Memosomes as Collections of Memes

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Mon, 2 Jun 1997 13:47:12 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 2 Jun 1997 13:47:12 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Memosomes as Collections of Memes

I'd like to raise a question connected to some ideas that come from the
interaction of memetics and anthropology. I recently sent some notes to a
colleague suggesting that as human beings become less and less "programmed"
by mechanisms like canalized learning, they necessarily must rely on wider
and wider external sources of information. ("Canalized" learning refers
broadly to the fact that members of different species tend to learn what is
adaptive for them to learn -- e.g., birds learn their species-specific
mating songs.)

There is nothing new in this idea, nor is it novel to say that those
"external sources of information" are collections of memes. In fact, the
idea is a commonplace in anthropology, whose practitioners do not use the
language of memes, but say that "culture" is the human mode of adaptation.
(This seemingly "adaptationist" idea need not worry us; it merely means
that cultures contain information that is good to know if you want to
survive -- like what to hunt where, or which side of the road to drive on.)

The interesting part comes when we conjoin this notion with the four volume
masterwork called "Mythologiques" written by the great French
anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. In these volumes, CLS analyzes a wide
variety of South, Central, and North American native myths, showing that
they have distinct *formal* relationships to each other. Let me come back
to what those relationships are, because I want first to quote something
CLS wrote about two myths. (The original is in French; I also give my own

Plon. page 316.

"En assumant pour moitie la fonction de l'arc-en-ciel (foncierement
mauvaise), et pour l'autre moitie cell de l'Esprit amical (foncierement
bonne), le decepteur, qui est al fois bon et mauvais, manifest, sur un plan
formel, sa dualite de plusieurs facons: realisation d'une sorte de
'crossing-over' entre deux mythes; adoption, pour un de ces mythes, de sa
version inversee..." ["crossing-over" is in English in the original,
accents omitted.]

"By assuming in part the function of the rainbow (basically maleficient),
and for the other part that of the friendly Spirit (basically beneficient),
the trickster, who is at the same time good and bad, manifests on a formal
plane his duality in several ways: as a realization of a kind of
"crossing-over" between two myths; as an adoption of the inverted version
of one of these myths..." (My translation.)

Even without being familiar with these myths (certainly I am not), we can
see that they contain a variety of memes -- maleficient spirits,
beneficient spirits, and the trickster, a personfied being who achieves a
kind of "crossing-over" between the myths. Let us set aside the details of
the particular myths to focus on the term "crossing-over."

Levi-Strauss uses the English expression, meaning that he wishes to evoke
the English language meaning of the term -- which comes from genetics. It
refers to the exchange of physical parts of chromosomes during meiosis,
where two homologous DNA strands switch parts of themselves with each
other. In this way, the *genes* carried by the two DNA strands also switch
places, thereby creating new combinations of genes. Strictly, geneticists
speak of "recombination" for the exchange of genes, and speak of
"crossing-over" for the exchange of those parts of the chromosomes that
carry those genes. The genetic equivalent of the chromosome is called a
"linkage group."

Oho! Levi-Strauss is saying that memes are organized into STRUCTURES that
resemble linkage groups (i.e., chromosomes). Thus, in one myth, we have
the "maleficient spirit" and on another a "beneficient spirit," and these
can be exchanged between the two myths (we no longer need the trickster in
the discussion, so we shall forget him). Let me simply call these
structures "memosomes," by which I mean a collectivity of memes, organized
into an entirety -- a myth, a recipe, a story, whatever -- that can
"recombine" with another collectivity of memes. Now, chromosomes that can
recombine with each other are called "homologous" chromosomes, so two
memosomes that can exchange memes with each other can be called "homologous

Note that a memosome is MORE than a collection of memes recognized by
people to be a collection. They need to be able to recombine with each
other. Let me give an example.

Consider the laws for driving a car in a certain nation (e.g., we in North
America drive on the right). Clearly, British law about driving is not the
same, since one drives on the left in Britain. But if we were to switch
those specific parts of the two sets of laws, we surely would form a
"hybrid." Therefore the two sets of laws are memosomes -- not identical,
but capable of exchanging elements of themselves with each other. The two
sets of memes are *homologous*.

Now, one can easily find other collectivities of memes that do NOT
recombine with the laws of driving, either in Great Britain or in the
United States. One such collectivity is the recipe for baking apple pie.
It contains NO memes that can exchange themselves with the collectivity of
memes that concern driving. However, an apple pie recipe can exchange
pieces of itself (its memes) with a recipe for making cherry pie. So
recipes for pies represent memosomes that are homologous to each other.

I suggest that if we take Levi-Strauss seriously, we have a way to study
memes that transcends listing their individual characteristics or defining
them independent of their relations to other memes. We can see instead
that human beings organize their information universe into groups of
memosomes -- some deal with driving, some with making pie, some with
religion, some with politics, and so on. In each case, the crux -- and the
essence of the idea! -- is that a variety of rules about driving (or making
pies) are capable of "crossing over," that is, of exchanging elements of
themselves with other homologous memosomes.

If the idea is valid -- and I suggest that once understood, it *is* valid
-- then we have ways of doing much more sophisticated things with memes
than merely listing them. We can, for example, begin to map out the
structure of human knowledge in *precisely* the same way geneticists map
the genetic information on chromosomes.

To return to the colleague I mentioned above, he told me that he had never
heard of Claude Levi-Strauss, and that the idea was completely unclear.
Chromosomes, he said, didn't have anything to do with it -- they were just
a biological analogy. But let me suggest instead that the embryonic
science of memetics is a "homologous memosome" of genetics, and that Claude
Levi-Strauss' usage of the term "crossing over" is *itself* a brilliant
example of memosome recombination. It focuses our attention on
similarities in the organization of (a) genetic information and (b) memetic
information, and on the possibility that the human mind organizes memes
into higher-order structures that can exchange elements with each other.
If so, then the memosome is one of the basic forms taken by adaptive
information in human societies.

I might add that to a geneticist familiar with the formal logic of
recombination and gene mapping, the parallels between chromosomes and
memosomes seem extremely rich.

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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