Re: Meme Extinction

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Tue, 27 May 1997 12:46:31 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 27 May 1997 12:46:31 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

>snip preceding material<
TP wrote on 5/27/97
>>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<

>Paul Marsden wrote on 5/27/97:
>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 that
>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?

TP: The second part of your comments seem very reasonable, but there is a
*very* deep connection between quantum mechanics (QM) and "studying"
something, thereby to resuscitate it. The fundamental issue raised by QM
is that it *is* self-referential: the observer is part of the system, and
in principle one cannot devise a QM system that does not have an observer
as an intrinsic component.

Thus, an electron does not possess a physical characteristic (like its spin
state) *until* it is observed. The Schrodinger's cat paradox is merely a
way to bring QM uncertainty to the macroscopic level and make it vivid to
our intuitions. Bloch's paradox is that the meme does not "exist" until we
think about it, which corresponds to observing it. It whereupon snaps into
reality, with whatever characteristics we endow it. Did that meme "exist"
before our mental observations, and if so, in what form? It strikes me
that this question is very much like those raised by the uncertainty

>However on closer inspection I think this assertion

TP: Which assertion do you mean?

> 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 to
>meme x. The first fallacy is a result of slipping into the seductive but
>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)

TP: On the other hand, your comment seems to imply that "memes" are the
entities that are conscious. I admit that the notion puzzles me: how can
a meme, the content of which deals, say, with circus clowns, be identical
to those processes that make us aware of things, including clowns, trees,
the weather, and so on? Isn't this confusing the perception with the

>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.

TP: I agree with your first point, that we can discuss the effect of memes
on people who are unaware of them. But that's different from trying to
reconstruct an extinct meme, and thereby bringing it into existence.

I would like to know *how* you suggest we can study an extinct meme. Take
the missing text example -- a manuscript that lacks certain passages. How
can one "study" what has been lost? I mean this in concrete detail --
exactly what does one do?

Timothy Perper

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)