RE: What does the replicating?

Aaron Lynch (
Sun, 15 Jun 1997 23:27:21 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sun, 15 Jun 1997 23:27:21 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: RE: What does the replicating?
In-Reply-To: <c=GB%a=_%p=Genetic_Systems_%l=NETSERVER01-970613172447Z-14>

Aaron Lynch responding to Robin Wood:

Thank you for the questions, Robin.

>Dear Aaron
>Thanks for clarifying much of the unedifying debate about "What is a
>meme?" and "How do memes replicate?". The next step in this process of
>clarification might be to differentiate between the multiple levels at
>which memes exist and replicate- for example:
>q the Amish belief systems and lifestyles can be measured by the
>number of Amish people/size of the Amish community
>q the number of people familiar with the "Coke" meme can be measured
>through market research (the coke meme has many instantiations-
>bottles, cans, labels, posters, advertisements, slogans, coca-cola the
>liquid etc)

"Coke" has numerous memes associated with it (like the earlier discussion
of Demeter). The idea that there is such a beverage is a meme. So is the
idea that this cola is the best cola, an idea with a lower host population
than the former. The bottles, cans, papers containing ads, etc are
phenotypes of such memes, as well as phenotypes of various memes saying, in
effect, that "Coke is profitable." The trillions of copies of the word
"Coke" that exist in land fills, store shelves, etc. attest to the
popularity of the drink, but are not enumerated as memes themselves. Meme
prevalence is measured by counting hosts. So if next year, Pepsi introduces
a new cola that causes billions of people to stop buying Coke, then the
"Pepsi is best" will become more prevalent that "Coke is best," regardless
of how long Coke maintains an edge in land fills. Slogans are interesting
because they are often coined and centrally disseminated by people who
don't believe them. How many Coka-Cola executives or ad agency executives
actually believe "Coke is it?" Do they even drink the stuff in the privacy
of their homes? So the PHRASE "Coke is it" is centrally replicated while a
BELIEF that "Coke is it" may not be centrally imparted as a direct
replicator. There is, however, the oft-noted recursion principle of the
convinced consumer paying the money that gets this central communication
done, and it is mainly in this sense that a "Coke is it" belief does its
replicating. (Unless the ad execs, etc. actually convinced themselves
before going public.)

>q a new word can be measured by how frequently it is used.
>Surely we should now be in a position to tighten things up between
>memes, memomes, etc. How small does a meme have to be to be a meme?
>Would William Calvin's hexagonal "Unit of Thought" in the cortex
>qualify? What about patterns in the immune system or the hypothalamic
>limbic or parasympathetic systems?

I don't really know of a theoretical lower limit to how "small" a meme has
to be. Calvin's units, when replicated within one brain, do not result in
new instantiations of a meme. But when replicated between brains, they do.
To quote Calvin himself: "Memes are those things that are copied from mind
to mind." Nevertheless, Calvin's theory of what goes on inside the
individual mind takes much inspiration from Dawkins theory of what goes on
in a population of minds.

