Re: Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 29 May 1997 00:26:40 -0500

Date: Thu, 29 May 1997 00:26:40 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

Aaron Lynch responding to Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog:
> This discussion is about two different things, both significant, but th=
> should not be confused. One concerns how we actually reconstruct past
> beliefs, customs, and habits. There are practical difficulties in doin=
> 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=
> 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 th=
> 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 wor=
> today might reconstruct such a ritual, and -- abracadabra! -- those mem=
> are brought back to life.

Actually, reconstructing the ritual on a theater stage, for instance,
does not inherently reconstruct the meme that I would call "Demeterism."
How a particular meme is defined has a profound effect on whether it has
hosts or not, and hence whether it is extinct or not, as well as on what
constitutes a replication event.=20

We might define a meme for "Demeter-definitionism" for which
instantiation happens merely by knowing the word and some core elements
of its definition. You might find that this meme never went extinct. The
other meme, "Demeterism," would be instantiated only in those who
actually believe that there exists a goddess named Demeter who meets the
specifications of the core elements of the word's definition. Further,
you can even define a "full-blown-Demeterism" meme, whose hosts are all
Demeterists and who actually hold some extensive list of ancillary
beliefs, ritual instructions, learned desires, etc. Finally, you can
define another meme "Demeter-experise" which combines the word
definition with an extensive list of other beliefs about what
full-blown-Demeterists believed or did. Notice that, if archeologists
and scholars have done a good enough job and the memeticists define
their memes carefully, then their definition of "Demeter-expertise"
would be such that a substantial number of full-blown-Demeterists in
ancient Greece were also "Demeter-experts," and all of the ancient Greek
"Demeterists" were also "Demeter-definitionists." The only thing that
archeologists and other scholars might bring back from extinction, then,
would be Demeter-expertise and perhaps Demeter-definitionism if the
latter ever went extinct.

MEME. Noun. A memory item, or portion of an organism=92s neurally-stored
information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer,
whose instantiation depended critically on causation by prior
instantiation of the same memory item in one or more other organisms=92
nervous systems. ("Sameness" of memory items is determined with respect
to the above-mentioned abstraction system of the observer.)=20

> 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 exti=
> So, in the paradox, the memes of Demeter worship turn out NOT to be
> extinct at all, because historians two millenia later reconstructed the=
> And the moment they did, those memes came back into existence. It's on=
> the memes that we have NOT reconstructed (and hence not thought about) =
> are truly extinct, and by definition we don't even know that such thing=
> exist. How *could* we know? We've never even thought of them. It foll=
> 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 idea=
> about Demeter worship are different from Demeter worship itself, a noti=
> we can surely accept.  But it leaves the original memes extinct and
> therefore incapable of being thought.  Therefore they are no longer mem=
> because they cannot be transmitted.  Well, what are they, then?  (And t=
> say "They're _extinct_ memes" begs the question.)

I do not say that the original memes are "INCAPABLE of being thought." If the words of an ancient scribe somehow convince a person in the 24th century that Demeter exists, then this would be a replication event that took millennia to unfold, and which would cause the host population to fluctuate up from zero. Do you want to define the word "extinct" so as to be absolutely irreversible? What about actually bringing back a recently extinct bird by using sophisticated biochemistry? Does that prove the bird was not really extinct? A similar definitional problem can happen with the word "life" when it comes to freezing then thawing embryos, or even adults, etc.=20

Defining the word "extinct" is not really critical to the theory as long as there still is a mathematical way of discussing host populations of zero. Studying the extinct meme of, say, full-blown-Demeterism remains possible in much the way that studying the extinct organism called T. Rex is, inasmuch as you are not studying a contemporaneous instantiation but rather the old evidence that has endured. (It could have been worse: at least we are not cosmologists studying the Big Bang!)

> Notice that one can't say "They were memes," using the past tense, beca= use > if we today cannot think them, we of course cannot say anything about t= hem. > (If you don't believe me, try saying something about a topic you cannot > think of.) >=20 > These are not technical questions about methods of historical > reconstruction, but concern the nature of memes themselves.

Agreed. Such concern certainly calls for very careful definitions to avoid confusing ourselves!


--Aaron Lynch

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