LogoLord, A. and Price, I (2001). Reconstruction of organisational phylogeny from memetic similarity analysis: Proof of feasibility.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 5.

Reconstruction of organisational phylogeny from memetic similarity analysis: Proof of feasibility

Andrew Lord and If Price
Facilities Management Graduate Centre,
Sheffield Hallam University, Unit 7 Science Park, Sheffield, S1 1WB, UK.
1 - Introduction
2 - Method
2.1 - Data
2.2 - Software.
2.3 - Results
3 - Discussion
Appendix: Character Set and Taxa


A successful phylogenic reconstruction of the known pattern of descent of the main post-reformation Christian Churches has been achieved from a computerised analysis of aspects of their present day memetic pattern. The result confirms the feasibility of a new approach to organisational memetics and conducts a first empirical test of the hypothesis that, if organisations are construed as evolving, those with a common ancestor should show greater replicator similarity than more distant relatives.

1 Introduction

Memetics has debated at length the internalist versus externalist positions and the question of whether the individual or organisation should be considered as the memetic `phenotype'. We approach the topic from an organisational stance (c.f. Price, 1995; Gell-Mann, 1996, Price and Shaw, 1998; Williams, 2000). In brief the stance holds that organisations evolve (Aldrich, 1999) and are constructed or enabled by shared patterns (Schien, 1985; Price and Shaw, 1998), paradigms (Hull, 1988) or schemata (Gell-Mann, 1996). Whether conceived as pattern, paradigm or schemata the proposition would be that they are replicated in the organisations concerned. As noted by Marsden (2000), the stance could be argued to recapitulate an older evolutionary tradition in social sciences, and indeed economics, however the organisational replicator, whatever it is, can be termed meme by reason of the specific origin of the term in the context of a general theory of complex organisation enabled by replicators.

Wilkins recently reminded the memetics discussion list of his earlier (Wilkins, 1998) suggestion that evolutionary cladograms provide a potential means of contrasting the memetic codes of related organisations [note1]:

One such technique that could be used is the Wagner Similarity method (cf Wiley and others 1991). This method establishes an instance matrix of characters (presence and absence, but it could be any value 0>x>1) and calculates the sum of the modulus of differences to give the Wagner distance between taxa (or theories). From this a net diagram of relationships, or an unrooted tree, can be drawn up to give a sharp notion of the overall similarity of taxa or theories. The same data can be recast as a rooted cladogram if a sister-group can be selected. Software, both commercial and public domain, is available to perform these analyses and others using well-established algorithms. While this will not definitively establish ancestry of a conceptual lineage, it can be used to test hypotheses of ancestry, and to overcome the Whiggish tendency of historians to read preferred modern views back into a historical subject, such as Darwin's reliance or not on now-discredited views such as embryological recapitulation.
This research note [note 2] is written to report what we believe to be the first successful explicit test of such an approach. Rather than a Wagner similarity we have used Hamming distance [note 3] (a metric of digital error) and the UPGMA (Unweighted Pair Group Method with Arithmetic Mean) clustering strategy (Sneath & Sokal, 1973; Lapointe and Legendre, 1994) on putative meme strips [note 4] rendered as binary data; i.e. a `taxon' has or does not have a particular character. We have previously explained (Price and Lord, 2000) the principle behind the method, an examination of further isomorphism between biotic and abiotic complex systems, the reasons for the choice of a test group; and the evidence of an early instance of a successful iteration between inferred and historical pattern of descent and an analysis of memetic similarity. In brief, religious bodies, particularly post-reformation Christian Groups were selected as a test population because they displayed: Comparison with biological evolution leads to the hypothesis that a phyllogram. constructed from an analysis of memetic similarity should reconstruct the known pattern of historical descent. The attempt raise issues of terminology. Hull (1988) has used the schism in systematics between cladistics and phenetics as almost his type example of science as a process of selection between competing paradigms (or meme complexes) each of which replicates via the forms of organisation which it enables. Organisational memetics is arguably no more than a generalisation of Hull's proposition (e.g. Price, 1995: Price and Shaw, 1998). Cladists have criticised pheneticists as lacking objective rigour or the logic of seeking to unravel a pattern of evolutionary descent. Some at least acknowledge that the advent of molecular phenetics has, at best, blurred the distinction and at least lead to a resurgence in phenetics. Here we are borrowing from systematics but seeking to test memetics rather than reconstruct descent.

