Sunday, October 2, 2011

Memetics: Open Questions

Pioneer Glyph Universal Communication

Dawkin's initial meme concept was a suggestion -- a metaphor. It was not a theory, or even a very clear hypothesis.

It's pretty clear to most observers that something like a meme is at work in the transmission of concepts and ideas and customs from human to human. This is why so many books have been written on the subject despite the lack of any workable theory -- the author can build a case off anecdotes about ideas spreading like wildfire, make general observations about the patterns, and then wrap it up with a grandiose conclusion. In the meantime, they haven't added much of anything to the discussion.

The best Malcolm Gladwell book was not written by Malcolm Gladwell -- it's called Made to Stick, and it's written by Dan and Chip Heath. Their book is a perfect deconstruction of why authors like Gladwell and Thomas Friedman are so popular, despite being factually wrong nearly all of the time. (If you'd like to learn more, just print out their first year of Fast Company columns, which is better than their books was.)

Far from philosophy and popular science, in the field of sales persuasion, the focus is on That Which Works. Men like Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays weren't looking for the individual building blocks of idea viruses, they were looking for working techniques, the applied science of memetics.

I've really been digging the work of Edward Wilson and Wes Unruh for the past few months -- they collaborated on a dense but accessable book called The Art of Memetics. It's probably the most interesting non-fiction approach to Memetics I've found so far, and Wes is making the entire book available for free. I believe he's just past the halfway mark, so you can catch the first dozen or so chapters now.

In closing, here's my open questions:

1. What is the core component of memetic transmission? Is there one?

2. What is the smallest possible memetic unit? How short can the message be and still retain it's potency?

3. Are memes an emergent property of cultural systems? In other words, we assume memes are bottom-up, human ==> culture, but why assume that when there's just as much evidence that the opposite could be true?

4. To what extent is the meme associated with the host language? Are memes made of language, or does language exist to "carry" memes? Are English memes and Chinese memes functionally the same?


  1. I've always had trouble understanding the usefulness of memes - memetics just hasn't really given me any insights, but then again I haven't really looked into it much so take this with a grain of salt.

    I can see the temptation of such an idea, which is why I think a lot of people dig it: it's a simple third-person (scientific-empirical) approach to mapping and categorising first-person realities. Nice n clean. So memes often fall into the trap of reducing first-person realities to third-person maps, whereas in reality there is the conscious (or slightly less than conscious) experience of an idea, which you can map using it-language. But the it-language is simply not the first-person experience. You can't reduce either to either. They are fundamental realms of experience: I and It. Because the trend today is a materialism that likes to reduce all I-experiences to It-things, memetics makes me suspicious of subtle reductionism.

    If memeticists understood this and emphasised that they are merely offering maps that correlate interior realities (which exist within social, physical and cultural dynamics) then maybe there would be some use. Then again I can't see how it contributes to an understanding of cultural evolution, more so than the theories that went before it.

    The mapping and understanding of ideas is a very deep topic of course. Memetics may be a good approach to begin with, but if you really want to understand the spread of ideas, you have to explore your own I-realm (mindfulness, self-observation), the cultural We-realm, the physical It-realm and the social-ecological Its realm, because they are all constantly reciprocating with eachother. I know from experience that I can only understand ideas and concepts through understanding my own biocomputer. I think that has to be a part of the exploration, otherwise memetics is just a gross simplification. If memetics can take all of that into account, then great. But I don't think most people want to go that far.

    "Are memes an emergent property of cultural systems?"

    I'd say they are a correlate of individual thinking, a layer of culture which has its own dynamics. Back to what I just said though, the individual, cultural, physical and ecological-societal exist in one giant feedback loop, with influences flying in all directions.

    I'm paraphrasing some Wilber here, along with some of my own insights since playing with Integral theory. I'm still working on my new site, but when it's launched I hope what I've said above will be clearer.

