re: cultural spandrels

Brown, Alex (
Tue, 17 Jun 1997 12:49:13 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'Memetics list'" <>
Subject: re: cultural spandrels
Date: Tue, 17 Jun 1997 12:49:13 +0800

Date: 17th June 1997

The issue of the cultural equivalent of the 'spandrel' has been raised a
few times on the list. In my own work I have produced what I regard as a
rather close analogy to this function and the idea itself seems to offer
an example of the complexity of cultural evolution. The basis of the
idea is that there are primary and secondary forms (call them memes if
you like). The function of the primary form is to represent a particular
circumstance/context using the appropriate linguistic elements available
within that domain. The purpose of the secondary form (the cultural
spandrel?) is to maintain the integrity of the primary form. That is to
prevent it from failure/collapse or whatever.

Why would this be necessary? The reason, I think is evolutionary in the
sense that forms/memes once established do not stay the same over time.
They evolve. In a stable environment, constant selection of a particular
set of forms/memes ultimately reduces their semantic or representational
value. They become context-free, cliches or generalities that are unable
to express the PARTICULAR. That is the variety of circumstances in which
the forms are likely to be used. Since in this potentially immortal
environment they are still the most probable game in town, it is not a
matter of simple replacing them. Only a change of environment can do
that. So they still have to be used even although they cannot fully
express the full complexity of their context. The only way out of this
essentially historical trap is to ADD secondary devices which top-up the
semantic value of the now cliched primary forms. They are adaptive
mechanisms These secondary forms are, in linguistic terms the
determinative clues which indicate the use of the primary forms in this
particular context. In this sense secondary forms provide context and
thus meaning to de-based memes. In artistic terms they would be called
decoration, not as a superficial function but as a vitally important way
of maintaining the semantic integrity of the dominant
meme-complex/style. If the environment remains stable over very long
periods of time, this whole relationship can get very complex indeed for
the character of the subsidiary forms will themselves be subject to
continuous selection and rendered rigid and unable to express variety or
complexity. The answer: guess what? A tertiary layer of forms is
extruded from the meme-complex to give context and variety to the
secondary layer. And so on......

The moral of this tale is twofold: it is general environmental change
which brings about speciation (whoops! I meant the production of new
cultural forms) which are semantically flexible - capable of
representing a wide variety of different circumstances with minor tuning
of behaviour. No more than in biology, the cultural environment cannot
be excluded form any theory of cultural evolution or memetic analysis.
To do so would be to provide a 'flat theory' which simply cannot explain
the complexity of the end product.

Secondly, one must include a semantic/representational dimension to the
study of cultural evolution since in my view at least this is the basis
of the selective function as it operates in the cultural environment.


Alex Brown

To conclude, I will have to repeat my assertion that memes are objects
a stable and identifiable shape in time and space. It is only by
physical analogy between memes and genes that we are likely to make the
epistemological change and thus improve our perspective. The
work of genetics provides the model. The recent development of computer
theory provides a second powerful model. Memetics will progress as we
advantage of these models.

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