Re: Wilkins on the meme:engram relation

From: Joe Dees (
Date: Mon Dec 03 2001 - 07:04:41 GMT

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    Subject: Re: Wilkins on the meme:engram relation
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    >Date: Mon, 3 Dec 2001 17:37:39 +1100
    > Re: Wilkins on the meme:engram relation John Wilkins <>
    >On Monday, December 3, 2001, at 04:58 PM, Joe Dees wrote:
    >>> <>Date: Mon, 3 Dec 2001 00:41:57 EST
    >>> Re: Wilkins on the meme:engram relation
    >>> In a message dated 12/2/2001 8:21:25 PM Central Standard Time, John S
    >>> Wilkins
    >>> <> writes:
    >>>> The Kingdom of heaven is at hand. I agree with Aaron without
    >>>> reservation :-)
    >>>> The whole neologism of meme is exactly what Aaron says - a
    >>>> distraction.
    >>>> ...
    >> I disagree, precisely because several related areas in disparate
    >> disciplines may be conjoined by applying the term 'meme' to their
    >> relata. I have seen no other term, neo or not, that promises to do
    >> this. I also maintain that once the memetic life-cycle is understood
    >> to include both internal mushroom and external spore, that the
    >> confusion that has been unfortunately and unfairly attached to the term
    >> 'meme' will quite naturally and rightly abate.
    >Science is not advanced by semantic distinctions, although it is often
    >advanced by extending terms beyond their breaking point. In this case,
    >however, the entire debate about "what is a meme" has been a quibble
    >over a word, and we have tended instead to lose sight of the fact that
    >what really counts is the entire ancillary conceptual apparatus of
    >evolution: populational modelling instead of a typological notion of
    >classes and institutions; random drift and selection (and fitness);
    >common descent; "strategies" like arms races, Prisoner's dilemmas, game
    >theory in general; and also some other analogues that are not yet
    >properly elaborated like phylogenetic reconstruction, an analogue for
    >biogeography (sociogeography), socioecology (economics?), and so forth.
    Here, you claim that the problem is a quibble over a word, and then furnish examples that contradict such an assertion. The problem is not, as I see it, with the use of the term 'meme' to apply to certain mutating, selected and differentially replicated cultural phenomena, but rather as to which of the several phenomena you list, and many others, qualify for a slot under the metaphoric umbrella of the term. This can only be settled by the actual relational work (for differences and similarities) which has occurred concommitant to any more general term being accepted in a scientific discipline, work that will have to be done regardless of what term it is done in the name of.
    >And there's a whole philosophy of explanation and science that we can
    >transfer across from evolutionary biology as well. But all of this is
    >obscured by definitional debates over a term, and at the same time that
    >term is being cheapened by marketing and poppsych and popsociology texts.
    And let's get rid of 'quark' as well. And any other term that popsci siezes upon; can't have such things popularized and spread beyond ivory towers to the hoi polloi, can we, before we reobscure things with another, or several other appelation(s)? What has amazed me in all this is that even where people disagree over the precise meaning of the term, most agree upon its broad outlines: a meme is that which mutates, has the capacity to be communicated and selected for or against, and thus the possibility of propagating between people by means of some form of symbolic communication. For such a short time, that's an admirable degree of consensus.
    >I totally disagree that there is *a* (or *the*) memetic lifecycle, any
    >more than there is *the* organismic lifecycle. Evolution, and selection,
    >happen over a range of biological and nonbiological substrates, and
    >developmental trajectories are themselves the subject of evolution.
    >Metaphors about metaphytes, metazooans or any other form of life or
    >near-life (viruses, sorry Aaron) are at *best* only suggestive
    >metaphors, and at worse they blinker us in our expectations. But even
    >the biological world is more complex than the undergraduate textbooks
    >allow, so why would we expect there to be a global memetic cycle?
    Memetics is an evolutionary discipline, but one that possesses not only similarities with genetic evolution, but also differences. The religion that commanded the minds of the neanderthals died leaving us only flowers and bear skulls in graves, just as species have died leaving us only fossils (there's two broad cycles), but memesis permits of the possibiolity of meaning-laden, self-conscious, ideational and intentional mutation and selection, which is anathema to genetic evolution. The noting, within academic work concerned with natural vs. cultural evolution, of both differences and similarities between the memetic model of evolution and other types such as the genetic type is perhaps the prime way in which the term itself progressively is defined in a finer and finer grained manner; it is a matter of empirical praxis.
    >John Wilkins
    >Head Communication Services, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of
    >Medical Research, Melbourne Australia
    >Personal page: <>
    >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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    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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