Re: Meme Extinction

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Tue, 27 May 1997 10:12:38 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 27 May 1997 10:12:38 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

On 5/22/97, Joseph Bloch wrote:

>> I was reading through the JOM, and was struck by the notion of memes going
>> extinct. A paradox occurred to me. Would it not be impossible, by
>> definition, to study "extinct" memes?
>> After all, if we define extinction of a meme as a lack of habitation in any
>> sort of information storage or transmission medium (such as a book or human
>> mind), wouldn't the very act of studying the meme revive it from
>> extinction? The person studying it would necessarily then become the host
>> for the meme, and it would then no longer be extinct. Sort of a catch-22.
>If an extinct meme cannot exist in any form of information storage, it cannot
>be studied. By finding a single reference in some obscure book, you prove that
>it was never extinct at all.

On 5/17/97,Peter Bentley wrote:

>So a truly extinct meme cannot be searched for directly. Only the 'gap' can
>be searched for, e.g. a missing word describing something that required a
>word for it, in a language.
>See what I meme?

On 5/27/97, Timothy Perper wrote:

But how do you know there's a gap? *We* today think a word is missing, but
we don't know *they* thought so. By contrast, if we today are looking at a
partially damaged ancient manuscript, sections of of which are missing,
then we can conclude that stuff is missing -- but we have no idea what it
may have been.

For example, these messages come across without identifiers for *embedded*
quotes. Thus, Peter Bentley's message contained a quote, but the
list-serve system had not added the author's name (Joseph Bloch) -- I had
to do that, and I also added the dates.

True, I inferred that there was a gap -- the first author's missing name --
but unless I had a copy of his original message, I would not have been able
to reconstruct it was by Joseph Bloch and written on 5/22/97. With a few
changes in how the lines are indented and without the > signs, one might
not even be able to tell that someone else *had* been quoted. I understand
that that kind of thing happened a good deal when medieval copyists
transcribed older manuscripts.

But I'm not a manuscript expert, but a biologist. A similar sort of issue
arises when we try to reconstruct a phylogeny on the basis of an incomplete
fossil record -- biologists postulate continuity between known fossils, but
creationists refuse to do so.

Another example of reconstructing something that perhaps "isn't there" is
the paradox in physics known as Schrodinger's cat. It uses the Heisenberg
uncertainty principle to demonstrate that an unobserved cat is both alive
and not alive at the same time, at least under the special circumstances
Schrodinger described.

Bloch's paradox seems to be related to Schrodinger's cat.

Timothy Perper

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