Re: comparison/contrast of memes and engrams

Mark M. Mills (
Wed, 13 Oct 99 10:12:08 -0000

Subject: Re: comparison/contrast of memes and engrams 
Date: Wed, 13 Oct 99 10:12:08 -0000
From: "Mark M. Mills" <>
To: "Memetics List" <>


>Memes, however
>defined, I would take as mostly external and cultural phenomena.

With respect to 'external,' I assume you think of memes in terms of the
G-meme definition. With respect to 'cultural phenomena', I don't know
what you mean. Everyone talking about memes is interested in culture.

>I've been
>reading about memory research over the past year (mostly on synaptic
>plasticity and long-term potentiation (Bliss and Lomo etc...) and
>molecular/electrophysiological correlates and criticisms). I've been
>intrigued by this particular "search for the engram". Engrams would likely
>be individual and internal phenomena, contrasted with memes.

What do you mean by saying engrams are 'individual and internal
phenomena'? When you say 'contrasted to memes,' I assume you mean
'contrasted with the G-meme.'

>Noticing debate on "internal memes" on this list, I wonder why one would
>replace the older term engram with a new term "internal meme"? Wouldn't it
>be better to keep the ideas separate, having memes represent a unit of
>cultural selection/drift existing outside and engrams representing
>internal storage units? There could exist a chasm between research into
>cultural evolution and research into memory, so maybe the gap might be
>hard to bridge. Plus, both memes and engrams are somewhat chimeric and
>elusive in nature, so the study is difficult, I would assume.

In short, there is nothing evolutionary about the term 'engram.' The
L-meme (I assume this is what you mean by 'internal meme') is by
definition a participant in evolutionary processes. Additionally, the
L-meme suggests significant parallels to genetics. Few miss the
similarities between the word meme and gene.

As to the chimeric nature of a meme, this is entirely the result of one's
definition. The L-meme is no more chimeric than a gene.

If one looks at the reviews of memetics books by established periodicals
like Science and Nature, they will find the scientific establishment
gives little credit to the term 'meme.' Of particular concern is an
apparent use of tautology by memeticists.

Wilson in his Science review of Blackmore's Meme Machine says:

"Part of the problem stems from the replicator concept, which has led to
some interesting insights but often merely redescribes the familiar...
selfish memes often turn out to be a convoluted way to describe the
obvious. ..The ability to define fitness independently of what evolves
saves the concept of natural selection from being a tautology. For the
meme concept to escape the same problem, we must define cultural fitness
independently of what evolves. If the first four notes of Beethoven's
fifth is a powerful meme only because it is common, we have achieved no

Later, Wilson suggests a solution:

"More problems arise when we try to think of culture as broken into
replicating units like genes. Unlike genes, memes do not exist in a
physical form."

As far as I can tell, this critique addresses the unfortunate use of the
G-meme construct without a foundation in L-meme physical reality. Meme
Machine is an essay on G-memes. It explicitly chooses to ignore brain
physiology and thus can hardly avoid tautology. If one adds the L-meme
construct, the G-meme becomes rooted in established evolutionary theory
and finds clear links to reality. The tautology problem is solved.


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