Re: i-memes and m-memes

Lawrence H. de Bivort (
Sun, 29 Aug 1999 17:41:03 -0400 (EDT)

Date: Sun, 29 Aug 1999 17:41:03 -0400 (EDT)
From: "Lawrence H. de Bivort" <>
Subject: Re: i-memes and m-memes
In-Reply-To: <>

Dear Bill, great questions and the kind that deserve some reflection
before responding. But in the tradition of email, here goes...

On Sun, 29 Aug 1999, Bill Spight wrote:

>Dear Lawrence,
>> I would say that ideas, behaviors and artifacts CAN be memes IF they have
>> the architecture and functions needed to 'displace' competing memes, and
>> if they are provided with the requisite distribution channels. This
>> provides that many ideas, behaviors and artifacts are not memes, because
>> they lack the above characteristics.

>I agree with your earlier statements about not treating memes like genes;
>the differences are too great. However, I think that here there is a
>relevant analogy with genes.

>A mutant gene which kills or sterilizes lacks the architecture and
>function for replication. However, it is still useful to consider it a

Is it its mutancy that gives it the killing or sterilizing properties? If
so, I guess I would simply say it is no longer the same gene -- it is a

So, might we have something analogous in the world of memes? A meme that
once had true memetic characteristics (including self-replication), but
somehow was de-fanged, mutated to the point where it can no longer
self-replicate but it can affect other systems, or other memes, by
destroying or neutralizing them, or affecting them in some other way,
other than direct memetic displacement? I can well imagine a mutated meme
that could have this affect: our mutated meme is affecting the operation
of another meme, but our mutated meme is not replacing it through our
meme's own replication.

But I would not call our mutated meme a meme if that is all it can do. I
would say that it started off as a meme, lost (through whatever event it
encountered) its memetic qualities through mutation. It lapsed into the
class of things like ideas, behavior and artifacts (to use an earlier
formulation) that can exist, and that can affect other things, but that
are not memes because they are not self-replicating and -disseminating.

>Admittedly, this is a tricky question. In "The Evolution of Useful
>Things" Henry Petroski points out that the function of many surviving
>craftsman's tools is unknown, because the craftsmen who made them for
>their own use never revealed the secret of how they were used. Do we
>consider those tools and how they were used memes or not? The information
>was transmissible (heritable), but was never transmitted.

Hmmmmm... Good question. How to think about this? I guess I would say that
the burden of being a meme lies upon the structure that would wish to be
called one, or that others would wish to all it. If an artifact does not
have the ability to replicate itself or the message that was at some time
encoded in it, then it is not a meme. It may evince curiosity (it does in
me!), but that does not make it a meme. We can say that it COULD have been
part of a structure that COULD have acted like a meme, say, if a drawing
showing how it was used was engraved on its handle. But given the lack of
the diagram, the thing has no memetic competency.

This leads me to the thought that a meme always operates in some sort of
psychological, or communicative or cultural environment. A meme might
flourish in one environment, but fall flat in another because the second
environment can't respond to the wannabe meme the same way the first

I have played with the design of memes that trigger themselves or get
triggered only when certain conditions obtain in its environment. I'd be
happy to explore this further, if it is of interest.

>I gather that you would not consider them memes. But do you go further?
>If they were transmitted, but in a way that would give them little chance
>to displace competing memes, would you consider them memes or not? For
>instance, a parent might tell their child the secret, but the child
>chooses another line of work. Meme or not?

I would handle this as a matter of poor transmission. The meme sought to
transmit itself (if I may impute will to it), but the channel broke down.
But I can see that we might break down what we are referring to here as
transmission into: 1) transmission and 2) reception, and be able to
specify where the breakdown occurred. But the bottom-line is that the
wannabe meme, at least with this try, failed. It could try again via
another channel or at a different time, and, successful, be given a
Certificate of Memehood <grin>.


My pleasure!


>This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
>Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
>For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

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This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)