re. re. meme generation and evolution

Brown, Alex (
Fri, 1 Aug 1997 14:56:30 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'memetics list'" <>
Subject: re. re. meme generation and evolution
Date: Fri, 1 Aug 1997 14:56:30 +0800

From: Alex Brown:
Date: 30th July 1997

With reference to my post of July 26th, Mark Mills writes:

MM: " Thanks for the well thought out post. I've gone through it and
asked a lot of questions, probably too many questions."

AB: Not too many, and certainly all interesting.

MM: ".....You use the term 'atomistic experience.' I am not sure what
that means. It seems sensible on the surface, but if I look at its
compliment, a non-atomistic experience, I draw a blank...."

AB: My reference to 'atomistic experience' was ironic. My statement
rejects the idea of such a concept. I said, when refering to the meme:
"..It is NOT a single atomistic experience...." which would have little
or no survival value in terms of suggesting future behaviour. It would
be simply one event amongst an infinite number of events and in terms of
theory a futile reduction. Stable cultural forms (which surround us and
constrain our behaviour) are the result of the collective assimilation
of a large number of experiences integrated and condensed into messages
which can be exchanged between the agents (inter-actors?) of the system.
My conceptual take on Memetics (or what I prefer to call Cultural
Evolution) is essentially evolutionary, behavioural and driven by
communication and exchange between the agents.

MM: "....Who is collecting the experiences? groups? individuals?..."

AB: Both, at different organizational levels. Individuals intentionally
select, combine and exchange reports about experience in order to deal
with new situations in variable environments. The collective and
cumulative result of that activity is the establishment of group
phenomena called cultural forms which are outside the control of
individual activity and indeed constrain that activity. (As usual,
language is the most obvious but not the only example). Group phenomena
have their own dynamics which can be understood at an ecological level
(interacting groups). This is certainly the case in cultural terms where
there is always more than one style or paradigm available within any

MM: " ....What makes a meme more predictive than an 'atomistic'
experience? Is a meme predictive due to the cumulative small predictive
contributions of the atomistic experiences or is the predictive aspect a
feature of the whole which emerges once the meaningless atomistic
experiences are collected?...."

AB: The latter (sort of). A meme exists as a product of selection
applied to a large number of experiences. In other words, experience has
to be processed (subject to selection) before it has predictive value
for humans. There is no 'collection' involved. 'Collection' assumes an
aggregate or bundle of discrete elements. Experience is however,
analogue, continuous, integrated, seamless. The report on it (the meme)
is not. It is a digital representation (classification) of that analogue
experience which, unlike experience itself is 'portable' and can be
transmitted. Experiences can in this sense, be scanned but not

MM: ".....At the beginning, you describe a meme as a 'representation,'
something that might be 'sent' from one individual to another. At the
end, you say a meme is not an 'atomistic' experience, suggesting a meme
might be a non-atomistic experience..... Finally, isn't a report just
another experience? Is there a
non-experiential way of receiving it?......"

AB: Yes. A report in the form of a meme IS another experience, as indeed
learning is 'another' (second level) experience. There is no
non-experiential way of receiving it (or anything else).

MM: ".....This sounds like a habit on the surface. Are you suggesting a
meme is a habit? I guess one might say that habits are a 'unit of

AB: Yes. From a behavioural point of view, cultural forms
(memes/memeplexes) are habits and are the results of learning from
experience. In cultural terms, the learning can take a millenia as a set
of forms, behaviours establishes itself throughout a society.

MM: "....The notion of 'compression' alludes to a 'decompression'
process. Have you considered how decompression is done? Are you really
talking about compression or is it more of a 'streamlined' report..."

AB: I am really talking about compression. That is, the meme re-presents
regularities (similarities) across a number of experiences. These
experiences are compressed by excluding irregular, circumstantial or
random (non-repetitive) characteristics from the report leaving only the
most essential features. (It is in this sense that experience is
'coded'). Compression is classification and the formation of specific
categories of similarities and differences. Other associated processes:
abstraction and cognitive framing. It is the equivalent of
'condensation' in Freudian psychological terms and can be analysed along
the same lines. The resulting report is comprehensible (and portable)
since it is isolated from its context and acts as a GENERAL rule (or a
constraint) which can be used in a number of circumstances. (See
Meta-system transition below).

