Re: Meme Extinction

Peter Bentley (
Wed, 28 May 1997 11:24:26 -0700

Date: Wed, 28 May 1997 11:24:26 -0700
From: Peter Bentley <>
Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

Hi again,

(perhaps I should introduce myself: I am a Research Fellow at University
College London specialising in evolutionary computation)

Omar de la Cruz wrote:

> About Bloch's paradox about the impossibility of studying extinct memes...

Perhaps we should define what 'Bloch's paradox' actually *is*. I thought
he was saying that you cannot study an extinct meme without 'resurrecting' it.
Now, I repeat what I said previously - you cannot study an extinct meme *at all*
if it is truly extinct - because it is lost forever. Hence, there is a paradox,
but a slightly different one.

I would say that the only way to really study an extinct meme is to infer that
there probably was a meme, and deduce what its nature was. (e.g. a missing
word, a silent film of children singing a missing song).

> 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..... 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.
This would be extinction 'in the wild', with a few limited copies of the meme
held in isolation. However, you have to start with a non-extinct meme and
'preserve it' while it goes extinct elsewhere - this does not allow you to
study already-extinct memes.

> The second, more strict approach, ...... 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. ......

if you can "observe directly" a meme THEN IT IS NOT EXTINCT!

> 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 is more interesting. Memes describing behaviours or 'what it's like',
(for example: what it's like to see the colour red, or to smell coffee) seem
to be tricky things. Certainly, they seem to be lost when using the written
word. I can't write down a copy of my belief in Zeus (should I have one).
I can't write down exactly what it's like for me when I see the colour red.
Perhaps music is a better form of transmittal for these memes, but even so...
What I'm getting at, is that your belief in a deity is a personal thing.
I'm not sure it gets 'transmitted', more 'recreated' with help from others.

So these memes seem to only exist within humans, not in any form of written
storage. And there seems to be no *direct* transmittal (I can't give you a
copy of my faith in Zeus). So can such 'behavioural memes' become extinct or
be revived?

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