What's in a Meme?

John Wilkins (wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU)
Fri, 13 Jun 1997 13:31:17 +1000

Date: Fri, 13 Jun 1997 13:31:17 +1000
From: John Wilkins <wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU>
Subject: What's in a Meme?
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk

I'm new to this list and so I'm perhaps reprising what has been said
before or in books I haven't been able to get ahold of (like Gary
Cziko's or Richard Brodie's texts) being in the sticks, but bear with

William Benson's discussion of music and memes is particularly to the
point, as are the comments by Tim Perper and Alex Brown. While we don't
want to have this happen, in Benson's words:

>It's easy to take the terms and concepts in the biological theory of
>evolution and coin words for cultural analogues. But that doesn't give
>a theory of cultural evolution. All that gets you is a bunch of
>in search of a theory.

there is still a theory to be had. The reasons for the introduction of
the term 'meme' by Dawkins, and the history of the selective metaphor
all the way back at least to Dewey, give us, in my opinion, a way out of
the problem.

When Williams in 1966 introduced the term 'evolutionary gene' that
Dawkins picked up on in TSG he was making a point about the transmission
of selectively active traits - that is (in the Hull-Dawkins terminology)
the interactive properties that play a part in the selection process in
evolution because they replicate. Dawkins's (and later Williams's and
even Eldredge's) transfer of this notion into culture was not founded on
a dismissal of the molecular genetical notion of gene, and meme does not
imply that there is some level of semantic or behavioural entity at
which selection acts any more than Williams was implying that there is a
canonical level at which selection acts in biology.

In recent years a number of card-carrying neo-Darwinians like Williams,
Maynard Smith and Hull have argued (or admitted, depending on how you
see the dialectic proceeding) that there is a shifting level in the
biological hierarchy at which selection acts - it is that level at which
there is replication. It might be cytological (as in the so-called
Lamarckian inheritance in some Paramecium strains), or it might be
organismic (as in clonal organisms) or it might even be at a colony or
population level, just so long as that level of group entity (and even
DNA is a group of entities) there is a greater or lesser degree of
fidelity of replication, and only as far as that degree of fidelity.

Hence, species selection has generally been rejected in favour of
species sorting. All selection processes are sorting processes, but not
all sorting processes are selection processes. Selection at the level of
species and higher taxa will depend on whether you count differential
speciation and survival rates as replication in some meaningful sense.

So much for the philosophy and epistemology of selection. How this helps
us with memes is that being a meme is an ex post facto property, like
being World War I - it is defined in terms of its transmission
behaviour. Any cultural practice or semantic structure that in
transmitted intact at a rate that exceeds its endogenous tendency to
dissipate, which stays ahead of its entropy, so to speak, is a meme.
It's not a brain structure, its not a Platonic idea, it is information
which is persistant and distributed; that is, which is subject to

How does this help us? Well, take the opening bars of Beethoven's Sixth
(?) Symphony - the famous 'dah-dah-dah DAH'. Even those of us who have a
beggar's knowledge of classical music know it. It's been replicated in
advertisements, musical jokes, cartoons, and of course in brains. If
_it_ isn't a meme, then what is? However, the full symphony is also a
meme in the sense that it is transmitted entire to generations of
musical afficionados and performers. Relative to the entire symphony,
the opening bars are like a gene sequence that escaped through phage
transport (and advertisers could be seen to be viral infections in a
cynical mood) to be inserted into other genomes.

However, there is the other side of the coin to an evolutionary gene -
the interaction/ecological side. Hull once wrote a paper called
"Genealogical actors in ecological roles" (Biol & Phil 2:168-184, 1987,
reprinted in his _Metaphysics of Evolution_ SUNY Press 1989), which
captures it nicely. The interplay between informational transmits and
the acquisition and use of resources in a dissipative structure is what
is required for evolution to occur. If a meme ceases to acquire
ecological resources, then it ceases to be an effective meme. In clearer
words, it must be practised, exhibited in behaviour and take up mental
and social time. It must be expressed. If the symphony is neither
listened to nor performed, then no matter how much sheet music exists,
it ceases to act as a meme.

Memeticity is a functional state, just like geneticity. Junk DNA is
genetically important only because it resides in a structure which may
one day re-express it, but if you excised all the junk DNA from a
genome, the genes would still be there (although that species might have
a short evolutionary history without that redundant information to draw
on in altered ecologies).

We are often misled by the metaphor of Dawkins's 'vehicles' - that
organisms merely carry the agency of DNA. But without the means of
expressing and applying that information, structure is not information.

Some corollaries:

1. lower fidelity will reduce the memetic function of cultural
information. We can identify something as a meme only if it gets
strongly transmitted and the interactive properties of the resultant and
so-constituted entities are strongly correlated with replicative
success. Social investigation will therefore need to take into account
the differential replicative success of memes in a culture.

2. scale is important. For example, an epidemiological metaphor for
memes must be recognised as itself an evolutionary model, but at high
rates and small scales (the formulae are isomporphic, and can be recast
in the classic equations of population genetics). If there is an analogy
for memetic competition within a single brain, it lies in the clonal
theory of immunity of Burnet and Lerderberg, and should be treated at
that scale.

3. the fitness of a meme must be analysed in the same terms as the
fitness of a gene - as a propensity (for underlying causal reasons that
are not explained by the meme model) to replicate at a certain rate in
certain circumstances.

4. memes are structures, and may reside within complex memetic
structures themselves. The formal properties of genes, with their
regulator genes, inhibitor genes, etc, and the cytological machinery
that expresses these genes differently at different stages of a cell
lineage introduces enormous degrees of freedom or possible states. Prima
facie and intuitively, memes must be orders of magnitude more complex.

and finally

5. memetically constituted interactors are not identical with the
biological or physical entities that carry them. Albert Einstein as an
organism had certain properties that are not the properties of Albert
Einstein the physicist, and vice versa. We too often confuse the
instantiation of memetic traits with the traits themselves. I use the
term 'professional profile' to denote a scientific stance, and we should
remember that a scientist (qua organism) can instantiate many different
memes over the course of a career. Even the term 'career' represents a
memetic notion. If Einstein gardened, then that is a memetic notion
quite distinct from his physics, and both are distinct from his heart
condition, which is a genetically and environmentally constituted state.
The famous essay "My station and its duties" by FH Bradley (_Ethical
Studies_ 1876) is worth reading in this regard.

Well, enough of a rant from a newcomer. I hope I haven't stated the
obvious or been too bombastic.
John Wilkins from home
Not at all. I delight in all manifestations of the terpsichorean Muse.

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)
see: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit