Re: memes defined operationally (from article)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 15 Jan 2003 - 14:02:28 GMT

  • Next message: Wade T. Smith: "Re: memetics-digest V1 #1280"

    At 11:18 AM 14/01/03 -0800, you wrote:
    > > "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.
    >(Oops silly me, I forgot another technicality.) Susan Blackmore wouldn't
    >agree here I think. You see, ideas that one has of their one define the
    >so-called self-plex. Their are two sources for generating the self-plex.
    >1. The bearer of the self-plex. 2. Everybody but the bearer, most
    >prominently peers. Items from the second category are other people's
    >perception of your person. Stuff passed onto you about you needn't be
    >veridical at first but can very well become true through what I regard as
    >the very powerful psychological mechanism called a self-fulfilling
    >prophecy (= the powerhouse behind astrology, tarot reading and similar BS
    >if you ask me). Here the receiver and transmitter of memes are different
    >from eachother. Such ideas qualify as memes according to your suggestion.
    >Ideas from the first category are obtained through introspection and
    >self-reflection. In an abstract sense the transmitter and receiver of the
    >meme are one and the same person. Such things wouldn't count as memes
    >according to you, but would according to Blackmore (and me).

    While I certainly agree that our minds are shaped by ideas with both internal and external sources, I think calling ideas of a sort that are never passed on (entirely internal) does damaged to the very concept of memes.

    "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."

    Variation and selection are the heart of Darwinian evolution. My tendency is to keep the definition of memes as close as I can to genes so that analogy will let us apply some of the powerful thinking tools about evolution that have been developed in the last 3-4 decades to memetics.

    Along such lines I don't tend to worry about the exact limits of a meme or if we are dealing with a single meme or a "scheme of memes." Dawkins had exactly the same problems with what is a genetic "replicator." He elaborated on the problem at *great* length in *Extended Phenotype* Chapter 5. He finally concludes that a replicator is whatever length of DNA that stays together long enough to affect its own frequency in the gene pool. Page 88:

    "I shall make no attempt to specify *exactly* how long a portion of a chromosome can be permitted to be before it ceases to be usefully regarded as a replicator. There is no hard and fast rule and we don't need one. It depends on the strength of the selection pressure of interest. We are not seeking an absolutely rigid definition but a kind of fading out definition, like the definition of 'big' or 'old.'"

    While I don't feel the need for an exact definition of a meme, applying it to an idea that never makes the jump from person to person misses the essence of the concept--at least to me.

    Keith Henson

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