Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Wed, 28 May 1997 23:07:53 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 28 May 1997 23:07:53 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

This discussion is about two different things, both significant, but they
should not be confused. One concerns how we actually reconstruct past
beliefs, customs, and habits. There are practical difficulties in doing
such reconstructions because records are lost, people forget, documents
vanish and so on. To settle those issues, we should ask historians and
archeologists to tell us the tricks their trades. But those are merely
practical problems arising from incomplete data about the past, and are not
Bloch's paradox.

Bloch's paradox centers on the idea of extinction itself. To give a
concrete example, imagine religion in ancient Greece, for instance the
rites and rituals associated with the goddess Demeter. We may assume that
much has been lost of those rites (e.g., what words were actually said in a
household ritual). But people *did* speak those words, and the rituals
*did* exist -- or so we assume -- and they were memes. But those memes
became extinct as the worship of Demeter vanished. But, historians working
today might reconstruct such a ritual, and -- abracadabra! -- those memes
are brought back to life.

Bloch's paradox says that when a meme is extinct, no one thinks it, and
therefore, because all memes are thought processes, no meme CAN be extinct.
So, in the paradox, the memes of Demeter worship turn out NOT to be
extinct at all, because historians two millenia later reconstructed them.
And the moment they did, those memes came back into existence. It's only
the memes that we have NOT reconstructed (and hence not thought about) that
are truly extinct, and by definition we don't even know that such things
exist. How *could* we know? We've never even thought of them. It follows
that by definition we know all the memes that exist.

Aaron Lynch's distinction between a meme and the idea of a meme -- the
original worshipers had the memes, the scholars have ideas of the meme --
doesn't seem to solve this problem. It merely says that scholarly ideas
about Demeter worship are different from Demeter worship itself, a notion
we can surely accept. But it leaves the original memes extinct and
therefore incapable of being thought. Therefore they are no longer memes
because they cannot be transmitted. Well, what are they, then? (And to
say "They're _extinct_ memes" begs the question.)

Notice that one can't say "They were memes," using the past tense, because
if we today cannot think them, we of course cannot say anything about them.
(If you don't believe me, try saying something about a topic you cannot
think of.)

These are not technical questions about methods of historical
reconstruction, but concern the nature of memes themselves.

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