Re: memetics-digest V1 #1462

Date: Mon 26 Jan 2004 - 12:09:21 GMT

  • Next message: Price, Ilfryn: "Re: meme as catalytic indexical"

    >> every few months somebody comes in here and for some
    >> reason tries to redefine "meme." I or someone else
    >> generally pipes up, if only for the record.

    Given the current displeasure about definitions, I have to ask: Which version is more correct for the study of infectious ideas, "memetics" (as has become the convention), "memics" (after Dawkins, 1986/1991, p.158), or "mimetics"
    (after Dawkins, 1976, p.192)? The first contains the idea of memes, which I understand to be Dawkins' own mutation of the original definition in "The Selfish Gene"; the second is a direct reference to Dawkins' evolutionary theory, using his language from "The Blind Watchmaker"; and the third references both concepts while at the same time containing the idea of mimicry and imitation (and thus also of natural selection) by being true to Dawkins' original process in coining the term. Given that "memetics" seems to have become the standard, even having its own entry, is there a difference in definition or usage between the three terms?

    [Raymond O. Recchia wrote:]
    > My question is for the lot of you is: if drug addiction is a meme, are
    > there any insights that a memetic perspective can suggest on how to limit
    > it's spread? A related question: how is this complicated by the
    > involuntary nature of addiction itself?

    [M Lissack responded:]
    > if you view the addiction as a meme from the meme as
    > catalytic indexical perspective you find the
    > following:
    > incarceration plans focus on trying to limit the
    > carrying capacity of the indexical by loading up the
    > indexical with "bad things" (jail time, los of
    > freedom, need to avoid the police, etc.)
    > clearly the indexical has a high carrying capacity and
    > indexical breakdown is a step function so until you
    > overload it with bad things the effect is minimal
    > the alternative to focus on the meme as a catalyst:
    > what is it about the addiction that is worth
    > catalyzing and how do the many factors which are
    > symbolized by the meme work as catalysts
    > if you can find a way to restrict the catalytic powers
    > or find a stronger reaction which is similarly
    > catalyzed you can interfere with the reaction and work
    > toward interfering in the addiction process

    If I have interpreted Lissack's response correctly, a simplification of the above would be as follows: the meme would predispose (or catalyze) addiction in the direction of the meme's valence. However, because addiction has physiological underpinnings, the (step?) function describing the likelihood of addiction actually occurring would not drop to zero. No matter how strong your beliefs, your brain will always react to novel reward with a dopaminergic peak. Therefore, to answer you question -- "is drug addiction a meme?" -- I would argue, "No: Drug addiction involves memes, but it is not itself a meme."

    This raises an interesting question, in line with what it seems Lissack is asking of Richard Brodie: Does the effectiveness of memes increase with their alignment to pre-conditioned rewarding or punishing stimuli? In other words, are memes cultural phenomena *before* they become mental phenomena? Do memes "prime" reactions through a cultural process of "framing" potential responses and thus predispose a reaction that "fits" within the current cultural paradigms? (Furthermore, if one's paradigms conflict with those of another, could one become immune to the "opposing" culture's memetic/memic/mimetic advances? What would a memetic/memic/mimetic "war" look like? Would it be solely propagandistic? Have we therefore seen it before, as part of wars both hot and cold but not on its own... integrated, as with addiction?) Is "fit" thus a measure of chromosomal "goodness" in the primeval cultural soup, as it is treated in management theory (see e.g., Collins & Porras, 1994, pp.9, 121)?

    [Lawrence de Bivort wrote:]
    > It is an interesting coincidence that on the same day you post this email,
    > I have been asked to look at how an anti-smoking initiative for young adults
    > might be designed. The situations would be similar, I would guess.

    I agree 100%. Tobacco marketing is the example I had in mind as I read Raymond Recchia's post. In this case, and at this point in time, virtually everyone knows that tobacco smoke is bad for you, yet manufacturers continue to advertise and make profits. (A related future example would be fast food.)

    I did some research about tobacco marketing for a recent project. Tobacco advertising today doesn't seem to increase the number of people who smoke, but instead changes the distribution of brands consumed. So, from a historical perspective, where has the pro-smoking meme acted? Did it play its role by affecting the size of the market, promoting smoking using infectious symbols like the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel, or were such symbols just brand-indicators that had little or nothing to do with promoting smoking in general? After all, we still talk about "smoking a cigarette"; I have never heard someone refer to the cigarette brand as a generic product name, like we do with 3M's Scotch- brand cello-tape.

    I recognize that the pro-smoking meme is likely far more insidious than a cowboy of questionable sexuality or a phallic cartoon dromedary with sunglasses... but where does the meme act? This, I would argue, is what you would need to answer in successfully targeting an anti-smoking initiative.
    (And it would seem that, by asking about the goal, this is also what Lawrence asks after too.)

    Dawkins' appears to answer this question in his discussion of the God meme in "The Selfish Gene" (p.207). While I would argue based on my own research that the God meme would arise on its own as an emergent property of our interaction with the world (as an anchor and source of the absolute in a relative world), Dawkins suggests that our current ideas about God are very old, developing each from the other, with its success resulting from its "great psychological appeal". Even though I think he got it backwards, both our logics are based on the brain: mine is an argument based on neurochemistry, whereas his is evolutionary. But that doesn't help with tobacco marketing, nor does it really answer the question. What makes a meme worth imitating? Is it just salience?

    There's a story I remember from a class I took in undergrad. For my purposes in asking this question, I find it more compelling than Dawkins' kiwi saddleback story. It's about an octopus' involvement in a psychology experiment to assess learning and the transmission of "ideas".

    The experiment was set up as follows: an octopus was put in a tank, which had been connected to a machine that could administer electric shocks to the water. The experimenter would show up and, at random intervals, present a series of objects to the octopus from outside the tank. When a soft, cushy teddy bear was presented, the octopus received a shock through the water. Eventually, as the association between paired teddy and shock (pain, which is highly salient) was learned, the octopus began to react with fear to the teddy when presented alone. Here's the interesting part: one octopus can learn from another, in an octopus-see, octopus-do kind of way. In this way, by putting a second octopus in a second tank, the teddy phobia was taught. More interesting was that when they took the second octopus (the one that had never been shocked) and put its tank next to a third (which had never met the first), the third octopus also developed the teddy phobia. Is this example of "cultural transmission" also an example of a "teddy bears are mean" meme for octopuses? That would be interesting. But this is also just a story. The key question is, "How would one set up an experiment to test for memetic/memic/mimetic influence?"

    Here's my tentative attempt to connect the story to meme science: Would a similar presentation of a female octopus "in heat" change the reaction time or delay the learning? In other words, would the "genetic reproduction" meme (the visual display of something signifying a relevant biological event) conflict with the "teddy bears are scary" meme? If so, if there is a measurable difference in reaction or learning time, then I would argue that memetics/memics/mimetics has a solid future as a science...

    If I have shown a complete lack of understanding in posting these comments, perhaps my confusion comes about as a result of being unsure about what a "meme" actually is, from a pragmatic point of view. I have read chapter 11, "Memes: the new replicators" (also online at but I am still somewhat unclear about the distinction between memes as-replicators, as- catalysts, and as-things-in-themselves. Based on my reading of Lissack's questions, as well as my own uncertainty about the topic, it seems like a greater exploration of the processes involved in cultural natural selection would be a useful thing.

    Jeremy Burman

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