Re: A Drosophila for cultural evolution

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Sun, 22 Jun 1997 20:48:11 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sun, 22 Jun 1997 20:48:11 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: A Drosophila for cultural evolution

Bill Benzon>>
>>What can serve as a Drosophila for the study of cultural evolution?
>Umm... Masturbation studies?
>Wade T. Smith

Yes, Wade is joking, but for any Drosophila, including the "Blue Star LSD"
legend, the "Quaker Oats" story, or even masturbation, we still have the
problem the defining memetics. (Yes, I know that Bill posed his question
for cultural evolution, and didn't say "memetics." But I want to discuss
memetics here.) One issue, debated at much length so far, is to define
what a meme is.

Oddly enough, the existence of "meme pools" seems more intuitive -- they
are the complete set of beliefs and instantiations surrounding a
communicable social process. For example, part of the "meme pool" of the
Blue Star LSD story is the traditionalists' fear -- paranoia? -- that Evil
Drug Dealers Have A Conspiracy. But the Blue Star LSD example forces us to
ask what memetics buys us.

The major difference between "memes" and "genes" concerns particulate
inheritance. Mendel postulated the existence of genes to as inherited
factors responsible for producing a given characteristic generation after
generation. From the outset, it was theoretically possible to distinguish
phenotype and genotype: phenotype concerns whether the pea plants are tall
or short, genotype concerns the presence or absence of "factors" causing
tallness or shortness.

Despite terms like "phemotype" and "memotype," no such distinction is yet
possible in memetics. One reason is that memetics deals with multi-level
characteristics, not morphologically obvious single traits like height in
pea plants. But another reason is that we have no particular reason to
postulate the memetic equivalent of "genes."

Since various people on this list will probably disagree, let me explain
what I mean. In Mendel's original (1856) experiment, he had P generation
plants that were tall and short; when cross-fertilized to give the F1
generation, all the plants were tall; and when the F1 self-fertilized, the
resulting F2 generation had both tall and short plants. His question --
and it is not easy to answer! -- was Where did the F2 *short* plants come

Mendel's answer, which seemed ad hoc at the time, was to postulate the
existence of inherited BUT HIDDEN "factors" that were transmitted,
unchanged, from the P generation to the F2 generation and that caused
shortness. To be sure, Mendel had to postulate that the plants needed two
such "shortness" factors for the plant to be short, but that is a detail.
The essence of Mendel's analysis was that he started with an observation
which existing theory could NOT explain.

By contrast, memetics has no "short" pea plants that form an otherwise
inexplicable mystery. If anything, the transmission mechanisms of social
phenomena are visible to everyday commonsense -- language, rumor,
education, the printing press, and so forth. In one reading of the
history, memetics was deliberately invented on analogy to the existing
science of genetics, rather than emerging from the phenomena themselves.

The meme analogy is fetching, but memetics still has no inexplicable
observations, like the inheritance of shortness in pea plants, that demand
a novel explanation. To a doubter, memetics seems little more than complex
jargon for discussing what we already know about.

This boils down to saying that memetics does not seem to be *necessary* the
way Mendelian genetics was necessary for explaining particulate
inheritance. Now, the staunch theorist of memetics will hold that memetics
offers a better or more plausible explanation for known phenomena that its
alternatives, but so far no one has been able to define the criteria for
being a better explanation.

And even if memetics were "better" in some fashion, it needs to compete
with well-established alternatives in the social, behavioral, and
historical sciences. It is not entering the field as the only explanation,
as Mendelism did when, in 1900, Tschermak, Correns, and de Vries
independently replicated Mendel's original experiments in other organisms.

Some of its competitors -- rhetoric, for example -- are very ancient
indeed. The legal profession has known about applied memetics for
millenia, except that lawyers, judges, and legal scholars use their own
lingo. So the question is What set of observations -- what Drosophila --
demands that one accept memetics as opposed to all its alternatives?

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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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