Re: what's a meme

Bill Benzon (
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 22:06:12 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 22:06:12 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Re: what's a meme

Chris Cleirigh wrote:

>Bill Benzon wrote:
>>This is where I got the strange idea that it's the physical stuff
>>out in the environment which is the memes (and went on to
>>speculate that the mental things in the brain are the
>>components and processes of cultural phenotypes).
>>The orthodox memetic position of course, is the reverse.
>Does this view stand up when applied to language?
>Ink patterns on paper are memes, and their cultural phenotypes
>are "the mental things in the brain"?

Yes, that's the direction I'm going. Note, however, that writing is a
rather recent development in human history. My position forces me to start
with sound waves in the air as memetic stuff. As for phenotypes, I'm
inclined to think along the lines that one language is one phenotype.

>How does language emerge on this model...
>phenotype first, for example?

I don't get the point of the question. Such thoughts as I have on the
matter are at the end of a paper Dave Hays & I wrote on the "Principles and
Development of Natural Intelligence"
( But those
remarks were made some time ago, before I was thinking about memes & such.

>Given that the meaning of the morpheme 'pheno-' traditionally
>is associated with 'appearance', and given that
>"the mental things in the brain" are not observable as
>cultural units, you are proposing a radical redefinition.

Well, of course, I don't use "phenotype" as my technical term. I've
adopted the plain-jane "interactor" as the term I like. But I'm not deeply
wedded to that usage.

In any event, what concerns me is the position of the phenotype in the
causal dynamics of an evolutionary system. It's the phenotype which gets
selected. I think the selecting is done in a community of communicating
human brains (ugh! what an ugly way of putting it). And, with a bit of work
(see I can think of an
evolutionary environment existing in that community of interacting brains.

As far as I can tell, orthodox memetics seems to think that all significant
action is in the brain. But that action is conceptualized as replication,
not selection. And the issue of cultural environment and selection aren't
given much attention.

If orthodox memetics had some solid results and robust models I'd be a bit
more worried about thinking in such heterodox terms. But its all rather
hazy. So I figure it can't hurt to stirr the pot.

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

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