  2. Yes, that's right: I didn't answer any of your questions! Sorry bout that.

  3. I would link memetics to the notion that toughts are made of matter, physical matter. Shamanic cultures have this idea. Take the way savant Daniel Tammet does his calculations. TVhere are similar reports in psychonaut Zoe7's books, as well as Robert Monroe's books or even Mckenna's visual language ... and then there is Puharich Psi-Plasm and all that...


    i often find it useful to substitute the word "pattern" for "meme" (consider file compression- does a file compressed into a fractal/only-the-necessary-novelty re-present the same pattern?)

    in a direct response to 4, i think the causality goes both directions. while language is at root groups of meaningless symbols that have been associated to express a particular concept/meme/pattern, the learning of a commonly accepted language can define patterns and groupings in the mind. we are susceptible to the definitions of words, but we can also define our own.
    these statements also carry over to 3.

  5. SpencerGNobleman12/14/2008 11:33:00 AM

    "2. What is the smallest possible memetic unit? How short can the message be and still retain it's potency?"

    The shortest potent meme I can think of is the heartbeat motif in music. Beethovens dadada-Daaa in the fifth symphony is short and potent.

    Potency is probably a function of the context in which the meme occurs. A relationship between potency and length of the meme is probably like looking for a relationship between a chemical formula and it's potential energy. In music theory, some very potent ideas happen because very small memes (like a c sharp out of context in beethovens Erocia symphony) occur at the right time and place in the context of larger memes unfolding around them. In other contexts, a c sharp is not at all potent. Potency might be a function of context more than of meme size.

    "Are memes an emergent property of cultural systems? In other words, we assume memes are bottom-up, human ==> culture, but why assume that when there's just as much evidence that the opposite could be true?

    There is some work being done integrating mind extension, philosophy of consciousness and culture by Lambros Malafouris. I recommend you check out this paper about cognition, culture and mind extension bringing cognition outside the skull. He does not talk in terms of memetics, but in terms of cognition. His ideas seem extremely relevant to me.

    "To what extent is the meme associated with the host language? Are memes made of language, or does language exist to "carry" memes? Are English memes and Chinese memes functionally the same?"

    There is evidence that chinese speakers are more likely to have perfect pitch and are more likely to observe the context of a portrait (westerners are more likely to just observe the subject and ignore the context). A meme is associated with it's host language to the degree that the meme is dependent on the unique vocabulary or grammar of the language for it's transmission. There are memes in Finnegans Wake that deep end on complex multilingual puns, so... "and" gauged Kant "bee thee hole, Phil!" "Sophistry store, eh? Its mean." Tomay paused.

    Maybe language functions to create niche environments such that evolution happens faster at the points the language comes into contact with each other (through mutations that happen from mistranslation and cross pollination), and stability happens faster in isolation. This is why progress follows trade. A perfect example of this would be Maria Sabina coming into catholicism from the perspective of a Mexican Shaman and being all "i know all about this, what you call the euchrist is these mushrooms." Language differences are one way memes fuck each other, and fucking is good from an evolutionary perspective. Language is like a permeable membrane that allows memes to both grow in isolation and interact with other systems.

    Interestingly we know now dyslexics in english are not dyslexic when taught chinese and chinese dyslexics are not dyslexic in when taught English. So there are scientifically established differences in biological cognitive processing of the two languages relevant to dyslexia. So the languages are not processed similarly from a biological perspective, even in cases where the content of the memes is the same.

  6. Spencer, could you provide bibliography on the chinese/western differences?

    thanks in advance

  7. SpencerGNobleman12/14/2008 01:41:00 PM

    For Perfect Pitch:

    Absolute pitch among American and Chinese conservatory students: Prevalence differences, and evidence for a speech-related critical period

    " Music conservatory students in the U.S. and China were tested. The Chinese subjects
    spoke the tone language Mandarin, in which pitch is involved in conveying the meaning of words.
    The American subjects were nontone language speakers. The earlier the age of onset of musical
    training, the greater the prevalence of absolute pitch; however, its prevalence was far greater among
    the Chinese than the U.S. students for each level of age of onset of musical training. The findings
    suggest that the potential for acquiring absolute pitch may be universal, and may be realized by
    enabling infants to associate pitches with verbal labels during the critical period for acquisition of
    features of their native language."

