Mean Um Meaning Mean

From: Reed Konsler (
Date: Mon 10 Mar 2003 - 13:32:08 GMT

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    Date: Fri, 7 Mar 2003 13:23:04 -0000 From: Vincent Campbell <> Subject: RE: Mean Um Meaning Mean


    "But isn't memetics an evolutionary theory of cultural transmission?"

    As I understand it, memetics is a theory about memes. I would argue that cultures, as a whole, are not transmitted. Individual memes are, but no two members of a group share all the same memes, no matter how homogeneous the group. Therefore what we might call a culture is changing from moment to moment and place to place. As I understand it, memes are small and robust
    (unchanging) units that can be transmitted.

    "Culture is those sets of practices, behaviours, beliefs, and values_shared_by a temporally and geographically distinct community of people."

    You could define a meme as a practice, behavior, or belief. If so, you might define a culture as a group of people that share a particular meme. A culture is more specific the more memes the members share, and more definite when little variation is tolerated. An individual can be part of several cultures depending on what memes they have and what memes a culture requires.

    Being a member of culture might not depend on an individual's realization or self-identification, although many cultures have strong requirements for such memes.

    "...culture cannot reside purely in individual's brains, because by any useful definition, it refers to something shared, something communal, something societal."

    OK. But imagine two people that share no memes (hypothetically). If a single meme is transmitted from one to another then they are part of a culture that requires one meme. It's not a very specific culture, it is very definite, and it has the fewest number of members possible.

    I'm not saying it's meaningless to talk about culture. But if you extrapolate from that exceedingly simple hypothetical to the complexity of what we see around us it seems like a single individual can be a member of an indefinite number of cultures to a greater or lesser extent.

    The theory of memetics, as I understand it, argues that beneath this complexity is a set of fundamental particles of transmission: memes.

    The misconception I'm focusing on is the same one that plagued understanding of genetics. For a significant period of time, people thought about evolution as being about individuals ("survival of the fittest") or groups
    ("for the good of the species"). Understanding many of the quirky things about evolution required focusing on the perspective of the *genes*.

    Cultures are not transmitted through time. Neither are individual minds or the vast networks of ideas with them. It's the particles...the memes...that move from person to person and moment to moment.

    "That human brains are required for the generation and maintenance of culture is fine, I've no problem with that, but to suggest it exists entirely within individual's heads doesn't make sense to me. Regardless of their relationship to memes, the existence of artefacts, particularly those that do not serve as tools (in the strictest sense of that term) such as symbolic art and ritual monuments, demonstrates that culture exists outside of the brain as well."

    I think there is still a debate. Is it best to imagine that there are memes inherent in objects like tools, texts, or speech. Is it better to restrict the definition of "meme" to something that exists in the mind? I can see both as reasonable. In either case, I agree that a culture must exist among individuals. I'm not sure that "among" means "outside" in this case. I think you could argue that culture is both between and within brains

    Think of it this way: imagine a bunch of checkers on a flat blank surface. The checker are brains and the surface is everything else. Memes are inside the checkers and depending on what memes you focus of you can group the checkers into different cultures. So, a culture is held inside the minds, but the definition only makes sense if there are at least two.

    What, exactly, is inside the blank surface between the minds is unclear. From one perspective it doesn't even exist...the whole thing is just the checkers. It might appear that there is flesh and tool between them. But maybe that's the wrong way to think about it.



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