In strict terms we are attempting a phenetic analysis of memetic data however, as with molecular phenetics, we are suggesting that the phyllogram will reveal a history of descent: i.e. will produce the same output as a cladogram. In the domain under investigation the true history of descent is, within certain bounds (see below), established. The objective is not to classify with a view to unraveling history, it is to test the proposition that the organisations examined might be memetically encoded by comparing what is in effect an inferred cladogram (albeit one derived from phenetic methods) with one known from historical sources. The test, if successful, provides evidence compatible with the inferred presence of a cultural replicator in evolving organisations. If memetics becomes (as we believe it should [note 6]) to studies of evolution in the social sciences broadly what genetics has become to studies of biological evolution, then it may develop its own language and terminology. To those whose perspective on evolution is more geological than biological the selection competition between phenetics and cladistics seems to generate more heat than light. The distinctions may prove unnecessary, or even unhelpful for memetics. Such debates lie in the future. Our concern is to see whether a particular analytical approach is doable, and if so, does it hold out a promise of utility in the field of organisational memetics.

2 Method

2.1 Data

The meme strip shown in Table 1 (appended) was gathered from Internet and other written sources [note 7]. We will leave to others the behaviouralist versus internalist debate and see Table 1 as a list of beliefs and practices that between them characterise and underpin different Christian Sects: beliefs and practices that seem to be replicated in the minds of adherents to a particular denomination and that, in being replicated sustain that denomination. We have applied them to the taxa set [note 8] listed in Table 2 (appended), and, where possible, to individual sub-sects, though here the differences became hard to distinguish. The historical derivation of these branches is illustrated in Figure 1. Taxa in lighter colours are not subsequently analysed. They represent schisms within particular religions, for example a variety of sub groups of Jehovah's witnesses, where we have not yet been able to confirm apparently minor differences in belief and practice [note 9].

Figure 1: Historically derived phylogeny (click to enlarge)

2.2 Software.

A software routine [note 10] has been written to analyse the progressive pairwise similarity of strips of binary data using, as noted above, the UPGMA on Hamming distances. The taxa character matrix is searched for pairs with the least distance between them. The average of such a pair then becomes a new 'parent taxa' which is subjected to future iterations. Fuller details of the validation will again be described in a longer paper but in brief it successfully reconstructs hypothetical, randomly generated data sets, and also, somewhat to our surprise approximates a biological phyllogenetic tree from a set of claimed therapeutic properties of essential oils (Lawless, 1992) [note 11].

2.3 Results

Initial results of the tests on our hypothetical religious clades [note 12] (Figure 2) were encouraging, in that clusters of obvious common origin were revealed. However higher order relationships failed to reconstruct accurately: the derived tree did not match the one drawn from historical sources. In particular clusters of Calvinist denominations showed greater dissimilarity between themselves than one such cluster did to major Episcopalian branches. This gave rise to the suspicion that 'some memes may be more powerful than others'; i.e. that the presence of a certain meme in a particular denomination or group of denominations might inhibit its further splitting [note 13]. In particular the non-episcopalian denominations showed greater variety than the did the episcopalian. In essence the 'Episcopalian meme' and the resulting presence of a hierarchical bishopric arguably restricted the possibility of further evolution.

The initial test had given the presence of such authority the same weight (one unit of a binary string) as any other characteristic; a feature, which it was hypothesised, might undervalue the power of an established hierarchy as an antidote to too much change. In order to further test this hypothesis the reconstruction was then tested by assigning greater weight to the bishop meme. Weighting was simulated by inserting extra bishops into the meme strip [note 14]. In successive tests the switch from 7 to 8 bishops produced a tree sufficiently comparable to known patterns of historical descent (Figure 3) to claim a largely successful reconstruction. The switch is illustrated in Figure 4.

3 Discussion

Figure 3 also reveals interesting questions for further analysis. The ancestral Roman Catholic Church does reconstruct as the isolated clade, without significant further splitting: a feature, which would suggest the meme of the apostolic succession to have even greater influence than the bishop meme. Remove one and some evolution is possible; remove two and a much greater radiation occurs. The Lutheran and Anglo-Catholic (i.e.: Church of England) clades reconstruct in the most plausible phylogenic scenario, as co-descendants from some common ancestor. A conventional historical description would treat this as inaccurate. After all Henry VII founded the Church of England in a separate historical event and saw himself as Defender of the Faith against the Lutheran schism. In ideological terms however one could say that post Luther there were two clades, a Roman Catholic one and an unincorporated non Roman Catholic one, which subsequently precipitated and evolved separate branches. The issue mirrors the taxonomic debate as to whether one biological species can evolve from another or whether two evolve from a common ancestor.

