A Meme By Any Other Name

The controversial meta-meme that memes are controversial, seems to have spread … like a meme.

This post is partly in response to this article in Andrew Brown’s Guardian Blog, and partly as a result of a comment thread that became attached to an earlier (unrelated) post here, comments in several threads over at Sam’s Elizaphanian blog, and a couple of e-mail exchanges with Sam. This post is in two parts – initially my own summary of the “state of play” with memes, followed by a very simple alternative formulation of the original “mimetic” idea.

Memes – The State of the Union

Some see red mist at the mention of the word, associating it with the archetypal “scientific fundamentalists” hell bent on their (apparent) reductive dehumanising crusade against the evils of religion and against the virtues, vices and vagueries of human nature. Others seem equally hell bent on destroying or trivializing the word meme by abusing it to mean various “tag you’re it” exchanges of lists, surveys and quizzes in the blogosphere, ironically exploiting the power of memes in general in the process of propagating the low quality and the trivial. Yet others simply refuse to see that the word meme says anything more useful than the word idea.

I’m happy to claim the “physicalist”  tag for myself, and to use the word meme as originally intended, yet still equally happy to brand the scientific fundamentalists as religious zealots in their own right. But I’m not in the business of flogging dead horses. If the word meme is lost on the battlefield, distinguishing the concept of meme from the concept of idea remains crucial to promoting quality thinking and our decision-making as individuals within democracies. Defending us all from an evolutionary slide into lowest common denominator mediocrity … and worse.

Enough of the pre-amble, what am I proposing ? We need to establish if the essence of the original concept is valuable and, if so, propose an alternative name and context for use in future discourse.

Meme is itself a meme. The origins of the word in mimesis was cleverly coined into meme (by Dawkins) precisely because of the allusion to the word gene as a “unit of reproduction” in the processes of evolution. The parallel is actually a very good one; in both cases it concerns the copying of information. In both cases it concerns the processes by which copies are generated and the mechanisms by which the information copied affects future processes. In both cases we need to be concerned with syntactical aspects of how the information is symbolically represented and with semantic aspects of what it means to the future processes. In both cases we need to be concerned with fecundity; the rate at which the propogation of copies can occur, and with fidelity; the rate at which copies are identical or mutated from the original – both syntactically and semantically. And so on …

Meme being a meme however, the idea has circulated into use with mixed levels of understanding. It has also circulated in an environment where its use has had very marked and divergent rhetorical intent by those engaged in highly emotive evolution and science vs religion and faith debates. But the same is (or was) true of genes.

What is it about memes that the gain-sayers so …. despise.

Firstly there is the reductive and deterministic impression, of reducing thinking and ideas to atomic units. But the same is true of genes, seemingly reducing biology and life itself to similar atomic units, bouncing off each other with gay Netwonian abandon. All but the die hards seem to have got over this delusion when it comes to the role of genes in physical and biological evolution, and can accept that life’s more complicated than that, however simplistic their understanding of genes. And make no mistake, genes are in no way as well bounded as units, or as well defined in their functions as pop-understanding would believe.

Both memes and genes suffer from fears associated with their “life of their own” that somehow leave the human species and individual brains as mere hosts in the process. Anyone attaching such significance to the “selfish gene / meme” metaphors would do well to ponder on where there own free (selfish) will actualy resides.

Memes are of course different to genes in what seems a fundamental way. It’s the old mind vs body distinction. We can just about live with scientists subjecting the biology of life to scientific description, but not the vital spark of humanity, oh no, that would be a step too far. But this is pure prejudice. This is not the place to attempt to explain too-greedy reductionism, the flip-side of determinism or the emergence of purpose from complexity …. nor the whole mind / body / free-will debate … but anyone believing that these haven’t been or can’t be explained properly are  …. prejudiced. Anyone seriously wishing to understand evolutionary explanations of mind and consciousness should read Dennett – without prejudice. (References to Dennett dotted throughout this blog.)

As we will see prejudice in the strict sense is fundamental to understanding memes, but in order to spare those of a nervous disposition, that’s the last time I will use the word meme in this piece.

Mimetic Ideas

A mimetic idea is an idea which has mimetic qualities. What are these qualities and why is it useful to understand them ?

A mimetic idea is an idea that is easy to recall, communicate and spread through many minds (and blogs and published media of any kind – creating many “copies”). That ease has two distinct but related aspects.

Syntactically – an idea with catchy symbolism – a word / phrase / image that is easy to recognize and attractive to a recipient and easy to communicate physically. Easy is a matter of degree, but in the extreme this communication could even happen unintentionally or absent mindedly.

