Re: socially selected memes

Aaron Lynch (
Mon, 26 Jul 1999 13:21:42 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 26 Jul 1999 13:21:42 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: socially selected memes
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At 12:04 AM 7/26/99 -0500, Aaron Lynch wrote:
>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
>>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
>>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.

Another memetic discussion related to this is my discussion of pierced
earrings and cigars propagating in U.S. men during the 1980s and 1990s
(Lynch, 1997). One of the mechanisms here is the differential attention
commanded by something new and different. To some extent, this also favors
the propagation of changes in suits and ties, such lapel widths, tie
widths, tailoring styles, etc.

Holding such change in check is what Paul Fussel (1983) calls (if I recall
the phrase correctly) "the principle of archaism," in which the class
statement is higher if novelty is avoided. People whose expected fortunes
are determined largely or mostly by inheritance may tend to adhere more
closely to their parent's tastes and customs, both because the parents have
advantages in keeping out other sources of influence and because offspring
want to maintain the favor of wealthy parents. This can favor fashion
conservatism and other forms of conservatism in upper socioeconomic strata.
Yet people in those strata are often imitated by those in the middle
classes, which helps their memes propagate.


Fussell, P. 1983. _Class_. New York: Ballantine Books.

Lynch, A. 1997. "Thought Contagion and Mass Belief."

--Aaron Lynch

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