Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Memetic organisms

When Richard Dawkins coined the word meme (back in 1976, in The Selfish Gene — a must read), I suggest he made one understandable mistake, an oversight that, as far as I can tell, has lingered ever since.  It might even explain why memetics hasn't become a viable field of scientific research.

A meme is roughly an idea that makes copies of itself, which compete with copies of other memes for available resources (basically, human hosts).  When a class of things self-copy and compete, they evolve; Dawkins used the general term replicators for any such things.  Genes are replicators, and he used memes as a second example of replicators, showing that the concept has some generality to it.  All good so far, but he also wrote that this second kind of replicator was "still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup".

Um, no.  It's very easy to think that, because the world that memes inhabit —the ideosphere— isn't directly visible to our senses.  Ask yourself, if the memetic equivalent of a tyrannosaurus were (metaphorically) standing right next to you, how would you know?

Memes are, I suggest, nowhere near the primeval-soup stage.  For thousands of years, memetic organisms have roamed the earth, with reproduction (as opposed to replication), death of individual organisms, inactive memes, and something like differentiated organs.  You are surrounded, at this moment, by memetic organisms.

What's an organism?

Some large groups of memes get copied together; the name memeplex  has been been suggested for such groups.  Astrology, say, or algebra.  But a biological organism isn't just a set of genes — it is, as Dawkins put it, a vehicle for genes.  The replicators have evolved the trick of building these vehicles for themselves.  Here are some things to expect of any kind of organisms.

  • Each organism carries a reasonably stable set of replicators, some of which influence the organism's fitness.
  • Organisms reproduce.  A child is created by a process involving one or more parents, from which the child inherits many (most?) of the replicators it carries.
  • Organisms die.  When they do, some of the replicators they carried may be carried on by their descendants.
  • Replicators with the potential to induce certain organism traits may be carried by organisms that don't exhibit those traits.  (Both recessive genes and junk genes spring to mind.)
So, when looking for memetic organisms, we want a class of entities that carry sets of memes; that exhibit reproduction and death, inheriting from their parent(s) and so preserving memes from deceased ancestors; and that carry along some memes across generations in some sort of "inactive" form.

Seeing a memetic organism

In 1994, there was much fanfare about the twenty fifth anniversary of the first moonwalk.  Footage of astronauts on the moon was replayed on television.  In one of these clips, an astronaut stood on the moon and did the classic experiment of dropping a light object and a heavy object to see if the heavy object fell faster.  (A feather and a wrench, I think they were.)  It wasn't well controlled; the point was evidently public education about science, for which it was preceded by a verbal explanation of the experiment — so it taught about scientific method as well as about universal gravitation.  Great stuff.

What left my jaw hanging was that the explanation started with (iirc) "Aristotle said".  Nobody was supposed to believe Aristotle's theory about falling objects, but this guy on the moon was deliberately teaching the general public about what they weren't supposed to believe.  Inherited memes systematically preserved in a sort of "inactive" form.

Thomas Kuhn described some aspects of this species of memetic organisms in 1962, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (another must read).  Notably, he described its reproductive process, which is what he called a scientific revolution.  Here's a rough portrait of a paradigm scientific field as a memetic organism.

The meme set carried by the organism includes a mass of theories, some of which contradict each other.  At the center of this mass is a nucleus of theories that are supposed to be believed (part of what Kuhn called a paradigm).  Surrounding the nucleus are theories that are meant to be contrasted with the paradigm and rejected, together with memes about how to conduct the contrast; one might call this surrounding material the co-nucleus.  While the organism thrives, the contrast with the co-nucleus strengthens belief in the nucleus, thus recruiting and retaining members of the organism's scientific community.  When the organism falters (the scientific community loses faith in the paradigm), eventually a new paradigm emerges, forming the nucleus of a new organism, while the new co-nucleus may contain both some nuclear and some co-nuclear material from the parent(s).

During reproduction, fragments may be drawn for the new nucleus (as "inspiration") from pretty much anywhere, even from non-sciences.  It seems that a thriving science may deliberately surround itself with a sort of third ring of memes, outside the co-nucleus and perhaps somewhat loosely coupled with the science itself (symbiotic?), that provide raw material for new co-nuclear or nuclear formations.  This third ring may include alternative, pseudo-, and fringe science; and science fiction, which can provide a venue for scientists within the community to explore new ideas without the ridicule or ostracism that would result if they prematurely proposed the same ideas in a scientific forum.

Second example

Religion seems to be a second species (or genus, or some taxon anyway) of memetic organisms.  I may do even more poorly here, as I'm practically unread on comparative religion, but I'll take a stab at it anyway; hopefully, it will suffice to make the taxon plausible, even if my specific suggestions don't hold up at all.

