Re: List of meme definitions

Aaron Lynch (
Sat, 11 Apr 1998 01:13:58 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 11 Apr 1998 01:13:58 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: List of meme definitions
In-Reply-To: <>


Some more replies:

>Aaron, thank you for your prompt and thoughtful reply (full text at bottom)
>to my mail.
>You write:
>>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.[...]Dawkins does not insist that a particular
>>instance of gene succeed in replicating in order to be called a replicator.

>These two statements strike me as contradictory....I'd tend to go along
>with the second of them and state that if _any_ instance of a mnemon is
>replicated then _all_ instances of the same mnemon are memes.

Your statement is not equivalent to my second statement, and is nowhere
near as pragmatic as you think. Suppose we investigated the belief that
"the sun will rise again," and found out that most of its hosts learn the
idea from their environment without being told. Now suppose I find a young
Inuit child who only has this idea because she has been told. Does that
make the idea a meme in ALL instances, just because it is replicated in
one? Supposing I discover a similar learned piece of information for which
I do not know for sure whether any host acquired it by replication. Then
you in principle do not know if ANY instance at all is a meme or not! What
if there is just one person who learned it by replication, and that person
dies? Does the meme revert to being non-meme for all the rest? What if you
can't determine whether some long-deceased person got the idea by
imitation? Then you again cannot determine whether any of the present (all
non-replicated) instances of the mnemon are a meme or not.

>There are some good reasons for taking this approach:
> 1) Once one communication/replication event has been observed, it
>can be stated that all instances of the mnemon concerned are memes
>without having to investigate their individual origins. Such investigation is
>futile in any case as it can only be known for certain that an individual
>_claims_ to have acquired a particular mnemon from someone else.

If you want to raise questions about validity of individual claims, then
you might as well also doubt whether the person has the meme he claims to
have. I don't propose as a practical matter that we track down every
formation event for every meme. There are plenty of ideas for which
originality or independent re-invention can be reasonably ruled out for the
vast majority of the present host population. The idea that "Jesus rose
from the dead" is a good example of this. We have so many such ideas to
study (see my book) that we should not worry that a scarcity of them will
force us to study ideas that really call for case by case replication
determination for all the individuals in a large host population.

> Often not even the individual concerned may know, especially with
>existentially trivial (but perhaps scientifically intereresting or studyable)
>mnemons such as buzzwords/phrases or Dawkins' 'reversed baseball
>cap' meme.

There are research designs that can look at how/where children of various
ages are learing a particular idea. But even if you come up with a list of
almost intractible cases, that does not mean that research should halt for
the other cases.

> 2) This expansion of the definition doesn't admit any more classes of
>mnemons to the set of all memes - only instances of mnemons which
>were classified as memes in any case. Uncommunicable mental
>information (e.g. recollections of sensory stimuli or emotions) and
>information that is not in practise communicated is still excluded.

As attractive as it may be for you to call instances of mnemons memes even
when they have neither caused nor resulted from replication, any definition
that allows this must thereby exclude calling all the memes "replicators."
Matters of taste are subordinate to matters of fact and matters of logical

> 3) A rider to the definition refining it to only include mnemons that
>propagate substantially through communication/imitation as opposed to
>invention/realisation can still be added.

Host populations of a mnemon can evolve from mostly non-replicated to
mostly replicated instances. A belief that "there is only one god," for
instance, may have arisen numerous independent times as a fairly private
thought before variants arose that realized the transmission advantages I
discuss in TC. My definition in allows for accurate quantitative tracking
of this kind of transition, whereas your rider definition obscures it.

> For instance, under the existing definition, if I awake from a coma and
>ask you what year it is then we are both hosts of the meme 'It is 1998'.
>Without the rider, ALL hosts of the mnemon become hosts of the meme,
>but with it its not a meme at all.
> This excludes a class of mnemons allowed under your definition.
> (Paradox/exception: 'It is day'/'It is night' in a population of
>persons. Some mnemons will predominantly replicate in certain
>populations and be predominantly 'discovered' in others.)
> 4) This allows us to describe the mnemons A*B in two individuals as
>equal in all circumstances.

Describing all A*B instantiations as "equal in all circumstances" (with
respect to mode of causation) is not a condition you can impose by fiat. It
is an empirical question.

>My own *favourite* would be a definition that captured the nature of
>'knowledge packets' (e.g. 'Christianity', Marxism', 'Logical Positivism'),
>constituents of which are rare in isolation but common in unison.
>Something like 'A set of memory items that tend to propagate together',
>but with mathemathical rigour. Perhaps this can be called something else
>- 'Mutually reinforcing mnemon set' or something similar.

We already have such terms. We call them meme complexes, meme packages,
meme sets, etc. My definition of "meme" certainly did not hamper my book's
discussion of the co-propagation of numerous memes in Christian meme sets,
for instance.

--Aaron Lynch

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)