Figure 2: Phenogram derived from character states when the "Episcopal" meme weighs 1

Figure 3. Phenogram with the "Episcopalian" meme given a weighting of 8

There are two significant errors in Figure 3, The Salvation Army and the Quakers. Neither is necessarily surprising. The Salvation Army have replaced an Episcopalian polity with one modelled on a quasi-military structure and the unique implications remain to be investigated. Having confirmed the need to weight power structures in one form of hierarchy it is not unreasonable to suspect its influence in another. The Quakers are in some respects the complete opposite in having gone further than any other `church' to question authority of position and indeed to blur the boundary between religion and ontology. Both the failures of the reconstruction can then be considered to be exceptions. The approach is demonstrated to be worth further investigation and the results are consistent with a view of organisations as evolving entities with recognisable patterns or memes at their core. The Episcopalian clades in particular are interpretable as organisations devoted to replicating of the `bishop' meme. There are wider issues raised for understanding the history of Christianity however discussing them takes us beyond the scope of what is possible in a note of this kind. There are likewise issues for methods and terminology of operational research into memetics. Both merit further debate and consideration. At this stage our concern is to demonstrate that the hypothetical approach suggested by Wilkins can apparently be operationalized in practice. A more comprehensive paper will be submitted in due course. Testing of the software variants for other applications continues [note 15]. Meanwhile the evidence that a cladogram derived from a memetic code can successfully reconstruct patterns of descent seems encouraging news for the emerging science of organisational memetics and a tool with considerable potential in evolutionary analyses of social organisations.

Figure 4: The effect of the changing reconstruction of the phenogram when the Episcopal meme is replicated 8 times in the character string (NB not a computer generated diagram)


  1. Our conception would see the 'pattern' (sensu Price and Shaw, 1998) or 'memeplex' of an organisation as an interconnected system of individual memes, much as Dawkins uses, and is clear about his use (1989 p. 271), the metaphor of the selfish gene as shorthand for a complicated system of interconnected and interdependent genes.
  2. We emphasise that this contribution is intended as a note for rapid publication. A much fuller description of both the method and the data set will be submitted in due course.
  3. And we acknowledge an anonymous reviewers pointing out that one is in fact derived from the other.
  4. We cannot claim that the character set assembled for a given denomination necessarily represents a full memeplex. We are listing a series of characteristics postulated to be parts of that memeplex and informally describing them as meme strips.
  5. The fossil record, and modern ecosystems, reveals periods of evolutionary radiation as new niches open up, The Burgess Shale and the Galapagos finches are well known examples. We expected tracking of postulated memetic divergence would be easier through equivalent events such as the religious diversity developed by European settlers in North America.
  6. The existence of other evolutionary traditions in social science and other aspirations of scholars in the emerging field is acknowledged. The approach we take remains valid whether or not the replicators are considered as memes.
  7. The primary source, where available, is the home page of the denomination concerned. We have also sought pages classifying and comparing religions and standard reference works. A fully annotated and hyperlinked character matrix of our 'taxa' is in preparation and will be submitted for comparative analysis as soon as the necessary referencing can be completed. Scholars interested in evaluating our results are welcome meanwhile to contact the authors.
  8. A reviewer has commented on the potential bias towards 'sects', particularly of the millennialist variety, at the expense of variation within other traditions. It arises from our search for a sufficiently large population; many variants on the theme. There are of course variations within the apparent boundaries of larger religions and the same reviewer highlights historical diversity within Roman Catholicism. Comparative tracking of 'microevoluion' within an apparent 'species' was judged beyond the research at this stage.
  9. Borrowing again from biotic terminology in the absence of an alternative it may be that these groups have more in common with geographic 'varieties' or 'sub-species' than they do with 'species'. In Aldrich's (1999) terms they have not developed sufficiently rigid boundaries.
  10. Provisionally entitled the Memetic Evaluation of Numerically Derived Evolutionary Lineages. A detailed description will be separately submitted. Meanwhile researchers who may want to submit this approach to critical scrutiny are welcome to contact the authors.
  11. It is not suggested that these properties are memetic, or necessarily scientific. The data set was used as an independent test of the software. It seems reasonable however to assume that genetically related species would produce similar active principles thereby exhibit comparable toxicological/therapeutic properties.
  12. The denominations which history shows have separated since the reformation in a process that we would regard as evolutionary, i.e. random within denomination variation was, on occasions, sufficient to generate new forms that secured their own niche in the total population of Christian religions. History records how the selection process and the attempts of established churches, or rulers adhering to them, to eradicate potential rivals was frequently a survival matter for those involved. We use the term 'clade' for groupings of denominations in the absence of an established hierarchical terminology in 'memetic' taxonomy.
  13. Compare the observation, whose attribution escapes us, that paradigms do not change in the face of evidence; they change when the old guard finally dies or retires.
  14. Working within the constraints of binary encoding of denominational characteristics this was the simplest method we could conceive to test the proposition.
  15. In particular its application to market strategies of different firms appears promising.


