Re: virus: Applying the meme concept to culture
Thu, 14 Jan 1999 18:42:24 EST

In a message dated 1/14/99 9:33:08 AM Central Standard Time, writes:

John: >> Hi Jake,

Greetings. Saw yours of 12 Jan. At last something with which I could connect. Concur with the gist of what you said - that the concept of the meme can be pursued into the realms of obscurity.

Let's go back back a bit. If I understand Dawkins as he put forward his idea idea on page 206 of my edition of "The Selfish Gene", all he was doing was something simple: noticing that in the cultures surrounding us many features are replicated. So that we could look at this phenomenon more closely Dawkins invented the term 'meme'.<<

Jake: A very clarifying concept. Leads us to assume that there must be a way to apply the same evolutionary algorithm underlies biological evolution to culture. The mechanisms that will apply the algorithm will obviously be different, but the algorithm itself will be the same.

A population of replicators. With variations between replicators. And differential fitness between replicators.

John: >>Right, revision over. For reasons that are irrelevant here, my challenge
is straightforward - I have to answer the question "Why are we the way we are?" in the context of family history. Clearly some of the answer is genetic. The rest of the answer, I am sure, is bound up in memes. That is our learned behavioural features such as language, speech rhythms, tastes, know-how, body language, traits, skills and the like -- that wittingly or unwittingly, we have acquired from others whom likewise, wittingly or unwittingly, transmitted to us -- much say, as genes are transmitted down the generations. Memes may well be scientific poetry but the concept works for me.<<

Jake: It works, yes. But more in a metaphorical sense. We see patterns in our culture, they remind us biological patterns. And so we go about constructing a memetic explanation to fit the cultural phenomenon. And tada! there you have it, and you may not have ever had to leave your comfy reclining chair to come up with it. It even makes sense, although damned if we could study the processes in ways that admit of verifyiability/falsifiablity. It's the dream of a philosopher king!

John: >> Since I can find no work on the use of memes in family history studies,
though the book you mention may well be useful as you suggest, I'm having to study the memes on our family empirically.<<

Jake: And how did you do this? I would be interested to hear.

John: >>Results so far have provided a deeper understanding of how my family has
come to be as it is, and I've gone some way to answering my opening question "Why are we the way we are" And significantly, I've been able to get a sharp grasp on the personalities, traits and behaviours of past ancestors long dead in their graves. One meme (or bunch of them) can be tracked back to the 1820s.<<

Jake: I do appreciate that the strongest patterns of meme replication would be through the intimacies of family indoctrination. And furthermore, some genetic makeups may provide a better phenotype for the replication of a particular meme than other phenotypes. Memes and genes form "alliances". But outside of these factors we must also note that memes are not confined to family lineage. We also have to consider what is occuring within the larger culture as well. It seems that I am stating the obvious here, but I occassionally feel compelled to do things like that with no ill thoughts of others abilities to have already seen that.

>> And surely Jake, personalities, traits and behaviours and a part of our
culture - or do we get lost in semantics again?<<

They are expressed in our culture, and in that way are a part of it. Their origins - to the extent that we can describe such things, may be either genetic or memetic, though most of the time some mixture of both.

>> Aye,

in a sunny, crisp, cold, clear Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England - where there is talk of moving the concrete cows.<<

Jake: I am most interesting when you talk about studying memetics empirically. What phenomena do you look for? Beyond just the meme concept, what other subconcepts do you apply to the phenomena to make "meme" work? Surely this would affect what sort of things you are looking for and how you treat them when you find them.

As far as Gary Taylor's work is concerned ( <A HREF=" ">Cultural Selection; Why Some Achievements Survive the Test of Time -- and Others Don't</A> ), he concentrates on the concept of representation and the various issues and factors that surround representation. He also talks a lot about the role and function of editors. Editors are a particular medium through which representations are reproduced (or replicated).

We generally consider the best editors to be the ones that most faithfully reproduce a representation - such that the editor's role is invisible leaving us to solely concentrate on the representation the editor has made, and effectively forget the editor if we choose to. It is when we can see the editor, when the editor has left his or her mark on the representation (other than a simple acknowlegement) and noticibly altered it that we consider it a bad job of editing. Ironically good editors do indeed make alterations to best fit the medium and environment of representation. The challenge is to edit to retain the information of the message even as the medium or environment changes. We do not notice the changes that we cannot see - those help us to see the message better. We do mind the changes that we can see.

In considering memetics culturally, we can use the idea of the editor - the best editor is the perfect agent for replication. The perfect agent for replication is transparent to the audience that consumes the representation.

While Gary Taylor himself does not discuss the idea of memes, I think his concepts mesh very well with the memetic ideas of William Benzon ( Cultural Evolution </A> ). Indeed, I read his theory of memetics at the same time that I was reading Gary Taylor's book. They are both very cultural in approach leaving behind the intellectual burdens of biological metaphor. They mesh very well.

Benzon, in describing memes, puts the memotype - that which is replicated - in the physical environment. The phemotype - the expression of the memotype - occurs in the mental environment which is the environment where selection takes place. If you are studying memetics "empirically" as you say that you are, I would say that you are more likely dealing with the memotype, as physical manifestations are going to be far less fleeting than the mental expression of those representations. And these physical manifestations are going to be very ammenable to the treatment that representations have recieved by Gary Taylor.

The mental environment of phemotypes, is the workspace through which memotypes obtain replication. The good editor is an example of perfect phemotypical transparency. The memotype is transported through the editor from one medium to another with a minimum of informational alteration. Of course the mediums may be very different environments. To get the same information out of the representation in the new environment as it imparted in the original environment, requires the art of translation which the good editor is most proficient.

Not to belabor the biological analogies too much, but there are paralells in the biological world. The translation of the genotypical information into phenotypical expression of that same information, requires numerous biolgical translators. From DNA information, into RNA information, into proteins and enzymes, and ultimately into physical form and behavior. Of course the analogy starts to break down because in memetics each new physical form or behavioral manifestation is itself memotypical. This makes memetic evolution more Lamarkian.

While we may consider editors and translators to be ideally transparent, each is only transparent for some types of representations and not for others. Why and how is it that they gain this capacity for transparency (phemotypical question)?, and what is it about the representations for which they are transparent (memotypical question)?- that makes for a situation of ideal replication? These questions might make a good practical step towards understanding ideal memetic replication. Once we have understood that, we can perhaps begin to understand some basics that can be applied to "non-ideal" replication. Of course "non-ideal" is not a negative thing. I would wager that the most creative endeavors are highly non-ideal.

As I hope this EMail is to you.

in Fort Worth Texas, where it is legal to carry concealed handguns in public with proper license obtainable by virtually any adult without a criminal history or diagnosed mental illness. It's a big strange world, isn't it?