Re: re.Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 22:57:05 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 22:57:05 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: re.Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)
In-Reply-To: <>

Aaron Lynch responding to Mario Vaneechoutte:

>Bill Benzon wrote:
>> >From Alex Brown
>> >The problem in the usage of the term 'meme' is
>> >that it is applied to (interchangable with) several different levels =
>> >analysis at the same time leading to all sorts of confusions in the
>> >search for the mechanisms of cultural evolution. I offer the followin=
>> >for discussion:
>> >
>> yes
>Yes, yes. I hate to say this, but Dawkins is to be blamed.

It would certainly have helped if Dawkins had published subsequent papers
that clarified the meaning of the term "meme." But he was quite active in
biology, and giving more attention to memetics might have required a care=
change for him. Unfortunately, we are now left with a profusion of
meanings. And if the word means whatever anyone wants it to mean, then it
means everything and nothing at all. It's the same problem you face by
letting the word "parameter" mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. It ma=
sound fancy and trendy, but ultimately vacuous.=20

But the Dawkinsian meaning of the word actually refers to a specific clas=
of phenomena. If someone believes that the Dawkinsian term identifies a
non-existent class of phenomena, then they should just say so and attempt
to retire the word instead of trying to re-define the word with
unrecognizably different or contrary meanings. Other classes of replicati=
and cultural phenomena might also deserve fashionable neologisms, but
scientific words need to be as precise and specific as possible.

Here, then, is a clarification of the Dawkinsian meaning that neither
Dawkins nor I could have published in a lay-readable book, but which is
precise enough for quantitative work:

MEME. Noun. A memory item, or portion of an organism=92s neurally-stored
information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer, who=
instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of
the same memory item in one or more other organisms=92 nervous systems.
("Sameness" of memory items is determined with respect to the
above-mentioned abstraction system of the observer.)

The scope of this definition is quite vast, and can include such things a=
learning that passes from an engineer to unacquainted other engineers by
way of artifacts at the electronics bench. The medium of communication is
not defined in the word "meme." Nor is the amount of time and effort need=
for re-transmission/reception. But not everything learned is a meme. And
artifacts such as books and old CBS radio waves 50 light-years away are n=
memes either, nor, by the strict definition, do they even contain memes.=20

Notice that the definition does not refer to the "size" of the memory ite=
a topic that Alex Brown alludes to with the phrase "level of analysis." =
paper at does discuss some of the
pros and cons of working with "large" versus "small" units, but ultimatel=
a size criterion should not be placed into the word's definition. The
concept of "size" is troublesome with beliefs and other information store=
in the brain: general methods of "size" measurement are not currently
available, and even if they were, they might register different "sizes" f=
"the same" belief in different brains. The most you can really say is tha=
a set of memes is, in general, a partially ordered set (as defined in set
theory). One system of partial ordering is based on the size of
conjunctions of memes (represented by the * operator below). Take the
following 3 memes, for instance:=20

Meme A: "Christ is Lord."

Meme B: "God is love."

Meme C: "Unbelievers are damned."

You have no basis for saying if A > B, A < C, etc.

You can say A*B > A, and A*B > B. But you cannot say A*B > C or A*B < B*C=

You can, however, say A*B*C > A*B, A*B*C > A*C, etc.

In other words, if the hypothetical faith only says "Christ is Lord," an=
"God is love," you cannot, for instance, say that it is "bigger" (has mor=
"size") than the faith that only says "Christ is Lord" and "Unbelievers a=
damned." Nor can you compare the "sizes" of these component beliefs.

Biologists are in a far better position for incorporating a "size" aspect
into the definition of the term "gene" than are cultural scientists with
regard to the term "meme."


--Aaron Lynch

How Belief Spreads Through Society
The New Science of Memes
Basic Books. Info and free sample:


--Aaron Lynch

How Belief Spreads Through Society
The New Science of Memes
Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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