Re: "Abstract" Memes?

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Sat 03 Dec 2005 - 12:12:30 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: "Abstract" Memes?"

    Ben Dawson wrote:
    > On Wed, 30 Nov 2005 11:52:51 +0000, you wrote:
    >>Davi Johnson wrote:
    >>>Things like songs, making shoes and chipping rock (or
    >>>hanging Xmas trees upside down--just read about this in the
    >>>AJC and it screamed "meme" to me) seem to me to be
    >>>more "material" than abstract concepts or ideas, easier to
    >>>understand as concrete practices. For the abstract ideas, I
    >>>am stuck on how to identify what might define them
    >>>as "meme."
    >>>(They definitely influence behavior, and they do seem to
    >>There isn't any essential difference between the memes in all of these
    >>cases - all are portions of information - but some have more concrete
    >>phenotypic effects than others. Memes like equality have their
    >>'essence' pinpointed by dictionaries, which carefully delineate these
    >>memes' varying usages and content across time and context.
    >>What defines them, and any other meme, as 'meme' is that they are
    >>portions of representational content. In other words they are
    >>representions of a particular chunk of information.
    >>Information can be complex as well as simple. This is reflected in the
    >>varying lengths of definition of words in dictionaries; in the density
    >>of notes on a stave; in the number of symbols in a mathematical or
    >>chemical equation; etc.
    > Kate -
    > I am interested in this "representational content" you frequently
    > refer to. This is the one of the parts of your book I found the most
    > difficult to grasp, although I think I now understand it correctly.
    > I'm going to include a section on your viewpoints in my presentation
    > next week, but can I check that I have in fact understood you
    > correctly. This is my take on what I've read so far:
    > A meme consists of some representational content; that is, information
    > which can be represented. A meme is simply a representation of a
    > portion of information, which may be realised internally within the
    > mind, or externally.
    > (Q: in it's internal realisation, am I correct in thinking that you
    > mean that it is realised, as Dawkins puts it "as a structure in the
    > nervous systems of individual men the world over"? ie as an actual
    > physical structure inside the human brain, albeit in a form that is
    > unknown to us?)

    I'm not a neurophysiologist so I don't know what goes on, physically speaking, inside the human brain. I can see how my words are represented on paper or a screen, and hear how they are represented when I say them, but I've no idea how they are actually represented inside my head. What happens is physical, yes, I'd agree. I'm not a dualist. But that's about as far as I'm qualified to go.

    > It's external realisation is in the form of books and blueprints.
    > These two types of representation support each other. A meme could not
    > easily spread from passive copies of itself alone. A tune, represented
    > in a book as a musical score would not spread if the book was never
    > read and nobody was familiar with the tune. On the other hand, if
    > memes only existed internally, with no external representations, memes
    > in their present cultural environment would not be as fecund. To use
    > your words, "external representations play an essential role in
    > memetic replication".
    > A meme has a phenotypic effect, in the same way as the gene has a
    > phenotypic effect in the body which it builds. A meme’s phenotypic
    > effects are internal and external.
    > The internal phenotypic effect is in the thoughts and behaviour of the
    > person. For example, the meme for Santa Claus could affect the child's
    > mind by making the child feel happy or excited.
    > The external phenotypic effect is realised on the environment. You
    > give the examples of bridges, forms of poetry, methods of central
    > heating, models of the double helix...
    > Would you say this is an accurate summary?
    > Ben

    Yes, I'd say that is very accurate. If this is your level of understanding of your subject then I'd say you have nothing to worry about in the question-and-answer session after your talk. You know a lot more about your topic than your audience does and if any of them does ask you a question that really makes you rethink something then that's very valuable in the long run (increasing your understanding); and I'd imagine that in the short run it can only improve how you're assessed if you can enter into an open-minded discussion about that particular point. It certainly won't serve to undermine your overall credibility, as you clearly have a good grasp of your subject.

    Hope it goes well!


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