    For processing portraits:

    East and West Part Ways in Test of Facial

    "How do you know how someone is feeling? For people in Western societies, it is usually
    easy: look at the person’s face.
    But for people from Japan and other Eastern societies, a new study finds, it may be more
    complex — having to do not only with evaluating the other person’s face but also with
    gauging the mood of others who might be around."

    "Still, the study fits squarely in a longstanding body of research into differences between
    Eastern and Western perceptions of the world around us.
    Researchers studying paintings from the 16th through 20th centuries, for example, have
    found that in Western portraits, the subject took up a larger portion of the picture and was
    painted in a way to make the subject stand out, the study said. In Eastern portraits, the
    subjects tended to be smaller and to blend into the background." Can't find the portrait study I referenced and they reference in the few minutes I looked. Not interested in spending time to dig farther.

    For dyslexia differences:

    "However, he said that it was striking that the Chinese dyslexic children had less gray matter in the middle frontal gyrus, and that was probably a function of genetics, since this phenomenon is thought to be largely genetic.

    This would suggest that the genetic makeup of Chinese speaking dyslexics is different from that of English speakers with the same disorder since they have reductions of gray matter in different sites of the brain."

  8. SpencerGNobleman12/14/2008 02:11:00 PM

    Sorry to pile on links, but VS Ramachandran has an essay that answers your first question:

    MIRROR NEURONS and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution

    By V.S. Ramachandran

    Basically people with mirror neurons mostly copy other people. As the mirror neuron system and culture co-evolved, humans got more sophisticated at mirroring and technology evolved that allowed exponential growth.

    Ramachandran is too cautious and wise to take his work farther, but I think Ramachandran on mirror neurons might be a missing link in Terrence McKenna's work on shamanism and the evolution of culture and RAWs work on orders of the illuminati evolving throughout time and controlling human history. It turns out that language, religion and science may all come from non-autistic people using their mirror neurons to tune into the realities created by very high functioning autistic types functioning as shamans, religious visionaries and scientists. If Ramachandran is right, the biological basis for memetic transmission is mirror neurons, and the basis for the evolution of culture is feedback between evolving mirror neuron systems in normals, shamanic types that relate to high functioning autism, and the culture from the past.

    As a side dish to the Ramachandran I recommend and the thought that mirror neuron abnormalities are responsible for the patterns in autism that in other cultures responded to by developing shamans. These simple ingredients create a framework that include a biological basis for the evolution of culture, a biological basis for the influence of shamanic types on memetic evolution, and a biological basis for the stickiness of memes in the heads of most people.

  9. Hey thanks spencer for the links. Anyway there is people that says mirror neurons hypotheisis is rebated:

    there's too a spanish doctor who showed aspereger's haeve an epileptoid "deep" EEG (this is not the standard EEG but a more detailed version) on left brain whereas autists do have both left and right brain epileptoid forms.

  10. 2. What is the smallest possible memetic unit? How short can the message be and still retain it's (sic) potency?

    Perhaps the wrong question. Perhaps the question is how long can the message be without losing its potency?

    While at a political training conference, we heard that slogans longer than 7 words were going to be lost on the 'mainstream', those who had other things to do than follow politics all the time. These guys did their homework - everything they did was focus-tested, etc, to the point of obsession.

  11. Damn, thank you all for these comments, I'm overdosing in the corner here...lots of new ideas and amazing links.

  12. 1. The core component of the meme is the quantum, then the core component of memetic transission of a pattern of electrical current. For example, dendrites firing in the brain.

    2. 0 or 1, maybe smaller.

    3. No, cultures are an emergent property of memes.

    4. To the macro-transmission extent; the Yankee commodities gambler is motivated by the same memes as a Shanghai commodities gambler, and likewise for a shoper in Wuhan or Tulsa. Language has evolved as a sort of ideological form on behalf of memes, such as the "is" of identity providing an automatic reproduction of the meme in the host.

