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

John Wilkins (wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU)
Thu, 17 Jul 1997 09:49:03 +1100

Date: Thu, 17 Jul 1997 09:49:03 +1100
From: John Wilkins <wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: What's in a Meme? Reprise and paper - comments welcome
In-Reply-To: <>

Aaron Lynch responding to John Wilkins (reformatted):
>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 early
>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 might
>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 the
>* operator below). Take the following 3 memes, for instance:
>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," and
>"God is love," you cannot, for instance, say that it is "bigger" (has more
>"size") than the faith that only says "Christ is Lord" and "Unbelievers
>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's neurally-stored
>information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer,
>instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of
>the same memory item in one or more other organisms' 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 about
>what abstractions to use. Is selection happening on the belief that
>"abortion is wrong," "abortion is evil," "abortion is sin" or "abortion is
>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
>and weaknesses.

> --Aaron Lynch

I do not think that we are really in disagreement here. As you will see in
the paper, I do not restrict the notion of meme to a given level, but I do
think that there needs to be a "unit" of transmission, that that this unit
is *defined* in virtue of the smallest amount of transmitted and
selectively biassed information. How could it be otherwise? This is not to
say that there are not memes at smaller sizes of message length, nor that
there are not larger messages, and so forth, but that what counts as a meme
is relative to the selection it undergoes. The smallest message getting
selected in a process is a meme. [I do think that you can apply semantic
analysis to these messages, and come up with relative ordinal rankings in
terms of complexity, though.]

Take "abortion is evil". It that a meme? What about the term and notion of
"abortion"? What about "evil"? The memetic complex "abortion is evil
because it is murder and murder is a sin" decomposes into submessages like
"abortion is evil" and "abortion is murder", which in their own right are
able to spread, recombine, and be selected, so that you could have
"abortion is justified murder" which is an entirely different message to
the original complex. If "Christ is Lord" is a simple rather than a
complex, and travels in all relevant respects as one, it is the smallest
unit selected in that process.The notion of a Christ is itself complex, but
it can be a simple relative to its 'epidemiology'.

Now compare that to the notion of gene. "A gene is a unit of heredity" is
one notional complex, as is "a gene is a triplet sequence of DNA
nucleotides", and "a gene is an expressed sequence of DNA", etc. There are
many notions that answer to the term "gene", relative to the theoretical
purpose to which it is applied, eg, by Mendelians in the teens, by
neo-Darwinians in the 40s, or by molecular biologists in the 90s. All have
merit if clearly used and distinguished. One use of gene that is relevant
to and I argue defining for memetics, is that there is a notion of
"evolutionary gene" in Williams' 1966 book, on which meme is founded, and
to which I refer in the "definition".

One thing I do disagree with you and several others on this list over, is
that memes must be stored in neural substrates. In my view, memes are
causal nexuses in a selection process that happens over culture. Some memes
occur as neural substrates, that is indisputable. However, some memes occur
as causal nexuses in the common discourse, that is, in societal structures.
These are not stored as neural substrates, for they may not be recognised
(else, why is sociology not intuitive?). They supervene on neural
structures, but the information is not so stored. In this, I think I am in
agreement with Bill Benzon when he wants to see memes as somehow
objectively there apart from our experience of them.

Thanks for the feedback.

John Wilkins
Head of Communication Services
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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