Lamarckism in memetics (Rose and de la Cruz)

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Fri, 6 Jun 1997 11:45:42 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 6 Jun 1997 11:45:42 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Lamarckism in memetics (Rose and de la Cruz)

>Omar de la Cruz wrote:
>(just to pick up on one point you made)
>>Nevertheless, there are cases when people modify memes with the
>>goal of making them better replicators.
>This is very much like Durham's co-evolution line, where he
>suggests that people consciously select and manipulate memes.
>The idea that some 'agency' can pick or modify memes denies the
>central 'bottom up' simplicity of the original idea. People do
>NOT modify memes; memes modify people - otherwise why do you need
>evolution of culture to explain its complexity? Dennett goes
>into this in some detail.
>This may have been intended as short hand? If so I would plead
>with you not to use it without ensuring first that it can be
>converted back into 'bottom up' language - i.e. in terms of
>differential survival.
>Nick Rose

I think Nick Rose has described the basic issue of memetics very well. Do
people modify memes or do memes modify people?

Let's try a substitution game here. Let's replace the word "meme" with the
word "idea" not because they're synonyms, but because they're close enough
to help us see our way clear to refining the issue that Nick has raised.

Do people modify ideas, or do ideas modify people? Well, I'd say "both" --
and wouldn't you? The ideas of psychoanalysis or Marxism certainly
modified people, byt which I mean those ideas changed people's lives in
various ways. But then various thinkers have also modified psychoanalysis
and Marxism. Now, unless "memes" are *fundamentally* unchangeable, then
the same holds for memes. People modify them, and they modify people.

But we can't go *too* fast. Much of memetics has the flavor that some of
its adherents genuinely hold that memes are the prime movers and shakers of
things, and that in some sense memes are independent agencies whereas
people are but the carriers and vehicles for the memes. In this view, yes,
it *is* possible that memes modify people, but people do *not* modify

It is an old idea indeed. It is called "idealism" in philosophy, and its
founding proponent was Plato. *His* term was _ideaos_, sometimes
translated as Idea and sometimes as Ideal, both with capital letters. Such
_ideai_ (the Greek plural) are thought to exist in a non-material domain
and insert themselves (by mechanisms unknown to Plato, but that's not an
issue yet) into the affairs of material beings and things, that is, into
*this* world of creatures and life. From Plato, the concept has a 2400
year history.

But for Plato one of the essential features of the _ideai_ is that they are
unchanging. Their sojourn in the material world does NOT affect them (and
the famous metaphor in Plato is that we material beings are the shadows of
the _ideai_ cast onto matter). The metaphor means that the _ideai_ change
the appearance of what "exists" in the material world without themselves
being changed, just as an object casting a shadow is unchanged by doing so.

So memes and _ideai_ have much in common if we assume that memes modify
people, but people do not modify memes. And if Dawkins actually holds that
view, then he too is a Platonist.

Now, there's nothing wrong with being a Platonist. However, it is not the
only world view. The alternative, sometimes called "materialism" and
sometimes "realism," holds that no such critters as _ideai_ exist, but that
the primary substance of the universe is material reality (and hence the
names for this viewpoint). Ideas are *abstractions* of one kind or another
produced in the minds and brains of people by means of the material
activity of people's minds or brains. In this view, ideas have existence
ONLY insofar as they are brought into existence by metabolism (once again
in ways we do not understand, but again that is not the issue). It now
follows not only that people modify memes, but also that memes *exist* only
because people can create and modify them.

Nick said that the Platonic vision has a bottom-up simplicity. I think the
appearance of simplicity is a bit of an illusion, and I'll give only one
example -- but it's a classic. Let's talk about memes, and not _ideai_.
We have, by assumption, memes that do not change when they are "thought" by
people. However, they can alter or change people. How can this be? How
can something -- *anything* -- exist that has only effects but is not

The answer is NOT to say that "Such is the nature of the meme," because the
challenge is to show that an intrinsically unchangeable entity *can*
produce change. To produce change, the meme would have to *start* to
interact with its carrier once the carrier acquires it -- and is not that a
*change* in the state of the supposedly unchanging meme? If one tries to
elude this riddle by saying that the meme is in a constant state of
interaction, then what kind of thing can constantly interact but not be
affected thereby? Does it not have to radiate something essential to cause
changes in its host? And if it does radiate something -- which is *hardly*
a very clear concept in itself! -- then has not the meme changed? Exactly
*how* does an unchanging meme alter its host?

If the meme is unchanging, how does it know when or how to produce change?
It must have some kind of decision tree -- which implies that it can have
more than one state ("active --> change host" and "inactive --> do not
change host"). When and how does it "sense" that its host is not *already*
in the changed state?

By its very unchangeabilty, the meme seems to be impervious to all
influences -- and therefore can hardly *do* anything except sit there as an
unchanging lump of meme-stuff.

These questions all center on what can be called the "transitivity" of
effect: if you affect something, it affects you, if only by virtue of your
perception that it *can* be interacted with. And, if so, then an
unchanging meme that affects things is a contradiction in terms and cannot

There are a variety of answers to these questions, but if one tries to deal
with them seriously, one finds oneself in a minefield of complications. So
it isn't clear that meme concept is simple when viewed "bottom-up."

By contrast, it seems to me that the "materialist" or "realist" position
has far fewer problems. In this view, the meme is merely a package of
information of some kind. It is read, translated, and acted upon (or not)
by the organism. After being read and translated, what remains "unchanged"
or "invariant" about the meme is its information content. Yet this
solution is bought at the cost of depriving the meme of its prime mover
status and of reducing it from being an unchanging Platonic _ideaos_ to
being nothing other than information of one kind or sort. (And this view
holds open the possiblity that the memetic information itself be modified
by feedback -- e.g., as Omar points out, for the purpose of making the
memes easier to replicate.)

Again, I want to stress that Nick has put his finger on the central
conundrum of memetics. And it is not a simple conundrum at all, this
choice between Platonism and non-Platonism.

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