Re: Meme Extinction

Omar de la Cruz (
Tue, 27 May 1997 15:54:26 -0400

Message-Id: <>
Subject: Re: Meme Extinction
Date: Tue, 27 May 1997 15:54:26 -0400
From: Omar de la Cruz <>

Hello. My name is Omar De la Cruz and I'm a PhD student of mathematical
logic. Of course, I'm interested in memetics and evolutionary studies
in general.

About Bloch's paradox about the impossibility of studying extinct memes,
I think that there are several approaches.

The first approach is statistical. Studying populations of memes in a way
resembling population genetics makes it reasonable to define a meme as
extinct when its presence in the "meme pool" is nil, so that it is impossible
for this meme to spread again. However, this meme could still be somewhere
"out" of the meme pool. The best genetic metaphore I can think of
is the smallpox virus, which isn't strictly extinct, but it is confined in
a way that -hopefully- will prevent its reappearance in the wild. The existence
of samples of the virus is statistically irrelevant in terms of populations.
Note however, that this approach weakens the concept of extinction in the
sense that it is conceivable that the "extinct" entity (meme or gene) could
become widespread again. That leaves us with the oxymoronic notion of
"temporarily extinct". Naming such a status "extinct" or some other name
like "dormant" (as John Robb suggests) is just a matter of convention, but it
could be useful, since we have two different concepts involved.

The second, more strict approach, leads to Bloch's paradox, at least in some
cases. As has been mentioned, there are some "uncertainty" effects, somehow
similar to those in quantum mechanics: if we can "observe directly" a meme,
we are probably changing some of its characteristics, for example, transforming
it from an extinct meme into a non-extinct one. This similarity is certainly
intriguing and worth studying, even if it doesn't seem (at first sight) very
relevant to the more "mainstream" statistics oriented memetics.

The third observation is that even in the strict sense, some extinct memes can
be studied directly without "reviving" them. For example, we can assume that
"belief in Zeus" is a extinct meme: many people have the meme "Zeus" in their
minds (they have heard of this greek mythology god), and we can talk about the
meme "belief in Zeus", but nobody in the world *believes in Zeus* (this is
probably false, but indulge with me for the sake of the argument). In what way
the "belief in Zeus" meme is different from the meme "Zeus"? Well, one thing
is that the belief has a *behaviour* attached to it, or it is mostly a behaviour:
in case of an earthquake, a christian would probably pray to Jesus, but a
believer in Zeus would pray to Zeus (or offer a sacrifice, whatever). In this
moment we are talking about this meme, but that doesn't make us believers.

This last paragraph suggests that there are very different kinds of memes.
One one side it is interesting to classify memes in categories. On the other side
it is also important clarify the definition of meme, making clear why different
things are all memes.

I will try to think more about this last paragraph before I write more, I don't
want to mix everything in one message. Anyway, perhaps someone can suggest me
a "textbook" on memetics, to see how these basics are being treated, perhaps
I'm "raining on wet ground".

Omar Delacruz.

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