Re: Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Thu, 29 May 1997 11:36:42 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 29 May 1997 11:36:42 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

On 28 May, 1997, Joseph Bloch wrote (via Ulfgrim Vilmeidthson

>snip some of Bloch's nicely written comments for brevity; he also asked if if
>TP or MC was writing this -- it happens to be TP.<

>This harkens back to the thrust of my original point. If a meme is truly
>extinct, it cannot be studied, by definition. If we try to re-create it
>from surrounding and circumstantial evidence, we cannot (by definition)
>know if we have done so with complete accuracy.

TP: This summarizes the paradox very neatly. Extinction of a meme *means*
it is gone from its host -- the mind -- and is not thought by anyone.


Aaron Lynch brings his usual sharp and acute analysis to his comments on
meme extinction. I agree with most of what he says, but feel that in a few
areas some further observations are needed.

>Aaron Lynch on 28 May, 1997 responding to Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog:
>> 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.
>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.
>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-expertise" 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.

TP: These are valid distinctions and very useful.

>> 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.)
>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.

TP: Hmmm. I think there's a distinction to be made here. The original
memes, held by real worshipers of Demeter, in their culture and time, were
thinkable. IF -- note: IF -- Demeter worship had not died out, in the
sense that if the *authentic* worship of the goddess had continued down to
today in unbroken lineage of worshipers, teachers, and acolytes, then those
memes (or their close relatives) would still be thinkable. But because the
religion of Demeter did die out, modern versions of Demeterism must belong
to the list Aaron provided above -- Demeter-expertism,
Demeter-definitionism, and so on. I'd add another -- neo-Demeterism -- for
the hypothetical rejuvenated religion of modern people who worship Demeter
(if any such people exist).

But once the authentically ancient religion has died, and with it memories
of at least some of its beliefs, those memes are "extinct" in a curiously
paradoxical way. It isn't a matter that they were thinkable, but concerns
how the act of thinking *creates* the meme itself. If we think them, we
create them -- and by definition they are no longer *extinct.* Now, it
may be that we only believe that we are thinking the original memes, and
perhaps we delude ourselves where in fact we've gotten the details of
Demeter worship all wrong. if so, then we are not thinking the original
memes, and they are still extinct.

For example, we reconstruct Demeter worship as involving a certain
liturgical ceremonial, but if observers with video recorders had
materialized in the ancient days, they would have recorded a different
liturgy. Then our reconstruction is wrong, and we have what might be
called the memes of "false Demeterism." The memes of authentic ancient
Demeterism remain unreconstructed, and therefore unthought by us -- and
therefore extinct. But the moment we *do* think them, they are no longer


>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.

TP: I posted something like this on an earlier note, and Paul Marsden on
5/27/97 was quick to point out that I had missed the central issue. On
thinking about his comments, I think he was right in saying that
reconstructing a biological system does not have what he called the
"self-referential" quality of the meme. Yes, we reconstruct the animal
around the fossil, but thinking does not cause the animal to exist. By
contrast, thinking and communicating *does* create memes. Thus, the fossil
existed as a living organism in the past, but no human being knew about it
-- so we had no memes dealing with this creature. Today, when we find the
fossil and reconstruct it, we invent memes, shall I say, about the
organism, its bones, its habits, or whatever else. In principle, there's
nothing paradoxical about this at all -- it's just innovation and
discovery. The reason is that the existence of original but now fossilized
organism did not in any way depend on *our* thinking it. But that is not
true of memes. Their existence does depend on thought. And so the notion
of an "extinct meme" seems to be a contradiction in terms, even though the
now lost forms of Demeter worship seem to instantiate it.


>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.

To be sure, mathematical formalisms may permit certain parameters to have
the value zero, but the question about memes is what that actually means.
Bloch's paradox suggests that the moment we examine the actual memetic
content of such zero-frequency memes, their frequency is no longer zero.
Observing the meme brings it into existence, much like a quantum mechanical
observation. I agree that such things might not particularly important for
scholars reconstructing Demeter worship, but the existence of a paradox --
any paradox -- is always a pointer that we need to consider the arguments
and logic *very* carefully.

I'm not saying that Aaron's analysis is wrong, but that it somehow doesn't
quite seem to eliminate Bloch's paradox.

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