Re: What's in a Meme?

John Wilkins (wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU)
Tue, 17 Jun 1997 16:09:15 +1100

Date: Tue, 17 Jun 1997 16:09:15 +1100
From: John Wilkins <wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: What's in a Meme?
In-Reply-To: <>

>From: (Bill Benzon)
>Date: Mon, 16 Jun 1997 06:48:49 -0500
>Subject: Re: What's in a Meme?
>John Wilkins says:
>>differentiated. [Species also reticulate - join - as well as
>>which raises lots of fun problems.]
>Cultural species do this all the time. For example, creolization in
>language is reticulation (& it wreaks havoc of language taxonomy). The
>standard story of jazz -- African rhythm plus European harmony -- is a
>story about reticulation.

This is exactly the reason why I chose the nature of species as my PhD
topic; to paraphrase Fisher - if we want to understand why cultural
traditions are so cohesive, even though they reticulate, we need to
understand why biological species are cohesive, when they don't, much. OK,
so Fisher was a lot more snappy when he was talking about the number of
sexes, but I hope you get the idea.

BTW: It's commonly thought that biological evolution is almost always
differentiating but rarely reticulate, but in fact about 47% of flowering
plants and 95% of ferns are reticulate lineages.

What we have is a generalisable process going on that clumps hereditable
traits into lineages (ie, Darwinian evolution) and we should seek to
understand why it does, irrespective of substrate.

The myth of differentiation, which is a Spencerian notion founded on the
scala naturae, not a Darwinian one, IMO, is in-built in cladistic
methodology, and in most popularisations of cultural evolution, but
evolution is not so neat in either domain. The most I'll concede is that if
there is a continuum of phyletic mode between differentiation and
reticulation frequencies, biology tends to the differentiation end in
animal evolution more than it does in plant and cultural evolution, and
perhaps than in protist evolution as well.

We see traditions that persist in rapidly changing environments with
minimal change: my focus is, 'why, and under what circumstances?' The mere
existence of creolisation and cross-lineage borrowing is insufficient to
make a disanalogy between the biological and the cultural for these
>Now, what if Marvin Minsky actually succeeded in downloading his mind into
>a computer. Is that download a memetic individual or just the embodiement
>on the memetic individual in a different physical envelope?

Depends on whether he interacts socially as a bunch of bits. [Given that
most of my social life is electronic, the answer has to be 'a memetic
individual embodied differently' :-) Hmm, another PC cliche - 'differently
embodied'...] The phemotype lies in the behavioural repertoire, including
communication, that causes the replication rates of the information.

John Wilkins
Head of Communication Services
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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