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

Aaron Lynch (
Wed, 16 Jul 1997 14:01:13 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 16 Jul 1997 14:01:13 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: What's in a Meme? Reprise and paper - comments welcome
In-Reply-To: <v03102804aff265f83f85@[]>

Aaron Lynch responding to Ton Maas:

>I wonder how this notion of the "natural selection of memes" relates to
>Bateson's notion of the "information ecology". "Cultural selection" would
>seem to pose less problems, but "natural selection", with its obvious
>reference to biological evolution, has a "strictness" (extinction usually
>being final) that few memetic processes (if any) can match. As I see it,
>"natural selection" is used here as much as a metaphor as any of the others
>mentioned above. What then are its strengths and weaknesses?

Actually, "natural selection" is not a metaphor in my usage. The term
"selection" existed before Darwin, and adding the adjective "natural" is a
move that could have been done in regard to culture even before Darwin.

The planned, or intentional selection of culture is well known.
Mathematicians, for instance, already held wide standards for the
deliberate selection of theorems when various "proofs" of Fermat's last
theorem arrived. Most of those proposed proofs were rejected, but one of
them seems to be finally gaining general acceptance. I am about as
uninclined to call this a product of "natural selection" as I am to call
the distinguishing traits of tiny white (intentionally bred) lap dogs the
product of natural selection. (You can, of course, trivially assert that
all selection that actually happens is "natural," but this does not say
when it is USEFUL to include the adjective "natural.")

If, however, a small difference in biological reproduction follows from a
particular belief, and this results in that belief going from rarity to
commonality, I am inclined to call it natural selection--especially if the
population is not even aware of the meme-induced reproduction difference.
Likewise if the meme induces some difference in peer-to-peer (horizontal)
retransmission, or an unperceived difference in dropout rates, etc.

The term "cultural selection" seems more general to me, and would include
the selection of proposed proofs of Fermat's last theorem. It would also
include selection of artifacts that do not qualify as "memes" by my

Because my use of the term "natural selection of memes" is not metaphoric,
it does not invite any attempt to force the "strictness" you see in the
biological case upon the cultural case.


--Aaron Lynch

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

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