The best fit for an organism seems to be below the scale usually called a sect, though conceivably somewhat above the scale of a congregation.  Part of the carried memetic material is a large mass I'll call a religious tradition, which may be written or oral.  The tradition is augmented by further memes, which I'll call an interpretation, determining what different parts of the tradition are supposed to mean.  The tradition and interpretation should be able to recruit and retain followers.  When changing societal environment makes those memes less effective, it becomes increasingly likely that the community will either splinter, or adjust its carried meme set, creating a new organism with perhaps some deletions or even additions to the tradition, but especially, changes to the interpretation that make it work better in the societal environment.

What makes for a successful religious organism?  A successful scientific organism features highly persuasive contrast between nucleus and co-nucleus, and there is presumably some of that in the religious case too, practices of other religions preserved as persuasive examples of what not to do; likely the scientific species is partly descended from the religious.  But there is also an interesting implication from the suggested religious model, that over many generations, a religious tradition will evolve to be amenable to a very wide range of interpretations, as this will allow the tradition to facilitate successful reproduction in a wide variety of societal environments.  A successful tradition would therefore be an ambiguous one.

Can memetics become a normal science?

There seem to be two problems with memetic research that have held it back.

One is that efforts in memetics have been dominated for decades by attempts to define what a meme is.  The definition of gene was arrived at after extensive study of biological organisms; so presumably, one should expect extensive study of memetic organisms to be a prerequisite for arriving at a really good definition of meme.  Identifying the organisms is a start.

The other has to do with what Kuhn called normal scientific research.  This is the sort of research that takes place within a paradigm scientific field (a thriving scientific organism, that is).  The paradigm usefully constrains the sorts of questions scientists are to ask and the sorts of answers they are to give (a nuance I didn't even try to capture in my rough portrait of scientific organisms, above).  Kuhn describes such research as "puzzle solving", and its narrow focus is its strength, allowing a very great deal of focused work to be done so that, eventually, flaws lurking in the paradigm become impossible to ignore and a reproductive event is triggered — a scientific revolution, shifting things to another paradigm better describing reality.

But memetics hasn't provided that sort of structure.

There seems to be some potential, in the ideas I've proposed here, to define how memetic organisms are to be identified and analyzed, sufficiently that researchers might proceed methodically to find and study organisms.  In other words, these suggestions might be developed into a functioning paradigm that could guide normal scientific research.



  1. Belatedly... Susan Blackmore has written a fair bit of stuff that relates to this. Her book, "The Meme Machine," comes at the area more from the perspective of understanding humans as meme vehicles, rather than looking for memetic "organisms," and so does fall into the trap you identify of trying to identify memes rather than organisms, but her chapters on consciousness and religion might be interesting to you all the same.

  2. Thanks; I'll have to take another look at the chapter on religion — actually, I should reread the whole thing, I guess. I did read The Meme Machine, some years back, but my impressions of most of it must have been eclipsed by my fascination with the demonstration, through her chapter on consciousness, of just how much confusion can be caused by different understandings of intensely abstract words like "self". Maybe I should blog about that... but not until after I've reread the book from the top. Anyway, thanks!

  3. Hey there, I just wanted to let you know that this entry was one of the first that popped up on Google when I searched for Memetic Organism, wondering if anyone had had a similar idea to myself. Here you are! This was a great read, and very interesting.

    Have you considered countries as memetic organisms? Vast, amorphous amoeba, swelling and shrinking across conceptual boundaries on the map, embracing new ideas, traditions, taboos, and strategies for survival. Germany at the beginning of the 20th century illustrates the dynamic range of movement and shifting memetic constitution, as dormant cultural ideals, antique memes residing in the stored memory of a nation, are re-expressed and the organism is seen to advance and retreat through the physical movements of its human vectors.

    History itself starts to take on an interesting character when considered from the viewpoint of a vast memetic storehouse, a cultural melting pot of ideas, the memory of an immense cultural beast.

    Anyway, who knows, it's fun to play around with these ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  4. The key to applying the memetic organism idea is, as I see it, working out which entities to treat as the organisms.  For that, you want to look for the particular features that are peculiar to organisms, and that therefore make "organism" a significant identification.  I'd say the easiest things to spot are probably reproduction and death; once you've got something with those, do a sanity check by looking for stable meme sets and 'inactive' memes.

    With that in mind, I'd say something like "Germany" is larger than an organism; it's defined partly by a territorial extent, and partly by a set of 'patriotism' memes that get passed from generation to generation of organisms.  Perhaps the reproductive events are revolutions.  Perhaps we'll need to add yet more flexibility to our notion of organism, to allow for "reproductive" events of different sizes within a single lineage — a national election might bring about a small shift in power, while a military coup could bring about a larger one (or, in some states, an election might bring about a large shift, while a military coup might be a small one).

