Re: Words and memes

From: Rod Farrell (
Date: Sun Feb 03 2002 - 09:53:40 GMT

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    Subject: Re: Words and memes
    Date: Sun, 03 Feb 2002 09:53:40 +0000
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    I’ve never used one of these discussion lists before so please excuse me if
    I’ve inadvertently breached any etiquette or technical issues.

    I was interested by the “There is bacon in the fridge” dialogue. The topic
    of whether the transfer of simple knowledge between people is memetic has
    been bothering me. Susan Blackmore sees imitation as fundamental in the
    definition of a meme, i.e. an individual displays a behaviour that is
    adopted by another individual. Is there imitation in the transfer of

    Consider a university student. If the student responds to the enthusiasm
    that a tutor displays for a subject and imitates that enthusiasm few here
    would contest that this is memetic, the fact that the student gains
    knowledge of that subject is almost irrelevant. On the other hand, consider
    a tutor who unenthusiastically drums knowledge into a student, without that
    student adopting any of her tutor’s behaviour, where is the imitation?

    Aaron Lynch, however, defines a meme as “A memory item, or portion of an
    organism’s neurally-stored information… whose instantiation depended
    critically on causation by prior instantiation of the same memory item in
    one or more organism’s nervous systems…” In this sense then, the propagation
    of knowledge is memetic.

    I don’t think anyone else has done as much as Lynch in trying to establish a
    concise definition of meme, but I think that most people would agree that
    they personally hold a “gut feeling” as to what is and isn’t a meme, hence
    the bacon debate.

    Unfortunately I was a very poor student in a very poor university (poor
    quality that is), which is probably why I find myself in my current
    predicament; stranded on an oil rig in the middle of the North Sea. This
    environment however, would provide excellent scope for various social
    experiments. It is ideal for observing many examples of how behaviour and
    knowledge can spread through a relatively isolated population.

    As an example of imitation I site the case of a crew member who would take a
    circuitous route to his work place every morning, passing through populated
    areas such as locker rooms, tea huts and the control room. On his route he
    would whistle a catchy tune. During the course of the day he would then
    listen out to hear the tune repeated. This could become quite infuriating,
    as I’m sure you can imagine.

    Today I think I have encountered the transfer of knowledge behaving in a way
    that, to my “gut” at least, is memetic.

    Last night, I discovered that some one had urinated in the phone booth.
    Subsequent to this, I informed one of the stewards (the people who look
    after the accommodation area of the platform), and my cabin mate.

    This morning I questioned the steward, who had professed to forget about the
    incident after I had told him. When I got to my lab my cabin mate contacted
    me to confirm my story as he was now retelling it to his colleagues.

    This piece of knowledge is now replicating, with its success depending on
    the motives of the individuals it encounters. The steward did not want to
    communicate the meme as this may result in him having to perform the
    unsavoury task of cleaning the mess, communicating this knowledge to a
    colleague might also cause argument about who is responsible for cleaning
    it, upsetting the status quo in his work environment. My cabin mate on the
    other hand does not have this inhibition, and is encouraged to propagate
    this knowledge due to its salacious nature.

    To extend the “there is bacon in the fridge” situation offshore, imaging a
    rig that has been storm bound for a week; supplies of fresh food have been
    exhausted and tinned goods are running low. To a population dining
    exclusively on corned beef sandwiches and Spam fritters the “there is bacon
    in the fridge” meme could easily spread through the population.

    This example would probably tie in better with most people’s expectations of
    memetic behaviour and differs from the typical domestic Sunday morning
    situation in terms of population size. The urgency granted to the meme
    through the predicament that the population finds itself is fundamentally
    crucial to the spread of any meme. E.g. “impending doom” and “salvation”
    memes triggering a prosletic response in the host.

    I personally find it difficult to reconcile the concept of innate imitation
    in the spread of behaviour and conscious decision making as regards to the
    spread of ideas. I think that there may be cause to differentiate these
    different concepts as I suspect that the mechanics of the process are

    For the purposes of studying a population dynamic, using a model that makes
    assumptions about the fraction of a population likely to adopt an idea or
    behaviour, then the mechanism is irrelevant. In studies of how individuals
    adopt behaviours or ideas from others I would say it is of fundamental


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