Redefining the meme and the replicator
By Sylvain Magne - 2015
Work in progress!
Still today, memeticists can’t agree on what a meme really is. Whether it is something in our brains, in our behaviour or in the objects, sounds or images that we create. No one seems to know for sure. This problem has been unresolved since the year of my birth and it has now been 39 years since Richard Dawkins coined the word meme.
Although memetics has been a popular idea for a while it is suffering a serious decline these days, and for good reasons I have to admit. Even though memetics seemed to be the logical consequence to the theory of evolution applied to culture, it has been rather unsuccessful at turning itself into a testable and predictive science. As a result memeticists themselves are starting to turn their back to the meme idea. Some are even talking about the de-darwinisation of culture.
Memetics is in desperate need of a better theory. I have been working on new ideas for a few years now and I will attempt here, rather briefly, to introduce a new definition of the meme which I hope will help solve the problem.
My proposal is based on the understanding that a meme is a replicator as defined by Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins defined a replicator as:
So a replicator is simply something, anything, that is being copied. It is a very broad and encompassing concept that leaves room for other kinds of replicators than just the genes. That was indeed the whole point of Dawkins' definition. Unfortunately in its current form this definition leads to some disagreements. This definition is not specific enough to help us agree on what a meme actually is. Ideally we need a definition that leaves no doubt about what memes really are. My take on this problem is to define the replicator in more details. For this I am going to redefine the two core elements of Dawkins’ definition; the concept of entity and the concept of copy.
Let’s start with the entity. To say the least, the term entity is quite vague. It won't give us any clue about what characteristics we should be looking for. How could we define the term entity so that it is more specific yet still encompassing? I suggest we try and view entities as if they were codes, very much like computer codes. There is a very good reason for that, and it comes from mathematics.
As we know, scientists describe and understand the world best with mathematics. We are familiar with models using equations to describe the physical world but there is another perspective one can take on the world. This perspective is relatively new to the scientific world but in essence is equivalent. Indeed it has been demonstrated that mathematical objects and computer programmes are one and the same. For each mathematical object there is an equivalent computer programme and for every computer programme there is an equivalent mathematical object. This means that we could look at the world as if it were a giant computer running many programmes or, as I like to call them, running codes.
Let me illustrate this idea. Let’s take for example a snooker game. When a player hits the ball, the ball carries three specific pieces of information: its location, its speed and its direction. We could look at this information as being a code. The computer in this case would be the snooker table itself. Once the ball is hit, it is as if the code was running and being computed by the snooker table. The output of the computation will be a new position of the ball on the table. Now if we run a different code, meaning a ball with a different speed, position and direction, we will get a different output. That’s how we can look at the world as being made up of codes on one side and computers on the other. It’s really just a matter of perspective.
This perspective is particularly relevant when studying evolution. Indeed the theory of evolution itself involves codes. It is easy to see that when we consider how the genes are strings of data being computed by cells to eventually be copied on to the next generation. So the code perspective, the code eye view, comes quite naturally when dealing with biological evolution.
Now how can this code eye view help us with memetics? First, just like the concept of entity, the concept of code is still very universal, it applies to everything, everything can be a code, so it doesn’t restrain us. But unlike the vague and ill-defined concept of entity, we can hope to define a code better, in more details. Indeed a code has to respect certain rules to be a code.
First, a code is never alone, it needs something to read it. I will simply call that something a reader. A code without a reader to express itself is not a code, it is noise. An ancient text written in a forgotten language is just scribbles, a DVD without a DVD player is nothing but a piece of plastic, a fossil piece of DNA without the right cell to process is just a piece of rock. We need readers to make sense of codes.
This also means that a reader and a code need to be compatible with each other, just like a gene needs to use the right molecules to be readable by a cell, like a PC code needs to use the right syntax and binary codes to be readable by a PC computer, like a snooker ball needs to have the right size, weight and shape to be played in a snooker game, etc. In other words, reader and code need to share a common language.
A code needs also a medium. Just like there is no text without ink and paper, we need nucleotides to write DNA codes, we need electrons to carry computer codes through cables, and we need a snooker ball to carry the information of speed, direction and location. Codes are not material entities, codes are specific arrangements of matter. Codes need some physical medium in which they display themselves as a specific arrangement of that medium.
