Memes and Things

Wed, 27 Jan 1999 10:44:02 +0200

Date: Wed, 27 Jan 1999 10:44:02 +0200
Subject: Memes and Things

From: Alex Brown: and
Date: 27th January 1999

Some ideas on the perennial question:

1. The meme is not a thing, it is a relationship of similarity between a number of
things. It is, in other words a statistical concept which classifies behaviour,
artefacts or events in terms of their recurrence (their familiarity). This is the
only way we can identify it or even speak of it.

2. Memes are generic patterns which characterize (give a particular form to)
behaviours, artefacts or events. They do not exist somewhere (in some platonic
dimension) but are immanent to the material they characterize. They are a theme
which we can only decypher in the numerous variations which act it out.

3. Memes are the product of the self-organization of social and cultural phenomena
which inevitably arises in the communication between the agents of a system and
their exchange of experience within a limited or clearly defined environment.
Through communication and exchange, self-organization involves the integration of
diverse experiences into a set of typical or generic behavioural routines (memes).
The formation of memes, their number and relatively significance depends on the
connectivity between the agents of the system, that is, the possibility of
exchange between some or all of the agents within the system. (Ref. Stuart
Kaufmann’s Boolean nets and the formation of behavioural attractors within
initially random states in a closed environment). The more highly connected the
system, the more easily memes (distinct behavioural sets) are formed

4. The mechanism of self-organization involves the cumulative selection of similar
or almost similar behaviours from the range of possible behaviours already
operating within the environment (integration). By default it also involves the
exclusion of circumstantial, ambiguous, marginal or non-recurrent routines which
exist throughout the antecedent system. The memetic routines so formed provide a
more economic and reliable means of handling diverse experience with minimum
necessary action to achieve desired result. (Single routines which can handle
diverse problems. The meme is a class of behviours).

5. Particular sets of memes arise in particular communicational media. For
instance, religious memes emerge out of the classification (exchange and
integration) of diverse religious experiences. Scientific memes emerge out of the
exchange and integration of diverse scientific experience. Memes are written out
in the particular communicational media used within a particular system – eg.
architectural forms, musical sounds, graphic images, mathematical symbols, social
rituals, and sometimes written or spoken language. The system is defined by the
medium of communication used within it.

6. There is no such thing as a single meme. Memes come in sets (meme-sets) which
allow them to be combined and recombined to suit particular circumstances within
the environment from which they emerged. The digital nature of meme formation is
significant here as is the linguistic analogy of their application to real life
experience. That is memes are digitized out of analogue experience. References to
a single ‘meme’ for religious belief or the ‘meme’ for marriage is so
all-embracing as to be meaningless. It is simply shorthand for a particular social
or cultural area (a system) where there might be several different meme-sets in
existence at the same time. A single meme is a typical element of the set. On its
own it means very little other than calling up by association the character of the
rest of the set.

7. Memes act as the memory of a cultural system by providing a selective
repertoire of acts assimilated out of past experience. New meme-sets are
constructed by modifying and adapting previous sets – again through continuous
communication and exchange and selection in changing environments. Memes therefore
evolve. They are not the results of heroic gestures by individuals (public
relations managers, religious or political leaders). Memes are the unintentional
results of collective activity. Memetic shift occurs because memes are generic
forms customized to suit particular contexts. The result is the production of
difference or variety but based on a single template.

8. Meme-sets can be seen as expanding or contracting islands of probability within
a sea of random possibilities. ‘Random’ in this case refers to the infinite number
of responses possible in a theoretically infinitely diverse environment where one
unique response is produced for each unique problem. The degree of randomness and
of probability in the system is dependent on the degree of connectivity between
the agents. As constraints, memes define the (semantic) limits of probable
behaviour, not ALL behaviour. Within the boundaries of the cultural system within
which they apply, all sorts of seemingly random behaviours can still be found.

9. Memes do not ‘control’ peoples behaviour any more than language does or genes
do. To assume so is to get carried away by a simple rhetorical device or to have a
deep-seated religious belief and agenda disguised in scientific language. It might
also be easier to think in these simple deterministic terms even if they are

10. Memetics is the study of communication and exchange within cultural systems.
Memes are typical or generic behavioural forms.


Alex Brown

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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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