Re: Machiavellian Memes - discussion between Nick R. and Mario V

Niki Ritt (
Wed, 8 Oct 1997 16:41:22 +0000

Message-Id: <>
From: Niki Ritt <>
Date: Wed, 8 Oct 1997 16:41:22 +0000
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes - discussion between Nick R. and Mario V

Well, it seems there are after all a few points that a linguist might
contribute to your fascinating discussion.

Mario wrote:

> Second, when I interpret you correctly, from now onwards - when I see
> someone copying a book - I should no longer say in the old fashioned
> English I use: 'A book is copied.' (cfr. 'A meme is being replicated.'),
> but I should say - as most modern English speakers do: 'A book copies.'
> (cfr. 'A meme replicates.')

No native speaker of English would normally make an utterace like _A
book copies_ to refer to a situation in which a specifiable
human agent copies a book. This particular usage of transitive
verbs is normally reserved for utterances of the type

_This book doesn't copy well_

in which the actual agent is irrelevant.

The construction has a special name, namely 'medial' and is generally
agreed to carry an implicit meaning of passivity.

Due to the surface identity of medial and truly active constructions,
it is often not easy to decide whether the syntactic subject, i.e the
pre-verbal noun phrase, is supposed to be identical with the semantic
agent or if it represents an affected or effected object, with the
semantic agent being merely unexpressed.

Incidentally, there is even the opposite case of intransitives such
as _grow_ acquiring a causative meaning when used transitively.

Consider, for eample,

a. _potatoes grow_
b. _potatoes are grown by John_
c. _ John grows potatoes_

But this is just an aside. What is important is that it is not true,
that every syntactically active construction involving verbs
such as _copy_ or _replicate_ is automatically interpretable as
medial. In particular, active reflexives are not, or rather, it would
not make any semantic difference if they were.

Consider, for example, a phrase like

_Genes copy themselves._

In this phrase, the syntactic subject is indeed the semantic agent as
well, and a medial reading wouldn't change this at all, for obvious

Therefore, the question whether memes 'replicate' or 'are replicated'
is not likely to be resolved by saying that the two ways of 'putting
things' are essentially synonymous, and that it is just a question of
taste, style or whatever which of the two phrasings one prefers.

So, sorry folks, but unless Nick Rose agrees that phrases like _memes
replicate themselves_ are completely out of the question also for
him, he and Mario do have a substantial problem, rather than just a
linguistic one.

Keep at it, folks, because no matter what memes or genes might do or
suffer, problems hardly ever (are) solve(d by) themselves.

Niki Ritt

> I truly fail to see how verbs like 'to replicate' and 'to copy' can be
> used in the active voice without suggesting that there is a processor at
> work which is doing things.


Nikolaus Ritt
English Department
University of Vienna
Universitaetsstrasse 7
A-1010 Vienna

Phone: int. 43 1 4277 424 24
Fax: int. 43 1 4277 9424


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