Semantically – an idea that seems easy to understand .  An idea that fits with existing understanding, without too much additional judgement or rational thought being applied to the inherent quality and import of its content. The initial understanding is “prejudiced“. That initial understanding may also be incomplete, or even partly misunderstood, but this does not actually get in the way of that initial acceptance nor the onward communication.

Notice that a key feature of both the syntactical and semantic communication aspects is that in both cases the “ease” is tending to by-pass more considered thought. This is not to say the everyone who communicates such an idea does so thoughtlessly, but the tendency is clear. We could at this point debate the relative values of immediate and considered understanding, but it seems non-controversial to suggest a tendency to bypass more thoughtful consideration is more problematic the more significant the subject of the idea.

Such a tendency is also more significant given the explosion in on-line electronic communication and the rise in more automated feeds and readers.

There are important corollaries to this point. These are not news, they are as old as thought itself, simply of greater significance given this explosion in communications, as noted earlier by the likes of McLuhan. The main quality of ideas that spread is that they are easy – ie simple and prejudiced – not that they are inherently good or useful in any other sense. The ease of communication and the simplification aspect of any prior misunderstanding is reinforced in the process [autocatalytic – Rayner]. Ideas that require any complexity of explanation and understanding, or that may be “game-changing” in any sense that jars with current received wisdom are disadvantaged and even drowned-out, whether they are inherently any good or not.

The evolution of ideas continues apace. Good ideas are ever more disadvantaged and ideas that fit simply with received wisdom are ever more advantaged. This needs to be understood, and the environment for cultivation of good ideas improved using that understanding. Evolution involves nurture as well as nature.

Understanding the mimetic nature of ideas is itself a useful idea in the quest for the answer to “how should we live?”

14 thoughts on “A Meme By Any Other Name”

  1. Still not clear on what is so attractive about this change in vocabulary, but at least you’ve got some of the concerns clear. How far would you run with the idea that memes are to the social level what genes are to the biological? That has some potential!

  2. Well Doh ! That is what they are (even in Dawkins / Blackmore / Dennett books).

    Exactly … the cultural (socio-intellectual) level.

    I wasn’t using MoQ language in this public blog … just the common sense language of ideas, communication, human consideration & understanding, as you asked. There is no pleasing you.

    The change of vocabulary is not attractive at all … just removes the red mist for a moment whilst we have an intelligent discussion.

  3. My first ref to ‘change in vocabulary’ was to ‘memes’, not to your rephrasing in this post. The ‘doh!’ point was simply to make it explicit, nothing wrong with a bit of ground-clearing 😉

    Next bit of ground-clearing: are there ideas that do not have mimetic qualities? or is it that all ideas are on the spectrum of more or less good mimetic qualities?

    Next point – bit more fundamental this one – I suspect that we may have different understandings of what even counts as an ‘idea’. Within the ecology of the third level I would suggest most language is embodied in practices (after Wittgenstein) so to talk about the attractiveness of an idea, or what makes it flourish, you have to talk about the embodiment of that idea in human behaviour. Then there might be room for discussing the more abstract and obscure ‘ideas’ – ie those that are less obviously grounded in behaviour – where the emphasis is more on the strictly syntactic and semantic.

    (Interesting parallel, by the way, with thinking about evangelism for a church – the words don’t spread – the understanding doesn’t spread – unless it is evidenced in different behaviour).

  4. Hi Sam,

    I appreciate it was the meme terminology you were referring to. That’s what I’m referring to as well. I’m OK with the term – I’m OK with any term – the problem with the palatability of terms came from you (and others). For now I’ve used the term idea – simply qualified it for this conversation – temporarily.

    I’m only expecting you to comment on the block-quoted language at the moment … clearing the ground for some basic common understanding. Before we see how far we can take it.

    Clearly I could take the gene analogy all the way – in the sense I’m not prejudiced. But I only take it as far as I can see “reasonable” and “useful”. You know I draw back at too-greedy reductionism and determinism. Free will and moral responsibilty of the human spirit are REAL.

    OK, next point. Embodiment – yes. My whole agenda on “decision-making” is about putting ideas to use, in action. BUT – this was my master’s thesis – what people believe they are puting into use, what they are actually put into use and how they “rationalize” what they have put into use, are “three different things” – some degree of hypocrisy is part of the process. Intent and rationale of an action can only be interpreted (by the first person or by others) – I think I got Wittgenstein now – same argument two approaches – logical and linguistic.

