Re: virus: Applying the meme concept to culture
Fri, 15 Jan 1999 16:19:15 EST

In a message dated 1/15/99 11:26:28 AM Central Standard Time, writes:

<< The main problem would then be to find operationalized concepts of memes and investigate those in relation to replication mechanisms, so that we can more reliabily predict events in the world, than we would otherwise have done without these concepts.

This is a tall order indeed. I like what William Benzon does by placing the memotype in the physical environment. It makes sense for two reasons - first it gives us something that we can look at objectively, and that is what this idea seriously needs. We can all look at the same reference point without immediately having to guess what is going on inside of people's brains or relying immediately on highly subjective if even truthful interpretations.

Second of all and more importantly, the CULTURAL selection does not occur in the physical environment. This is where biological selection occurs, and so corresponds with the gene's phenotype. The physical environment does not select the genotype directly, but instead selects it indirectly thorugh the phenotype.

The mental environment is where cultural selection occurs. This is where the phemotype of the meme would be manifest. WE choose our cultural manifestations to the extent that we can say that there is a cultural selection process at work at all.

Certainly we may base our selections on how the physical cultural manifestations operate in the physical environment, but there is nothing that compels us to do so. We may select them solely for their asthetic appeal to us, apart from any practicality or fitness they may or may not have in the physical environment. Either one of these assessments is ultimately made in the dynamic problem solving / pattern seeking mental environment.

>From the memotypical point of view, it doesn't matter so much which of many
phemotypical reasons/manifestations it is that gets the memotype replicated, just that it is replicated. Once it is replicated, the opportunities for it to be replicated again through a different vector for the same reason or an entirely different reason goes up.

This at least gives us something objective to measure. While we may not be able to usefully reduce this objective something to a simple sequence of DNA nucleotides, we at least have a tangible object that anybody can refer to, be it a Coca Cola can, a Xerox copy of a picture of Mao Tse Tung, or a hardback book entitled "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare." It is in this memotypical environment that I think that Gary Taylor's <A HREF=" ">Cultural Selection; Why Some Achievements Survive the Test of Time -- and Others Don't</A> analysis of representation can be most useful.

The rest of this message is a pasted in segment from Benzon's website ( Cultural Evolution </A> ( - from that menu go to the 1996 paper by Benzon entitled "Culture as an Evolutionary Arena") where he elaborates these ideas.


>>Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole
of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.

What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren't of much use to people who don't know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural "programs". Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist's phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities which are the substance of culture.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the term "meme" for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer "psychological trait", or just "trait", as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing. He appears not to have considered the scheme I propose and so offers no arguments in favor of his scheme. This whole arena is so speculative that rigorous argument is elusive. However, I expect that my reasons for placing memes in the public world and traits in the inner will emerge in the following section of this essay [1].

This way of thinking leads to imagery which is quite different from biological imagery. While biologists talk of a gene pool, the genes never actually intermingle in a physical pool. The genes are strands of DNA in the interior of cells. A species' gene pool exists as a logical fact, not a physical pool filled with genetic slime. It is the phenotypes of species which intermingle with one another in the physical "pool" of the environment. In culture, it is the phenotypic traits which are interior while the genetic memes are out there in the physical "pool" of the environment. When cultures meet, their memes intermingle freely.

The fact that a meme moves from one culture to another does not mean that the corresponding psychological trait moves. Basic visual forms, such as crosses and triangles, have symbolic significance in many cultures, but that significance is not everywhere the same. The computer chip which is an information processing device in the culture of the electronics engineer is but an intricately crafted bit of "stuff" in the jeweler's culture. Musical motifs and ritual forms move easily between cultures, but the psychological traits may not move so readily. Thus middle-class Japanese weddings are often long elaborate affairs often including a traditional Christian ceremony as one of its components, though the Japanese couple is most-likely not Christian (Tanikawa 1995). Moving in the other cultural direction, the American jazz musician Roland Kirk (1965) has recorded a tune he calls "Ruined Castles" and on which he takes composer credits. The same tune, under the name "Japanese Folk Song," has been recorded by Thelonius Monk (nd) with no attribution. As far as I can tell, the tune is Japanese, is called "Ancient Castle" (close to Kirk's title), and was composed by Rentaro Taki (1879-1901) [2]. If we didn't distinguish between meme and trait we would have to assume that non-Christian Japanese couples and Western Christian couples understand the "picture-book" wedding in the same way, on the one hand, and that Monk, Kirk, and Taki are evoking the same feelings when they perform "Ancient Castle Japanese Folk Song Ruined Castles."

One can speculate that the "misinterpretation" of memes as they move from culture to culture may be a source of cultural innovation. Whether or not that is so, it is certain that such movement is very common. This is a fact of deep significance and gives cultural evolution a very different texture from biological evolution (see section 5 below). <<