Re: socially selected memes

Aaron Lynch (
Mon, 26 Jul 1999 00:04:35 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 00:04:35 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: socially selected memes
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At 07:54 PM 7/25/99 PDT, Raymond Recchia wrote:
> Reading 'The Meme Machine' I was struck by the discussion on song bird
>memes. Blackmore has me convinced that bird songs do constitute memes, but
>it also occurred to me that it may be useful to draw a distinction between
>memes which are selected primarily on the basis of social trends and those
>which are selected for other utilitarian purposes.
> Perhaps one could think of a scale with purely socially selected memes on
>one end and purely utilitarian memes on the other. A birdsong or something
>like the latest trend in hair length would be extreme examples of socially
>selected memes, while scientific discoveries would sit on the opposite end.
> More social memes are characterized by random drift in their evolution.
>Adoption of the meme is dependant upon the degree to which it provides
>acceptance within the social group and not upon any utilitarian function.
>Likely reasons for adopting the meme are that it has been adopted by a large
>majority of the group members or a group member particularly admired by the
> For example, I am a lawyer by trade. In my part of the U.S. that means
>when at work I must wear a suit, a tie, and a nice pair of shoes. Failure
>to wear the proper attire would result in my getting less respect from my
>clients and less acceptance from fellow attorney. Trends in suits are slow
>moving but they do occur over time and I do have to keep up with them in
>order to maintain social acceptability. There is not much utility outside
>of social acceptibility in wearing a suit. I would be much more comfortable
>in sneakers and the only uses I can figure out for a tie is ease of
>lynching. In other parts of the world the same social acceptability might
>be achieved through the use of ritual scarring.
> By constrast the transmission of scientific meme is largely dependant on
>non social factors. While peer review and other socially related factors
>are certainly factors in acceptance of a scientific meme, just as important
>is the ability of the meme to explain observable phenomena.
> Are there any texts out there that have addressed this specific set of
>contrasts? I would be interested in finding out what others have had to
>Raymond Recchia

On p. 22-23 of _Thought Contagion_, I touch on the subject of the memetics
of class and social stratification. Those who learn (e.g., in childhood) to
choose their associations, friendships, spouses, etc. on the basis of class
can differentially increase or maintain their socioeconomic status. Richer
and more powerful associates help you advance, while poorer and weaker ones
may not be able to return as many or as nice of favors as they receive.
Over time, the higher socioeconomic strata become predominated by memes
that reckon a friend's or associate's value at least partly on class.

The clothes you wear serve to announce your socioeconomic status, thus
rendering you acceptable to others who choose their associates on the basis
of class. The overall selection pressures on those fashions are thus
non-random. (Even with the backing of the synthetic fabrics industry, the
polyester suit has gone into serious decline!)

Despite these selection pressures, the clothing designers have financial
incentives to keep changing the designs at least slightly to sell more
suits. Financially, and to some extent socially, you have incentives to
wear "timeless" fashions. Yet keeping up with the most current fashion also
gets back to announcing your socioeconomic status by telling the world that
you can afford to keep buying the latest. That can put some of your
interest in line with that of the fashion designers and make you more
receptive to the slight mutations they produce each season. It is in the
area of little details like tie width, lapel width, pleating, etc. that the
mutations can take a seemingly random walk. The selection pressure for both
designer and consumer can favor, to some extent (and depending on social
setting) the selection of *some* kind of change--anything that differs
slightly from the prior season as long as it does not diminish the
socioeconomic statement.

Interesting topic.

--Aaron Lynch

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