  5. On the ambiguity point, from "Chain Letter Evolution" -

    "Subtle methods that increase replication include:

    "The use of ambiguity and obfuscation to deal with such questions as:
    *Does simply passing on the received letter avoid bad luck?
    *Does distribution of copies after the deadline bring good luck?
    *Is the letter from a Catholic or Protestant source?
    *The transfer of key text from a foreign letter to an indigenous letter, cueing an ethnic minority to misidentify the indigenous letter as the "same letter" that circulated in their home country."

    And later:

    "Many Ancient Prayer versions prescribe sending a copy one day at a time: ". . . he who will write it for nine days, commencing the day received . . ." [1908]. This keeps track of the deadline by counting it out. It also associates the chain letter with the Roman Catholic Novena devotion, which involves daily observances for nine consecutive days. This would have been apparent to Catholics at the time, but invisible to most Protestants. Collecting has revealed a small but long lasting niche in North America for an explicit Novena devotional chain letter [1945, 2000]. As discussed in Section 3.4, there is an advantage for a letter to be identified as one's own by different ethnic or religious groups. A similar device (ambiguity) may be at work in "This prayer was sent by Bishop Lawrence, recommending it to be rewritten and sent to nine other persons" [1905]. Bishop William Lawrence was the Episcopalian Bishop of Massachusetts and an author, well known among American Protestants of the time. Likely many Catholics would have presumed by his title that he shared their faith. Incidentally, Lawrence had nothing to do with the chain letter, but received complaints from all over the world for his alleged endorsement (Lawrence)."

  6. Could it be that the AI that many dream of are merely another form of a memetic organism subsisting on another substrate?

  7. I would love to point out that while scientific communities and religions are really good examples of memetic organisms, I would suggest another species of such: the corporation, or commercial institution. I would even say that these could be some of the most evolved memetic organisms, because a resource that these compete for is money, or wealth, kind of like t-rexes compete for food. It may not have to do with the replicators themselves, in this case the memes, but the organisms live and die by wealth.

    I would also like to suggest that a name is already in place for memetic organisms: organizations.

    I do also see states, whether they be nation states or city states, as memetic organisms as well.

    Thanks for this post. It resonates with so much of my own thinking, I'm really happy somebody out there sees some of the things I do.

  8. Thank you for pointing me to this page by commenting on my post on the subject at

    Very interesting ideas. I would say, though, that Germany is not at all too big to be a memetic organism. Remember that biological organisms include single-celled bacteria and blue whales with 10^17 cells.

    Comparing memetic organisms to biological ones is complicated by several important differences.

    (1) The closest natural equivalent of a biological cell is probably the individual human mind. However, unlike biological cells, which generally only belong to a single organism at a time, a single human mind can represent a specimen of countless individual memetic organisms, each with its own parentage: singing "Yesterday", riding a bike, cooking an omelet, each learned from a different source.

    (2) Whereas genes are generally inherited after a parent cell undergoes mitosis, and only mix and match through meiosis in the occasional sexual reproduction event, memes rapidly spread from mind to mind. (Bacteria swap DNA readily, so maybe they're a better model for memetic transmission). This makes identifying lineages much more complicated; my anglicism (speaking-English-ism) is descended not just from my parents' anglicisms but from everyone I've ever read or listened to.

    (3) Memes are much more actively self-modifying than genes seem to be. That is, while there are enzymes that can correct the occasional transcription error, there's very little (so far as we know) reflective contemplation where proteins refine themselves actively. They are almost completely dependent on natural selection. In contrast, there are memetic clusters that actively generate and engineer new memes. Your reference to the structure of scientific revolutions is a good example of this, but there are many others. To some extent, memetic evolution can actually be Lamarckian.

    Did you happen to see my attempt at a taxonomy of memetic viruses (chain letters)?

    1. When I say Germany is 'too big', I don't mean that in the sense of having a large "body" (whatever a body is in this context). The key here is to work out what one means by "organism"; my sense is ---- and I'm really wondering if I should be trying to write a book --- that organisms have an identifiable peculiar role to play in evolution, just as replicators do, and one should keep that role in mind when trying to identify memetic organisms in the field. I'm not yet completely clear on what exactly an organism is, although you can see here I've made a first attempt at it. But just because something has some sort of endurance as a memetic phenomenon doesn't mean it's an organism. It might be more usefully understood as a part of an organism, or as a lineage of organisms. The marker to look for, I think, is the reproductive and death events. Germany is too persistent to be an individual organism, so it seems to me; it looks more like a lineage of organisms. Individual governments may be organisms; Germany would be more of a niche occupied by many generations of governments.

