Re: What's in a Meme?

Bill Benzon (
Tue, 17 Jun 1997 06:38:55 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 17 Jun 1997 06:38:55 -0500
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Re: What's in a Meme?

John Wilkins says,
>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.

Though in biology the recticulation occurs among a closely related group of
species. In culture it can and often does occur between very different
cultural species.

>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

I find this an odd way to put it. What difference does it make that
culture & biology may be quite different in the patterns weaved by their
genetic units from generation to generation?

In any event I think you need to be careful about what you take to be
examples of cultural species. And that's a problem in culture because I
don't think that we have, on the face of it, any reasonable idea of what
cultural species are. So, in biology one species are sufficiently
recognizeable that one can say, as you report, that 47% of flowering plants
have reticulate lineages. I don't know how we'd make such statements in
the cultural realm. Language is the most intensively studied case, and
there the nature of comparative methodology emphasizes differentiation and
minimizes borrowing and hybridization, which makes that taxonomy suspect.
I do know that there is a running controversy, for example, over whether or
not English is a creole or not. I haven't looked into that one enough to
have any sense of what the specific issues are but I rather think the
outcome is important and the inherent bias of the methodology is against
the idea that English is a creole rather than arising from differentiation
with a lot of borrowing here and there.

In any event, my own thinking on these matters started with the problem of
cultural species. I started to wonder ask myself questions like "If
African-American and European-American are varieties of American culture,
what is the nature of that American culture of which they are varieties?"
and "Has American culture acquired enough African culture that it can no
longer reasonably be considered a Western culture?" Now, in asking myself
these kinds of question I was certainly treating these terms as though they
functioned in a taxonomic hierarchy like that in biology. So, we have
culture, which as African, European, Asian, Pacific, (Pre-Columbian)
American varieties, and European in turn has these subtypes.... etc etc.
We tend to use these cultural terms as though they functioned like this,
but no one has ever worked out the taxonmy in any useful detail. In any
event, I ended up thinking that serious thinking about culture simply
cannot take any such entities at face value. And I rather doubt that a
really good classification of cultural species will take the form of a
tree. It's more likely to be a network of some sort. You can find the
results of my initial thinking at: (& soon to be
published in The Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems).

In any event, if you are interested in why and how cultural coherence
persists in the face of a changing environment, you might want to take a
look at the growing literature on nationalism. The general finding is that,
while nationalists claim some deep and inherent sameness for their group,
generally based on common language, religion, history, or just culture, the
claim is almost always very shaky (e.g. at the time of the French
Revolution, over half of the citizens of the new nation didn't speak French
-- so what kind of a coherent culture is that?). This suggests that
nationalist ideology functions to create a cultural coherence where there
isn't one. And, as you may be aware, nationalist ideology comes to affect
language, A number of years ago I had an Iranian graduate student who
joked that when he returned home he might not be able to speak the language
because they were working hard to eliminate all words with foreigh roots.

If I worked at it, I might be able to find something like a nationalist
ideology at work in the various music wars that have been and are being
waged. It might well be the case the strong adherents of one style of
music or another tend to exaggerate the difference between their style and
neighboring styles, etc.

>>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. ... The phemotype
>lies in the behavioural repertoire, including
>communication, that causes the replication rates of the information.
Dave Hays once suggested to me that the first utterance from the electronic
Minsky to the biological Minksy would surely be "I'm immortal and you're
not. Ha!"

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

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)