Re: Meme Extinction

Paul Marsden (
Tue, 27 May 1997 11:58:03 -0400

Date: Tue, 27 May 1997 11:58:03 -0400
From: Paul Marsden <>
Subject: Re: Meme Extinction
To: "" <>

Message text written by
>>> I was reading through the JOM, and was struck by the notion of memes
>> 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 i=
>> sort of information storage or transmission medium (such as a book or
>> mind), wouldn't the very act of studying the meme revive it from
>> extinction? The person studying it would necessarily then become the
>> for the meme, and it would then no longer be extinct. Sort of a
>If an extinct meme cannot exist in any form of information storage, it
>be studied. By finding a single reference in some obscure book, you prov=
>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'
>be searched for, e.g. a missing word describing something that required =
>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,
>we don't know *they* thought so. By contrast, if we today are looking 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 i=
>may have been.

>For example, these messages come across without identifiers for *embedde=
>quotes. Thus, Peter Bentley's message contained a quote, but the
>list-serve system had not added the author's name (Joseph Bloch) -- I ha=
>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
>to reconstruct it was by Joseph Bloch and written on 5/22/97.  With a fe=
>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 iss= ue >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" i= s >the paradox in physics known as Schrodinger's cat. It uses the Heisenbe= rg >uncertainty principle to demonstrate that an unobserved cat is both aliv= e >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<

I'm not sure that there is really any paradox here. Timothy Perper's =

analogies from biology and physics are interesting about "reconstructing something that perhaps " isn't there"", but don't they miss the point tha= t memetics, unlike in the two examples, is a self-referential system? If I=

think x, then x, as a meme ipso facto exists. Now that may seem to raise=

problems with the possibility of studying "extinct" memes, because surely=

studying x, will resuscitate x/or will require x to be present as a prerrequisite to talking about it,, and therefore x is not extinct?

However on closer inspection I think this assertion is based on two misunderstandings: One, the belief that we must be personally conscious = of memes for them to exist, and Two that a meme about meme x is equivalent t= o meme x. The first fallacy is a result of slipping into the seductive bu= t dangerous trap of assuming that there is some conscious being over and above the memes who can be conscious of them (the real me, Soul, Mr. Homunculus etc) The second fallacy, would lead one to argue that this reply "about" Joseph Bloch's original comments contains all the memes in=

that original text. This is clearly not the case. =

Therfore I would contend that it is possible to talk about the impact of= a meme in a particular spatio-temporal location regardless of whether the actors present in the situation were consciously aware of those memes and=

without being infected with that particular meme oneself, ie regardles of=

whether that meme is present now. So, yes from this perspective, one can=

study extinct memes.

Paul =============================================================== 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) see: