Memetics: A Systems Metabiology

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Memetics: A Systems Metabiology

Version 950220

Ron Hale-Evans


This paper is close to completion, but there are still rough spots where elaboration is needed; in some places you will see notes from and to myself on what needs to be changed. I was asked by a friend to put a "pre-release" version online. Comments are very welcome and may shape the final version of this paper.

In this paper, I will present an application of general systems theory to memetics, the study of memes. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" to describe the similarity of ideas to genes. Dawkins says of memes in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

Researchers have also likened memes to viruses or germs in that they often seem to come and go in waves, much as epidemics of biological organisms do. One can take Nazism as perhaps the most familiar example of what can happen when a fanatic ideology spreads and gathers many followers. The memetic plague at Jonestown proved just as fatal for the followers of Jim Jones as any biological plague would have, possibly more so. (Henson 1987)

We can use memetics as an important method for studying the spread of ideologies, religions, cults, fads, and so on. One may find it worthwhile to so consider the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, the genocide in Kampuchea, the takeover by Fundamentalist Islam in Iran, as well as the already-mentioned Nazi and Jonestown massacres, all of them ideologically or religiously (hence memetically) oriented. (Henson 1987) Fundamentalist Christian groups exist throughout the United States holding beliefs that could prove extremely dangerous in the future, especially as we approach the years 1999 and 2000. In those "odometer years" we can confidently expect to see an epidemic of apocalyptic millenarianism, just as happened in the years 999 and 1000 (Mackay 1841) and has happened to a lesser extent in recent times (Chamberlin 1975). Should an individual affected with an apocalyptic millenarian meme come into power then, as Pat Robertson threatened to in the 1988 election, the (nuclear) results could prove disastrous for the world and the human race.

Memetics, though valuable, until now has for the most part used a model of linear causation, effectively saying memes cause information disease, much as early germ theory said germs cause biological disease. This seems a stage through which all sciences seem to go, but one that we need not prolong, since we already have the foundations of a general systems theory that we can apply to most disciplines. To that end I have written this paper.

Dawkins and others usually define memes as the informational equivalent of genes. Do there exist, then, any memetic forms that act like higher biological organisms? It would appear so. Memes can propagate in isolation, but they more usually propagate in larger units which Dawkins calls "meme complexes", Hofstadter calls "schemes", and Grant calls "m-plexes". Hereafter, for simplicity, I will use the term "meme complex" to refer to this sort of organism, and the term "metabiological" to refer to its class and to the class of mental and informational phenomena of all sorts; in other words, I will define "metabiological organisms" as a kind of organism that requires a biological system for its substrate, and the more general "metaorganisms" as a kind of memetic organism that uses biological, electronic, or nanotechnological system for its substrate. (Salk 1985) MEMETIC ORGANISM, METABIOL. ORG., METAORGANISM, MEMETIC VIRUS, METAVIRUS, METABIOL. VIRUS

Here I will defer debate over whether we should consider given metaorganisms as memes or meme complexes by noting that just as self-replicating biological organisms can exist at many different levels of organization and complexity, from genes to cells to multicellular organisms to societies to the biosphere, so can metabiological organisms, from words to ideas to ideologies to cultures to the nöosphere. For the purposes of this paper, therefore, I will define a meme as a component of a meme complex, and note that almost any meme can amount to a meme complex and vice versa. I define bits (1 and 0) as the exception; we cannot call them meme complexes since they constitute the simplest individual memetic components.

We can refer to some metaorganisms as "metaelectronic" as well as "metabiological"; in other words, they rely on electronic as well as biological substrates. This holds true for countless metaorganisms today -- for example, one might find such in the comedy routines of Monty Python. Many college and high school students know the classic routines, such as "Argument Clinic" and "The Philosophers' Song" entirely by heart and recite them on the slightest notice. Moreover, those sketches have spread from the brains of the Monty Python troupe, through television, movies, and audio recordings to millions of people around the world, into "cyberspace"; readily available computer files and programs exist that contain the material, and the Yale mainframe has a special facility for accessing them, from which they gradually migrate throughout the Internet.

The metabiological (or metaelectronic; for simplicity's sake I will continue to use only the term "metabiological") organisms known as meme complexes have many similarities to biological organisms: they mutate, they spread, evolutionary pressures select for them, and so on (Miller 1978, Lumsden and Wilson 1981, Swanson 1983, and many others). On the other hand, simple memes, as components of meme complexes, behave more like the individual units of biological heredity, genes. The analogy between memes and genes seems so striking that it tempts one to construe an actual systems isomorphism of the biological and the metabiological. Earlier proponents of memetics have acted rather cautiously in this regard. For example, Dawkins, one of the originators of memetics, believed that memes had no equivalent to alleles, as a strict isomorphism with genes would indicate they ought to. Swanson (1983), however, has pointed out that one can think of memes (or "sociogenes" as he calls them) that conflict, such as the rival ideas of Protestantism and Catholicism, as alleles.

Another biologist, Miller (1978) believes that, among other differences, there can exist no parallel to sex in memetic evolution, so that one must construe the similarity between memes and genes as a weak analogy rather than an isomorphism. Yet perhaps one can find a parallel to sex in memetics. The avant-garde writer William S. Burroughs once said, "Language is a virus from outer space." SO-AND-SO'S "Panspermia" aside, we can ignore the (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) dictum of Burroughs that language comes from space and concentrate on its similarity to a virus. ????????? diff between language spreading from brain to brain and between cultures While a language normally reproduces itself by contagion and asexually, as a virus does, languages can "mate" and produce new languages. For example, to oversimplify a bit, one can see in English the result of a cross between Old English (a Teutonic language) and early French, a Romance language. This cross occurred as a result of social intercourse between the Anglo-Saxons originally inhabiting England and the Norman invaders. There also appears to exist a memetic equivalent to the sex drive. One can see curiosity and ecumenism as urges toward mingling two or more memetic structures.