      There are clearly some profound differences from genetic organisms; there may be more in-between entities that have some but not all characteristics of organisms, there may be organisms within organisms, overlapping organisms... a very great deal remains to be seen. It's all very well to say memetics has gotten bogged down in trying to define what a meme is when it ought to be trying to define what an organism is, but defining what an organisms is ain't easy either.

      I haven't had a chance to look at your preliminary taxonomy of chain letters yet. It's an interesting notion. Viruses, of course, are a challenge to the concept of organism even in the genetic realm.

    2. Well, memetic organisms don't reproduce by the same mommy-meets-daddy mechanism that makes biological lineages so relatively tidy. Moreover, I'm not entirely sure that death is a necessary feature of biological or memetic organisms; it's really just the state of not being an organism anymore.

      When I say I think nation states count as memetic organisms, I don't mean the geography either. I mean the body politic: the individual citizens taken collectively, along with the legal/social principles and institutions by which the state is organized. Just like a multicellular biological organism, in which cells not only perform different functions but (importantly) have persistent organizational structure which is transmitted in large part by memetic means: written statutes, regulations, letters, etc. as well as informal institutional practices that are passed on from one generation of citizens to the next essentially by imitation.

      Another problem with the analogy is that while the genome is usually static for the life of an organism (or at least a cell), memomes are constantly being revised, both in an individual mind/cell and in a multicellular body like a nation. I suppose, if I were to press the analogy, I'd say that a regime change in accordance with an established constitution is just a stage in development and growth, whereas an extra-constitutional change represents death of the original state/organism and perhaps birth of a new one (or assimilation into an existing one).

      If you look at the Canadian constitution, Canada is pretty clearly a "child" of the UK, in the way its own Parliament developed and how the Constitution Act (1982) was originally the British North America Act of the British Parliament in London. THe U.S., in contrast, underwent a full revolution, leading in a sense to the "death" of the British colonies and the birth of the modern U.S. constitutional republic. (Its parentage is, as with most memeplexes, extremely complicated.)

    3. But in the genetic realm, one species can be "descended" from another, so just because Canada and the UK are related by descent doesn't mean they have to be organisms. I agree the boundaries of these concepts are different and feel fuzzier (in the sense of fuzzy logic) for memetics than genetics... although I rather think they're fuzzier for genetics than is traditionally admitted.

      I do think death is a hallmark of organisms, but that's because I'm seeing organisms as a sort of role in the evolutionary process, just as replicators (a la Dawkins) are a sort of role in the evolutionary process, and I think death and reproduction are characteristics of that role. But, there's that impulse to write a book, again; I feel I need to explore these ideas in serious depth.

    4. Death is an inevitability (at least statistically) for biological organisms, sure, and it plays an important role in evolution, but I am not convinced it should be considered an essential characteristic of organisms. It certainly isn't fundamental to natural selection, which depends only on three basic premises:

      (1) Traits are heritable.
      (2) Traits influence reproductive success.
      (3) More creatures are born than can reproduce.

      Note that death is NOT one of these three premises. You could have evolution even if nothing ever died, although it wouldn't get very far because soon you'd run out of raw materials; death is convenient in that it allows bodies to be recycled. It's a very decisive way of establishing that a specimen isn't going to reproduce, but it's the not reproducing which is key to evolution, not death per se.

  9. I have been looking at memetics as a way of looking at the Biblical metaphor of the Body of Christ as a way of looking at the Church. At this point, I would say that what might have been once a homogeneous body is now a brood of denominations that are at this point probably more siblings than anything. I have also been researching collective intelligence, and how hive minds work. I have found something interesting, in that while historically in science fiction, hive minds have attributed most if not all of their thinking to a queen that directs every individual agent, and uses other individuals more as remote appendages than anything, well, that's inaccurate. Studies have shown that while a hive has very similar mechanics to the human brain, it's the interactions of all the individual ants that creates the greater intelligence, utilizing cues and simple rules they all abide by. Whereas a human mind can model a future event and thus plan and think creatively, a hive can only think/act in the present tense. Individuals act as thoughts, and when they act on the world, they are in the process of thinking. Anyway, it had also been revealed to me that while all the heavy lifting of thinking is done collectively, there is always a single agent that queues the rest of the hive about what to apply their thought time to. In insect colonies this is the queen, and pheromones released by her may indicate to the rest of the hive to build, or fight, or defend, or forage, or whatever. She doesn't do the thinking itself, but she does direct the others in what's to prioritize. So..... this gets me to thinking about intelligent memetic organisms. Obviously, it would require some kind of collective, hive-based thinking. The internet in a lot of ways can maybe be seen as the development of a central nervous system, or something, as it provides that kind of infrastructure to memetic organisms.... what are all of your thoughts on this?