Re: What's in a Meme?

John Wilkins (wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU)
Mon, 16 Jun 1997 13:24:56 +1100

Date: Mon, 16 Jun 1997 13:24:56 +1100
From: John Wilkins <wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: What's in a Meme?

| From: (Bill Benzon)
| Date: Sat, 14 Jun 1997 08:23:44 -0500
| 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
| >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?

OK - it's an important point. I understand that a selection process
requires good fidelity in replication. Mere splitting of an entity into two
or more is not replication, unless there is some close similarity of the
resulting entities. Hence, the mitotic division of a protist *is*
replication even if there is a mutational transcription error, because the
overal structural, functional and genetic similarity is high. If a protist
split into two entirely dissimilar organisms, it might be an interesting
phenomenon, but not replication, and that lineage could not therefore
undergo selection.

When cladogenesis occurs, you end up with two species. But they do not, in
what logicians call their differentiae, resemble each other; that is, in
the relevant respects, they have not replicated but instead they have
differentiated. [Species also reticulate - join - as well as differentiate,
which raises lots of fun problems.]

At higher taxa, though, Raup and others have argued that there are
properties of certain lineages that make them less likely to go extinct
relative to other closely similar lineages. So, there *are* [or may be]
similar 'traits' that can function in the process of sorting, and these are
'hereditable' in some sense. Is this selection? I think it might be
acceptable to say that it represents the extreme tail of a selection curve,
but at this stage it is largely a semantic debate over what terms mean.
Raup and Eldredge agree now on the term "species sorting", taking up the
point that it is a sorting process, but not necessarily that subset of
sorting processes we call selection processes.

| >So much for the philosophy and epistemology of selection. How this
| >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
| for example if the current generation of poets becomes interested in
| 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
| 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.

Yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about. When Dawkins changed from a
selective evolutionary metaphor (which I think is an exact analogy, but
that's a whole nother issue) to an infection metaphor, I got worried that
he was trying to revise or abandon the whole memetic notion; until I
chanced on a comment by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman that the equations of
classical Fisherian selection theory are formally equivalent to those of
epidemiology. A bit of reflection shows that they must be - pathogens are
living or quasiliving entities, and subject to whatever evolutionary
processes exist.
| The
| rate/scale issue is interesting and is, of course, closely related to
| communication technology. In the present world a fad can circle the
| within months. The rate is fast and the scale is large. But there is
| staying power, which is a different & equally important matter. This is
| 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
| 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
| understanding, I still want to explore the consquences of regarding
| 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
| 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
| 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?

I think you miss my point a bit. I'm not talking about marks on paper or
electronic bits; I think they are not memes, but only because I think memes
must be expressed in order to be memes. They must *constitute* interactors
as well as *be* replicators.

What I'm saying is that the biological individual denoted by the name John
Wilkins is not identical with the memetic individual denoted by the (say)
qualification MA that is an attribute of John Wilkins, or the title "head
of department", or the adjectival title "memeticist", etc, or the
descriptor, "science-fiction fan", and so forth. I can lose interest in SF,
change my mind about memes, be stripped of my MA because I plagiarised,
lose my job and even change my name or have it changed for me; all without
changing a single biological attribute. Likewise I can lose my sight, my
legs, my health or perhaps even my mind without one of those memetically
constituted attributes changing.

A memetic individual is the smallest collection of significant cultural
structures that can interact in a restricted sociocultural domain. As an
example, take 'scientist', or better, 'molecular biologist'. One becomes a
molecular biologist through a process of education and hands-on training.
The likelihood is that this in no way causes hereditable biological
changes. One can simultaneously be also an accomplished violinist, which is
another memetic individual - *in the same organism*.

Much confusion has resulted, IMO, from conflating the fact that memes
*must* in some way be instantiated as psychoneural structures with the
notion of memes as socioculturally transmitted 'information packets, as Tim
Perper called them. It's exactly like confusing bits with electron flows in
copper wires or photon flows in optic fibre. I saw a very nice BBC show on
office technology that created a manual fax using semaphores and people
walking through grass. It was still functionally a fax, without a single
electronic component.

What is basic to a notion of a meme is the idea of information that is
socially significant. That's a relational, functional, notion that can't be
a priori determined.

| To borrow a notion from Nick Rose, culture is mostly spandrels. That
| 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.

Value for the survival of what? WRT biological evolution, culture may be
mostly spandrellic. WRT cultural evolution, a lot of biology is also
spandrels. The survival and fitness of a *memetic* individual is anything
but a case of spandrels, for the passing on of memes and the reproduction
(not replication) of a memetic phenotype (phemotype?) depends entirely on
the selective advantage of the overal memome relative to other memomes in
the same social ecology.

There's also a nice question of in what way two entirely ontologically
distinct selective regimes like biology and culture can interact. In my
view, they need to share some major portion of their interactive
hierarchies, but it gets messy quickly.

Apologies for misspelling your name in the first post. Some memes *are*

John Wilkins
Head of Communication Services
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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