Since, as the ongoing Human Genome Project shows, we can store genetic patterns digitally (the biological becoming metabiological), one can see that genes seem merely a particular chemical reification of certain memes (namely those for building biological organisms). Both what we have been calling "memetics" and genetics, then, become subsets of the more general study of what Dawkins calls "replicators". It seems therefore something of a mistake to build memetics only by analogy to genetics; we need not a mirroring but a broadening, a generalization of both memetics and genetics to something we might call "replicatorics". That is another (though lesser) goal of this paper. (Add a note to beg. or end ab this...)

While most readers will see meme complexes as clearly metabiological, individual human personalities or egos may seem less obviously metaorganisms. Nevertheless, I will argue for this case. Perhaps one day through the emerging engineering discipline of nanotechnology, the possibility will exist of our mapping our brains in detail and uploading our minds into new, even inorganic bodies. If this proves the case, then nothing will stop individual human minds from reproducing asexually in their entirety by making "backup copies" to store in other biological or electronic media. People might see such a process as desirable. (Moravec 19??) In this way, one can see human minds as meme complexes themselves. Les mêmes seraient memes, so to speak.

One can imagine a megalomaniac reproducing without limit and infecting new host bodies, like a virus; or perhaps a superintelligence using human personalities as "masks" for its processing capabilities so that it may interact better with intelligences of a lower order. (Lem 1984) Such superintelligences might well keep a store of human personalities and even exchange them with one another. In this way, personalities would come to differ very little from the memes we trade in contemporary commerce.

We may discover that this already occurs to a certain degree. Some metaorganisms other than human minds seem sapient and self-aware. For example, the loa of Haitian voodoo seem a sort of metaorganism that uses humans as horses or biological substrates. The same loa reappear in ceremony after ceremony: Papa Legba, Baron Samedi, and so on. More than one "copy" of a particular loa can attend a ceremony simultaneously.

These ancient meme complexes completely dominate the consciousness of their horses during the ceremony, and the horses will respond to the names of the particular loa "riding" them. Perhaps then, we can say the "software" that comprises the loa responds to interaction with others. One can argue that a loa cannot interact with humans without a human brain, and therefore does not seem intelligent of itself, but one can say the same of human minds: where can one possibly meet a human mind not presently reified in a human brain?

A similar phenomenon seems to occur in other religions and philosophies. In Christianity, it sometimes happens that a believer will become "possessed by a demon" or "filled with the Holy Spirit." In the nineteenth century there existed many "trance mediums" who would claim to speak for a "spirit"; today we know the same phenomenon as "channeling." Perhaps one can say that in a manner of speaking, there really does exist a "war in Heaven," an all-out battle for supremacy between "Christ" and "Satan," two quasi-real entities. If so, it certainly seems less clear-cut than most Christians would have it. Besides "the body of Christ" (Christianity) and "Satan" (that metaorganism which can infect or "possess" the suggestible, such as the nuns of Loudun (Huxley 19??)), there exist many other metabiological entities all fighting for the ecological niches in the ideosphere: Buddha, Allah, the kami of Shinto, various versions of Christ, and so on.

Perhaps the loa and "spirits" exist independently of humans in the "ideosphere" or "nöosphere". Would the Magna Carta exist even if we destroyed all paper and electronic copies of it and everyone who had ever read it had died? Answers to this question seem more the result of one's taste in ontology than falsifiable scientific hypotheses. Nevertheless, some prominent psychologists have speculated on this topic. Jung believed in a "collective unconscious", which contained all human ideas. If such does exist, then metabiological organisms must live there.

Jungian archetypes may manifest themselves as mega-memes in the ideosphere or collective unconscious. Jung said that archetypes have no content. An archetype may therefore function as a sort of memetic skeleton, a meme that itself binds together clusters of memes with informational content, which may include directives of the sort discussed above.

Why do some of the metabiological phenomena discussed above manifest themselves as separate, self-conscious entities capable of reproduction, while others do not? Part of the answer to this question may lie in the way in which these metaorganisms insinuate themselves into the memetic structure of the individual human. Most often people who carry these metaorganisms become infected by them during a sudden, almost catastrophic "conversion process". This goes for the Baptist speaking in tongues as well as for the Haitian speaking as Baron Samedi. When a trance channeler seems to manifest a metaorganism but has not become infected in a traumatic conversion process, one perhaps ought to question the veracity of the experience. While the horses of Voodoo and the speakers in tongues of evangelical Christianity gain little but the temporary attention of an audience during their experience, many trance channelers make a great deal of money from their "infections," perhaps motive enough for fakery.

As an interesting sidelight, one might here want to consider a book that came out in various editions in the 1980s, titled, in fact, War in Heaven (Griffith 198?). This book, which author Kyle Griffith claims he "channeled," propounds the doctrine that there exist in a very real sense spiritual beings masquerading as the demons and deities of Earth's religions and that these beings compete for human souls after death, draining the élan vital from them for sustenance, literally eating said souls. The author seems to have a strong working knowledge of memetics; the meme complex he has constructed makes promises (of beating the bad guys) and threats (of having one's soul eaten), seems self-consistent, seems to "explain everything," (remarking upon that feature of the meme in several places so we won't fail to notice it) and has catchy names for the villains (the Theocrats) and heroes (the Invisible College). Griffith as much as admits he cribbed the idea for War in Heaven from a hoax popular in 1950s science fiction magazines known as the Shaver Mystery, which enjoyed enormous popularity in the science fiction FOOFOOFOO

mention War in Heaven

Biologists have a motto: "Biology is destiny." Yet our memes determine our behavior no less than our genes, and becoming less "mechanical" (in the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff's sense of the word (Ouspensky 19??)) entails freeing ourselves from the tyranny of both. We can probably consider some meme complexes as inherently less dogmatic and therefore making their carriers less mechanical. For example, we can probably consider agnosticism ("God may or may not exist") as less dogmatic than either fundamentalism ("God exists and He told me that...") or atheism ("God does not exist").

For every sapient being, there exist certain "unthinkable" thoughts, and these unthinkable thoughts depend on the existing memetic structure of the brain in question. One can metaphorically consider these "unthinkable thoughts" as Gödel strings for certain thinkers, in other words, patterns of information that the organism in question simply cannot express. For example, I have sometimes referred to the number 666 (the numerological equivalent of the name of the Great Beast in the biblical Book of Revelations, which one will supposedly find written on the forehead or right hand of Satan's legions during the time of the Apocalypse) as the Gödel number for Christians; many of them regard it with superstitious awe, and one hates to think what some fervent fundamentalists would do if someone stamped 666 on their foreheads as a practical joke while they slept -- suicide seems a possibility.

Let us continue with this example. Suppose a memeticist multimillionaire offers a fundamentalist Christian, an agnostic, and an atheist a million dollars apiece if they will have the number 666 tattooed on their foreheads. While the Christian would find it unthinkable to wear such a tattoo, the agnostic would find it less so, and presumably the atheist would find it a trivial matter.

I assume here that the reader does not hold to fundamentalist Christianity, and therefore does not find the prospect of such a tattoo unthinkable. Since the atheist seems the only person practically guaranteed to end up with a million dollars in pocket at the end of the experiment, does that mean that we should consider the atheism meme complex as fundamentally more liberatory than the agnostic meme complex? Not necessarily. The atheist in our gedankenexperiment would give the matter little thought, and in this way differs little from the Christian, who would also give the matter little thought. Only the agnostic would bother thinking through the possible consequences of the tattoo consciously, and therefore one can say that only the agnostic has come to a rational, "conscious," "non-mechanical" decision. While we can predict the responses of the Christian and the atheist beforehand with a fair degree of accuracy, the agnostic's response remains unpredictable. I therefore consider the agnostic meme complex the most liberating of the three, since it allows for the greatest leeway in action.

If we consider some memes more or less liberatory than others, then we have another, basic and personal reason for studying memetics: to achieve the greatest freedom from the meme complexes to which we humans seem no more than "horses."

According to those who work within the discipline of general semantics, one can show a correspondence between use of the verb "to be" in a text and the text's dogmatism. For example, Adolf Hitler said that Jews "are" animals, and Christians say that atheists "are" damned. The former type of use ("Jews are animals") has been termed by general semanticists the "`is' of identity" and the latter ("atheists are damned") the "`is' of predication". (ref: paper on Decl of Ind)

Since we have as yet no objective measure of a text's dogmatism, perhaps we should temporarily take the percentage of a text that consists of forms of the verb "to be" as a measure of its dogmatism (???? 198?) and generate some hypotheses. If one can estimate a meme's dogmatism by the number of times it uses the verb "to be," and if dogmatism contributes to a meme's virulence, then perhaps we can experimentally test the virulence of memes by counting the number of times they use the verb "to be."

I would like to venture that, all else equal, a meme that often uses the "is" of identity and the "is" of predication will prove more virulent than a meme with the same informational content that uses them less often. Perhaps one could test this by counting the number of times various versions of a meme with the same informational content use the verb "to be" and testing how randomly chosen groups rate them for plausibility and persuasiveness

In general, if the hypothesis holds, it should prove possible to create a virulence-measuring program along the lines of the grammar checker through which I ran this paper, which will count the number of times memes use various forms of the "is" of identity and the "is" of predication and generate a rough estimate of their reproductive ability thereby. (Similarly, Francis Heylighen (19??) has proposed formality as a measure of memetic virulence; in other words, more formal speech is more virulent than less formal speech. One could use similar methods such as computer analysis, in this instance as well. MORE STUFF HERE)

One researcher has already performed a rough relative measure of the dogmatism of the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto by counting the appearance of the verb "to be" in (???? 198?). He suggests that we adopt the use of a subset of the English language that he calls English Prime (E-Prime or E' for short), which completely avoids the use of the verb "to be". So that the reader may judge the accuracy of this paper more dispassionately, I have written it entirely in E-Prime. Only quotations from other authors use any form of the English verb "to be". (NOTE: E' REWRITE NOT YET COMPLETE)


I present, below, some of the basic factors, as I understand them, that contribute to the spread of memes. These include both factors intrinsic to the memes themselves ("hooks" (Hofstadter 1985), probably so named after the musical motifs that make hit tunes so catchy), and extrinsic, societal, political, individual and world factors.

TABLE 1: Intrinsic factors in memetic reproduction: "hooks"

1. intrinsically rewarding factors

1.1. promises of reward

1.2. interestingness of meme

1.2.1. promises of reward

1.2.2. aesthetic qualities

1.2.3. humor

1.2.4. strangeness/novelty

1.3. feelings of superiority

1.4. scapegoating

1.5. explanation of everything

1.6. usefulness

1.7. self-directed reward

1.7.1. unconditional reward

1.7.2. for obeying

1.8. other-directed conditional reward

2. claiming intrinsically rewarding qualities

3. intrinsically punishing factors

3.1. threats of punishment: fear

3.2. guilt

3.3. self-directed conditional physical harm

3.4. other-directed conditional harm

4. mechanical factors in reproduction

4.1. ease of reproduction

4.1.1. simplicity

4.1.2. comprehensibility

4.1.3. reproductive ability of medium

4.1.4. copying fidelity cohesiveness noteworthiness

4.2. redundancy

4.3. longevity

4.4. plausibility

4.5. adaptability

4.5.1. syncretism subsuming other memes consistency with other memes: cooperation

4.5.2. intolerance to other memes

4.6. precise marketing

5. claiming mechanical factors

6. general commands to host mind

6.1. faith

6.2. commands to explore the meme complex

6.3. commands to spread the meme

6.4. duty

1. Intrinsically rewarding factors: There seem to exist, from my survey, more uses of the carrot than the stick in memetic hooks, perhaps because people seem more likely to avoid memes that punish than memes that reward. People seem more likely to seek out memes that reward than memes that punish. However, memes can offer a "variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement" (Skinner 1974) that punishes more often than it rewards, yet which rewards often enough that people believe the meme and even spread it. One might see the meme that says "You can win money at Las Vegas" as a prime example.

1.1. Promises of reward: One of the ploys that memes use the most to get intelligent systems to spread them seems that of promises of reward. (Hofstadter 1985) Whether memes fulfill these promises or not seems of little consequence. (If they do, so much the better; then the meme proves itself useful, a memetic trait we shall discuss later.) Many memes promise rewards in the indefinite future, or after death. One can see the meme complexes of many organized religions as perfect examples of this. The Christian meme says, "If you believe this meme, you will be rewarded by going to Heaven after you die." This promises reward and thus, in a way, proves intrinsically rewarding because the carriers of the meme can, in times of duress, think about the lovely, comfortable, and joyous existence promised them while in this vale of tears.

1.2. Interestingness of meme: Some memes prove successful partly because they seem interesting. A meme can seem interesting because it promises reward, of course, but can also seem interesting because carriers find it intrinsically rewarding in certain other ways: because they find it aesthetically pleasing, humorous, novel, or strange.

1.2.1. promises of reward: See 1.1.

1.2.2. aesthetic qualities: One might see Leonardo's La Giaconda (the "Mona Lisa") as a somewhat less trivial example of a meme that has spread by its aesthetic appeal, it having appeared in many unexpected places, artistic and otherwise, from Duchamp's LHOOQ to candy bar commercials.

1.2.3. humor: Good examples of memes spread because of their humorous appeal seem the folk art photocopies which adorn offices and places of work all over the country.

1.2.4. strangeness/novelty: Memes spread through strangeness or novelty probably include urban legends and ghost stories, the Discordian and SubGenius pseudo-cults of recent years, and the many Eastern religions and cults that appeared in America in the 1960s and have continued to appear and disappear to the present day.

1.3. Feelings of superiority: Another hook memetic organisms use to reward their host organisms seems the generation of feelings of superiority. We "are" saved; they "are" heathen. We "are" the Master Race; they "are" animals. The meme, of course, usually defines "we" as "vectors of this meme" and "they" as "non-vectors of this meme." The formula thus runs almost invariably, "People who carry this meme are good. People who don't carry this meme are bad. Therefore, vectors of this meme are better than non-vectors of this meme."

1.4. Scapegoating: Scapegoating seems a closely related memetic hook. By scapegoating, a group both defines itself as good and another group as bad, thus generating feelings of superiority, and seems to solve its problems at the same time. Thus Germany in the 1930s could blame all its economic problems on the Jews. Genocide, of course, solves nothing but the problem of dissent -- a problem only for those in power.

1.5. Explanation of everything: The memetic ploy of explaining everything seems related to scapegoating and feelings of superiority. Many of the meme complexes that have been most successful, including Marxism and Psychoanalysis as well as meme complexes more commonly recognized as religions, tend toward the all-encompassing. These "theories" and cosmologies can explain essentially all phenomena with which meme carriers come into contact in everyday life. As the philosopher of science Karl Popper pointed out (Popper 1965):

A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation--which revealed the class bias of the paper--and especially of course in what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their "clinical observations"....

Naturally, this all-encompassing explanation tends to have a dramatic stress-reducing effect, and in this sense, this hook (an emergent property of the meme complex itself and not usually a single meme) seems intrinsically rewarding. Moreover, the façade of usefulness that such a meme complex presents functions as a promise of reward.

More specifically, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Christianity, Ayn Rand's currently popular philosophy of Objectivism, et al. explain too well deviance from the meme complex. (EXPLAIN THIS) Science seems perhaps the first meme complex in history that does not (ideally at least) explain deviance from its memes as faulty perception or reasoning thatthe deviant could correct by acceptance of the meme. Rather, the scientific meme complex contains the meme of the fallibility of its carriers.

1.6. Usefulness: Truly useful meme complexes exist also, as evidenced by the proliferation of life-enhancing technology since the adoption of the scientific method meme complex several hundred years ago. Moreover, useful memes extolling exercise, proper diet, hygiene, and so on have become widespread as well. Nor do scientifically based meme complexes seem the only useful ones. Through my own experience I can add that meme complexes that promote meditation seem useful in establishing a sense of well-being in the individual; and the various yoga memes also have something to recommend them. With less certainty, considering tracts such as Teresa of Avila's autobiography, I include meme complexes that promote prayer here as well, since it seems prayer may also prove useful in establishing well-being in the individual entirely apart from their promised contact with deity. Note that while certain memes in these meme complexes may prove useful, other memes within the meme complex may prove detrimental, yet they all come linked.

1.7. Self-directed reward: Some memes seem rewarding in a very concrete sense, yet one cannot call them "useful." For example, the meme that says that people ought to strive for material goods seems materially rewarding, but useful only in a trivial sense.

1.7.1. unconditional reward: The materialism meme and other memes in the contemporary conservative meme complex seem unconditionally rewarding, at least immediately, and so it does not seem surprising that the complex spread so far in the 1980s. On the other hand, memes that promote kindness and development of oneself toward a spiritual ideal seem also rewarding, but not so immediately, so it should come as no surprise that these memes have traditionally been poor competitors for the memes that promote greed and self-interest (the laity has always outnumbered the relatively more ethically-advanced monks and nuns in any religion one cares to mention).

1.7.2. Reward for obeying: One would suspect that there exist also conditionally-rewarding meme complexes, i.e., memes that say, "If you obey this meme complex, you can reward yourself by method x," yet I can think of none. (DIETS? FOLLOWING THE DIET GETS YOU DESSERT) There exist, however, conditionally punishing meme complexes, as we will see below.

1.8. Other-directed conditional reward: Many memes do not reward the carriers, or do not reward the carriers alone, but reward others. They say, "Reward others who carry this meme." This way, the population as a system rewards itself for carrying the meme, and the meme gets spread. One can see this mechanism at work in the confirmation parties held by Christian parents for their children, in Bar and Bas Mitzvahs, and in any celebration organized by those people who carry the meme for those who do not or in whom the meme has not yet completely matured, such as the feast days organized by the Catholic Church for the laity.

2. Claiming intrinsically rewarding qualities: Memes need not only have any of the above hooks to possess an intrinsic reward; they need merely claim that they have these hooks, in other words, claim that they are useful, that they explain everything, that they are amusing or aesthetically interesting, and so on. The pseudoscientific meme complex of phrenology, for instance, makes claims of usefulness, and Warhol's Campbell's Soup "art" makes claims of aesthetic value. These and other claims, including the promises of reward mentioned above, seem analogous to camouflage in biological species; just as biological species have evolved to seem like other species to protect themselves, so have memetic species like the pseudosciences adopted the coloration of their legitimate cousins, the better to garner respectability, thereby attracting more followers to carry and spread their memes.

3. Intrinsically punishing factors:

3.1. threats of punishment: fear: Not all memes seem intrinsically rewarding. Some memes punish. Analogous to the promise of reward seems the threat of punishment. Just as some memes promise you will go to Heaven if you swallow the meme, so do some, often the same ones, threaten that you will go to Hell if you do not, thus punishing disbelief by fear. Again, whether the meme can justify these claims or not has only a partial bearing on the success of the meme. (WAR IN HEAVEN AS WEIRD/COMPLEX EXAMPLE?)

3.2. Guilt: Again analogously, memes which have adopted the strategy of "We are good; they are bad" often punish by inducing feelings of guilt ("I am bad") in the carrier should the carrier deviate from the program set forth in the meme. One suspects that this factor contributes as least as much to church attendance as does the allegedly uplifting nature of the services.

3.3. Self-directed conditional physical harm: Some memes induce the carriers to inflict physical punishment on themselves should the carriers disobey the meme; the epidemic of flagellation during the Middle Ages in Europe seems witness to this. (OR WAS IT FOR ASC'S? REWARDING TOO)


3.4. Other-directed conditional harm: Memes can also achieve success by inflicting punishment on others who do not carry the meme, just as they can achieve success by rewarding others who do. Jihads, crusades, witch-hunts and witch-burnings, the McCarthy-era persecution of "Communists," government persecution of "political criminals," ostracization of "nerds" by junior high-schoolers, and so on and on, seem all examples of this punishment. (It would seem unusual if a meme could achieve success by merely claiming to have the punishing qualities above; usually organisms tend to avoid entities that seem punishing.) BUT "VANQUISH YOUR ENEMIES" IS A PROMISE OF REWARD

4. Mechanical factors in reproduction: Dawkins (1976) acknowledges three qualities of memes that make for high survival value: "longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity." We have already discussed what seems to make for a fecund meme; longevity and copying-fidelity seem, roughly speaking, mechanical factors in the reproduction of the meme, and we will discuss them below.

4.1. Ease of reproduction: One of the primary mechanical factors in memetic spread seems that of ease of reproduction, Dawkins's "copying-fidelity" being only one aspect of this ease. Ease of reproduction has many aspects: simplicity, comprehensibility, the reproductive ability of the memetic medium, and cohesiveness. If a meme lacks any of these factors, it will lose ground and minds to the more easily duplicated memes.

4.1.1. Simplicity: That simplicity constitutes an important factor in memetic reproduction seems fairly easy to demonstrate: compare how many people can sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to the number of people who can recite the Odyssey in toto. Clearly, the simpler a meme, the less time, space, matter, and energy it will take to reproduce and the farther it will spread. Moreover, this simplicity seems a form of intrinsic reward, a hook generated as an emergent property of the whole meme or meme complex. BECAUSE YOU GET PRAISED FOR MEMORY?

4.1.2. Comprehensibility: Comprehensibility also seems an important factor. One does not publish a Hindi newspaper in Sweden if one intends to reach and influence the majority of the population. Similarly, one does not put signs solely in Spanish in a Japanese airport. In fact, we seem to be evolving an iconic (picture) languages for international use, computer interfaces, and so on. E-O

4.1.3. Reproductive ability of medium: The reproductive ability of the medium that expresses the meme also has much to do with the success of the meme. One sees many of the same pieces of xerox art repeatedly in offices partly because of the spectacular reproductive ability of photocopying. People will duplicate almost any meme if it appeals to them, if there exist few or no restrictions on its duplication, and if the medium that carries it (such as 8 1/2" x 11" paper in this case) has a high reproductive ability. One acute observer of information spread, Stewart Brand, dubs this principle "information wants to be free." (Brand 1987) Other good examples of this principle include computer software piracy and the flap over Digital Audio Tape (DAT). DAT, would have allowed consumers of music to copy music they like with the fidelity of a compact disk and for the cost of a blank tape. The music industry lobbied the US federal government rather succesfully to prevent DAT from being used in this way, even to the extent of placing anti-copy chips in DAT recording equipment. (Brand 1987)

4.1.4. Copying fidelity: Dawkins's "copying-fidelity" seems a fourth important factor in memetic reproduction. Copying fidelity seems crucial in preventing mutation in memes. Mutation seems not always a bad thing, of course, since through innovation (mutation), we have a rich world culture -- but in the case of useful information, any mutation seems potentially dangerous. Cohesiveness: Poetic form seems an important early form of copying fidelity. Rhyme and meter help prevent information from decaying, and act as a primitive form of error checking. Take, for example, the well-known folk heuristic meme

Thirty days hath September,

April, June, and November.

Probably this meme would not have spread so far without rhyme and meter. "September" and "November" check each other in the rhyme and prevent one from substituting, say, "August." Noteworthiness: Moreover, anything that renders a meme sufficiently noteworthy that one repeats it acts as a form of copying fidelity, another stratagem being humor, such as "My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pumpkins" (the planets of Sol system in order away from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto).