To sum it up, a code needs 3 things:
Those characteristics make the code a more precise concept than the concept of entity. So from now on I will replace Dawkins' concept of entity with the concept of code.
Next, I want to refine the second concept of the replicator which is the copy.
Copying is yet another major area of disagreement between memeticists. The concept of replicator implies that the copies are made perfectly. The reason is simple. In the case of genes for example, if the copies aren’t perfect then the mutated copies enter in competition with the original genes and therefore need to be regarded as new genes, not copies. It actually is the very existence of mutations and natural selection that allow for evolution to take place. And it’s because there is a selective process that even minute differences can lead to dramatic changes.
Unfortunately, in the case of culture, it seems that things are a lot more blurry. Although culture displays all the signs of darwinian evolution, it is hard to ignore that many cultural items aren’t actually copied faithfully. Think about how we all have different voices and accents and pronounce words differently, how we make our tea or coffee differently, how the way we do everything is never quite the same as the next person would do. Because of this, many critics are compelled to reject the concept of replicator along with its notion of perfection.
I will argue that the contradiction can actually be resolved by taking a relativistic view on the concept of copy.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you just had a copy of your front door key made and you’re about to try and open your door with the new key. Before you do that, you may realise that the new key doesn’t have the same colour, it seems to be made of a different metal, the shape of the key handle is also different. And if you look closely you can see that the edges seem a bit sharper than your original key. Yet, you proceed and as you turn the key the door opens. In this case, as in many cases, the copy isn’t perfect but it is good enough. The reason it is good enough is because, from the point of view of your door lock itself, both keys appear to be identical. From your own point of view the copy may not be perfect but from the point of view of the key reader, there is no doubt that the copy is perfect, therefore the door opens.
As a matter of fact there is not a copy in the world that is identical to the original. That is simply because quantum physics won’t allow it. Indeed at the molecular level, atoms vibrate in a kind of frenzy, and one cannot copy a strand of DNA perfectly because the atoms will always move differently from one strand to the next. So in the absolute the concept of replicator would be doomed to fail. It is only in a relativistic view that the replicator idea can work. And it can work indeed. Just like the keyhole ignores some of the differences in the key, a cell can ignore the fact that DNA molecules are agitated.
Let’s take another example. It is often argued that spoken words do not comply with the replicator idea because no two people would say the same word in the exact same way. That is because we look at it from an absolute point of view. On the other hand, from a relativistic point of view it doesn’t matter if people have different voices or accents, what matters is only if the word is recognised by the people hearing it. An accent is something that is irrelevant to the meaning of a word just as a colour of a key is irrelevant to its purpose. You just need to ask people if they recognise the word for it to be a valid copy.
So, to be clear, one should not evaluate the quality of a copy from an absolute point of view. One should evaluate the quality of a copy from the relative point of view of a specific reader. This is, I believe, the only way to solve the apparent contradiction of the replicator.
So now that we refined the concepts of entity and copy we have a new way of understanding the replicator. We could rephrase Dawkins’ definition and say that a replicator can be defined as:
So what can we do with this new definition of the replicator? How can this help memetics?
First it can help us identify the memes by actually pinpointing where memes are and what they are made of. I will get to this further down. If I am right, this could put an end to the debate over what memes are. As a result, if we know what memes actually are then memetics becomes a better testable and falsifiable science. We could then observe memes and devise experiments. We could hopefully make new kinds of predictions and test them.
Also we could hope to clarify the line between the memes and their effects, in other words between the meme genotype and the meme phenotype. Knowing where memes are allows us to understand better how they affect our brains, and how we produce them ourselves or with the help of artefacts. Thus we could better understand what meme machines are. I will get to this point as well.
Finally we could better understand how memes are selected. Understand how their environment exercises a selective pressure on them, what role our creative brains play in that selective process, how memes work together as memeplexes and how their general fitness is realised.
Let’s start by finding those elusive memes.
If a meme is a code then it must abide by the rules of the code. It needs to have a medium on which it travels and it needs a reader with which it can interact. In the case of memes, I think we can agree that it needs to interact with humans. Indeed humans are the ones reading the memes, creating and reproducing memes. So if you know what the reader is, then there is a simple way to locate the codes. Every reader has entry points. Entry points are the places where the codes reach the reader. For example, a computer’s entry points are the CD player, usb port, network cable, wifi antenna, keyboard, webcam, microphone, or just anything that allows you to put data into a computer. Other example, in the case of DNA code, the readers are the cells and the entry point of a cell is its membrane. So if you’re looking for a place where to find a code, you just need to look at those entry points because you know that if there is one place where they need to go through, it is those ones. Entry points are like bottlenecks, or magnifying lenses, they can help focus our attention where the codes ought to be. So the question is, where are the entry points of humans?