Decompression involves the application of the meme to a PARTICULAR set
of circumstances. The message has to be expanded - decompressed - to FIT
those circumstances. Context is injected back into the message by
manipulating or 'distorting' the form/meme or conjoining it with others
to represent this particular micro-environment (context). Compress to
transmit/exchange - decompress to use/apply.

MM: "....You've defined meme as a 'unit of learning.' How does one
measure learning in terms of these units?...."

AB: By noting changes of behaviour among the agents operating with a
cultural system when a new cultural code/paradigm/memetic set is in
place. There are an infinite number of examples of such changes: the
change from Ptolemaic to Copernican world views, from alchemy to
chemistry, pre- and post-Darwinian biological theory, Newtonian to
Einsteinian physical theories, Classical to Modern Art and Architecture,
Merchantile to Corporate capitalism, oligarchy/monarchic government to
democracies, pre- to post Rock 'n Roll music. The issue being the
'before' and 'after' of the transition from one state, one form of
practice/behaviour/set of procedures to another, one set of
assumptions/concepts/theories to another.

Measurement of learning involves comparing typical behaviour before and
after a social/cultural change. That is, what people actually do before
and after the Event. A (single?) meme is simply one element locked into
a complex of elements that together make up the new social and cultural
paradigm. A meme is one part of the jigsaw.

MM: ".....You've defined meme as a 'unit of cultural information.' How
does one measure cultural information in terms of these units? Is there
such a thing as a '5 meme piece of cultural information'?..."

AB: Culture is about behaviour. What else could it be? It is thus not
arithmetically measurable. Nor can one talk about 'size'. (Although of
course statistical measures can be used). Indeed one can suggest a
definition of 'culture' as: - a collective constraint on behaviour.
Cultural evolution involves a change in current constraints. Memes are
reports about the results of previous behaviour which through selective
retention (memory) act as constraints on future behaviour. The meme is
the minimum recognizable unit of behaviour (a 'word').

MM: "......You've again raised the source of meaning question. You seem
to believe that every experience has a very small amount of inherent
meaning ('a single word...means very little thought it does have
meaning...'). Where does this meaning come from? If words had inherent
meaning, wouldn't all languages be about the same?...I suspect low
pitch, low volume, rhythmic sound (baby crying) produces an inate
reaction in many humans, but wouldn't this be a matter of inherited
brain response?.....

AB: The use of the term 'inherent' may cause confusion here. There is
nothing in the word (sound) itself which has any meaning. Meaning is
derived by ASSOCIATION of that word with particular experiences and that
is a matter of history, context and learning. Combining single words
within a recognizable grammar limits the possible associations that can
be attached to the word but increases its signifying power (from
possible to probable meaning). Ultimately meaning is about probability
and this has two dimensions: the denotative - is the word recognizable
in terms of the prevailing language set. Connotative - is the word
recognizable in the particular context it is used (does it trigger the
appropriate associations).

I agree that certain rhythmic sounds and sensations provoke innate
reactions in humans. As I understand it, the limbic system is
particularly responsive to this. It is part of our biological

MM: ".....I sense a desire to define 'meaning' without addressing the
issue of inherited brain responses. Rather than say 'meaning' emerges
from an inherited aspect of our body, you seem more comfortable placing
the source of 'meaning' in the collections of sound or light patterns.
Have you avoided inheritance? Where do inherited behavior patterns fit
into your system?........"

AB: No. I agree that meaning emerges from the activity of the brain. I
regard that activity (and the meaning that flows from it) as essentially
classificatory (production of categories). As above, this cognitive
predisposition of the brain is a part of our biological/evolutionary
inheritance. The brain creates meaning out of the sound, light and
tactile patterns which it perceives in the world. Over long periods of
time and working on the results of its own past (collective) activities
it can produce Baroque music (or that of Springsteen), Modern
architecture and theories of Relativity and Evolution, etc. etc.

MM: "...Your use of the 'Meta-System Transition' covers a lot of
territory, but left undefined. Can you give any

AB: Principia Cybernetica Web offers a wide discussion and defintion of
this concept coined by V Turchin. Essentially, MST is a
system-cybernetic concept which explains organizational change and
evolution in terms of an ascending hierarchy of controls over system

"... Suppose that [a number of] systems are united into a new system S'
which has the systems of the S type as its subsystems, and includes also
an additional mechanism which controls the behavior and production of
the S-subsystems. Then we call S' a metasystem with respect to S, and
the creation of S' a metasystem transition. As a result of consecutive
metasystem transitions a multilevel structure of control arises, which
allows complicated forms of behavior."