4.2. Redundancy: Redundancy seems another mechanical factor in memetic reproduction that acts as a form of copying fidelity, but it also functions in another way, and so deserves a word of its own. Constant repetition of a meme increases the likelihood that those thus repeatedly exposed to it will catch it, just as someone repeatedly exposed to an influenza virus becomes more likely to catch it. "What I tell you three times is true," the RED? Queen told Alice. OR SNARK???? This phenomenon seems partly behind one of the extrinsic factors in memetic reproduction, namely isolation of the targeted group, which we will discuss later. (Henson 1987)

4.3. Longevity: Longevity of the memetic medium seems also a factor in memetic reproduction. The more durable the medium, the longer the information it contains will survive to infect intelligent organisms. Dawkins (1976) gives as an example of the manifestation of this principle the Torah, which has survived perhaps partly so long because of the durability of written material.

4.4. Plausibility: Plausibility certainly seems a crucial factor in the reproduction of memes, at least inasmuch as they present themselves to their intended host organisms as fact and not fiction. Memes that seem true will more likely evolve and spread than memes that seem false. We have all heard the urban legends about people who took LSD in the 1960s, jumped out of windows thinking they could fly, and fell to their deaths, yet it seems unlikely, all else equal, that a meme that told of someone who took LSD and flew would spread very far in contemporary urban society, since it would seem highly implausible to listeners.

4.5. Adaptability: As with biological organisms, adaptability seems an important factor in memetic success. Memes have two main strategies available upon meeting allelic memes: they can attempt to subsume the other memes syncretistically, or they can attempt to destroy the other memes in competition.

4.5.1. Syncretism: Syncretism seems a fairly common memetic stratagem. Subsuming other memes: Christian doctrine adopted many pagan cult figures as saints and many pagan celebrations as Church feast days, including Christmas and Easter. Buddhism subsumed many native religious symbols during its evolution in India, and Hinduism, which took over the ecological niche (or allelic position) formerly occupied by Buddhism, after the Muslim invasion of the ?th century destroyed much of Buddhism, syncretistically adopted the figure of the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, with one small catch: it said the Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu on Earth intended to mislead people. In all cases of subsumption, the new meme at least relegates the old memes to an inferior position, or, to use the genetic analogy, they shift the old memes to another position so that they no longer amount to alleles of the new meme. Both the new and the old memes may then travel together. Consistency with other memes: cooperation: Memes not occupying an allelic position can even prove helpful to new memes; they can then evolve a strategy of cooperation. In order for memes not to occupy an allelic position, they must prove consistent, or apparently consistent, with the new memes. Consistency with preexisting memes seems an important factor in a meme's success. If a meme seems consistent with old prejudices, it simply becomes another prejudice. If a person has already contracted the "We are good; they are bad" meme, and believes that their racial group (A) "is" superior to racial groups B and C, a meme that claims that racial group A "is" superior to racial group D seems likely to find easy acceptance.

4.5.2. Intolerance to other memes: Competitive destruction of other memes, however, seems at least as common as syncretism. Keith Henson points out, "From a meme's viewpoint, toleration of other memes is not a virtue. It is, in fact, a fatal characteristic for a particular meme, as memes inducing intolerance to other memes would soon displace it." (Henson 1987) "Monomemes" (Henson 1987) like Fundamentalist Christianity and Islam have become intolerant to most other memes and thus achieve more-or-less complete domination of the host organism, an extreme example of this domination being the "memoid", who carries a meme that overrides biological survival programs inherent in the human brain, and will risk their life to further the meme. (Henson 1987)

4.6. Precise marketing: One final characteristic commonly found in successful memes seems precise marketing. A Fundamentalist Christian meme that induces followers to recruit members from National Science Foundation meetings seems not likely to prove very successful. A meme such as that propagated by the Unification Church (the "Moonies") seems more likely to succeed when, as this meme does, it induces carriers to attempt to spread the meme among vulnerable first-year college students in a strange new environment.

5. Claiming mechanical factors: Again, it seems not always necessary for memes to have the mechanical virtues mentioned above, for example, simplicity, comprehensibility, etc., to achieve some success. The nineteenth-century planned language Volapük was enormously complex compared to its successor language, Esperanto, yet in its day Volapükists propagated it widely, merely claiming that it was simple and comprehensible.

6. General commands to the host mind: Some of the most successful strategies used by memes to reproduce themselves seem only peripherally related to reward and punishment. They include exhortations to blind faith, commands to spread the meme, and commands to explore the full meme complex.

6.1. faith: Faith, says Richard Dawkins,

means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.

The meme for faith ("Believe this meme and do not question!") usually seems complemented by memes that threaten Hell and promise Heaven, so to speak, based on whether the person meeting the meme believes the meme or not.

6.2. Commands to explore the meme complex: Similar to memes which command people to believe the meme complex seem memes which command people to explore the meme complex, for example "Study the Bible with a friend this Sunday." If the person meeting this meme believes it and follows it, they will become exposed to a more complete version of the meme complex, in this case Christianity, and it seems much more likely that they will then contract it.

6.3. Commands to spread the meme: Commands to spread the meme, in other words, sentences to the effect of "spread this meme," seem one of the most common ways a meme gets its host organism to spread it. Christianity, for example, has a long history of proselytisation, and this seems partially because it has always had a memetic component that urged its spread.

Commands to spread the meme need not always be explicit. Donald Going, in (Hofstadter 1985) gives an example meme complex in which this hook develops implicitly from two explicit memes:

System X


X1: Anyone who does not believe in System X will burn in hell.

X2: It is your duty to save others from suffering.


Emerging from the two sentences in System X one can see a third, implicit sentence, "It is your duty to spread System X." Nor does the hook have to emerge from the meme complex proper. People who already believe they have a duty to save others from suffering will relatively readily spread a meme that claims that anyone who does not believe in it will burn in hell. ----- and the same holds for any claims they make, etc.!!!!

6.4. Duty: Finally, the meme of duty itself has probably been a material influence on the spread of certain meme complexes, notably militaristic ones. This meme, linked with others, such as the faith meme, as in "ours is not to wonder why," makes for a particularly virulent and dangerous meme.



