Natural selection of memes

Jamie McCarthy (
Wed, 10 Dec 1997 09:12:58 -0500

Subject: Natural selection of memes
Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 09:12:58 -0500
From: Jamie McCarthy <>
To: <>
Message-Id: <>

Mario Vaneechoutte writes:

>I think that natural selection of memes is a contradictio in terminis.
>Natural selection is about different reproductive success of organisms
>(interactors) which influences the gene ('replicator') frequency. Memes
>are also selected but not because they are in some organism of which
>they help to determine the reproductive success, like genes do.

As I understand it, memes are naturally selected. But not (in most cases)
because they influence the reproductive success of their host.

The analogue to the organism is the concept that each meme represents;
for example the referent of the phrase "roly poly fish heads" is a meme.

The analogue to an organism's reproduction is the spread of a meme from
one mind to another; for example, the just-mentioned referent started
in my mind and will spread over this mailing list to other minds.

We don't really know what the analogue to a gene would be, as we don't
know what the essential representation of a meme in a mind is. We're
not even close enough to ask the right questions about this, and I for
one don't expect that there _is_ anything standard about representation
of "the same idea," even if the idea of "the same idea" makes any sense
at or around the cellular level which I doubt. I won't see it in my
lifetime; the Watson and Crick of memetics haven't been born yet.

But, all the elements are there. Memes can reproduce themselves:
"the same idea" may not have a cellular basis, but by observation we
all know that two people can believe more-or-less the same thing, or
know more-or-less the same idea. Different memes have different
reproductive successes: the "Fish Heads" song was inculcated in nearly
all Generation X'ers and survives to this day, while other tunes are
forgotten. Memes mutate: a common name seen in a popular game is now
"Rolly Polly Dwarf Heads," a phrase which may make it on its own. And
there are limited resources available to memes: there are only so many
minds, each capable of holding only so many memes.

Now, a meme may reproduce _itself_ better if it also influences the
reproductive capability of its _host_. This is sometimes seen in meme
complexes; I hope I won't offend anyone on this list if I suggest that
one of the (many) reasons the meme complex for Catholicism spreads so
effectively is that it discourages birth control and has a high
probability of parent-to-child transmission. But, at least in the
modern age where words and pictures span the globe in milliseconds,
reproductive success of the host mind is a relatively small factor.

>Given variation and an environment there will always be selection (one
>could say that radio-active decay is still ongoing culling selection of
>those atomic configurations which are unstable under the physical laws
>of our universe), but only genes can be naturally selected.

Given reproduction, variation capable of affecting reproduction rate,
a resource-limited environment, and enough time, how can natural
selection _not_ take place? Regardless of what it is that's reproducing?

 Jamie McCarthy                           

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