Re: Natural selection of memes

Ton Maas (
Wed, 10 Dec 1997 20:48:23 +0100

Message-Id: <v03102802b0b47b741fb2@[]>
In-Reply-To: <>
Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 20:48:23 +0100
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: Natural selection of memes

Jamie McCarthy said:
>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.

I tend to agree with Mario on this one. I still think the analogy has a few
*major* flaws, such as differentiation between carrier/host and meme. In
many cases a certain idea which spreads is defined both as meme and carrier
(that whichever selection acts upon), the whole idea of genetics being the
fact that genes themselves don't get acted upon, but they profoundly
influence the survival chances of their host. This flaw creates a confusion
between memetic spread and learning, which keeps me wondering if memetics
is really necessary as an explanatory principle.

>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.

Maybe, just maybe, this problem is not even relevant to the issue at hand.
As with all emergent phenomena, these too cannot effectively be understood
from breaking down their minute particulars. Even the desire may be
hopeless. This is what the Buddha and Nagarjuna (600 AD) tried to do with
their epistemological "revolutions": stop wondering whence or why, start
observing *how*! For this reason introspection and careful observation are
such powerful tools, even in the hands of scientists :-)

>But, all the elements are there. Memes can reproduce themselves:

Here we go again: memes most certainly are unable to reproduce themselves.
They get copied, is all.

>"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.

The limitations and restrictions described above are determined by the
nature of our mental apparatus and *not* in any way by the "memes"
"themselves". Since our brains are largely analog devices, they don't
achieve much in terms of digital perfection when it comes to memorizing
(abduction being their favorite intellectual manoeuvre) and the same
feature determines their saturation: like a proper analog medium, they are
never "full" like a counter which jumps from 99999 to 00000. Rather they
show gradual deterioration of detail (memories getting vaguer).

>>Given variation and an environment there will always be selection

Of course, but *what* is getting 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?

I rest my case.

Regards to all,


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