(In my view, the 'compression' process described above gives a clearer
explanation of the formation of such hierarchies. Nor does it require
'additional; mechanisms'.

MM: "......Again, no reference to inheritance of behavioral traits here.
Why? Could the change from a culture dominated by inherited behavior
patterns to a culture dominated by learned behavior patterns be a
'Meta-System Transition' according to your system?...."

AB: "Inheritance of behavioural traits' - the brain,
biological/evolutionary inheritance - as above. In Evolutionary terms
one can posit the idea of a MST between inherited and learned
behavioural modes of the same evolutionary system. Child-to-adult
behavioural development recapitulates this evolutionary process. I would
also suggest that this is the pre-human to human distinction.

MM: " ......As far as I can tell, you've sourced meaning outside the
body, was this to make inheritance a non-issue....."

AB: Re. meaning generation - See above: Meaning as a product of
interaction between the cognitive operations of the brain (ie.
categorization) and environment.

MM: "......This reminds me of idol worship traditions. In these
traditions, meaning was contained by the rock or statue (sign/symbol).
The human contained no meaning, but only served to catagorize 'divine'
rocks and statues from 'normal' rocks and statues. Meaning and/or
identity cames from association with the rock (in my case, I'll admit my
identity depends on association with the green paper in my bank vault).
Is this a correct analogy?...........First, let me agree that the notion
of 'exchange' is critical to human
cultural evolution....."

AB: I basically agree with this. See above.

MM: "....I'm not sure why you start human culture and memetic evolution
at the same time. How would you differentiate between a human exhange
of experiential reports and the exchange between an adult and baby in
various bird and mammal species? In many cases, the baby will make
various gestures to express hunger, fear, pain, etc. The adults seem
capable of responding appropriately upon these reports...
Are these non-human exchanges non-memetic? They seem memetic based on
your 'reports' based definition....."

AB: I assumed that memetics was about human culture/cultural evolution.
Animals and young babies react to experiences with automatic behaviour.
The experience and the expression of that experience are at the same
logical level. An exclamation (a yell or cry) is not a report, it is an
unedited expression of the experience. A report/meme/cultural form is an
edited (digitalized) representation of experience. Neither is it a
description of an experience which would take infinitely long to 'write
out' or communicate. One can also note another key feature of
animal/baby commuincation, namely that there are no (past/ future/
potential future) tenses involved. Everything is NOW. Like learning
there are different levels of communicative and cognitive ability
prescribed by our genetic/evolutionary inheritance. Fortunately the
human genetic program allows the baby to develop more extensive and
complex communicational schemata. In my view, non-human exchanges are

MM: "....So, there are no memes inherited by the brain, only meme
receivers and meme processors?....Have you considered from what feature
of the non-memetic brain these meme
complements evolved?...."

AB: Given my definition of memes above, I would say that there are no
memes inherited by the brain. The brain is a biological system, while
culture is process: selection, information and behaviour.

MM: "...I don't have any problem with the notion that the machine for
decoding is 'in here.' On the other hand, when you say that '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,' I get confused. Earlier (#3), I assumed you put
meaning in the sound and light waves, the words with inherent meaning.
Now, the brain confers meaning on inert reports (experiences)......

......If meaning is conferred by the brain (the machine for decoding ...
is 'in here'), where does it come from? Is meaning generation an
inherited feature of the brain or learned? Was the first meme defined
by a mutated brain gene which produced a brain which processed an
experience as 'meaningful' when earlier brains processed the same
experience as 'meaningless'? What was the pre-memetic brain processing
that suddenly turned out to be a meme? random experiences? If
processing random experiences, why? what was the evolutionary

AB: Re. meaning: I think I have dealt with that above, namely meaning is
created by the interaction of human classifications with sensory
experience. The exact nature of those classifications or categories (eg.
binary, similarity/difference, etc.) I would assume is determined by the
physical/chemical structure of the brain itself but which itself is
empty of content. The complexity of cultural evolution comes about when
we recursively classify the results of our own former classifications.
The evolutionary/selective advantage of the transition from pre-human to
human is the capacity to scan past experience for a range of possible
future behaviours. The move, as I would suggest from reacting to
experience thinking about experience. Contemplation in other words. A
decisive advantage.

MM: "....Sorry for all the questions...."

AB: I enjoyed it. But sorry for the overly extensive reply.


Alex Brown

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)