Re: memes and cultural evolution -Reply

Hardman DK (
Wed, 4 Jun 1997 16:32:39 +0100 (BST)

Date: Wed, 4 Jun 1997 16:32:39 +0100 (BST)
From: Hardman DK <>
Subject: Re: memes and cultural evolution -Reply
In-Reply-To: <>

On Wed, 4 Jun 1997, N Rose wrote:

> The problem with the pre-biotic soup position was nicely
> illustrated by the discussion on extinction. When is a meme
> extinct? If a meme is both the instruction in the brain and the
> resultant behaviour then it creates a complication with this sort
> of question. Is a meme extinct when it only exists in a written
> form in an unread book? Are books the sorts of things that can
> contain memes? What about pictures, or buildings? Memes are
> what we call the *replicators* of culture, is a photocopier
> (which is a meme in the pre-biotic view) a replicator? What
> about a tune, a catch-phrase, or clothes fashions?

Perhaps we can consider the answer to these questions by analogy with the
gene. When is a gene extinct? DNA can be retrieved not just from dead
organisms, but extinct ones. In the latter case, genes which no longer
play any part in the world nonetheless exist in a physical sense. In
principle - the Jurassic Park scenario - these genes could be pressed back
into service to do their original job. In practice, though, Daniel Dennett
argues (in Darwin's Dangerous Idea) that this could never happen because
we could not provide the appropriate chemical environment necessary to
"read" the messages encoded in the genes. What is certain, however, is
that if the genes did not physically exist then even the "in principle"
scenario is irrelevant.

By analogy, memes encoded in a book are not extinct in the physical sense.
Given the appropriate environment it becomes possible for the memes in the
book to have an effect in the world. This may be easier than is the case
with genes, because as long as you can read the book then the memes can
have an effect. Nevertheless, even here it may be that the original
environment that gave rise to expression of the meme does not exist. For
example, in the '60s there was a cultural environment within which skiffle
music could be popular. Although any individual could decide to play
skiffle music again, it's highly unlikely that this would be replicated
successfully within the culture. Therefore, there is no longer any
expression of the skiffle meme (what's the memetic equivalent of the
phenotype?), but we know what skiffle is [see note below] therefore the
meme itself can hardly be considered extinct. But again, without the
physical existence of a meme (in a book or whatever), then the meme cannot
have an effect in principle or in practice. E.g. if you throw all copies
of the book on the bonfire then the memes within are destroyed.

I've made no distinction here between a meme in a brain, and an external
representation of the meme in a book. As far as I can see, it is the
symbolic aspect of the meme that is important, not its physical

NOTE: I'm note sure if skiffle music is known outside the UK. Skiffle was
a popular precursor of rock 'n' roll, and was a form of music based on the
use of rudimentary musical instruments. For example, a kind of bass sound
could be produced by attaching a broom handle to a soapbox, and fixing a
string between the two. By pulling the string taught and tugging on it,
the player could produce a rythmic 'twang'.

David Hardman
PS. I hope this doesn't sound unduly naive...I'm new to this list!


David Hardman "If someone tells you he is going
Department of Psychology to make a 'realistic decision',
City University you immediately understand that
Northampton Square he has resolved to do something
London EC1V 0HB bad"
(Mary McCarthy,
Phone: +44 0171 477 8000 x4540 On the Contrary, 1961)
Fax: +44 0171 477 8581

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)