Re: memes and cultural evolution -Reply

Steven Smith (
Thu, 5 Jun 1997 09:19:56 -0600

From: Steven Smith <>
Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 5 Jun 1997 09:19:56 -0600
In-Reply-To: Peter Bentley <> "Re: memes and cultural evolution -Reply" (Jun 5, 11:23am)
Subject: Re: memes and cultural evolution -Reply

As a new member of the list, I don't have the benefit of the full discussion on
this general issue to date, but I would like to suggest the related issue of
emergence vs invention vs discovery.

Before the concept of emergence was widely considered, we waffled between the
notion that we were either inventing things or discovering them. Now we seem
to acknowledge that things seem to invent or discover "themselves".

I believe this relates to the current discussion regarding "extinct memes".
Peter Bentley noted that

Biologists usually use the word 'extinct' when referring to creatures,
i.e. phenotypes,

Historically (until human associated technology achieved a certain level of
sophistication) a preserved genotype had not significant probability of ever
being expressed as a phenotype again *without* the machinery OF it's related
phenotype available to effect that expression. Literally, a twist on the
"chicken or the egg" cliche. Today (at least in Hollywood), we have the
technology (and might soon in the laboratory) to simulate or surrogate the
expression mechanisms, potentially allowing us to "revive an extinct species".
With this, the current use of the term "extinct" comes into question.

Meanwhile, back to the meme. A meme which is no longer reproducing itself,
which is no longer expressing itself through individual or collective behaviour
but which is still coded for in contemporary or historical texts should
probably be said to be "dormant" rather than "extinct". One could argue that
at least superficially, contemporary fraternity culture has "revived" at least
a few "greek culture" memes. Highly mutated through expression in a very
different environment I suppose, but elements are recognizeable (toga parties -

Since I've not been in on the bulk of previous discussions, I suppose that
issues about what defines a meme vs a meme-fragment, or what represents a
modular component of memetic material has been opened?

Coming full circle to the question of "invention" vs "discovery" vs
"emergence", I would argue (suggest) that "extinct" is at best a very relative
term (very dormant?) and at worst an anomoly from a very dualistic,
reductionist view (of everything) which may not survive the challenges of these
studies. What is a genotype without a phenotype? And how far does the
"phenotype extend", to (try to) invoke Dawkins? Can one consider a phenotype
outside of it's environmental context (ecological or cultural depending on
whether we are talking genes or memes)?

- Steve

Steve Smith
Graphics/Visualization Team
Distributed Computing Group
Los Alamos National Laboratory
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