Re. Memetics and History

Brown, Alex (
Mon, 16 Jun 1997 14:52:19 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'Memetics list'" <>
Subject: Re. Memetics and History
Date: Mon, 16 Jun 1997 14:52:19 +0800

Date: 16th June 1997

Bill Benzon writes:

".....Within both jazz and classical major battles were conducted by the
communities committed to one
or other of those styles. If one wants to think of music history in
evolutionary terms, then the movement from one of these styles to
another, and the interaction of these various styles, is the major
phenomenon to be studied......."

Absolutely, and apart from the musical domain, this evolution of styles
(meme complexes) and their interaction is the major phenomenon to be
studied in all other cultural domains. The stability of these complexes
over time (from decades to millenia) is the only thing which allows us
to discuss cultural evolution and history at all, for in the midst of
continual historical change we still have these regularities of form
within all domains whether written out as scientific theories, literary
genre, artistic styles or types of social and political organization.

The study of these uniformities of behaviour (their origin, evolution
and eventual demise) would seem to be one of the central tasks of any
memetic analysis or theory of cultural evolution. Here we can make a
distinction between the function of history and that of the evolutionary
analysis of culture. History describes and details the character of
these unities of behaviour in a chronological sequence, while
evolutionary analysis (and possibly a more developed memetic analsis)
explains the origin and evolution of all such complex phenomena. In this
sense the relation between memetics, communication theory, cultural
evolution, evolutionary theory and complex systems theory becomes quite
clear for at the root of these theories lies the central social and
cultural fact of EXCHANGE (of information and therefore of behaviours)
between agents in any system. This multiple exchange of forms (memes)
between the members of a group is the mechanism which produces
continuity (styles/paradigms) and change (memetic/stylistic shift) in
the behaviour of the group and the mechanism itself involves a process
of selection and combination of forms by individuals from the most
regular features of everyone elses behaviour. When cultural evolution
(and its historical realization in any particular place and time) is
viewed as a collective communicational process, the function of the meme
becomes that of the unit of exchange within the system. It can also be
seen as the 'message in circuit' between the members of the group.

The function of the individual brain in this context is that of
classification, selection and re-combination of the recognizable
elements of the message for a particular time and place: the individual
work of art, song or theory which is a semantically permissible
combination of several memes to form a whole statement or message which
then becomes part of the code which is applicable TO MANY TIMES AND

This is essentially rule-governed and perhaps one can say algorithmic
behaviour when viewed as part of a group activity. One need not get too
neurological/chemical about this. One simply looks at the operations the
(black box) brain carries out and these involve essentially
categorization by the shunting around of similarities and differences
within its environment. The significant issue is what happens when these
many agents continually interact with one another by manipulating and
exchanging a particular kind of material or subject matter (music, war,
literature, etc. etc.). The result I would suggest is not the disorder
and random variations one would imagine if we treat the members of a
group as individual social or memetic atoms, but rather what we actually
get in cultural terms: the emergence of order, (self) organization and
memetic uniformity over long periods of time. As I suggested in my
previous post, the meme in this context can be regarded as the most
basic, recognizable unit of information within the stylistic set
prevailing at the time. This could be a particular chord sequence in
music which allows me to predict the next in the series. Or, in
architectural terms, if given, say a Doric column, I can predict the
other elements of the building within which this column would exist.
Here the meme is the chord sequence and the classical column but they
only have meaning as part of a recognizable and predictable set of
elements. In a parallel with discussions or arguments taking place
between biologists and ecologists on the gene/organism/species
hierarchy, the issue here I would imagine is the definition of the
hierarchy of memetic classification. For some: the meme is a
self(ish)-replication unit which allows us to explain complex cultural
events and forms. While for others (including myself), it is the
stylistic uniformity (the meme-complex) which is the significant
evolutionary and cultural formation for the simple reason that culture
is a collective phenomenon and that there is no replication involved
(only reproduction).

Here also we can differentiate the atomistic approach to memetics (which
proposes that ideas produced by individuals supposedly infect other
individuals and travelling one way, so to speak) with that of the
communicational perspective which requires multiple and continuous
interactions within the group. In my view the atomistic approach where
an infinite number of utterances can be piled up to make the vast
complexity we see before us and its transformations over time, is an
impossibly simplistic theory. Group processes, involving communication
and exchange do, I think allow us to produce the necessary complexity of
end product and equally allow us to introduce into studies of cultural
evolution, issues of semantics, representation and true systems theory.


Alex Brown

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