    As I said “easy” is a matter of degree. All ideas have mimetic qualities … BUT the pragmatic point is some ideas are closer to the end where the easy acceptance and communication (into “active use” by self and others) dominate the thoughtful consideration – and everything is driving that tendency further that way. Easy over good. The [insert your preferred word] idea is mimetic to the extent that recognition and communication pre-empt understanding and evaluation.

    (If we go “all the way” we will come around to that fact that human understanding and evaluation involve other ideas too – Damasio will do – these somatically marked pre-conceptions are just more “ideas” embodied in our brains. But we don’t need to go there yet. Stick to the summary text for now.)

  5. BTW in my definitions above syntactic and semantic are not defined in abstract conceptual ways. Just about recognizing symbols in real life and what their understanding “means to the subsequent processes” – the active outcome.

  6. I’m afraid you’ve lost me, ie I don’t understand what you’re arguing for (partly because your writing style in the comments is shooting off ideas in all directions!). I (think I) understand what you’re arguing for with the syntactic/semantic definition of a mimetic idea, but I still don’t see what is at stake, or what is being advocated; I particularly don’t understand how your definition is _not_ abstract and conceptual.

    Some ideas are better adapted to their environment than others – OK. I just don’t see the added value of ‘mimetic’. I’m clearly missing something.

    BTW within the ecology of the third level I tend to see the bulk of the human personality as a static-latched bundle of third level patterns, which interacts/modifies its environment as it goes on; I’m guessing you see things similarly?

  7. OK … don’t go away.

    [Aside – The value of mimetic – there isn’t any – I already said. Your words “better adapted to their envitonment ideas” will do for now – park this – we will come back to unpick this later.]

    I mentioned conceptual because you did.

    You suggested my references to use of ideas – using words like syntactic and semantic – was conceptual, whereas in your view the relevance of ideas to decisions was in their “embodiment” in actions of the person. I am agreeing with you (I was always there too.)

    So – example only – when I say semantic I mean “of significance to future actions, detectable in future actions”.

    One point only – got it ?

  8. Yes, you mentioned conceptual because I did – and you denied that your definition was conceptual – but I’m unclear on exactly what you’re saying (still).

    I don’t think all ideas are embodied. I think there is a wide ecology of all sorts of ideas, some more embodied than others (why don’t we just talk about ‘patterns’?).

    And no, I don’t get ‘semantic’ as ‘of significance to future actions, detectable in future actions’. I get semantic as “meaning”. I wouldn’t tie it to action…

    (Not going away 😉 much easier to not go away now that you’ve put comment subscription on!)

  9. Ideas that matter – that have any significance – “the ones I’m talking about here” are embodied. Not asking you to agree, just understand. Got that ?

    (One point at a time – I’m not arguing “for” anything – just answering your concerns.)

  10. Nope you haven’t got it. One assertion at a time.

    Assertion – I said these are the ideas I’m talking about – embodied ones, in action.

    You can’t agree or disagree with that – just understand it or not. (Of course there are other ideas – in other domains – I’m just not talking about them here. OK)

    Aside – DO NOT RESPOND to this (yet) – you are exhibiting the well tried and test argument meme – even though I tell you we’re not having an argument – you just can’t help it 😉 Remember Monty Python.

    Respond only to the assertion.

  11. I was waiting for permission to respond…

    So for the purposes of this discussion, you are referring to ideas which are embodied and which are syntactically/semantically easy to reproduce (tho’ s&s are not abstract terms here). Correct?

  12. OK
    (I said respond to the assertion … not the aside … which you now have done … thanks.)

    Almost correct – but you conflated two things – the very two things I am trying to distinguish.

    (1) When I’m talking about “ideas” here I am talking about ideas which are embodied. (ie by being embodied, what I am concerned with semantically is how that “body” puts them into action – where action includes say a decision to actively speak / write / communicate based on them as well as any other motor actions based on them.)

    (2) When I’m talking “easy ideas”, I’m talking about ideas (above) where it is easier to do that recognition & action (syntactically as well as sematically embodied, per above) because they “fit” with existing embodied ideas, rather than consider their value any other actively thoughtful way.

    So what is your next problem or question (within either 1 and 2 above or with the original block-quoted suggestion) ? Firstly understanding – I am saying what “I” mean – and only then, questions of agreement / disagreement.

  13. Additional comments received by e-mail.

    From Alan Rayner (Inclusionality)
    Dear Ian, I do agree with your blog. We are trapped in an autocatalytic evolution of intolerant ideas, which favour unnatural discrimination because it is easy to promulgate and serves the interest of power hierarchies. Warmest, Alan.

    From Nick Maxwell (Knowledge to Wisdom)
    “Dear Ian,I couldn’t agree more! Best wishes, Nick”

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