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

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 17 Jul 1997 14:24:26 -0500

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Date: Thu, 17 Jul 1997 14:24:26 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: What's in a Meme? Reprise and paper - comments welcome
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>Aaron Lynch responding to John Wilkins:

[older messages snipped]

>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.]

I do indeed have a tendency to go downward in a given partial ordering
heterarchy of propositions and their conjugations when identifying the
"units" that I wish to discuss. The "smaller" piece of information is
simply easier to copy, and hence can often be better identified as a
replicator or "unit" of selection. But to include the term "smallest"
suggests an objective measurement of meme size. In order to put this in the
definition, you must first propose an unambiguous metric by which to say
which of two given memes is "larger," or if they are of "equal size." This
burden lies with anyone who proposes a size criterion, unless someone else
comes up with a generally accepted full ordering scheme for memes.

That even conjunctive combinations are only partially ordered poses a
problem to the project of developing a full ordering scheme. Another
problem arises from the fact that the "size" of memes depends upon the
abstraction system in which they are measured. "God is love" might be
"larger" in some systems than in others. Again from physics: the size of an
object as seen from a frame of reference moving at +0.5c will be different
from the size of the same object seen from a frame of reference moving at
-0.1c, but science can still proceed without asserting that only one frame
of reference is "correct."

>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.

You need to introduce a meme about justified murder to get the latter with
recombinant fragments of the former.

>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.

I raise a second caution about substrate. With the term "gene," the trend
among biologists has been to become more specific about substrate, to the
point where few would consider the substrate as anything other than nucleic
acids (DNA or RNA). Hence, a prion is not considered a gene, even though it
replicates and might also exhibit evolution by natural selection. I do not
consider neural information to be the only cultural subject for
evolutionary replicator theory, but I do favor a more substrate-specific
definition for the word "meme" in order to hold back the confusion. Still,
just as biology now needs the word "prion" in addition to the word "gene,"
I think that cultural evolution theory might need one or more new words as


--Aaron Lynch

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

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