re.Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)

Brown, Alex (
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 16:28:31 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'Memetics list'" <>
Subject: re.Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)
Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 16:28:31 +0800

Date: 13th June 1997

"....when meme's learnt to tap a whole host of new resources: fish,
Northern European Forests, and Latin American gold seem to be the big

As I understand it, memes do not go panning for gold in Latin America or
anywhere else. Nor do they fish or chop down trees in Europe. They do
not wear hats or get their hands dirty. Human beings do that. The
problem here is, as usual the definition of what a meme is and the
unfortunate fact that the definition can seemingly be stretched to suit
any scale or circumstance imaginable. There have to be limits to this
concept otherwise its application to the issue of cultural evolution
will go round in circles for ever.

culturally-transmitted information. It is the basic unit of cultural
transmission. It cannot be both the individual
song/book/building/political organization/scientific theory AND the
repertoire of existing or possible songs/books, etc. etc. It cannot
refer to both the prayer and the religion. It cannot be both the message
and the code, the example and the paradigm. It cannot be both the
organism and the species. The problem in the usage of the term 'meme' is
that it is applied to (interchangable with) several different levels of
analysis at the same time leading to all sorts of confusions in the
search for the mechanisms of cultural evolution. I offer the following
for discussion:

1. If we restrict its usage to the information residing in the
individual cultural work whether as concrete product or distinct and
socially-constructed pattern of behaviour we can clarify its origins,
mode of transmission and its function. In this proposed definition the
meme is the particular configuration of information which characterises
(in-forms) matter at a PARTICULAR time and place. (It is the 'energy' in
the matter-energy definition of entities).

2. In communication/semantic terms: the meme is a message which by
itself is quite meaningless. It is only meaningful in terms of the code
from which its elements and syntax are drawn. That code (paradigm/style
or genre) acts as a repertoire from which individual messages (memes)
can be assembled for particular situations. The language analogy is
obvious and in my view entirely relevant. The code is a collective
function made up of the most probable/familiar and regular sets of
elements which are used in a particular domain.

3. The meme has an internal structure or more precisely a geneology.
It does not arise by itself and skip from mind to mind. Nor is it a
self-propelling device. It is created through a combination of other
memetic elements in order to represent a particular environmental
circumstance. In other words it has a distict function for a particular
place in time. Memes do not therefore replicate themselves, nor are they
'replicated' since no two messages/memes are ever the same since no two
environments or contexts are the same.

4. They are specifically designed to fit a particular environmental
niche. The most probable elements (information) are selected and
customized for a unique circumstance.That is to characterise a cultural
product or mode of behaviour for a particular time and place. Memes are
recombinations of the most probable characteristics of other memes
within the same domain (science, art, music, social organization, etc.).
These memes (those already produced) in turn COLLECTIVELY become the
source material (the repertoire, the memory and the code) for future
acts of representation. In the necessary modification (adaptation) of
memetic elements drawn from the repertoire to represent circumstances
there is a gradual 'memetic shift' in the character of the repertoire of
memes available. The system has a history and one can note the changes
taking place pover time.

5. In this sense, the meme should be seen as a bit, fragment or part of
a whole information complex or code. (It is not a coincidence that terms
like 'demes' (colonies or branches of a whole species), morphemes (units
of myth or kinship) represent only PARTS of a whole system. So too, I
suggest with 'memes'. They are single nuggets of information which only
have meaning when seen as part of a hierarchially-structured system.

If in this way we clearly differentiate the unit of analysis into the
logical levels of individual and group, part and whole and the
particular and the general and incorporate the selective function, the
semantic/representative function and the particularity of environments,
then, in my view we have the possibility of utilising the concept 'meme'
in a more rigorous manner. At the same time we can lock (and enrich) the
whole memetic concept into the already well developed fields of
communication, evolution and and cultural analysis.

Memes don't wear hats.


Alex Brown

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)