Re: Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 12:34:03 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 12:34:03 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)

>>From Alex
>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.

TP: I don't mind personification when that is clearly what one is doing,
but there is a tendency in memetics -- which I've been calling "Platonist"
or "realist" -- that sees the memes as puppet masters of human actions.
Then one is no longer personifying but making extreme claims for the memes,
so extreme that the concept deserves the sort of critique Alex is
providing. The alternative, which I hold loudly and often, is that memes
are complex, organized packages of information that circulate in societies,
and that human beings are the active agents in that process. I am
therefore in full agreement with Alex' comments here and below.


>From my point of view the meme describes a discrete package of
>culturally-transmitted information. It is the basic unit of cultural

TP: Alex and I are using the same terminology for the same thing. Once
again I agree.


AB>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.

TP: I completely agree.


AB> 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).

TP: Yes.

>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.

TP: Yes. Your use of the word "repertoire" is particularly interesting.
Can you expand on that?

>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.

TP: Once again, yes.

>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

TP: Alex, did you see my posting on meme recombination where I was talking
about Claude Levi-Strauss and "crossing-over"? I had concocted the word
"memosome" as a half-joking memetic parallel to chromosome, where a
memosome is a collectivity of memes capable of recombining with other
"homologous" memosomes. I admit I rather hope you developed the preceding
paragraph *without* reference to my posting, because then we have converged
on virtually identical formulations.

AB, continued>
> 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.

TP: Yes again. The word "probable" in the first line is extremely
interesting, because in genetics the distance between loci is measured by
the probability of exchange between them. This is not an accident of
terminology nor a merely glib analogy -- something quite real is at work
here that has something to do with how information *can* be organized into


>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.

TP: Not necessarily hierarchical, I think. "Structured" might be
sufficient. Although I may be misreading Alex's intention behind the word
"hierarchical," the following occurred to me.

One would have trouble setting the memes of a piece of music or art into a
*hierarchical* arrangement, if, by that, we mean that _this_ theme in a
piece of music, say, is more important than _that_ theme. The Western
musical form of the "theme and variations" might seem to prove me wrong,
because the initial "theme" in a sense rules the form of its variations.
If so (I say for the sake of argument) then the "theme and variations" form
in music is essentially *transgressive* -- the variations acting
dialectically to challenge the predominance of the theme. However, to be
honest, I think that interpretation is a *bit* forced, so I want to return
to a more playful, and less hierarchical, view of the "theme and
variations" form. Maybe Bill Benzon can comment?

At any event, I think the relationship of the parts of the meaning-giving
system can be complex, and may turn out to be one of the crucial issues.

>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.

TP: Need I say that I agree?


>Memes don't wear hats.
>Alex Brown

Thanks much, Alex!!

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