Re: Re. Memetics and History

Bill Benzon (
Mon, 16 Jun 1997 06:48:57 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 16 Jun 1997 06:48:57 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Re: Re. Memetics and History

Alex Brown
>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.

& it seems to me (off the top of my head) that we have at least three
different types of process:

1. Creolization or hypbridization, where we have the mixing of elements
from two or more stylistic pools (e.g. fusion from jazz & rock).

2. Differentiation, where one style differentiates into two or more styles
(e.g. bop yielding cool and hard bop).

3. Development (not a good word at all because it's too generic),the kind
of process exemplified by the evolution of, say, romnatic music from
classical music (where, in this context, "classical" designates a
particular style within the broader context of Western classical music).

Also note -- here I'm riding my hobbyhorse again -- that I think of these
styles as cultural phenotypes. Of course, that's not incompatible with
thinking of them as meme-complexes, since they obviously involved lots of
coadapted memes. But...

>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

Yes. Though I think there's more to it. I'm not sure, for example, that
that will cover Shakespeare (or any of the other Great Men & Women of
history). It is certainly true that Shakespeare's plays are enormous
grab-bags of stories floating around. Only 2 of his plays are based on
original plots, all the rest are retellings of old stories. But I suspect
S may have originated a meme or two, though perhaps that's mutation
resulting from stray gamma rays wacking about his brain.

Or take traditional jazz. It seems to be full of memes which have no prior
existence in either Africa or Europe. So where did they come from?

>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.
Yes. Social groups are more than just a pile of individual humans and all
their interactions. Something else is going on.

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

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