meme definitions

Brown, Alex (
Wed, 18 Jun 1997 15:42:36 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'Memetics list'" <>
Subject: meme definitions
Date: Wed, 18 Jun 1997 15:42:36 +0800

Date 18th June 1997

On 14th June Mark M. Mills wrote with reference to my memetic

My responses are in brackets after each of Mark's points:

I've gone through your post and reduced your 5 points to the following:
1. A meme is a piece of matter shaped in a particular form at any given
moment in time and space"

[AB: Like the biological phenotype, a particular shape, information, or
form of behaviour is a compromise between: a) The memetic/stylistic
elements available at that time (the repertoire of previous acts [or
genome]) for a particular act of representation, and b) The unique
environment or context (niche) which a particular cultural form is meant
to represent. The meme is the basic recognizable stylistic element drawn
from the repertoire for such purposes. It is combined with others for
the purposes of representing a particular environment. Information drawn
from past experience or forms of behaviour is used to constrain.
(in-form) current or futures behaviour. In this sense the meme derives
its meaning from its stylistic set (denotative aspect) AND from its
appropriate use - its fitness - in a particular context (connotative

The meme is a recognizable element of a particular configuration of
matter OR a particular configuration of social behaviour. If we analyse
both these cultural products we can break them down into familiar
stylistic elements or memes. Treated as isolated elements, memes are
meaningless. They derive their form from the twin dimensions of their
origin in memetic set and their combination in a prticular circumstance.
The particular and the general].

".....2. This piece of matter has no 'meaning' outside the cultural
process it performs within...."

[AB: Correct]

"...3. This piece of matter has a genealogy of previous replicas, but
is itself inert....".

AB: The meme is information, not a piece of matter. It could as
suggested be a form of social behaviour or a belief which constrains
social behaviour. It has a geneology since its character is the product
of multiple recombinations of previous memes in history and the
selective forces which arise from the cultural process of exchange and
communication. It can never be a replica. Even if its form were
'replicated', its combination with other memes in a different context
would require its modification. The meme is a statistical phenomena - a
similarity between things. It is not a thing. It is a relationship
between things].

"......4. This piece of matter is replicated by the cultural process it
performs within, new replicas are subject to natural selection...."

[AB: as above - there are no replicas, but there is indeed a process
equivalent to natural selection in the individual-selection combination
act in the context of multiple exchange]

"....5. This piece of matter is a bit or fragment of a larger set of
material shapes and forms required by the system within which it is

[AB: Again, the meme is not 'matter' but information. It is indeed a
part of a larger system - the stylistic set or meme-complex which offers
the range of historically-derived stylistic elements which are combined
(WITH MODIFICATIONS) in particular circumstances. Select/modify/combine
within a domain where everyone else is doing the same thing (to each
others products). The results are decided shift in the character of the
stylistic elements or memes over time. History is the real name of the
game here, or should we call it evolution.

It seems to me that a lot of the elements and mechanisms are in place
for some kind of theory of cultural evolution. The complex systems,
ecologist, biologists, communications theorists, et al and of course
Charles D. himself have done a lot of the work already. We do not have
to start from scratch here. We just have to synthesize these
systems-based approaches and apply them to a new substrate - cultural
products. Cultural systems (and meta-systems) are not just a pile of
memetic atoms. The key issue being the interchange between members of a

My question: is there a difference between the study of cultural
evolution per se and memetics? Are there in fact two difference
perspectives involved here?]


Alex Brown

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