7. input transducer

7.1. isolation

7.2. events consistent with meme

8. internal transducer

8.1. stresses in population increasing suggestibility

9. channel and net

9.1. fitness of channel and net --

9.1.1. high information capacity

9.1.2. signal-to-noise ratio

9.1.3. ease of use

10. decoder

10.1. availability of decoder units for population

10.2. ability of population to interpret memes

11. associator

11.1. suggestibility of population

12. memory

12.1. presence of consistent memes

12.2. durability of memory

12.3. ease of storage and recall

13. decider

13.1. favor of central authority

14. encoder

14.1. intelligence of those propagating the meme

15. output transducer

15.1. attractiveness of those propagating the meme

Extrinsic factors in memetic reproduction

Memes cannot propagate in a vacuum. They need intelligent, or at least living, systems to spread them, and conditions prevailing in these systems can greatly influence their reproduction.

Miller (1978) has enumerated the major information-processing components of living systems. He calls them the input transducer, internal transducer, channel and net, decoder, associator, memory, decider, encoder, and output transducer. Below we will examine how factors related to each of these components of living systems, sometimes at the organismic level, sometimes at the societal, contribute to memetic spread.

7. Input transducer: The input transducer consists of the component of a living system that brings information into the system. In a human being this consists of the various sense organs. In a society it consists of the telecommunications devices that link it with other societies.

7.1. Isolation: As Henson points out (Henson 1987), the inputs left to a living system isolated from other inputs will tend to influence it relatively more strongly. Thus, cults such as the Unification Church tend to isolate their members from the outside world, and authoritarian governments such as the former Soviet Union, but also to some extent the US, tend to restrict the flow of memes across their borders from societies that differ greatly from their own. (Henson 1987)

7.2. Events consistent with meme: The input transducer subsystem also brings information about stressful events such as eclipses and other celestial phenomena, plagues, famines, and so on. These, particularly those phenomena that seem to fall in line with prophecy, particularly apocalyptic prophecy such as that in the Book of Revelations in the New Testament, often have the tendency to increase suggestibility in the population, and increase susceptibility to apocalyptic memes. For example, during the Black Death in Europe there was a corresponding epidemic of millenarianism. (Barkun 1974)

8. Internal transducer: The internal transducer consists of the subsystem that gathers information about other subsystems within the system. In a human being, the nerves leading from the various organs and internal subsystems to the brain serve this function. In society, news crews, reporters, and so on serve this function.

8.1. Stresses in population increasing suggestibility: The society's internal transducer would tend to relay stresses within a population to the rest of the population. Intrasocietal stresses often make it more likely that new memes will find a niche; for instance, it seems unlikely that the Nazi meme would have found such acceptance in Germany in the 1930s had Germany not been undergoing extensive economic crises at the time.

9. Channel and net: The channel and net (or "net" for short) consist of the subsystem of a living system that transmits information to all parts of the system. In the human body, of course, this means the nervous system; on a larger scale, this means the telecommunications available to a society, including telephone, radio, television, mail, email (electronic mail), and so on.

9.1. Fitness of channel and net: The chief factor influencing memetic spread in the channel and net subsystem seems its fitness. This fitness includes, among other factors, a high information capacity, a high signal-to-noise ratio, and ease of use.

9.1.1. High information capacity: According to Miller (1978), information capacity seems one important variable in function of the net. High information capacity means that the channel and net can carry many signals at once. For example, the Pony Express could carry very many fewer letters cross-continent than today's fleets of mail planes; thus, the net can carry more signals in this way and spread more memes: propaganda, religious tracts, scientific information, and so on.

9.1.2. Signal-to-noise ratio: Signal-to-noise ratio seems another important variable in function of the net. (Miller 1978) This refers to the amount of desirable information that the channel and net subsystem can carry over the amount of undesirable information. A high signal-to-noise ratio means that the net can transmit much desirable information relative to undesirable information. Note that, for a given meme, any information that does not foster its own spread amounts to noise, no matter how important that information may seem to the recipients. Thus, if information about a recent important event overwhelms the net (death of a central political figure, moon landing, outbreak of war, announcement of a plague cure), a meme may find it a very hostile environment in which to spread.

9.1.3. Ease of use: Another important factor in memetic spread consists of easy use of the net. The easier the net to use, the more people will use it to spread memes. For example, whereas I rarely receive letters by regular US mail, I find it not uncommon to receive several personal messages in one day by the much easier to use email, or electronic mail, often bearing important new memes about technological advances. This advance in ease of use of communication has also brought an increase in undesirable memes, of course; whereas I have only received a chain letter perhaps twice in my life by postal mail (commonly called "snailmail" by email users), I have received perhaps ten in the past two years by email.

10. Decoder: The decoder consists of the living system component that translates information input to it into a form usable internally by the system. In a human being, this component consists of part of the human brain; in society, it consists of both human brains with their literacy and language capabilities and the technology they have evolved (for instance, television sets) which allow them to receive information transmitted.

10.1. Availability of decoder units for population: One factor in the propagation of memes seems availability of decoding technology. The more technology available, the more information will individual organisms in the society prove able to receive, and memes will spread faster.

10.2. Ability of population to interpret memes: Literacy seems also an important factor in memetic reproduction, as do the factors of which and how many languages the population speaks. The better educated a population, the more memes it can interpret. (This does not necessarily mean that all memes that a well-educated population can interpret will necessarily fare well in that population; see "associator" below.)

11. Associator: The associator consists of the subsystem that carries out the first stage of learning within the system, that of forming associations between items of information. In the human being, the associator subsystem consists of the brain, and in society, it consists of schools, scientific institutions, and so on.

11.1. Suggestibility of population: The frequency with which the associator forms associations seems the major factor in its reproduction of memes; to put it another way, the suggestibility of the population seems a major factor in the spread of memes. The more suggestible the members of a society, the more memes they will contract and spread. Education can mitigate suggestibility; university students can read the National Enquirer but rarely do, and even then usually reject what they find within.

