The Memetic Stance

Date: Sun Apr 29 2001 - 09:18:06 BST

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                                The Memetic Stance:
              The Position and Paradigm of a New Discipline
    By Joe E. Dees

                                1. The Idea of Memetics

            In 1976, Richard Dawkins published a book entitled THE
    SELFISH GENE, the object of which was to extend the principles
    of mutation via mutation and natural selection to sociocultural
    behavior. To solidify the parallel, he coined the term "meme" to
    represent that which is passed on during the process of intentional
    or inadvertant intersubjective communication, communication being
    understood as comprised of transmission plus reception. The term
    is a truncation of the greek root "mimeme", meaning "to imitate"
    (and indeed the imitation of one's behavior by another is how it is
    seen that a meme has propagated), and is also connected, by
    Dawkins, with memory. He stated that memes possess internal
    instantiation as memory traces, and are stored in the neural nets of
    their carriers. According to Dawkins, to be successful, memes
    must possess three attributes; longevity, fecundity, and copying-
    fidelity. As with genes, fecundity is asserted to trump longevity;
    the life span of a particular memetic token is unimportant so long
    as it survives long enough to replicate itself widely with
    descendents that will do the same. However, the longevity of the
    type of which any particular memetic instantiation is a token
    depends upon the meme type's (or memotype's) ability to perdure
    and maintain some kind of inhabitable niche in a changing
    sociocultural environment. It does so by evolving; mutational
    variants are produced in individual minds through adaptation to, or
    assimilation by plus accommodation with, the cognitive
    environment in which they have been received. The variants then
    compete with each other when their hosts attempt to transmit
    them; the variants that are more transmissable, that is, more
    amenable to reception by others, outpropagate their competitors.
    This entails that while a high degree of copying-fidelity is
    necessary for memes to reproduce, such fidelity cannot be
    absolute, for if all copys were perfect replicants of their
    promemitors, there would be no variants produced upon which
    selection could operate, and thus memetic evolution could not

                            2. Various Memetic Paradigms

            Dawkins proposed two models for the operation of memes; the
    genetic paradigm and the viral paradigm. The genetic paradigm
    envisages memes as passed from one person to another via
    communicative rather than sexual reproduction. The point at which
    this analogy breaks down is that of the structural character of the
    reproduction of memes; when two members of a species engage in
    successful reproduction, at least one other member that
    possesses some of the genes of each progenitor results, but when
    two or more people engage in successful memetic reproduction,
    the meme(s) possessed by one of them (but not the other or
    others) are transmitted to and received by an other or others; in
    other words, memetic reproduction may be one-to-many rather
    than being restricted to being between two, and other members of
    the species are not created in the process.
            The viral paradigm envisages memes as infecting their hosts
    and co-opting their behavioral capacities to produce more copies of
    themselves. This analogy breaks down at at least two points.
    First, while viruses produce copies of themselves using hijacked
    cellular reproduction capacities, the behaviors produced by memes
    are not exact copies of themselves, inasmuch as the encoding is
    different in cognitive neural nets, in behavior, and in behavior-
    produced artifacts. Second, viral infections do not compete with
    other viral infections in the host, but memes must compete with
    other memes to gain and maintain their niches in the cognitive
            The paradigm I favor I call the species paradigm; in this
    paradigm, memes are analogous to species, and the cognitive
    environments within which they exist and between which they
    reproduce are analogous to ecologies, populated by other species
    of memes with which they must compete for their niches. The
    basic difference between this paradigm and its referent, species
    competition, is that there is not just one cognitive environment
    involved; each transmitted and received meme finds itself in a new
    cognitive ecology, complete with a different set of memes with
    which it must compete for its niche. The analogy to species
    competition would be precise if there existed many different worlds
    with dissemination occuring between them.

                               3. The Life Cycle of a Meme

            Memes are comprised of internal instantiations (within minds)
    and external instantiations (between minds). Both of these modes
    are necessary for memetic evolution to occur. Internal
    instantiations of memes are required for the mutational production
    of meme variants, as it is here that competition and recombination
    between memes within the cognitive gestalt provokes memetic
    mutations that can more successfully secure and maintain their
    niches. External instantiations are required for differential selection
    to occur; variants transmitted via their encoding in imitatible
    actions, such as performances, communication and the production
    of artifacts, are more or less successfully received by other
    cognitive environments. Both mutation and selection are
    necessary for memetic evolution to occur.

    4. Memetics; Hard Science, Soft Science, or Philosophical Stance?

            The selfsame tokens of a memotype must be encoded
    differently in different cognitive environments, due to the necessity
    of defining their identities with respect to the differing sets of
    competing memes to be found there. This necessity entails that
    memetics cannot aspire to the hard science status of disciplines
    such as physics or chemistry, where all particular electrons, atoms
    of an element, and molecules of a compound are exact tokens of a
    type. This exact duplication is not necessary in soft sciences,
    such as sociology, anthropology, political science or economics,
    so memetics logically could attain soft science status.
    Pragmatically, however, the isolation and identification of various
    neural configuration in multiple brains as tokens of a particular
    memetic type is far beyond our current or near-term future
    capacities; therefore, for the forseeable future, memetice must
    remain a philosophical stance with soft science tendencies.

