Re: List of meme definitions

Adrian Kelleher (
Tue, 14 Apr 1998 20:12:04 +0100

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 14 Apr 1998 20:12:04 +0100
From: Adrian Kelleher <>
Subject: Re: List of meme definitions


>Some more replies:

>>>Aaron, thank you for your prompt and thoughtful reply (full text at
>>>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
>>>are indeed replicators.[...]Dawkins does not insist that a particular
>>>instance of gene succeed in replicating in order to be called a

>>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
>>replicated then _all_ instances of the same mnemon are memes.

>Your statement is not equivalent to my second statement, and is
>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
>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

Yes - a trivial one, but a meme nonetheless.

>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!

If you 'acquire' the 'learned...information', its a meme by your own

> 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?

No, once a single successful replication event is observed, all instances
of the same mnemon can be called memes.

>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
>non-replicated) instances of the mnemon are a meme or not.

One could speculate to equal effect about dead psychics, levitators,
memeticists etc.

As has often been remarked, there will never be a science of history
because one cannot perform experiments in the past. Again, once a
communication event is *observed*, all instances of the abstraction that
is observed to have been communicated are memes.

If you're suspicious that there's some difference between the
non-replicating instances and the replicating ones then you need to
refine your observation system to determine what the difference is.

>>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
>>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

By 'claims', I meant that I may claim to have been decisively influenced by
my father in accepting Zen Buddism, but perhaps I am mistaken in the
assertion. Here, I'm making a claim about an objective *fact*. This is not
the same as doubting someone has the meme he claims to have - you
can't possibly be *mistaken* about what you believe at a given moment.

>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
>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
>study (see my book) that we should not worry that a scarcity of them
>force us to study ideas that really call for case by case replication
>determination for all the individuals in a large host population.

The practical implications of this may not be as minimal as you think -
imagine runs on banks or on the Stock Exchange, for instance. Here, one
can imagine a multitude of 'discoverers' giving rise to a multitude of
imitators (but each perhaps to a very unequal degree).

>> 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
>>cap' meme.

>There are research designs that can look at how/where children of
>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
>the other cases.

No - once one communication event is observed etc. This makes things
more tractable, not less so.

>> 2) This expansion of the definition doesn't admit any more classes
>>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
>when they have neither caused nor resulted from replication, any
>that allows this must thereby exclude calling all the memes "replicators."
>Matters of taste are subordinate to matters of fact and matters of logical

No - If you 'measure' them (abstraction system) and find them to be 'the
same' as instances which you know to have replicated then they're all
memes. If you suspect the replicating instances are somehow different
from the non-replicating ones, check your measurement system, not your

>> 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
>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.

You must still separate the imitator-hosts from the inventor-hosts, a
non-trivial task. With the rider, only the nomenclature need be changed to
facilitate the analysis you describe (replace 'meme and non-meme hosts
of mnemon A' with 'imitative and non-imitative hosts of mnemon A'),
though the separation of imitators and non-imitators must still be done.

>> For instance, under the existing definition, if I awake from a coma
>>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
>>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
>>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.

If A*B differs from host to host, you need to change your notation
system to reflect this. If under a given 'abstraction system' (I mean set of
prompts or queries) two individuals make identical expressions, then
those individuals are identical with regard to that abstraction system.

>>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
>>- 'Mutually reinforcing mnemon set' or something similar.

>We already have such terms. We call them meme complexes, meme
>meme sets, etc.

Yes, but they're defined in the loosest terms and do not provide for
measurement. Certainly these entities don't need to be called memes, but
to my mind they constitute the essence of what's called 'memetics'.

Is a thought that's observed to be communicated from one host to
another a meme even if its *never observed to propagate in isolation* -
Yes under any definition I've encountered, but no under a definition that
covers the encapsulation described.

>My definition of "meme" certainly did not hamper my book's
>discussion of the co-propagation of numerous memes in Christian meme
>for instance.

>--Aaron Lynch


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For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)