  13. Apologies if this was already brought up:

    "The hypothesis postulates that a particular language's nature influences the habitual thought of its speakers: that different language patterns yield different patterns of thought. This idea challenges the possibility of perfectly representing the world with language, because it implies that the mechanisms of any language condition the thoughts of its speaker community. The hypothesis emerges in strong and weak formulations."

  14. 1. I'd say visual; I think images pre-dated the written word.

    2. An image. The Pepsi logo or other corporate logos cut across linguistic barriers while carrying the same basic memetic load.

    3. I think natural events (e.g. lightning strikes, rain, earthquakes) shaped emerging cultures at a primal level as those cultures came to associate various causes and effects with them and sought to communicate their experiences.

    4. I believe memes are a posteriori to language. Again, a corporate logo like Pepsi's or a lightning bolt (and its resultant effects such as thunder and fire) or a cave painting cuts across linguistic barriers; language can inhibit memetic propagation as easily as improve it, but simple images are easier to reproduce. Of course, the various circumstances surrounding the discovery/communication of these images can vary, so Chinese memes and English memes could have some significant variations.

  15. here are my thoughts on the matter:

    1) immediate replicatability
    2) good question
    3) yes, due to the widespread availability of information.. more people are 'wired in,' etc.
    4) the latter. i think memes depend on colloqialism. or at least internet memes..

  16. Few serious researchers take the idea of "memes" seriously anymore. It's pretty much just a fetish of people interested in the Occult, and a particularly evangelical segment of the proponents of neodarwinism, and mostly the vocal ones. The journal of memetics collapsed years ago due to a "lack of quality of submissions". It's a bad metaphor from the start, and I am surprised by the number of serious thinkers who have been so enamored by this otherwise simplistic computationalist / cognitivist metaphor of culture.

  17. I appreciate the question as I too have had what feels like a long, confused love affair with the idea of memes, although I've seldom been satisfied with the way it has been articulated, because as the above poster hinted at, of the unfortunate frameworks of mainstream cognitivism. I wouldn't say I've been enamored with the idea of memes, but it definitely was a good "conversation starter" ten or whatever years ago... perhaps we don't have a concrete answer yet.

    I recently came across a corpus of scholarship, self-titled "Biosemiotics", that actually has grown out of molecular biology, but seems to have some interesting ramifications for uniting questions of meaning with science, particularly, the evolution of life.

    Jesper Hoffmeyer, one of the most eloquent propenents of biosemiotic theory that I've found so far, says:

    "In a biosemiotic understanding living systems are basically engaged in semiotic interactions, that is, interpretive processes, and organic evolution exhibits an inherent tendency toward an increase in semiotic freedom."

    Basically there is the idea that living systems are engaged in a form of signification and interpretation "all the way down" -- and on the very fundamental, rudimentary levels "interpretation" simply refers to the recognition or response to variations in pattern. Biosemiotics is an attempt to understand a sort of ecological cybernetics of meaning -- and investigate the possibility of a theory of all "organismic sign" in (possibly the) universe.

    The critics of this theory seem to accuse it of being anthropocentric or teleological, but from my very initial understandings that seems to me quite a flat reading of the emerging corpus of ideas.

    As I've been exploring biosemiotics lately I've definitely had some moments where I was like, OK, this is perhaps a way to start over memetics/cultural transmission, or at least couch it into something much larger.

    The idea that meaning is "immanent" in the ecological realm is, I dare say, a very compelling and controversial idea with a long corresponding legacy in ancient philosophy/theology.

    It seems like in the biological world some abilities fundamental to signalling are the ability to signify nothing, pattern recognition and thus recognition of variation, and also the highlighting of subject-object relations, which can occur as a response to some sort of pattern in an organism's environment. The extent to which all these applies to "memes"... I cannot say.

    It is probably that a similar semiotic theory could be extended beyond the biological realm to the chemical, molecular, etc.

    Happy Huntin'!


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