Meme vs. meme-vehicle

Martti Nyman (
Sat, 19 Jul 1997 01:54:38 +0300 (EET DST)

Date: Sat, 19 Jul 1997 01:54:38 +0300 (EET DST)
From: Martti Nyman <>
Subject: Meme vs. meme-vehicle
In-Reply-To: <>

Dear all,
I, for one, must thank Bill Benzon (Thu, 17 Jul 1997: The /doggie/ "meme")
for an exceptionally well-thought presentation of how memes are acquired
and what memes are all about.

> Mark Mills has started a conversation about innate ideas/memes & piano
> playing which I find rather puzzling. It seems to me that to assert that
> our innate behavior capacity is, in fact, memetic, rather scuttles the
> whole idea of culture, reducing it to biology -- which is, of course, a
> rather popular activity. Given that we share 98% plus of our DNA with
> the higher apes, that isn't much DNA in which to "encode" culture, but
> then I don't think that it is culture which is encoded. All that's
> encoded is the capacity for culture, which is, admittedly, merely a
> verbal formula. But....

To use a memetic platitude: I couldn't agree more! Also the rest of
Bill's posting is well worth giving heed to. The capacity for culture is
a verbal formula for whatever genetic prerequisites there are for human
culture. As a linguistic parallel consider language vs. language faculty:
It is obvious that Junior's capacity for entering the road to language
is, to *some* extent -- it is a moot point, though, to *what* extent --
genetically based.

Let me take up an ontological issue. Ever since Aristotle it has
been obvious that ideas need a material substrate to subsist, yet
it is conceptually necessary to distinguish between idea and the
physical vehicle which carries that idea. In an earlier posting (Memetic
Digest #42 / Wed, 9 July), Mark Mills defines meme as "a coded substrate
containing cultural information". Notice that Mark here makes precisely
the same conceptual distinction: On the one hand, we have 'cultural
information'; on the other, we have the 'coded substrate' of this
information. This would be well and good, were it not for the fact
that he decides to call the latter - 'meme' instead of 'meme-vehicle'.

I have nothing against calling tools 'memes', as long as this is done
with the understanding that tools are, in the last analysis,
meme-vehicles ...

Regards, Martti Nyman / Linguistics / Univ. of Helsinki (Finland)

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