Re: What does the replicating?

Omar de la Cruz (
Sun, 08 Jun 1997 09:47:59 -0400

Message-Id: <>
Subject: Re: What does the replicating?
Date: Sun, 08 Jun 1997 09:47:59 -0400
From: Omar de la Cruz <>

Dr. Randall Groves wrote:

> ... it seems that there is a key disanalogy between the replication of
>memes and the replication of genes. Genes have their own replication
> mechanism while Memes do not. Memes depend upon something
>external, minds (most of the time), to replicate them, while genes'
>replication occurs internally.

I don't think there is such a difference, since neither genes nor memes can
replicate by themselves. If we imagine a DNA molecule alone in the
intergalactic vacuum, there's no way it can replicate, since it needs
basically two things: new material (nucleotides and other basic molecules)
and energy (I am not sure about the last one, since I have no knowledge
worth of the name in biochemistry, but I would be surprised if it is not
true; if I am wrong, please tell me!). Now, that same molecule in the
primeval soup can find both materials and energy (either in thermal or
chemical form), to replicate. One way to view this is to say that the
DNA molecule replicated itself, and other is to say that the environment,
including possible primitive enzymes, replicated the molecule. This
happens even more easily in the cellular plasma, and some people consider
that the *cell* makes copies of the DNA (in fact this is the traditional
view). However, the view of the DNA molecules as "self-replicating"
agents has become popular among biologist after the work of many scientists,
including Fisher, Williams and Dawkins (I apologize for the many important
names I'm leaving out!), since it allows a nice formulation of the theory
of evolution, as described in Dawkins' books "The Selfish Gene", "The
Extended Phenotype" and others. This doesn't mean that the traditional view
(or a revised version) is wrong, just that there are some problems in
evolution that can be more easily handled using the replicator view.

In a similar way, when a human being communicates an "idea" (allow me to
use this imprecise term for a moment) to another human being, we can see
that process in two ways: the way I just used, namely, the *person* is
communicating the idea, or alternatively, that the idea is replicating itself.
To make more clear the analogy, the idea is replicating using "materials"
(the mind or the brain of the second person) and energy, the energy used in
the communication by the two persons and any medium they may have used.
Clearly, ideas cannot "replicate" in a vacuum, that is, in the absence
of people, but they can do so when in the "mental soup", a collective of
minds that can communicate with each other.

These "self-replicating ideas" are called "memes". Although there is no
agreement in the precise definition of meme, there is an underlying
core notion that most people in this list agree upon--I hope!

Of course, there are big differences between replication of DNA molecules
and replication of memes, some of which are mentioned in the thread
"Lamackism in Memetics". But the analogy between both processes never
pretended to be more than that: an analogy, not an identity.

>The reason I see this as problematic for memetics, as applied to
>history, for example, is that when we then talk about the greater or
>lesser influence of some cultural ideas over others, the argument
>must focus on the minds influenced by the meme rather than some
>internal mechanism in the meme. In other words, we are back to
>traditional questions of influence where we discuss the historical
>background and everything else we deal with in such arguments. The
>role of memetics doesn't seem to loom very large.

*That* is now the point. Is that analogy useful at all? Are there
any phenomena in cultural evolution that can be better understood using
memes than without them? It is my belief that yes, there are *at least*
a few cultural phenomena that can be explained better using memes, and that
probably a big part of the evolution of culture can be reworked under this
view producing insights that traditional analyses haven't produced
(that's the reason I am in this mail list, and I imagine that most of
the members share similar expectations, otherwise why would they be here?)
However, this potential has yet to be proved. If Memetics proves to be
useful to explain a few limited cultural phenomena, like urban legends,
and nothing more, it will probably be forgotten soon, and rightly so.

Let me argue now why I think that memes give useful new insights in at
least a few cases. For that, I will use an example already classical in
memetics, which is exactly the same example Dr. Groves uses:

>Take, for example, the idea of an afterlife. When we discuss its
>appeal, we do not look for an internal mechanism; we look at more
>mundane interests, like Freudian "wish-fulfillment." It is easy to
>see why people would want an afterlife. Death is a bitch. It isn't
>clear how moving to memetic explanation would be any more

The traditional analysis gives us that kind of answers (which are very
useful), and they explain why people are likely to believe in the idea
of afterlife, once it is communicated to them. But it doesn't explain,
at least not to my satisfaction, why this idea is communicated to them
in the first place. Let's then "look for an internal mechanism" in
the idea of afterlife.

The picture about replication offered above is far from completely
explaining evolution. One important factor is how the replicator has
influence in the number of copies produced by unit of time; the basic
point is that a replicator that produces more copies will become more
widespread than the rest. Thus, we can look at the meme "there is an
afterlife". By itself, it has no tendency to replicate, but in
combination with other ideas it can --and has-- become a very effective
replicator. Let me illustrate this with an imaginary story.

Imagine two primitive philosophers meditating about death. At the end
both of them come to the conclusion that this short lapse on Earth cannot
be all, by reasons like the ones mentioned by Dr Groves above. But the
first philosopher concluded that the way to have a nice afterlife is
to pray to some hidden secret totem, without company, and not tell
*anybody* about it. The second philosopher, on the other hand, decided
that the best strategy to have a good afterlife is to pray to a different
totem, very publicly and noisily, and to spend the rest of his time
spreading the word about his particular belief to as many people as
possible. It is easy to see that the first philosopher's "religion"
will die with him, while the second "religion" will spread: the second
philosopher's teachings will fall in fertile ground, since people have
a tendency to believe in the afterlife after they have been taught about
it. Both religions would fill the needs of any particular individual,
but it is the second one that spreads *because of its internal structure*.

This parable suggests that widespread religions must have an internal
structure that stimulates its memetic replication, not just the fulfillment
of the metaphysical needs of the believers. And that not only
seems to be true, it explains many curious characteristics of different
religions, since Judaism to modern day quick spreading sects, for which
I haven't found explanation using the traditional non-memetic point of

Perhaps this particular point about religions has been discovered
before, without the use of the word meme. But the argument becomes
so clear when expressed in this language that it seems to promise that
many other things can be subject to a similar treatment. That's what
many people are trying to do right now.


Omar De la Cruz C.
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