Re: What's in a Meme? Reprise and paper - comments welcome

Aaron Lynch (
Wed, 16 Jul 1997 02:20:41 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 16 Jul 1997 02:20:41 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: What's in a Meme? Reprise and paper - comments welcome
In-Reply-To: <>

Aaron Lynch responding to Jonh wilkins:

>At the request of some who think I have something to add to this debate,=
>have written the first draft of a focal paper for the Journal of Memetic=
>called "What's in a Meme? Reflections from the perspective of the histor=
>and philosophy of evolutionary biology."
>In this paper I argue that memes are defined by the selection pressures
>they are subjected to, and that memes are the smallest unit of
>sociocultural information relative to a selection process that has
>favourable or unfavourable selection bias that exceeds its rate of
>endogenous change. Those who are familiar with evolutionary biology will
>recognise the reference.


I haven't read the draft paper yet, but can already comment on the matter
of the "size" of memes. First, let me say that tend to share your
preference for "small" units. (Richard Pocklington, on the other hand,
favors the largest possible units.) But preferences aside, I noticed earl=
on that we have a problem in defining the "size" of memes that does not
happen when defining the "size" of a gene. (Nucleotide and even peptide
counting come to mind as unambiguous ways of defining gene size.)

Regarding the concept of "size" as it pertains to "units of sociocultural
information": The concept of "size" becomes troublesome with beliefs and
other information stored in the brain: general methods of "size"
measurement are not currently available, and even if they were, they migh=
register different "sizes" for "the same" belief in different brains. The
most you can really say is that a set of brain memes is, in general, a
partially ordered set (as defined in set theory). One system of partial
ordering is based on the size of conjunctions of memes (represented by th=
* operator below). Take the following 3 memes, for instance:=20

Meme A: "Christ is Lord."

Meme B: "God is love."

Meme C: "Unbelievers are damned."

You have no basis for saying if A > B, A < C, etc.

You can say A*B > A, and A*B > B. But you cannot say A*B > C or A*B <
B*C, etc.

You can, however, say A*B*C > A*B, A*B*C > A*C, etc.

In other words, if the hypothetical faith only says "Christ is Lord," an=
"God is love," you cannot, for instance, say that it is "bigger" (has mor=
"size") than the faith that only says "Christ is Lord" and "Unbelievers a=
damned." Nor can you compare the "sizes" of these component beliefs.

A "size" metric is not needed in the word's definition, however. Consider
this definition from

MEME. A memory item, or portion of an organism=92s neurally-stored
information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer, who=
instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of
the same memory item in one or more other organisms=92 nervous systems.
("Sameness" of memory items is determined with respect to the
above-mentioned abstraction system of the observer.)

Notice that I have also made an explicit reference to abstraction systems.
Any time you try to apply even your own definition to a real-world case,
you will find yourself consciously or unconsciously making decisions abou=
what abstractions to use. Is selection happening on the belief that
"abortion is wrong," "abortion is evil," "abortion is sin" or "abortion i=
a mortal sin"? And/or "abortion is murder," etc.? None of these ways of
descerning among beliefs holds an absolute advantage. But like coordinate
systems in physics, they admit of various degrees of usefulness. Science
can still proceed, however: consider how much science has happenned under
the relativistic notion that there is not an absolute, privilaged
coordinate system (system of location abstractions) in the universe. And
the replication of various forms of anti-abortionism can all be studied.

The evolution by natural selection of memes is central to my whole
argument. But the reality of selection is not asserted within the
definition. Nor do I assert that any one metaphor, such as to genes,
computer viruses, bacteria, etc is preferred--they all have their strengt=
and weaknesses.

>I invite any and all (constructive) comment. It is available in Web form=
><> - or as an Acrobat PDF
>file, which I can email to you (~220k) on request.
>John Wilkins
>Head of Communication Services
>Walter and Eliza Hall Institute=20

--Aaron Lynch

How Belief Spreads Through Society
The New Science of Memes
Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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)