Meme definition (was: birthdays)

From: Richard Brodie (
Date: Sun 15 Jun 2003 - 22:56:58 GMT

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    Hey, a memetics discussion!

    >"Meme" was proposed by Dawkins as a name for a cultural replicator
    >to the gene, and later refined by him and Dennett to be a mental
    >As I pointed out in my 1995 book, meme is not the only cultural replicator
    >nor THE unit of cultural evolution. Artifacts and subcultures can also
    >fruitfully be looked on as replicators.

    Keith wrote:

    <<I would like to suggest you consider a simplification consistent with Darkins and Dennett, namely memes as pure information, independent of media.

    So the meme of chipped arrowheads would amount to the information about how to make and use them. Taking only the making part, the information could exist in a human mind, on paper (though for sure it would be tough to successfully describe how to chip rocks in text alone), in a video of someone chipping out an arrowhead, or to some extent in the object of an arrowhead itself if a person who knew rock chipping but not arrowheads could duplicate one from a sample.>>

    The crux of the matter is that the information must be in a mind in order for replication to occur. Sometimes the meme goes out in the world encoded in a straightforward, one-to-one way into a vehicle, like the method for making arrowheads being made into an instructional video. Other times a meme can replicate through a much more complex, probabilistic series of events in which encoding may not be the best model to represent the replication. For instance, suppose I am learning to play poker tournaments without the use of a book. I start off really bad, but through practice I start to come up with some strategies in my mind, ones I think the better players use to gain an advantage. Sometimes I will be mostly correct and their strategy-memes get replicated in my mind. Is it useful to say those memes are encoded in the poker game? Possibly, but it's a stretch compared with the book on poker or the instructional video. I may misconstrue the play and invent my own strategy, a different one from what I think my opponent is using. I may then use that strategy and a third player may infer the original strategy-meme my opponent was using in the first place, misconstruing mine. I'm not sure encoding is the best metaphor here.

    How about a child whose mother is a strict disciplinarian? The child blames the strictness for her woes and makes a decision to be lenient with her own child, who comes to the opposite conclusion and once again adopts the strictness meme. Where is that generation-skipping meme encoded?

    So as you see, I don't consider it a simplification to say that memes are pure information regardless of medium. Some information is not fruitfully viewed as a meme, such as molecular structures and DNA strings (when people aren't studying them of course). Some memes, such as poker strategies and parenting styles, are sometimes replicated probabilistically, without an obvious paper trail. Other times they are encoded in instruction books.

    <<A subculture is just a collection of memes. The fact that a whole bunch of them are bound up in a mutually supporting package is not unlike Dawkins pointing out that genes are bound together in much the same way in a genome.>>

    It's a collection of memes, artifacts, and people, less like a genome and more like an organism. However, a cultural organism is not subject to the biological constraint that modifications can only come through changes in the seed, so it has some characteristics of a genome and some of an organism. It also doesn't really have defined generations. But it can, I think, fruitfully be studied as a replicator in its own right: its existence, given the right environment, causes more of it to exist in the future.

    As I agree with almost everything you've ever written on memetics, I view this particular quibble as very minor. But if you keep criticizing me I may threaten to go over to the "performance model." ;)

    Richard Brodie

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