Re: What's in a Meme?

Bill Benzon (
Sat, 14 Jun 1997 08:23:44 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 14 Jun 1997 08:23:44 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Re: What's in a Meme?

John Wilkins says:

>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.
John -- would you clarify that last sentence?

>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.

This is interesting. I think it begs a question or two, but ... Off the
top of my head it reminds me a remark TS Eliot made in his essay on
"Tradition and the Individual Talent." The point he made is that the
present activity of poets modifies the past. What he had in mind is that,
for example if the current generation of poets becomes interested in John
Donne (as Eliot's generation was, I believe), then Donne's work becomes
active in the culture in a way it hadn't been for previous generations.
Donne is no longer a dead poet. His memes live on, as it were.

Thinking along these lines leads me to the formulation that culture is
whatever we make of whatever interests us no matter how it got there or how
we found it.

>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).

I assume that here you are talking about memes considered as viruses. The
rate/scale issue is interesting and is, of course, closely related to
communication technology. In the present world a fad can circle the globe
within months. The rate is fast and the scale is large. But there is also
staying power, which is a different & equally important matter. This is a
matter of fitness, your next point.

>5. memetically constituted interactors are not identical with the
>biological or physical entities that carry them.

This, of course, is where I part company with standard memetics. It's not
that I don't understand that, for example, the ink splotches on the page
which constitute writing are not ideas, but only a code in which people
express & transmit ideas. I understand that quite well. And, given that
understanding, I still want to explore the consquences of regarding those
mute spotches as memes.

One consequence is that we can count the splotches. It may well be that
what we're really interested in is the ideas, but it's difficult to count
the ideas. Counting the splotches is a bit easier.

Beyond this, consider an old philosopher's story (that is, an old story
told by philosophers) which is about meaning and intention: You arrive on
an island you know has never been inhabited by humans. You see a prayer
(or a set of equations, or a piece of music, whatever) inscribed in the
sand on the beach. Does it mean anything?

Since, in the terms of the story, it wasn't put there by humans (or
extraterrestials or some divinity) it has to be considered some highly
improbable freak of nature. Still, we can read it just as though someone
put it there.

More and more I think that story is a good metaphor for how human
communities inhabit the world. Given our brains with infinite computing
power, we go about seeking patterns/meaning wherever we can. When we find
a pattern we like -- for whatever reason -- we look for more and start
creating them. We may tell ourselves that the patterns we find were put
there by god, or are laws of nature, but deep down, they are just patterns
which resonate with our nervous system. They make for good stories and
swapping good stories is lots of fun.

To borrow a notion from Nick Rose, culture is mostly spandrels. That every
once in awhile those spandrels have some survival value is mostly a
side-effect of the process that created them. It's a fortunate
side-effect, but it's not the main event. If you want to understand
culture, you have to be interested in spandrels.

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

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