virus: Applying the meme concept to culture and families
Mon, 18 Jan 1999 10:49:38 -0800

Hi Jake,

Greetings. Thanks for your thought provoking and challenging response of 14 Jan - and the time, thinking and effort put into your reply. Much appreciated. I feel as though I am the feet of a Master!

You're so right! It was painful to realise Jake, that I might be in the comfy position of being a philosopher king - and one that has constructed assertions using memetics that cannot admit of verifyiablity/ falsifiability. Ouch!

While memes obviously flow though our culture at large, I have however eased myself out of my comfy reclining chair to at least empirically study the memes in the narrow field of our family. And in this context Jake, you asked:

> And how do you do this? I would be interested to hear.

Your question stopped me dead in my tracks. Since my work has had to be all be so empirical, I've never formally written this down. Though scarcely formal, what you see here is a first for me! OK How do I do apply memes to the study of my family?

With our family tree already nailed (eg concrete evidence of births, marriages and deaths etc ) I then identify individuals who knew other specific family members on the tree fairly well - usually close relatives out to first cousins. Next I pick out a particular meme (though this might be more accurately called a cluster of mementoes) that I expect the person to whom I'm speaking to have some accurate knowledge about in the other person. So far so good?

Next, I then in essence, use data gathering techniques such as interviewing and careful observation that I acquired when I was into sociology and anthropology in a big way some 25 to 30 years ago. I consciously strive to make data collection objective. Results and responses are recorded in note form as I go along - and rounded off with follow-up reflections on info acquired shortly after - usually within a couple of hours.

The next stage is to systematically look for memetic links between siblings then back and forward through parental generations to see where and how the memes have been replicated.

Underpinning this elementary and simplistic model is my simplistic and elementary understanding of genes and genetics. So Jake, you would be correct in assuming that I'm squashing the biological paradigm into my version of a memetic straight-jacket. When stumped I ask myself the question "What would happen to a gene in this situation?" (eg how would this meme aid or hinder survival in this particular environment) - and then transpose the answer into my memetic analogue, peculiar though it may be. These might be the *subconcepts* about which you also asked.

A couple of for instances might help. One day with my wife, and long before I had thought of using memes as a research tool, I happened to be talking to a cousin (whose mother was my *father's* sister) whom I hadn't met for over 20 years and had little contact. In the course of family gossip, it became obvious that her having "secrets" was an important part of my cousin's family's powerplay. Later, my wife and I were going over the conversation, as some couples do - and my wife noticed that this "secrets" thing echoed an identical trait in me one of my two sons and my father. To this I was able to add memories of "secrets" my paternal grandmother had - and we labelled this odd inter-generational characteristic as the "sneaky meme".

Four or five years later when I began to research my family's history Jake, I began to notice other non-genetic inter-generational features. So two and two was put together. In the first foray in the field, two further examples emerged. From 1820 the Harris male line has two unusual (though not rare) characteristics which each reflect a bunch of memes. The first is that huge moves from the parental home that were replicated in each of the seven generations including emigration to Canada, Africa and Australia. Next there were cross-cultural marriages being copied down each generation. And my children have carried these memes on down to the present day. These we have called the "moving meme" and the "cross-cultural meme" respectively.

Other meme sets I'm looking at in the four families on our tree (my wife's paternal and maternal lines) include those related to religious beliefs, political views, erect and seated body posture, hand gestures, head movements, aptitudes/skills. Though accents may be different I've detected similar speech rhythms among cousins who never knew each other but at the moment I don't have a clue how to describe this!

But Jake, I'm still lumbered with the verifyiablity/falsifiability test. OK I've tested the concept out in conversations with other families and so far the model seems to stack up. Alas, any scientist would cringe at a test as loose and casual as this. But I still think there is something valid in the model.

But Jake, surely the "science" of memetics is still in its infancy? There are many examples in other sciences of phenomenon that had to wait for technologies to come along that would eventually provide concrete proof of phenomenon's existence and solid evidence of the its precise characteristics.

I'm not so sure about the Lamarckian aspect you mentioned. Yes Jake, apparent Lamarckism of course. But if we accept Dawkin's concept that memes are replicating ideas then clusters of memes will adapt to survive in new environments. Harrises, that in the process of expressing the 'moving meme', who migrated to a hot, tropical Australia in 1909 had to incorporate memes from existing settlers who had survived - memes that would have been quite different from those that kin folk who had gone to Canada would have replicated from the Canadians around them.

But I can't see how this should be a Larmarckian process. When Dawkins was introducing the meme in his book "The Selfish Gene" (p 206) he wrote about the replicator "achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind." So it's the merging of memes that we are seeing in the Antipodes and in the northern wastes of new found lands. Memes once useful in 19th century Victorian England could have been fatal. Traits like self-confidence, assertiveness, and individuality that society would have frowned upon, on the other hand Jake, would have encouraged survival. Extremely rapid evolution as Dawkins suggests perhaps but hardly Lamarckian.

Your comment that "Memes and genes form "alliances"", was a breakthrough for me. I had never put the two together like this. It moved my thinking ahead by a quantum leap - and your contribution to the development of my ideas is a vivid example of precisely why I joined the <> list. Jake, you've given me there another angle from which to examine characteristics of family folk going back many years. Thank you.

>From a quick reading of the reviews of Gary Taylor's book at the site I also think that you given us on this list a valuable source to pursue. Taylor, along with Benzon's work puts us firmly back in the arena of culture - which after all is the environment into which memes survive, replicate or go to the wall in the harsh, dispassionate process of evolution. Again Jake, Thank You.

Right now, I'll leave it to others to examine memes in the wider world. My focus, my laboratory if you will, is family. And not families in general either, but my family in particular. OK I agree that extrapolation from this particularity may well invalidate any comment about memes in general - but it will, as it has so far, give me an understanding, insight and the ability to hazard predications that are unavailable by any other means.

Wishing you well in your scary, handgun-contaminated world of Fort Worth - a world far away from this sun dappled and more pacific neck of the woods.


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