Re: Do memes/genes evolve?

Ton Maas (
Wed, 17 Jun 1998 21:01:50 +0200

Message-Id: <v03102801b1adb9fde325@[]>
In-Reply-To: <>
Date: Wed, 17 Jun 1998 21:01:50 +0200
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: Do memes/genes evolve?

Mark wrote:
>Question: Does it make any sense to talk about memes/genes evolving?
>One might say that only genotypes/memotypes evolve. Genes/memes
>themselves are fixed. They may mutate, but they do not evolve.

Mutation and evolution could be both apt descriptions at different levels.
Some things change gradually, while others jump between discrete states.
"Plus =E7a change, plus c'est le m=EAme chose" (The more it changes, the mor=
it stays the same), as Pascal once noted. One problematic difference
between genes and memes is that memes are considered both elements
("building blocks" of ideas) _and_ conglomerates of those very elements
(ideas). Furthermore there's a more than subtle clash between popular
notions ("idea" as a narrative network of relations) and technical
descriptions ("idea" being the smallest relevant difference in a
communicative domain), to make matters worse. OTOH geneticists seem
uncertain about the precise nature of the genetic information: is it
descriptive, denotative or injunctive? "Elementary" memes and genes don't
seem to have to change: they only need to be reshuffled in order to
generate new individuals, species and stories. But the resulting
conglomerates _are_ tested against their environment. They tend to change
more gradually, although they too sometimes suddenly disappear or undergo
revolutionary changes. Maybe it's the old discussion amongst the first
cyberneticians all over again: "Is the brain a digital or an analog
device?" Later on it was decided that many digital pathways together can
create convincing amounts of "analog" behavior. On the level of individual
neurons, the state of affairs is rather digital (on/off), while on the
level of groups of neurons, more analogous processes can be observed (like
the successive firing of 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, =8A neurons in order to
simulate gradual acceleration).

>On the other hand, one might say that genes/memes are both interactors
>and replicators. Therefore genes/memes evolve in the same sense that a
>species evolves. I think Hans-Cees has written a paper supporting this

In a private message to me Hans-Cees mentioned an article he had recently
written, in which he apparently showed that Lamarckian evolution is also
absent in memetic evolution, as it is in biology. I am curious about his
arguments on this matter, since the human communicative domain lacks the
equivalent of a Weissmannian barrier. There is nothing there to prevent the
inheritance of acquired characteristics. BTW as Bateson pointed out,
Lamarckian evolution in nature is only absent on the level of the
individual. If one considers the gene pool of the population, it "responds"
to environmental pressures quite directly.


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