Re: Substance and Form

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 28 May 1998 12:53:00 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 28 May 1998 12:53:00 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Substance and Form
In-Reply-To: <>

>On Thu, 28 May 1998 12:58:11 +0200 Josip Pajk <>
>> If the semantic and semiotic problems of "what does it mean" are still
>> bothering such "mature" sciences like biology and genetics, that can
>> experiment with real substance, as you say, "manipulating DNA chunks", I
>> don't see how memetics which is dealing exclusively with imaginary forms
>> (ideas) could escape from the problem of meaning. I think memetics IS all
>> about that.
>Not necessarily. There are two ways to look at this problem. One is
>that memetics is a branch of ideational anthropology, in which case the
>meme has already been defined according to the terms of that
>discipline. This may be almost the 'orthodox' view (insofar as there
>is any agreement about what is orthodox in memetics)
>The second one is to say that memetics need not be about internal ideas
>at all. This, I think, will be regarded as heretical (although I
>subscribe to this, as I'll explain).
>For the first point of view: memetics as ideational
>anthropology; according to the 1982 Dawkins definition of the meme, it
>is an informational unit in the brain (Dawkins 1982, p.109). Dawkins
>stresses that he wishes it to be congruent with Cloak's (1975)
>Cloak (1975, p.63) defines his i-culture as:
>'.. an unobserved, enduring structure or set of related structures
>internal to the animal' [Cloak italicises 'internal']
>This set of structures 'bears a causal relationship to ... behavior'
>(Cloak 1975, p.163)
>Cloak is an animal behaviourist and represents the 'ideational' school
>of that subject; 'ideational' since an emphasis is put on the
>'i-culture', the internal set of instructions within the animal.
>Ideational theories of culture came into animal behavioural science
>from anthropology, where their originator was Clifford Geertz in the
>1970s. The ideational school represents a turning away from the !9th
>century materialist school of culture which regarded culture as:
>'that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals,
>custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by an individual
>as a member of society' (EB Tylor 1871, quoted by Cronk 1995, p.182).
>The modern ideational view, by contrast sees culture as:
>'a system of socially transmitted information' (Cronk 1995, p.182), or
>as Sperber (1985, p.77) said: 'mental representations' and
>'intra-subjective processes of thought and memory'.
>Memetics, in its Dawkins 1982 form (but possibly not in the 1976
>original), thus stands in the Geertzian tradition of ideational
>anthropology (and ideational ethology, if you believe that
>non-human animals have such internal memes of non-human animal
>So to say, as Josip does, that memetics deals with 'ideas' or
>'imaginary forms', is perhaps not quite right. If you think I am
>making a pedantic distinction please excuse me, but the ideational
>anthropo-ethological i-culture/meme is something a little more abstract
>than an idea (eg. see de Winter 1984).
>However, having said that, I ought to say that I think there is a good
>case for _not_ following the ideational line. The problem with it is
>that all the rather interesting blocks of data that have been amassed
>by social contagion psychologists and innovation-diffusion
>sociologists, are all about _things_ ie. all about precisely the arts,
>cutoms, morals, capabilities that the ideational school think are
>irrelevant (or at least less relevant than i-culture).
>If memeticists want to cross the divide and make contact with diffusion
>sociologists, social contagion psychologists etc., then we're probably
>going to have to 'get materialist' and shed the ideational millstone
>around our necks.
>Then we can treat artefacts, behaviours, customs, morals, art, as memes
>in themselves. It will mean that ideational anthropologists will turn
>their backs on us, but what we have to gain is a vast repository of
>data on which to work. The alternative is to spend the next 20 years
>(as we memeticists have spent the last 20 years) arguing about the
>nature of the abstract ideational i-culture/meme inside of our
>heads instead of getting on with some actual scientific work.
>Cloak FT (1975) Is a cultural ethology possible? Human Ecology 3,
>Cronk L (1995) Is there a role for culture in human behavioral
>ecology? Ethology and Scoiobiology 16, 181-205.
>Dawkins R (1982) The Extended Phenotype. Oxford University Press.
>Sperber D (1985) Anthropology and psychology: towards an epidemiology
>of representations. Man 20, 73-89.
>de Winter KW (1984) Biological and cultural evolution - different
>manifestations of the same principle - a systems-theoretical approach.
>J. Hum. Evol. 13, 61-70.
>Derek Gatherer


The term "meme" as clarified in The Extended Phenotype is already quite
expansive. I agree that artifacts, behaviours, etc. should be analyzed as
replicators, and would point out that ideas and artifacts (for instance)
should in many cases be analyzed as co-propagators. But I have argued
(Lynch, 1998) against loading vast realms of added meanings onto the word
"meme." This would disrupt the continuity of meanings in a way not based on
new discoveries, and would create the need for a new term to replace "meme"
as currently used by Dawkins and many others. (There are also mathematical
reasons for not changing the meaning of the word.) I have instead proposed
that we identify "cultural replicons" as a superset of memes, and cultural
repliconics as a superset of memetics. This does not require any partiality
to i-culture or m-culture.

Lynch, A. 1998. Units, Events, and Dynamics in Memetic Evolution. Journal
of Memetics 2, #1,

--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)