Well our entry points are simply our senses. Our senses is all we have to capture codes. What else is there? So whatever codes we are reading they need to travel through our senses. This tells us that those elusive memes are travelling with whatever it is that reaches our senses. Those things are, for example, sound waves that we hear when they hit our eardrums and make them vibrate. They are the light waves that we see when they hit the back of our eyes, the molecules that we smell or taste, the textures that we touch, etc. They are around us, they are very close to us indeed. This is where the real memes are, all around us, knocking on the door of our senses.
Furthermore, what this tells us also, is that there is no need for memes to be inside us. I know it may sound counter intuitive. Dawkins himself suggested that memes would be located inside our brains for example, and many more memeticists thought the same. The problem with this idea is that the structures of our brains can not be copied from one brain to another, simply because whatever we communicate with each other does not carry any data about any brain structure. If no data about the brain is passed on then no brain structure can be copied. Each and everyone of us have their own unique brain structures. Those structures are not memes but they are the products of memes, the result of memetic interactions, they are meme phenotypes. The stuff we carry in our brains are brain strategies to recreate and pass on memes. This makes our brains the product of two kinds of replicators, the genetic replicators and the memetic replicators. Our brains are both meme and gene machines.
So let me give you some practical examples of memes.
Take the word “tree” for example. The word “tree” is a sound wave that can reach us via our ears. This sound meme is a particular sequence of slight differences in air pressure. Air is the medium of this meme and air allows the meme to move at the speed of sound, making this meme a very fast moving meme. Interestingly one can measure the length of the meme “tree”. It takes about a third of a second to express that word and as it travels at 340 meters per second that makes the tree meme about 110 meters long! Who thought one could measure the length of a meme? Other sound memes include any spoken word, all kinds of music, sound effects, any sound that we like to copy.
So a spoken word is a sound meme, but how about a written word? Although written words are the product of ink and paper (mostly), one can sense a written word only with our eyes. A word written on a piece of paper is beaming out light waves by reflecting the surrounding light. The meme in this case is not made of ink on paper but made of photons that travel at the speed of light. The ink and paper artefact is a broadcasting device for the light meme. The light meme is beamed out from the piece of paper continuously as long as there is light around it. There are many kinds of light memes based on artefacts such as paintings, photos, prints, or any object that can broadcast lightwave memes. Any visible object projects some potential light meme. That’s why we are able to copy fashion styles and architectural designs.
Memes can also be made of moving images. Take for example someone waving goodbye. The meme here is not in the behaviour of the person, as some people may think but in the light that the person projects when waving. When we wave our arm we are turning ourselves into a moving image, a sort of movie meme. The surrounding light bounces off our bodies and creates a specific pattern of light. We project moving images when we are pulling faces, pointing the finger or dancing. Those types of behavioral light memes are extremely popular and often copied thanks to artefacts such as the cinema, TV and internet.
Now, not every sensory organ that we have is being used for communicating memes. In order to communicate codes in general, we need to be able to both receive and broadcast those codes. We need also to be able to produce a variety of codes that allow some level of complexity. When it comes to taste buds and our sense of smell for example, we can sense a wide variety of different molecules but we have no means of copying those molecules. Where we can hear a sound and produce a copy of that specific sound, we cannot smell a flower and create a copy of that specific smell, because that would involve the ability to analyse the molecules and copy them precisely. However, machines today can perform such tasks, and in that sense, the molecules that we copy in labs are indeed memes.
When it comes to textures, it is a little different. We can feel textures and in some cases we can use our hands or bodies to copy those textures. For example, that’s what happens when we practice a massage. We replicate the feeling of hands pushing through the skin. We can do that even if we are blind. This said , this may be a rather marginal type of meme, because what we can communicate this way is rather limited. However, blind people can demonstrate how this medium can be used to communicate complex messages via artefacts such as braille text. Used in this manner, touch memes are effectively very good memes indeed.