12. Memory: Memory consists of that subsystem by which a living system carries out the second stage of learning, storing associations and other sorts of information. In individual human beings, the brain carries out this function; in human society, both individual brains (as individuals store oral and procedural knowledge), and physical technologies, including books, tape, digital computer storage, and so on, carry out this process.

12.1. Presence of consistent memes: The presence of consistent memes in the memory of the targeted living system seems an important factor in the spread of memes. We have already discussed this factor from an intrinsic standpoint above, in the passages on adaptability of memes. Presence of inconsistent memes in memory contributes negatively to the spread of certain memes also, as already mentioned; education can have a drastically negative effect on the spread of memes that require high suggestibility in the target population.

12.2. Durability of memory: Durability of the memory also affects spread of memes, as discussed above under "longevity." The Odyssey propagated quite well as an oral tradition in ancient Greece, but it seems unlikely it would have survived until today had it not been written down at some point. Paper seems more durable a form of memory than oral repetition.

12.3. Ease of storage and recall: Ease of storage and recall seems also likely to affect the spread of memes. One can instantiate a meme in as durable a medium as one likes -- say, carving it in stone -- but if it remains inaccessible -- say, carved in stone in a Himalayan cave -- it will likely not propagate far.

13. Decider: The decider consists of the component subsystem that receives inputs of information from all other subsystems and outputs information to them that controls them. In the human being, this subsystem undoubtedly consists of the brain; at levels larger in scope, it consists of the board of directors, the papacy, the government, etc..

13.1. Favor of central authority: One of the main factors on any level influencing the spread of memes seems whether the memes being spread have already infected central authority (the decider component). If it has, the decider seems likely to put its considerable force behind the spread of the meme, and since it has information outputs leading to all systems, the meme can then spread very far. If the decider has not contracted the meme, it seems likely either to ignore the meme being spread, or to attempt to repress it, usually by spreading conflicting memes which interfere with the meme being spread (and incidentally acting as noise on the channel and net), or by punishing those who carry the meme, or both.

14. Encoder: The encoder consists of that subsystem that changes the form into it from a private form used by a system internally to a public form that other systems can use. This consists of the language centers in an individual human, and on a societal level might consist of the brain of a spokesperson for an organization, or a priest in a church.

14.1. Intelligence of those propagating the meme: The intelligence and skill of the encoder seems the main factor influencing memetic spread by encoder subsystems. Eloquence and tactfulness seem more likely to spread memes than do stammering and verbal clumsiness.

15. Output transducer: Finally, the output transducer consists of the subsystem that outputs information from the system to the environment. In a human being, this consists of the lungs and vocal tract, or the hands if writing or typing; in a larger system, it consists of the person or people proper who speak for the group, organization, or culture.

15.1. Attractiveness of those propagating the meme: One of the main factors in the spread of memes contributed by the output transducer seems the attractiveness of the output transducer. No one wants to listen to an ugly person with a screeching voice deliver homilies about Brand X Toothpaste or Brand Y Ideology, but people will listen long to a beautiful person with a mellifluous voice. Moreover, the attractiveness of the person sometimes acts as an implicit sort of promise of reward: "If you believe the meme I am spreading now, you can become as attractive as I."


Someone once sagely said that all science consists of either physics or stamp collecting. I hope the reader has found a few interesting specimens in these pages. They hardly present a complete systems theory of memetics, but memetics has not yet outgrown its infancy, and I hope this paper has contributed to its growth.

I would like to offer my thanks to my wife Marty Hale-Evans for her extensive helpful criticism and suggestions. I would also like to thank E. Jay O'Connell... Alex Chislenko...

Include note on nonsexist usage of "they".



Barkun, Michael. 1974. Disaster and the Millennium. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Brand, Stewart. 1987. The Media Lab: inventing the future at MIT. New York: Viking.

Chamberlin, E.R.. 1975. Antichrist and the Millennium. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., Inc..

Chislenko, Alexander. 1992. "Living Systems". Private communication from the author.

Dawkins, Richard. The Extended Phenotype.

Dawkins, Richard. 1989. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press. second edition...

de Chardin, Pierre Teilhard.

Grant, Glenn. 199?. "A Memetic Lexicon". Private communication from the author.

Griffith, Kyle. War in Heaven. etc...

Hayakawa, ??. 19??. Language in Thought and Action.

Henson, Keith. 1987. "Memetics: The Science of Information Viruses". Whole Earth Review no. 57. (Reprinted from Analog; the Analog version has a useful bibliography.)

Heylighen, Francis. (Papers on formality and memetic spread)

Hofstadter, Douglas R.. 1985. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers.

Huxley, Aldous. 19??. The Devils of Loudun.

Jung, Carl G.. ?????

Korzybski, A. 193?. Science and Sanity.

Lem, Stanislaw. 1984. Imaginary Magnitude. Translated from the Polish by Marc E. Heine. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers.

Lumsden, Charles J. and Edward O. Wilson. 1981. Genes, Mind, and Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Mackay, Charles. Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Miller, James Grier. 1978. Living Systems. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Moravec, Hans. 19??. Mind Children.

Moritz, Elan. Journal of Ideas articles.

Ouspensky, ???. 19??. The Fourth Way.

Popper, Karl R.. 1965. "Science: Conjectures and Refutations" (in Grim, Patrick. 1982. Philosophy of Science and the Occult. Albany: State University of New York Press.)

Salk, Jonas. 1985. Anatomy of Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason. New York: Praeger Publishers.

Skinner, B.F.. 1974 . About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.

Swanson, Carl P. 1983. Ever-Expanding Horizons: The Dual Informational Sources of Human Evolution. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press.

The paper on E-Prime and Decl. Ind./ Comm. Manif..




meme allergy??

meme complex









(Glenn Grant's memetic lexicon)

(SysTheory terms?)

What if legislators who passed unconstitutional laws were fined or imprisoned? Think about it.

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I am a CREW Signatory.

Ron Hale-Evans