Re: When is a meme not a meme?

Dr I Price (
Sun, 8 Jun 1997 14:54:31 -0400

Date: Sun, 8 Jun 1997 14:54:31 -0400
From: Dr I Price <>
Subject: Re: When is a meme not a meme?
To: "" <>

Timothy/Martha ask, picking up on the end of a post of mine

>>They replicate through phemotypes which include
>language, rituals, and various cultural artefacts. Most books are probab=
>better thought of as phemotype than memotype.

How does such a view differ from Platonic idealism? I asked this before,=

to deafening silence as an answer, but sooner or later the issue must be
addressed: what do you mean when you, or any memeticist, says that a mem=
"replicates" and that it "induces" structures of thought, perception, and=


My understanding of Platonic idealism is limited to the synopsis T/M
provided in an earlier post. May be it does not differ what, but so? If t=
meme hypothesis 'explains' Platonic idealism [and the various people who
have made the same point since], as well as school of evolutionary
economics [see for example Hodgson 1993], the role of language in craftin=
meaning in social organisations and, the numerous observations of the rol=
of mental models in shaping individual and organisational learning [dare =
say see my papers for references] then, even if it is Platonic idealism =
what?. You could equally say Mendelian genetics was simply updated
practical pig breeding.

T/M go on to say [and yes I have not yet addressed their second question]=

>In my own view, memes are simply packages of information that are
circulated in a society. Knowing a piece of information -- a meme -- doe=
nothing to you. Thus: "To make fried potatoes, take boiled potatoes,
slice them, and fry them until yellow-brown." Has any reader leapt up,
driven like a robot, to perform these instructions? In what precise sens=
is it alleged that "memes" cause or induce behavior? Until that issue ha=
been addressed, memetics is silliness -- pure verbalism claiming to be
significant understanding.>

Given the original definition of the proposed 'meme' as "literally
parasitising a brain turning it into a vehicle for the meme's replication=
it seems to me presumptous to re define a meme thus. The fried potatoe
recipe, for the reason given, would probably not qualify as a meme [sensu=

Dawkins]. Those who seek to redefine the meme as simply a package of
informationconfuse the issue. Memetics may or may not be silliness. If yo=
wish a separate dialog based on a different definition of the meme it mig=
be easier if you used a different term.

Quite what "replicates" or * "induces" structures of thought, perception,=

behavior* mean, I confess to not knowing. There is a vast set of
neouroscience observation there that, so far as I know, is not yet
understood. The work of Maturana and Varela on autopoietic systems seems =
me to be a start, as do Neurolinguistic Programming and various school's =
counselling/ therapy/ change management. Dennet also strikes me as
reasonably convincing on the subject and the Complex Adaptive Systems fol=
are adding to our understanding. Murray Gell-Manns 'The Quark and the
Jaguar' would for me be a better book if he had acknowledged schemata as
memes. =

There are people gathering on this list - and its cross disciplinary appe=
is one of its main attractions - who know a lot more about neuorscience
than I do. I can only answer your questions with a metaphor, one which
stikes me as a logical hypothesis of how memes might work, and yes I know=

it does not have the neurobiological detail that is needed. =

A geological metaphor provides an image of the physiology and psychology =
perception. Imagine a landscape, eroded over time to provide streams,
rivulets, and rivers interspersed between higher plateaux. It provides a
simple example of a self-organising, locked-in, system. If one can imagin=
the virgin landscape as being relatively flat, perhaps gently undulating,=

then as rain falls so it tends to find the paths of least resistance - th=
soft rocks and minor depressions of the undulating territory. Over time
accumulations of rainfall carve out stream and river beds and settle into=

pools and lakes. Any new rainfall will no longer find its own way but wil=
rather take, and re-inforce, the already sculpted way. Though the falling=

rain may be evenly distributed across the landscape, in its collection an=
flow across the land it will tend towards a predetermined route, one take=
by previous rainfalls.

Just as the rainfall follows established routes so perception follows
established ways of =91seeing=92. Technically, even if the light sources =
perturb the back of the retina are identical, what will be noticed from a=
that could be seen will depend on the perceptual lens through which we vi=
the world. The optimist=92s half-full glass is the pessimists half-empty =
What is there is not independent of the viewer, as experts in quantum
physics will acknowledge. What is there is what we have been =91trained=92=
conditioned or have learnt] to see. Our training in terms of our maps and=

our lenses means that we will not see certain other things which do not f=
with the map or lens we carry. We may discard, indeed we can be blind to,=

anomalies that do not fit. The self-organised pattern which we call our
thinking grants a particular perceptual blindness and rigidity to our
perceptions of the world - the very foundation of such things as
stereotypes and prejudices - common to all human experience and found, fo=
example in the way one department in a company may view another. =

What holds for light waves perturbing the retina hold equally for acousti=
perturbances of the eardrum. Exploring the analogy further we could say
that an idea, a single thought, an utterance, a meme in fact, is like the=

single raindrop. It falls with others upon a pre-formed perceptual
landscape. Isolated thoughts gather together in a string - a pattern of
co-existing memes - which we might compare to a few drops congregating
together in a splash of water. With sufficient mass the splash of water
starts to flow into streams and rivers which are, if we like. the
connectors between the raindrops and the pools and lakes, if not the
oceans, of our thoughts. The pools and lakes we may view as concept pools=

and theory lakes. Thus a self organising system is inherited and develope=
in which the flow of perception takes a certain course, it follows a
certain pattern, a largely given paradigm. =

Patterns in the brain influence =91seeing=92 [or more accurately perceivi=
Patterns, and seeing influence behaviour so behaviour follows certain
patterns. It may be argued that we see the world less as it is and more a=
we are and we act perfectly consistent with how we see the world. There i=
a certain alignment with our thinking, our perceptions and our actions in=

the world. Thinking, seeing, and behaving tend to follow pre-existing
patterns . The connections between thinking, seeing, acting, if not our
very being, can be represented schematically: =

Well established patterns become social and cultural norms and preserve,
replicate, themselves through their influence on people=92s ongoing
perception of the world. The cultural tradition is passed on by the
language and perceptual habits acquired by succeeding generations and by
that which we inherit through the cultural artefacts of previous
generations, for example their temples, books, theories, myths and legend=
and through our own processes of informal and formal education. These may=

take the form of individual units of cultural transmission - =91memes=92 =
- or
the broader patterns of thinking which Kuhn called paradigms. =

What this amounts to is the assertion that our perceptions of the world
provide for our very relatedness to the world before us - both in terms o=
what is seen or noticed and the meaning or interpretation we grant to wha=
is noticed. Perception grants what may be termed our Being-in-the-world =

[An expression first coined by Heidegger in the term =91Dasein=92]. If we=
interrupt the pattern of thinking, eschew our memetic and paradigmatic
inheritance so as to think and see newly then behaviours may naturally
follow. To achieve such a difference in thinking and seeing we may need t=
create a different language.


If Price
Active Personal Learning, Guildford UK

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