Re: virus: What makes memes compete?

Lee Daniel Crocker (
Thu, 10 Apr 1997 14:51:42 -0700 (PDT)

> >Evolution operates by selection among organisms, and the overall nature
> >of an organism is determined by genes and memes. To say that genes and
> >memes compete is a rhetorical device to aid in understanding certain
> >results; it is a technique of language, not an observable phenomenon.
> Erm, sorry if I'm missing the point here but I thought selection (and thus,
> effectively, competition) /did/ actually happen at the level of the gene,
> and this was how Selfish Gene theory checks out. In that genes seem to
> persist that compel organisms to do things which sap their resources in
> favour of supporting other organisms (parenting effort for example), I'm
> quite convinced by Selfish Gene stuff. And thus I quite like the idea of
> Selfish Meme stuff too.

Read Dawkins more carefully; the "selfish gene" is a /point of view/,
a /model/ with which to understand the statistical effects of what
happens in reality. I admire Dawkins, too, and he is quite correct.
In fact, for an even more detailed view, get /The Extended Phenotype/.
In both books, though, he is careful after using this selfish gene
model to explain some previously hard-to-understand phenomenon (such
as sex ratios, for example) to step back and recast the argument in
terms of reality.

"Competition" is a confusing term, because it brings to our minds
connotations of intentional action: runners in the blocks, boxers
in the ring. But that's not what happens to genes. They just are
blindly carried along from generation to generation in the vehicles
they code for, and their relative populations in each generation
are affected by the actual competitions those vehicles have for the
resources they want. Since they, in turn, affect the way those
vehicles get built, we can look at it as if they are competing with
each other--in fact it's useful to look at it that way to understand
the kinds of things that happen over evolutionary time, because the
genes persist over that time, while the vehicles do not.

Memes are fuzzier still, but their effect is no less real. The
answer to your question of "can a mind carry competing memes" is
yes, of course. Memes don't compete--their /expressions/ in the
real world compete, where those expressions might be muscle movement
patterns, linguistic expression, or even just introspection (which
competes for the valuable resource of time). Memes just affect
behavior, including behavior that causes them to pass from one host
to the next. The effect of that, over time, can be understood as
a competition between memes.

> Problem here is, you seem to be implying that brains become infested with a
> stablish bunch of memes, and then it's the survival or not of the brain that
> determines the survival or not of the memes. Which I disagree with because I
> know my memes change all the time, without me dying. Yet.

Yes, there's one difference between memes and genes: one host keeps the
same set of genes for a lifetime, and memes evolve /within/ hosts as
well as within populations. This may be what you're trying to uncover.

Within an organism, there are scarce resources for which memes can
compete, based on the use of that hosts muscles, sensory inputs, or
conscious attention. Unfortunately, this process is very much less
understood than the external processes, but many are making some
headway (Dennett, Calvin, the Churchlands).

> I think that "changing your mind" can be explained by a process of newly
> arrived memes outcompeting old ones. Which is what I wanted explained.
> Though if I totally misunderstood you, erm, sorry, and... erm, still sorry. :)

No, I just answered a question other than the one you really asked.

Lee Daniel Crocker <>  <>
"All inventions or works of authorship original to me, herein and past,
are placed irrevocably in the public domain, and may be used or modified
for any purpose, without permission, attribution, or notification."--LDC