Meme Extinction

Agner Fog (
Sat, 31 May 1997 14:56:13 +0100

From: (Agner Fog)
Subject: Meme Extinction
Date: Sat, 31 May 1997 14:56:13 +0100
Message-Id: <>

You have to define what you mean by memes going extinct. This could mean:
- out of practical use, still transmitted
- out of practical use, still remembered, not transmitted further
- out of human memory, still stored in books or artifacts
- out of all normal information storage systems, but physical traces remain
- every archaeological trace has disappeared

The distinction between knowing Demeter and believing in Demeter has already
been discussed, but there is another distinction which is often missing in
memetics discussions: The distinction between remembering a meme and putting it
into practical use.

For example, you may know how to make fire with a tinderbox, but you never use
this knowledge because it is easier to use a lighter. John Ball defines a
recessive meme analogously to a Mendelian recessive gene as a meme which is out
of use (but not out of memory) because it is overridden by a more dominant meme
(Ball, John A: Memes as replicators. Ethology and Sociobiology vol 4 1984 p
145). The knowledge of how to use a tinderbox would be a perfect example of a
recessive meme.

The analogy with recessive genes has limitatations, however. In my book (see
URL below) I have the example of the fashion alternating between long and
short dresses for women. You cannot say that the 'long dress' meme dominates
over the 'short dress' meme, because a few years laters the situation is
opposite. The long or short dress memes are not forgotten or extinct, only
temporarily out of use. We need an adequate terminology to analyze such

BTW. Derek Gatherer has argued for the preservation of memes from extinction
analogously to the preservation of species (Gatherer, Derek: Feyerabend,
Dawkins and the Politics of Cultural Diversity. Anarchist Studies vol 5, 1997 p
Agner Fog, Ph.D. See my electronic book: 'Cultural Selection'
Denmark at:

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