meme generation & evolution

Brown, Alex (browna@STAFF.TP.AC.SG)
Sat, 26 Jul 1997 13:53:27 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <browna@STAFF.TP.AC.SG>
To: "'memetics list'" <>
Subject: meme generation & evolution
Date: Sat, 26 Jul 1997 13:53:27 +0800

Date 25th July 1997

In evolutionary, system and communicational terms, some notes and
comments on the function and formation of memes:

1. A meme is a highly selective report/representation of many
experiences. That is its unique value. It is the result of cumulative
selection acting on previous experiences and this cumultive selection
occurs through multiple exchanges of such reports between the agents of
the particular system under discussion. It is not a single atomistic
experience - whose predictive and therefore survival value would be

2. The meme is a highly compressed message which over time and through
cumulative selection has been stripped of much of its redundancy (the
variability of its constituent experiences) in order to provide a single
uniform and flexible behavioural routine. This routine - this meme - is
an essentially economic approach to predicting successful responses to
variable environmental conditions (as against numerous blind trial and
error judgements). In the every day world, the meme is, therefore a
basic unit of learning. Yet no experience can be
covered/understood/predicted by single messages. Memes come in sets
which correspond to the diversity of conditions and phenomena which will
be met in particular domains. These are sets of possible behaviours or
material forms which offer highly probable solutions to particular and
variable conditions.

3. The set of memes is (presumably) called the 'memeplex'. The memeplex
is therefore a set of sets, since each meme in itself is a compressed
set of reports about experience. A report about experience is
INFORMATION - which can be understood as a particular configuration of
material or behaviour for use in particular (and future) circumstances.
In semiotic terms, the memeplex is a symbol (of a particular set of
experiences) which is, in itself a compression of a number of memes
(signs). The meme is the minimum recognizable (permissible) unit of
cultural information. Like a single word, of itself, it means very
little though it does have integral meaning (associations). It is when
combined with other related memes in a semantic complex, drawn from the
same cultural domain, that it has predictive and semantic significance.
It has survival value since it provides a ready-made model of

4. The evolution of a memeplex, symbolic system or other social
construction is the result of the formation of meta-systems out of the
compression of the most recurrent characteristics of a particular
historical period into a single unified expression. ('Compression' in
this sense is the EFFECT of stripping out circumstantial, marginal or
statistically improbable characteristics, leaving only the most probable
and - in terms of the category - the most essential features. One can
imagine this is achieved by the recursive, collective, application of a
simple algorithm of selection, combination along the lines of the
similarities and differences of features within the constituent symbolic
system or memeplex provided by history).

Memes in this sense are not spontaneously created or fabricated (by
heros or villains). They are the unforseen results of the evolution of a
cultural system. The Meta-System Transition concept is the logical
explanation for the generation of memes, symbols, speciation and other
historical and evolutionary phenomena. Its importance is that it offers
a systematic explanation for the formation of new levels of organization
within a system (and their expression in the form of new cultural forms
or memes).

5. The compression of experience into signs (memes) and symbols
(memeplexes) is a function of the classification of experience carried
out by the brain. This categorization is the fundamental cognitive
operation through which variable experience is 'tracked' and organized.
One can say that classification is not only what the brain does, but
essentially what the brain IS, namely a machine for producing categories
of experience. The regularities and uniformities of behaviour and
artifact by which we recognize culture at all are a product of the
categorization process - the memetic process by which experience is
represented, symbolized and ultimately made to accord with our
categories. The cultural (memetic/symbolic) algorithm is the recursive
application of this classification process to previously produced forms.
It is this recursive process which can produce enormous complexity in
evolutionary terms even in an environment which is stable. We
continually reclassify (by combination and recombination) experience and
the reports about experience (the memes). Cultural Variation Within
Limits is the end product of this continuous process.

6. The ability to make symbols - to say that one thing 'stands for
another' either by sounds, graphic images or behaviour (Bateson's, the
'nip and the bite' analogy) is the key distinguishing feature of homo
sapiens. The shift from pre-human to human rotates around that
evolutionary point in time when the symbolization process was triggered
(note: NOT just the acquisition of language which is a gross
oversimplification of the symbolic activity). Human culture and memetic
evolution starts at this point where symbols - complex reports about
experience can be EXCHANGED.

7. The meme is, in this sense a particular category which is transmitted
along with other relevant categories in a message/report about
experience. The human cognitive tendency to organize and comprehend
experience in this way is a biologically-derived function. There are no
memes hard-wired into the brain, there is only the processing hardware
which allows us to recognize and manipulate these memetic reports -
these messages. The cultural code from which all memetic messages are
derived, combined, given meaning and decyphered is 'out there' dispersed
amongst the large number of messages. The code exists as a statistical
regularity amongst a large number of messages. It is not a thing in
itself nor is it located somewhere. It is, in a sense everywhere. The
machine for de-coding the messages is 'in here' - in us. Cognitive
science has already shown that the brain is not a passive organ simply
receiving sensations from the environment. It is an intentional organ
directed to (re)constructing experience along categorical - and thus
comprehensible - lines.

8. One can speculate forever on the biochemical construction of this
organ - this logical machine - in terms of which experiences are
imprinted on which neuronal nets, which proteins are involved and so on.
However, it may be more useful to the task at hand to look at what the
brain DOES in terms of its perceptual and cognitive operations in terms
of generating, combining and generally manipulating cultural information
to attain order and thus meaning in its environment.

Finally, I would suggest that we do not only need to study 'catchy
tunes', circulating 'rumours', Coca Cola adverts or religious fads to
note the remarkable complexity and order which prevades culture. I am
always surprised when the study of cultural evolution employs such small
scale and ephemeral phenomena. The complexity, regularities and
continuity of political and social systems, architectures, arts, music,
science, religions, technology, wars and so on would seem to me to be
the subject of the whole enterprise. We are certainly not short of
information on such large scale cultural phenomena. Huge amounts of data
are available and thus it is less necessary to speculate. So too with
the human cognitive system. We can check the historical and social
facts, theories of cognition, systems and evolution which lie in the
vast array of data available in other disciplines.


Alex Brown

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