         5. Memetics in Relation to Other Philosophical Stances

            Phenomenology and genetic epistemology are philosophical
    stances in relation to the realm of the being of consciousness,
    while semiotics and memetics are philosophical stances in relation
    to the realm of conscious meaning, or that which the being of
    consciousness contains. As phenomenology and genetic
    epistemology are complementary disciplines with relation to the
    being of consciousness, so semiotics and memetics complement
    each other in relation to consciously held meanings.
    Phenomenology and semiotics are synchronic, or statically
    structural (the focus-field-fringe structure of perception is one such
    phenomenological structure; the signifier-sign-signified structure of
    signification is a semiotic structure); genetic epistemology and
    memetics are diachronic, or dynamically functional, developmental
    and evolutionary. Phenomenology does not address the question
    of how self-conscious awareness could have evolved, but accepts
    its developmentally matured structures as ground conditions to be
    derived and described; genetic epistemology, by studying the
    emergence of the structures of self-conscious awareness in the
    developing child, can offer insights into how such an awareness
    might have evolved during the evolution of the species. Likewise,
    semiotics does not adress the question of how symbolic capacity
    could have evolved, accepting its fully matured structures as
    ground conditions to be extracted and diagrammatically delineated,
    while memetics, by studying the transmission of symbolicity from
    the caregiver to the child and its progressive internaization by that
    child, implicitly offers suggestions as to how a species possessing
    symbolic capacity could have evolved - suggestions which I
    pursued in my paper TOOLS, LANGUAGE AND TEXT.
            Both phenomenology and semiotics aspired to the status of
    rigorous theoretical science, but both failed; phenomenology due to
    its inability to plumb the depths of sedimentation - the
    preconscious structures underlying the structures of self-conscious
    awareness, semiotics due to its inability to extricate itself from the
    semiotic web wherein meanings mutually define in relation to each
    other and get beneath the sign to anchor those meanings in actual
    concrete lived world referents.Genetic epistemology is considered
    a soft science (a main branch of developmental psychology) due to
    its grounding in the logical induction of successions of developing
    cognitive structures from the experimentally controlled observation
    of behavior in children, and does not have to concern itself with the
    neural traces which encode specific structure (or memes).

                                 6. Memes and Memeplexes

            According to Dawkins, A meme is the minimum imitatible that
    possesses copying fidelity; variants may differ, but must be similar
    enough to be recognizable as tokens of a memotype. Daniel C.
    Dennett, in his 1995 book DARWIN'S DANGEROUS IDEA,
    disagrees, viewing each variant as sui generis, and a different
    meme. I tend to side with dawkins in this dispute; individual
    people, while different, are similar enough to be identifiable as
    members of Homo Sapiens Sapiens; genetic, viral and species
    paradigms, while different, are similar enough to be identifiable as
    models of evolution, and each can thus not only be said to be a
    variant of the meme 'evolution', but also remain capable, like
    humans on the genetic level, of cross-fertilization.
            Groups of memes frequently associate into mutually assisting
    systems termed memeplexes when their interrelation increases the
    propagational chances of all components of the memeplex. Some
    memes may be components of several memeplexes; for instance,
    the proselytization meme is found in several religions and political
    ideologies, and indeed must be associated with other memes that
    can furnish it with a content it may proselytize.

                         7. Memes, Language and Meaning

            The most obvious way in which memes are propagated in our
    culture is through spoken, signed and written language. It has
    been asserted that the search for basic memes should concentrate
    not on the levels of words or of phrases, but beneath them, on the
    level of the morpheme. While there are memetic values to many
    morphemes, such as prefixes and suffixes, these are in reality
    syntactic shorthands for ideas semantically grounded in words and
    phrases, such as past, present, future, lack of, surplus of, in favor
    of, in opposition to, beneath, beyond, singular, plural, and so on.
    What is important in memetics is not the syntactic form of a
    meme, or how it is encoded, but its semantic content, that is, its
    significance or meaning; this comprises the identity of a particular
    meme, as well as its differentiation from other memes. This is why
    the extraction of the structures in which meaning is presented, in
    isolation from the meaning so encoded, does not address
    memetics per se, and has more to do with linguistics or semiotics.
    Here certain parallels can be drawn to genetic epistemology; it is
    not the structure of perception (as in phenomenology) which are
    pertinent for genetic epistemology, but the principles they reveal,
    such as identity, permanence, conservation of quantities,
    reciprocality, contingency, causality, possibility, necessity,
    negation and opposition, which become progressively more
    apparent during the sequential succession of developmental
    structures. There is a bridge here between being and meaning;
    although they are based in the perception of the being of the world,
    these principles which are drawn from world-perception
    meaningfully inform and organize it in turn. By categorizing
    perception and characterizing the perceived as structured in certain
    ways and not others, these principles are a primordial source of the
    meanings recursively imposed upon being; meanings the
    imposition of which is valid precisely because they are grounded in
    and derived from that very being
    upon which they are subsequently imposed.

                             9. What Use Is Memetics?

            Most of the academic empirical work that is recognizeably memetic in nature so
    far was done in othe fields before memetics, as a discipline, was born. This
    is hardly surprising, such fields as the diffusion of innovations, kinship
    theory, linguistics, information theiry and the sociology of knowledge have
    been around for quite some time, and the very term 'memetics' is only a quarter
    century old. Its main use in the near term most likely will be to provide a
    common theoretical framework within which the fruit of the labors of these far
    flung disciplines may be interrelated, so that the sum of this work, taken
    together, may provide us with insights which none of the parts,
    taken alone, can proffer. Its methodology will almost certainly be
    statistical, and it has a good chance of revolutionalizing one
    discipline in particular - the discipline of social psychology. The
    going will not be easy; the subject matter of memetics - the
    problems of the genesis, evolution, and communication of meaning,
    are, due to their complexity, some of the most intractable in the
    field of academic endeavor. But if the utilization of the unifying
    evolutionary perspective and principles of memetics serves to
    render merely very difficult that which has heretofore been
    insoluble, it wlll have more than fulfilled its promise.

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

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