Lamarckism in memetics

Omar de la Cruz (
Thu, 05 Jun 1997 18:28:54 -0400

Message-Id: <>
Subject: Lamarckism in memetics
Date: Thu, 05 Jun 1997 18:28:54 -0400
From: Omar de la Cruz <>


After thinking for a while on the issue of Lamarckism in memetics,
it is my opinion that, yes, there is an important Lamarckian component in
the evolution of memes, and no, this fact doesn't ruin the whole theory.

Let me refine the terms a little bit. By Lamarckism in memetics I
understand, in a basic level, that the `causal arrows' not only go
from the `memotype' to the `phemotype', but they can also go in the
opposite direction (I apologize for my abuse of the quote signs; the
terms in quotation are not very precise, in my opinion, but are still
useful tools for communicating ideas). That is not the case in genetic
reproduction: when a member of a new generation is born, its genotype
is fixed, while the phenotype becomes the product of the combined action
of the genotype and the environment. However, the effects of the
environment on the phenotype don't affect the genotype, whose particles
(genes) will be transmitted unchanged to the next generation. The only
way the phenotype affects the genes is in managing to successfully
breed or not, giving the genes a new host or not. Therefore, the
only force acting on genetic evolution is *selection*.

On the other hand, memes can change a great deal between generations
(a change of generation here means a replication of the meme, it has
no direct relation to the generations of individuals),
and most of the time these changes are a consequence of the expression
of the meme, its `phemotypic effect'. The best example I can think of
is the evolution of science itself, where most of the change comes from
individual insights; when Fisher studied biological evolution in the 30's,
he refined considerably the memes about darwinism before teaching them
to the new generations of biologists (there is also selection in the
evolution of memes of science, and recognizing that gives an interesting
new perspective to the philosopy and the history of science, but it
doesn't rule out the `traditional' Lamarckian aspects in the evolution
of science).

However, there's more than simple intergenerational modification of the
memes due to the effect of their phemotypic expression. This modifications
could be regarded as "mutations", which will later be subject of
selection, but there is an important difference. This modifications have
a DIRECTION, they are not random. This direction should be regarded as
an statistical term, since some people can modify the memes they receive
in ways that reduce their ability to reproduce, but it is my belief that,
in average, the modified memes will be `better'. This requires some

When Watt modified the idea of steam engine by adding the rotating control
valve, the performance of the engines was so much better that the new
generations of engineers adopted the idea without hesitation. In this
case, the modification of the meme produced an improvement of its usefulness.
Then, its reproductive value increased, since people like better ideas
better. However, it is conceivable that someone at the same time created
a better control mechanism, using sophisticated combinations of very
precise devices. This development, even being more useful, could in fact
have a smaller reproductive value, since the new generations of engineers
would be reluctant to learn a very complicated technology that was ahead
of their time. The moral is that the reproductive value of a meme is not
necessarily commensurate with its usefulness, and this limits the effect
of Lamarckian evolution: when people modify memes, usually they are not
trying to make them fast replicators, but more useful ideas. I believe
that this cases are rare.

Nevertheless, there are cases when people modify memes with the goal of
making them better replicators. Consider the example of a preacher,
trying to modify some gospel to make it more effective in converting
people. This preacher can notice that adding the story of the doubting
Thomas to his account of the life and afterlife of Jesus makes people
believe more readily, so he adopts it permanently. This way many people
will receive an improved gospel, which has a better reproductive value.
The biological equivalent to this example could be a male animal that
discovers in the middle of his life that a modified version of the
courtship gets him more females and therefore more offspring, AND his
*new* offspring somehow receive this modified behavior. This example of
Lamarckism in biology is ridiculous, but the memetic counterpart is
perfectly conceivable.

Anyway, as I said, this is just my belief right now. I think that this
dilemma is susceptible of being studied using experimentation, and not
just rhethoric and dubious examples.

Finally, I think that the Lamarckian aspect of memetics is not a defect.
It is just another characteristic that sets apart memetics from genetics,
and that makes memetics worthy of study by its own merit. Even if the
origin of memetics is the metaphore with genetic reproduction and evolution,
it seems misleading to try to stretch this metaphore beyond its natural
limits, (like trying to find the memetic counterpart to the mitochondrias or
other biological objects). On one side, it is already clear that there
are big differences between biological and memetic processes. On the other
side, if all of memetics could be reduced to the metaphore with genetics,
then what is left to do?


Omar De la Cruz C.
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