RE: Memetics Digest V1 #15

Robin Wood (
Thu, 19 Jun 1997 10:52:10 +0100

From: Robin Wood <>
To: "''" <>
Subject: RE: Memetics Digest V1 #15
Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 10:52:10 +0100

Thanks for the digest- this is a real improvement on 100 e-mails a

This memetics discussion is getting very interesting- I can find
myself being swayed at one moment with the argument that memes must be
attributes, properties or processes of/in a nervous or social system.
On the other hand, as"things" out there in the "real world", (cultural
artefacts and scatalogical/territory markings for example) memes have
their own presence, and inanimate capability to transmit messages. The
medium/message, carrier/content analogies are more than superficially
useful here. This reminds me of Pirsig's distinction in "Zen and the
Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and "Lila", between dynamic quality and
static quality. (To me, the difference between
wholes/properties/processes (dynamic quality) and
things/parts/mechanisms (static quality)). In philosophical terms,
this is also the difference between "facticity" (4.5 billion years of
fossil record "out there" whether we like it or not), and fundierung
(Husserl), or the relationships between things as perceived in the
human or animal mind.

This is also very much the same point which arguments about
consciousness get hung up on, as the "BIG C" can be explained, on the
one hand, by recurrent network properties (Churchman), and by
emergence and complex adaptive systems theory/quantum phenomena etc.
In other words, the reductionists want consciousness to be a property
of a bunch of things we can describe in operation, measure and predict
(nothing wrong with classical scientific method). On the other, the
holists wish to see consciousness treated with some respect as a very
real, subjective experience, which in its own right can be dealt with
without reductionism. That is OK too, as we are talking at different
levels- brain and neurophysiology on the one hand, and mind and
psychology/psychiatry/psychotherapy on the other. We do not lose any
richness in the picture of human experience and behaviour simply
because we can explain the neurophysiological processes which generate

If we are to speak of memetic systems rather than simply memes (just
as talk about information systems and genetic systems, not just
information and genes), then I believe we can all have our cake and
eat it on this point i.e. memes are holistic packets/chunks of
information/patterns, which can be instantiated both in nervous
systems and cultural systems (from territorial markings to phallic red
sports cars). i.e. those patterns can be part of both a thing (the
phallic red sports car) and a process (the transfer to long-term
memory of new words, songs, beliefs, opinions etc, and the activation
of those memories/behaviorial repertoires).

Although I think the genetic analogies are interesting, I must agree
with those who are pointing out that the analogy cannot be carried too
far. Genetic systems are very different from memetic systems in a
number of ways:
q Genes (as parts of cell systems) replicate through sexual
reproduction. Memes are much more in the nature of symbiotic parasites
which (generally) benefit their hosts- language, cultural
symbols/semiotics, markings, music etc are usually beneficial to human
evolution. Just as studying the human genome will lead to an ability
to treat genetic disorders, so too the mapping of cultural memomes
should enable us to treat memetic disorders (from anorexia to
management fads, from exotoxic belief systems to
nihilistic/militaristic cultural systems)

q Memomes such as Amish or Baptist belief systems are much more like
organs and organ systems- they are complete and self-sealing and only
interact with the outside world for their own very limited purposes.

q Genes need to be carried by the whole genome to become part of the
next generation, whereas memes can infiltrate in discrete "packets" or

q Lamarckism does not work in genetic propagation, but appears to be
possible in memetic systems.

q The social and cognitive processes which lead to the spreading of
memes through carriers and agents (let us use "carrier" to be passive,
while an "agent" is active), are much more complex than the process by
which genes and cells replicate. (i.e. there are many more stages and
components and players and things that can happen differently)

q Neither genetics nor memetics are determinist, but they both lend
themselves to people who would "blame it on evolution". (Hitler and
McViegh are thus inevitable- we will never improve the human species).
Both require a much greater degree of moral responsibility- cloning
sheep and cloning belief systems can both have far reaching
consequences for our progeny.

q We can change the way people think, but it is jolly difficult to
change our genes. I think memetics poses much more pressing moral
issues than genetics as what and how we think is what we tend to
become, whereas no matter how hard my son (who loves the elephant
Colonel Hathi in Disney's Jungle Book) tries, he will never be an
elephant (those pesky genes are much more "locked in" than memes,
thank god).

This list of differences is just off the top of my head for starters-
I am sure others could come up with many more. I look forward to your

Dr Robin Wood
Genetic Systems Ltd

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