Idea, habit, meme

From: Dace (
Date: Thu 19 Jun 2003 - 19:54:25 GMT

  • Next message: Wade T. Smith: "Re: venue examples"

    > From: "Ray Recchia" <>
    > Subject: Re: Precision of replication
    > All of this gets back to Manfred Eigen's notion of 'quasi-species' which
    > can be identified mathematically using the concept of a multi-dimensional
    > fitness landscape. In a fitness landscape, higher points in one
    > dimension of the landscape indicate more reproductive success while lower
    > points in that dimension indicate lower reproductive success. Offspring
    > placed higher at the top of a fitness peak will be more successful than
    > those at the bottom. Because variation is constantly occurring, no
    > particular member of a species is exactly the same as any other but all
    > hover about the same fitness peak. Species then becomes defined by the
    > presence of a group of organisms sitting on a slope that is directed
    > towards the same local peak.

    Very interesting. What intrigues me about Eigen's model is that it's exactly the opposite of C.H. Waddington's model of development. Waddington also uses a hill to illustrate his point, except that in this case the goal is to go down the hill rather than up. Picture a hillside with many grooves
    ("chreodes") carved into it. If an embryo has gene A, it will take one set of grooves down the hill, and if it has gene B, it will take a different set to the bottom, where it will land at a different place, i.e. it will end up with a different set of characteristics.

    It makes perfect sense to envision evolution as an uphill climb while looking at development as a downhill descent. The reason is that evolution is a struggle to attain greater fitness in order to be environmentally selected. Development, on the other hand, is all about following the path of least resistance. You simply slide down the trail your ancestors blazed before you. To a limited degree, development is a recapitulation of evolution, except that instead of forging a path through struggle over many generations, an embryo merely follows the path already laid out. Evolution is all about creativity (the true "creationism"), while development is all about following ingrained habit. Individuals can be regarded as belonging to a common species when: 1) they reside on slopes directed to a common fitness peak and 2) their offspring descend through a common developmental pathway.

    Culture involves the same dual process. On the one hand, we create and promote ideas based on their fitness. On the other hand, when an idea is repeated enough, it becomes habitual, and our thinking merely follows the synaptic patterns already laid out for it. When a habitual pattern of thought is transmitted and becomes a culturally-shared habit, it's a meme.

    My point is that "habit" is the missing middle term in memetics. While a new idea must be consciously reconstituted each time it appears, a habit of thought takes on a "life of its own" and continues promoting itself long after its originator has consciously forgotten it. A meme, then, is simply a habit of thought that replicates across many minds as it becomes culturally ingrained.


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