>I also prefer the pure definition of meme as the instantiation of a
>copy of a recognisable pattern in the nervous system rather than
>including photocopiers, books etc- otherwise everything pretty soon
>becomes a meme. The virtue of this definition is that it also makes it
>clear that human beings act as replicators for memes, not internets-
>this is the same useful distinction I discovered in doing my PhD in
>Information Science between human activity systems and information
>systems- the former can create and replicate memes- the latter are
>bits of "dead metal" usaed by human activity systems to work with
>What generic word would work well to define the patterns "in front of
>our eyes" out there (objects, systems, people, animals etc) vs those
>patterns "behind our eyes" in the field of memetics?
>Answers on a postcard please!
>Dr Robin Wood
>Genetic Systems Ltd
>-----Original Message-----
>From: Aaron Lynch []
>Sent: 09 June 1997 20:50
>Subject: Re: What does the replicating?
>Aaron Lynch responding to Randy Groves:
>>Dear Memetics Investigators:
>>I have been following the discussions with interest concerning the
>>replication of memes. I am not a biologist (my area if the philosophy
>>of history), so I may just be betraying my ignorance of things
>> but it seems that there is a key disanalogy between the replication
>>memes and the replication of genes. Genes have their own replication
>> mechanism while Memes do not. Memes depend upon something
>>external, minds (most of the time), to replicate them, while genes'
>>replication occurs internally.
>A good question, Randy. To give some of my own background, I began
>thinking about this 19 years ago, shortly after re-inventing memetics
>using my own neologism. I was then a physics, mathematics, and
>philosophy undergrad. By 1984, I had written a chapter on the subject
>for publication in a book called ABSTRACT EVOLUTION, which was far too
>technical and whose field was far too unheard of for publication back
>then. So I published it in the first journal of memetics that folded
>in 1991. It is now re-published as UNITS, EVENTS, AND DYNAMICS OF MEME
>To be perfectly absolute about it, nothing in this universe
>replicates. The notion of replication rests critically upon our
>ability to call two entities "the same," which you can only do with
>respect to an abstraction, or sameness criterion. No two cells,
>molecules, computer memory items, etc. are absolutely "the same." The
>only entities which might be "the same" in a very deep sense are the
>identical particles of a Bose-Einstein condensate, but even these
>differ by on nano-Kelvin scales and by vacuum fluctuations and perhaps
>superstrings, etc. The other underlying tenet of "replication" is the
>notion of causation.
>But once you accept the *premise* that two people can have "the same"
>idea, you are tacitly invoking the axiom of abstraction and are half
>way to accepting replication. If by the term "causation" you can count
>cases where one instantiation of an idea plays a crucial (if
>multi-agent, multi-stage) role in starting the existence of a new
>instantiation of "the same" idea, then you acknowledge the existence
>of a "replicating" idea. Absolute self-replication, of course, does
>not ever happen for any entity, memetic or otherwise. You may, at
>times, wish to clarify this by way of the passive voice: Cells "are
>replicated" by the sun etc. DNA "is replicated" by enzymes etc.
>Cytochrome C "is replicated" by DNA + the sun + other enzymes + etc.
>Email "is replicated" by computers, dynamos, etc. Monotheism "is
>replicated" by people, air, etc. And so on. The term
>"self-replication" is merely a shorthand for calling attention to
>those entities which play particularly salient roles in bringing about
>new instances of entities that we call "the same."
>The disanalogies between genes and memes are too many to enumerate
>here, but since the recursive evolutionary replicator theory of mental
>information could have been developed before Darwin, I consider the
>forcing of analogies to be unnecessary.
>>The reason I see this as problematic for memetics, as applied to
>>history, for example, is that when we then talk about the greater or
>>lesser influence of some cultural ideas over others, the argument
>>must focus on the minds influenced by the meme rather than some
>>internal mechanism in the meme. In other words, we are back to
>>traditional questions of influence where we discuss the historical
>>background and everything else we deal with in such arguments. The
>>role of memetics doesn't seem to loom very large.
>>Take, for example, the idea of an afterlife. When we discuss its
>>appeal, we do not look for an internal mechanism; we look at more
>>mundane interests, like Freudian "wish-fulfillment." It is easy to
>>see why people would want an afterlife. Death is a bitch. It isn't
>>clear how moving to memetic explanation would be any more
>The memetic perspective becomes most illuminating when you discuss a
>belief that what happens in afterlife depends upon what you believe
>during pre-mortal life. See my book for more about this.
>>The above may sound rather negative, but I am willing to be educated
>>on the matter if I have missed something.
>Here's the abstract of a serious paper you missed:
>ABSTRACT An evolutionary recursive replicator theory of mental/brain
>information is presented. Noting that all replicator theories rest at
>least tacitly upon the fundamental notions of causation and of calling
>two or more entities "the same" with respect to an abstraction, the
>concept is rendered explicit in defining the terms "mmemon" and
>"meme." A symbolic calculus of mnemon conjugations and replication
>events follows. Differential equations are developed for meme host
>population versus time in a two-meme system, modeling the dynamics
>whereby events at the individual level give rise to trends at the
>population level. This lays a foundation for computerized simulations
>and the falsification or verification of specific memetic hypotheses.
>Mechanisms of creativity as a population phenomenon are examined, with
>the memetic perspective yielding a novel explanation for the temporal
>clustering of independent co-creations. Creation and propagation are
>integrated into a theory of evolution by variation and natural
>selection of memes.

--Aaron Lynch

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


--Aaron Lynch

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

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