Copying, imitation, transformation, replication

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Tue, 15 Sep 1998 09:17:16 +0200

Date: Tue, 15 Sep 1998 09:17:16 +0200
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Copying, imitation, transformation, replication

Aaron Lynch wrote:

> At 08:05 PM 9/14/98 +0100, you wrote:
> >Aaron said
> >
> >>It took several rounds of back and forth postings just to confront this
> >>particular blunder to the point where Derek ultimately dodges the issue. By
> >>comparison, the effort it takes to make a misleading quotation is minor.
> >>Unfortunately, the situation reminds me of "debates" between creationists
> >>and evolutionists, where the creationists can churn out sophistries faster
> >>than the evolutionists can answer them.
> >
> >Hmm, I wonder who is the creationist and who is the evolutionist in this
> >one? (Clue 'essentialism and creationism go hand in hand' ( Palmer DC
> >Donahoe, JW Essentialism And Selectionism In Cognitive Science And
> >Behavior Analysis American Psychologist, 1992, Vol.47, No.11, Pp.1344-1358)
> First, you have not succeeded in pinning the epithet "essentialism" on me
> any more than on Gatherer. Take Gatherer's definition from his 1998
> JoM-EMIT paper:
> Meme: an observable cultural phenomenon, such as a behaviour, artefact or
> an objective piece of information, which is copied, imitated or learned,
> and thus may replicate within a cultural system. Objective information
> includes instructions, norms, rules, institutions and social practices
> provided they are observable.
> Notice that he says that these things can be "copied, imitated, or
> learned." To call one thing a "copy" of another *always* involves
> abstraction, or a sameness criterion, whether the observer explicitly
> recognizes this or not. The same goes for "genes."

I should disagree here. Genes are replicated without transformation. Just like
printed texts are. That, together with the fact that both (genes and texts) are
physical entities and that both have unlimited informational content (unlike
pottery), is the reason why I would consider the true analogy of memes and genes
to be outside of our mind.

On the other hand, behaviours need a lot of transformations before one can 'copy'
them. There is observation which has to be transformed into some neural activity,
which can be interpreted by other cells which eventually may lead to efforts in
repeating the same gesture. (Again: Rizzolatti cells (quite important finding for
memetics, I think, but no one of you thus far seemed to find these cells of
particular interest) may be crucial in our abilities to mimick behaviour.)
Copying pottery or churches requires even more transformations. (one exception:
where a mould can be used (some pottery), but still then there is little
informational content).

Here is another problem about imitation, inspired by Paul Marsden's
considerations on the Werther effect.

When people all of a sudden start committing suicide after reading a book or
noticing suicide on the news, is this imitation? When it were, one would expect a
never ending wave of suicide. What we observe is that it readily fades out.

Another explanation may simply be that the set of people already feeling
depressed (at any instance there are such a number of people in a population) are
triggered to commit suicide by such an event on the news. They are not mimicking,
but are only triggered to do something they already were considering. After the
part of the population ready to commit suicide has been triggered, the phenomenon
then fades out because the population now has a lower content of potential
suiciders, and that is what we observe. Of course, you have to know what is in
people's mind to come to such a conclusion. When you deny the mind the danger
that you will reach erroneous just so conclusions is larger.

Mario Vaneechoutte
Department Clinical Chemistry, Microbiology & Immunology
University Hospital
De Pintelaan 185
9000 GENT
Phone:   +32 9 240 36 92
Fax:   +32 9 240 36 59

J. Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission:

The memetic origin of language: humans as musical primates

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