Re: virus: Will the real meme please stand up.

Neco and Jeff (
Mon, 04 Aug 1997 17:48:19 +0900

Tim Rhodes wrote:

> Although I don't completely hold to the viral analogy, I do find it useful
> for envisioning the process. (I think visually, in most cases.) I see
> memes like 3-D puzzle pieces or the common computer animation of viruses
> we've all seen. With hooks sticking out and receptor sites and mechanisms
> that can eject an adjoining, conected meme from it if another new meme
> keys the right open receptors.
> How do you see them?
What I want to know is, is memetics a useful model to describe how the
reproduction and spread of ideas work. There is absolutely nothing wrong
with using visual metaphors to help you think but they are not always
useful in trying to really understand a particular process. A good
example that comes to mind is the habit of envisioning atoms as little
solar systems with a few proton and neutron 'suns' surrounded by little
electron 'planets' whirling about. This can be a useful metaphor and I
use it myself quite often when just thinking about atoms. However, to
really understand atoms and how they combine to make various substances,
that metaphor is close to useless. You need the rather complex quantum
mechanics metaphor with all of its mathematical abstractions before you
begin achieving anything close to useful. I think that the concept of
meme as it is often used in this mailing list is something like the
solar system model of atoms: fast, efficient, and useful for a limited
purpose. What I want is to talk about a model of memes that is more
useful in really understanding the mechanism behind the spread of ideas.

As we all know, the word meme was originally coined by Dawkins in 'A
Selfish Gene.' I think that the reason he was originally led away from
the main topic of his book and on to his brief discussion of memes was
the overwhelming feeling, which I share, that, although genes are very
powerful replicators, humans have managed to overcome them to a certain
extent. We know that genuine altruism exists in humans which operates
against the very impersonal and selfish agenda of genes. Adoption is a
perfect example of this. Adopting a child does nothing for the survival
of your genes but it is a great way to insure the survival of your
memes. Genes take the back burner in such an example. I think memetics
was created from an overwhelming desire by many who subscribe to the
theory of evolution and the selfish gene theory, including myself, to
reestablish a basis for humanity, compassion, altruism, morality, ethics
and all of those things that set humans apart from the selfish
reproducing creatures that have grown up around genes. It stems from the
intuitive feeling that there is something out there that has evolved
from but has become even more powerful than traditional genetics. I have
an intuitive belief that memetics is very real, now I want to pursue a
theory of how memes actually do their stuff that can be quantified,
measured and tested; a theory that I can look at and say, "Yes, that
makes sense to me. This is the mechanism that will carry us forward from
the world of impersonal, meaningless, statistical reproducing entities
that we come from."


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