them is based on the "meme": a concept created by analogy with the gene and describing an entity supposed to behave in a somewhat similar way.

          H. Keith Henson was one of the founders, and the first president of the L5 Society, which has since become part of the National Space Society. He describes himself as a carrier for several highly infectious memes relating to space colonies, nanotechnology, personal computers, and cult-watching.


          SCIENCE fiction writers do not always manage to stay ahead of science. One significant concept showed up in the scientific literature 13 years before Charles Sheffield and Arthur Clarke simultaneously wrote stories that incorporated the "Skyhook" or
    "Beanstalk." But in projecting a science of social prediction, SF writers have been far ahead of the scientists. Isaac Asimov based the entire Foundation series on "Psychohistory." Robert Heinlein developed the theme of predicting social movement in his Future History stories, especially in Revolt in 2100, Methuselah's Children, and in the unwritten saga of Reverend Nehemiah Scudder.*

       [ * "First Prophet," President of the United States, destroyer of
       its Constitution, and founder of the Theocracy. If this makes you
       vaguely uncomfortable, it is probably because you have been reading
       about fundamentalist preacher/presidential candidate Pat Robertson.
       As the Ayatollah Khomeini recently demonstrated, fundamentalist
       religion and politics can make a nasty mix.]

          Science fiction aside, we don't have a science of social prediction. Until recently, we haven't even had much in the way of theories. Our continual surprise at the development of cults, religions, wars, fads, and other social movements is a notable exception to the steady progress humans have made in building better models of our environment. When you consider the suffering associated with some social movements, our lack of good models must he considered a major deficiency.

          A successful theory of the development of social movements will have to provide a unifying theory for events that make up much of the evening news. It will have to discover common features that lie behind the diverse trends causing problems in Nicaragua, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East. A good theory should be able to evaluate the danger or lack of danger from the LaRouche organization, whose accidental win in the Democratic primary forced Adlai Stevenson III to run as an independent in the Illinois governor's race. (This cult more recently made the news when the FBI raided its offices in the wake of alleged massive credit card frauds.) It should be able to produce a plausible model for the breakup of the Rajneesh cult (whose Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh accumulated 93 Rolls Royces before abandoning his Oregon community). The theory should be able to predict the conditions under which Turkey will be subverted by a fundamentalist version of Islam similar to that which led to so much grief in Iran.

          A tall order! But an emerging field of study, _memetics_, holds just such promise. Sometimes thought of as "germ theory applied to ideas," memetics is an outgrowth of evolutionary biology. It provides models where social movements are seen as side effects of infectious ideas that spread among people in a way mathematically identical to the way epidemic disease spreads. It has been noticed, for example, that use rates for various drugs, most recently "crack," have closely followed epidemic-like curves that seem to be as oblivious to the efforts of authorities as the Black Death was in 1348. At a deeper level, research in neuroscience and artificial intelligence is starting to develop an understanding of why we are susceptible to
    "infectious information," both the benign and the deadly.

          As useful as these models may be, they are not without the potential to seriously affect our cherished institutions. A good understanding of the mechanisms of our minds and the dynamics that underlie the spread and persistence of any social or political movement has the potential to forever alter the way we think about all other social movements, including those of our own culture, religions, and nation. When viewed from the perspective of tolerance that has been developing in Western culture since the Renaissance, the changes in outlook seem to be positive, but it would not surprise me to find memetics condemned from the pulpit even more than evolution has been.

          Memetics comes from "meme" (which rhymes with "cream"), a word snip

    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Wed 15 Jan 2003 - 03:00:44 GMT