Meme pools?

Brown, Alex (
Fri, 20 Jun 1997 14:25:05 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'Memetics list'" <>
Subject: Meme pools?
Date: Fri, 20 Jun 1997 14:25:05 +0800

Date: 20th June 1997

The term 'meme pool' floats around (or the memes do) in any discussion
about memetics or (I'm afraid) cultural products. It brings to mind some
primeval soup, wherein many potential or actual lifeforms swarm around
in some frankly undifferentiated aggregate. (A bit like the monadic,
atomistic, or in this case, molecular character of the meme). Somehow or
other, life (or in this case culture), in all its complexity is able to
bootstrap itself into existance from this seething mass of elements.
While we might all agree that the theory that life built itself up from
these basic building blocks is the best one around so far, what we would
also agree is that this involved an interactive process between those
basic compounds or virus-like entities in order to get to the next level
of complexity and eventually to us. In other words, what we need and, in
biology what we actually have is a theory which explains the emergence
of more and more complex levels of biological organization with their
own level of ecological constraints. We also have a theory of evolution
that explains how natural selection filters out various species over
time, sorting them so to speak in terms of their viability in particular
environments and a genetic theory which explains how genetic information
is transmitted through various lineages. All this is excellent. The
theories all provide mechanisms by which evolution at species or genetic
levels take place. Mechanisms, mechanisms. How useful they are in
explaining evolutionary and dynamic processes. Unfortunately they seem
to be in rather short supply in the memetics area. (I do not consider
the memetic equivalent of telepathy to be an adequate explanation for
the existance of Baroque music, physics or the refinements of Chinese
calligraphy). We seem to be suffering under an avalanche of cultural
'facts', but frankly no explanation about the cultural frameworks within
which those facts have meaning or indeed how such frameworks emerge.
Observations seem to pose as explanations and one sometimes senses the
presence (or need) for some form of 'spontaneous emergence' or other
a-historical phenomena to magically bring coherence to this infinity of
facts all of which seem to be memes of one sort or another and all
operating at the same cognitive or (cultural) organizational level. How
democratic, but in this case how logically incoherent.

Lets imagine for a moment, that we are looking at the deep blue and
unifferentiated meme pool for the whole of a culture. With some work
perhaps and a bit of common sense we could differentiate different
groups of memes. For instance we might distinguish scientific memes,
musical memes, literary memes and so on.

Lets group these different types into what we can call domains. Lets
look inside a domain. Problems problems. What we see are further groups.
In the musical domain for instance, we can distinguish complexes of
elements which with some checking we can identify as the classical
complex, the pop complex, the jazz complex, the folk complex, the techno
complex. We shall call these identifiable groups: styles. Lets look
inside a style. What do we find? A large number of entities (
songs) which show a strong resemblance to each other. Lets look inside a
song. What we find are a number of chord sequences which have a more or
less predictable relationship with one another. In other words they come
from a limited set of probable, meaningful arrangments determined by the
repertoire of songs. They are recognizable as semi-autonomous musical
units. It is these familiar elements which provide the similarity
between a large number of separate songs. Lets look inside a chord. What
we find is a group of notes in a particular sequence. Lets look inside
the note. Ah! Now that is difficult. While we can do a frequency
analysis and get a graphic breakdown of the note, we have in a sense
gone through the floor of the domain. We are no longer talking about
music. We are in another domain.

Thats the easy version. If we were to take the same synchronic cut
through a domain 5 to 10 years later we might find that while the
organization would be similar (the seams/levels or joints between
coherent units), the actual character of the styles and songs and chord
sequences would have changed to a greater or lesser extent.

Three general points about all this. One: in order to get coherent
theory of cultural evolution (or anything else for that matter) we have
to note the regularities of the field and partition it off accordingly
into classes, levels and other distinguishable groupings. In other words
we have to produce some kind of taxonomic order otherwise we have an
unifferentiated mass of data which is unintelligble.

Two: We have to provide explanatory mechanisms for the emergence of
different organizational levels (ecological explanation) within the same
domain recogizing the hierarchy and (equally) embedding of groups within

Three: We have to provide explanatory mechanisms for the historical
changes that take place between time A and time B. That is, why do
things look different, etc.

Meme pool? Perhaps a more useful designation might be the structure of
cultural systems.


Alex Brown

(Note: telpathy and alien intervention are excluded as explanations)

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