Re: List of meme definitions

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 09 Apr 1998 08:39:39 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 09 Apr 1998 08:39:39 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: List of meme definitions
In-Reply-To: <>

These are reasonable questions, Adrian.

>(A. Lynch, JoM Vol 2/No. 2), the definition of meme quoted elsewhere in
>the paper results in some odd conclusions, in particular:
>.... A*B formed by the event ~A*B+A*~B->~A*B+A*B is not a meme,
>although it is meme-derived.
>Yet as mentioned earlier, A*B can also propagate as a set by the
>non-parental conversion event A*B+~A*~B->2A*B. Formed this way,
>A*B is a meme. Thus, the host population of A*B is yet another mixture of
>memes and meme-derived mnemons.
>[end of extract]
> (under the definition given, classifying only those memory
>abstractions arising from previous instances of an 'identical' memory
>abstraction as memes), A*B is sometimes a meme and sometimes not a
>meme, depending on the circumstances of its creation - this strikes me
>as untenable for the following reasons:

I don't use the term "identical."

> i) A*B=A*B=A*B - equal things should have equal attributes, so
>A*B should surely be a meme either always or never, otherwise the
>notation needs to be changed.

"Sameness" of two instantiations of a memory item does in general not imply
sameness of causation. So you are not entitled to insist that because two
people have "the same" memory item, that the causation must have been the
same. Therefore, you cannot, in general, insist that the both have the
attribute of "replicator."

> ii) The host populations of the meme and non-meme varieties
>cannot easily be distinguished.
> For example, in the bee pollen example quoted in the paper, is the
>'bee pollen invigorates' belief in a purchaser a meme or not a meme? We
>need to find the original persuader (the merchant in this example) to find
>out (in order to verify he wasn't being disingenuous). This may
>frequently be impossible.

Someone being swayed by a lie has a heteroderivative mnemon for the same
reason that someone being swayed by an honest misstatement does. The most
useful applications of memetic evolution theory, however, are generally
when the homoderivative instantiations of a mnemon have become
overwhelmingly predominant--as in the case of religions, family mores, etc.

> iii) Under this constraint, a novel idea or discovery which
>propagates through a population is a meme for all hosts except the
>discoverer! (S/he is the only host who's belief doesn't originate from a
>prior instance of the same belief set).

The definition I have chosen to use is the more parsimonious of two
possibilities. But instead of going with just homoderivative mnemons, we
can also define "meme" more broadly to include homogenic mnemons as well.
That yeilds the following:

MEME: A memory item, or portion of an organism's neurally-stored
information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer, whose
instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of
the same memory item in one or more other organisms' nervous systems, or
which has caused a subsequent instantiation of the same memory item in
another organism's nervous system. ("Sameness" of memory items is
determined with respect to the above-mentioned abstraction system of the

Though wordier, this definition at least includes discoverers. You may
still, however, find it odd that you still do not know if a mnemon is a
meme until it has replicated. You can still also have populations that mix
meme and non-meme instantiations of a mnemon. So if you don't like these
circumstances, then you may prefer to write about mnemons rather than memes.

Yet if you do write about memes as replicators, then you need a definition
that makes sure that ALL of the instances labeled as "memes" are indeed
replicators. If you do not, then people will rightly regard you as
mislabeling all sorts of non-replicated and non-replicating mnemons that
occur as private re-invented thoughts in some but imitated thoughts in
others. Much of the unconscious resistance to memetics is actually
resistance to versions that seem far too glib about labeling ideas as
"replicators." It is not just the people who are able to consciously put
this objection into words.

Taking homoderivative status as sufficient for "replicator" status is
consistent with the usage in Dawkins and elsewhere. Dawkins does not insist
that a particular instance of gene succeed in replicating in order to be
called a replicator.

Because memes are the NEW replicators, we have a problem that resembles a
mix of replicating and non-replicating molecules in proto-life. Some
instances of an oligonucleotide, for instance, may have formed from random
recombination of smaller pieces, while other instances may have resulted
from rare (due to lack of enzymes) autocatalysis from a prior instantiation
of "the same" oligonucleotide. To speak strictly, you cannot therefore take
the entire population of molecular isomers and uniformly call them

The problem is not that my position is untenable, but that I do not present
a level of simplicity that can only result from oversimplifying a complex
mixture of causations. In a technical presentation of memetics, it is far
more important to remain accurate than to simplify. Many of the most useful
applications of memetics, however, are ones where the vast success of
replicated instantiations renders the distinctions between meme and
non-meme instances of a mnemon moot. In these cases, you are not hampered
by any real task of distinguishing host populations of meme and non-meme
instnaces of a mnemon. My book Thought Contagion focuses on just such
applications (where simplification is permissible), and therefore does not
need to go into the meticulous distinctions found in my paper.


--Aaron Lynch

THOUGHT CONTAGION: How Belief Spreads Through Society The New Science of Memes Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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