Alldrich, H. (1999) Organizsations Evolving, New York, Sage.

Dawkins, R. (1989) The Selfish Gene 2nd Ed. London Penguin

Gell-Mann, M. (1996) Address to the US National Defence University " In the case of societal evolution, the schemata consist of laws, customs, myths, traditions, and so forth. The pieces of such a schema are often called "memes," http://www.dodccrp.org/comch01.html

Hull, D. (1988), Science as a Process. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Lapointe, F-J. & Legendre, P. (1994) A Classification of Pure Malt Scotch Whiskies. Applied. Statistics.43(1):237-257

Lawless, J. (1992) The Encyclopaedia of Essential Oils, Shaftsbury: Element Books.

Marsden, P. (2000). Forefathers of Memetics: Gabriel Tarde and the Laws of Imitation. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 4http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/2000/vol4/marsden_p.html

Price I. (1995) Organisational memetics?: organisational learning as a selection process Management Learning 26(3):299-318

Price, I. and Shaw, R. (1998), Shifting the Patterns: Transforming the performance of people and companies Chalfont, Management Books 2000, UK.

Price I and Lord, A.S. (2000) Isomorphism in biotic and abiotic Complex Adaptive Systems International Conference of Complexity and Complex Systems in Industry, Warwick, UK.

Schein, E. H., (1985) Organisational Culture and Leadership: A Dynamic View San Francisco, Jossey Bass

Sneath, P. H. A. and Sokal, R. R. (1973) Numerical Taxonomy, San Francisco: Freeman.

Wiley, E.O., D. Siegel-Causey, D.R. Brooks, and V.A. Funk (1991), The Compleat Cladist: A Primer of Phylogenetic Procedures, The University of Kansas, Museum of Natural History, Special Publication No. 19.

Wilkins, J. S. (1998). The evolutionary structure of scientific theories. Biology and Philosophy 13(4):479-504.

Williams, R. (2000) The business of memes: memetic possibilities for marketing and management'. Management Decision, 38(4):272-279

Appendix: Character Set and Taxa

Table 1: Selected Characters
Class Character
Status Extant, Incorporated, Movement, Theology
Ecclesiology/Polity Hierarchical, Autonomous, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Congregational, Charismatic Leadership, Papal Authority, Prophet Founder, Women Ministers
Theology Trinitarian
Christology Son, Arian, Monophysite, Modal Monarchianism
Soteriology Sola Fide, General Atonement, Particular Atonement, Predestination, Faith plus works
Eschatology Amillennial, Premillennial, Postmillennial, Date Setting
Hermeneutics Fundamentalist
Sabbath:  Sunday, Saturday
Sacrementology Baptism, Infant, Belief, Total Immersion, Jesus Only Formula, Spirit Baptism, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, Extreme Unction
Lifestyle Excommunication, Lifestyle, Proselytizing, Exclusivist
Additional:  Soul Sleep, Investigative judgement, Annihilationist, No Hell

Table 2: Shortlist of Terminal Taxa

Vernacular Name
Key Parent
Roman Catholic RC <root>
Anglican Catholic Church (CofE) ACC RC
Lutheran L RC
Calvinist Calv RC
Reformed R Calv
Presbyterian P Calv
The Wesleyan Methodist Connexion (M)WMC ACC
Independent Methodists (M)IM (M)WMC
The Methodist New Connexion (M)MNC (M)WMC
Salvation Army SA (M)MNC
Wesleyan Reform Union (M)WRU (M)WMC
The Methodist Church M (M)WMC
The Society of Friends (Quakers) Q ACC
Congregationalist C ACC
General Baptist GB ACC
Particular Baptist PB Calv
Southern Baptist Convention SBC PB
Adventist A PB
Jehovah's Witnesses JW A
Seventh Day Adventist SDA A
Davidian Seventh Day Adventist Association DSDAA SDA
Branch Davidians BD DSDAA
Church of God Seventh Day CG7 SDA
Worldwide Church of God WCG CG7
Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee.) CG(CT) PB
City of Zion COZ PB
Classical Pentecostalism CP COZ
Assemblies of God AG CP
Brownsville Revival BR AG
United Pentecostal Church UPC AG
Calvary Chapel CC CP
© JoM-EMIT 2001

Back to Issue 2 Volume 5