RE: Precision of replication

From: Richard Brodie (
Date: Fri 20 Jun 2003 - 01:24:22 GMT

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    Lawry wrote:

    <<In our view of memetics, we accept that rarely will a meme be replicated 100% identically.>>

    As I said, I think you are using the term "meme" to refer to what I call memeplexes.

    << Like you, I am much intrigued with the usage of words and the promise that resides within the availability of words, both for precision and for mind-changing potential. But I think the wording of a meme -- that is, the stuff that goes between two people -- is only part of the story of dissemination. There is also the processing that occurs within the transmitter, through which he tries with only partial success to find the words that best convey the idea, and the effort by the receiver, also only partly successful, to conjure from the transmitter's words what the actual idea is that lies behind them, and then we have Wade's prescient observation that the cultural venue also exercises its deleterious effect on the fidelity of the dissemination.>>

    Well, Snowcrash to the contrary, I don't think you can speak a meme. Memes are in the mind. As I wrote in my 1995 book:

    ********** One potential pitfall with [Dennett's] definition is the use of the term vehicles. The distinction of a meme-carrying vehicle is not as clear-cut as in biology, where organisms are vehicles for the spread of DNA. Not all meme transmission is as simple as imitating a catchy tune or noticing a spoked wheel.

    If memes are our internal programming, we can draw on decades of research in psychology to look at how we get programmed-how memes get transmitted into our minds. Once programmed, we behave in complex ways that spread memes indirectly.

    So while it may sometimes be illuminating to use the term vehicle to describe behavior or an artifact that tends to infect people with a meme, more often the existence of a meme will cause a Rube-Goldberg-like sequence of actions that only indirectly cause spreading of the meme. The wagon wheel and the TV commercial advertising TV programs are the exceptions as meme-spreading vehicles; the rule is more complex.

    <<At our end, here, we accept, therefore that the dissemination loses fidelity, and we still call the whole thing a meme. You suggest, if I understand correctly, that we should be calling it a mutation, and you may be right, but I think that there is something in between a 'mutation' and a 100% replicated transmission.>>

    Memeplexes reproduce (the word used for organisms) rather than replicate
    (the word used for genes). Reproduction creates a similar, but not identical, new entity. Replication creates an exact copy unless there is a mutation. The distinction is very important. Without the exact replication of memes to bring the process back on course, the fuzzy reproduction of memeplexes would soon deteriorate to randomness.

    << A mutation to me seems more random than the process of deterioration that I discuss above. If a transmission mutates, as I hear the term, it becomes something different, its similarity to the original is so perverted that it can not be said to be anymore related, substantively. At the other end, if a meme is only what is passed with 100% fidelity, than I think the term becomes relegated to an extremely small number of instances, so I think that I prefer the more robust definition of meme, one in which deterioration happens routinely, yet the pedigree and connection of influence readily and adequately persists. My operational standards for 'memes' have more to do with the needs and dynamics of influence than with a standard of fidelity that is akin to genetic replication.>>

    You are using the word "meme" for what I call a "memeplex."

    <<I know that you too are interested in influence and cultural evolution: how can a meme, defined as 100% fidelity, serve the needs of those interests?

    I hope I have understood your thinking correctly, and that I am not dragging us off into a pointless tangent.>>

    I've said all along it's more interesting to study memeplexes and, more generally, viruses of the mind, than memes. But without memes there would be no memeplexes. It would be like living in a world where the only way to communicate was by painting an original piece of abstract art and showing it to people. And even that probably has memes.

    Richard Brodie

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