To conclude, humans use two types of memes which are light memes and sound memes, and there is at least one more marginal type of meme, the touch meme. (I ignore the technological memes)
We can apply the same analysis to the codes that computers exchange. I will develop this in more details at another time.
The new definition of the replicator may change, somewhat, the way we view genes. This is also a topic I want to develop at some other time.
If the arguments I just put forward are not convincing enough, we can actually put the theory to the test. Indeed, very simple experiments can be put in place to demonstrate the existence of the following fundamental elements:
I will create a separate article to develop this point.
In my view there are several types of machines that memes help building. In a broad sense, I would say a meme machine is anything that comes into existence through the clear influence of memes and which could not exist without them.
It starts with the human brain. As we know, our brains are the products of both nature and culture. In other words our brains are the products of genes and memes. Indeed every word that we pronounce is a meme product. Also grammar is the perfect example of a gene-meme product, universal grammar is shaped by our genes and fine tuned by our memes. By knowing memes better, I believe we could understand better how our brains are influenced and programmed by those. We could ask ourselves the question of how sound waves, light waves and other memes, imprint our neural networks. How much memetic exposure is needed. What factors or catalysts will facilitate the programming. Even with simple experiments, and with a solid memetic model, I believe we could reveal just how programmable we actually are. I will develop this point in a separate article.
Memes also play a major role in building artefacts. It is undeniable that the vast majority of artefacts are the product of cultural inheritance. But with a better understanding of memes and techno memes, we could better study just how memes can lead to the creation of those artefacts, and how artefacts themselves take part in the spreading of their own memes.
There is another type of meme machine, social meme machines. Memes allow us to organise ourselves in communities in a way again that we couldn't do without cultural inheritance. From playing football to running a company or a country, whether it is education, science, arts or politics, everything we do in organised groups is to some extent the construct of memes. Again, a better definition of memes could help us understand how these come to be, how they grow and how they maintain themselves or evolve. We could go and find which memes take part in their construction and maintenance, but also what memes take part in their defence mechanisms. Societies resemble in many ways, living organisms.
It doesn’t stop there. With our abilities to select, breed and grow our food, we have allowed memes to shape biological life. Memes have changed permanently the colour of our flowers, the size of our dogs, the shape and taste of bananas. The progress of science allows us now to go even further and has opened the doors to genetic engineering. This is when the new cultural replicator is seriously challenging its biological older brother. By decoding genes, we are turning genetic codes into memetic codes. This means that genetic codes are also jumping on the memetic bandwagon. This means that genes are now benefitting from the plasticity and speed of memetic evolution. Some genes are now evolving along with memes. This is a gene-meme co-evolution pushed to a new level and it makes memetics all the more relevant.
Meme phenotypes are reaching the very small but they are also reaching the very large. Today scientific memes help us tackle global problems, such as the economy, politics and the environment. The cultural impact on earth is such that earth itself is on the path to becoming a meme machine. Who knows, maybe one day we will control the weather. Right now we are mainly destroying it though. Understanding better how memes work and spread can only help us take care of our environment better.
Finally, thanks to our inherited memes, we humans are exploring the possibility of creating artificial intelligence. We are starting to create new meme machines, technological brains which promise to have the power to be creative and start their own techno memetic culture, grow their own minds and their own consciousness. Techno memes are not to be ignored if we want to understand the dynamics of future technological evolutions. Darwinian evolution applies wherever there are replicators. I believe there is no more viable model to understand these evolutionary trends than darwinian evolution.
All of these, brains, artefacts, organisations, societies, ideologies, pets, food and our environment, are meme machines which deserve to be studied as such. If I am right about memes then we should be able to use all the power of the theory of evolution to understand culture as a complex form of life fully abiding by the rules of darwinian evolution. Not only our culture but also ourselves. We humans are the product of three things: our genes, our environment and our memes.
I do believe this proposed model of the replicator can be helpful for defining and studying memes. By defining memes as codes, we know better where to find them. By realising that the copying is a relativistic concept, we understand the important role that readers play in the copying process. This view offers a testable and falsifiable model which memetics needs very much. It is also a simple model which should be easy to use and build upon. In this “code” model, memes are quite simply bits of codes moving around between humans by surfing sound waves, light waves, textures, etc. while our brains and our artefacts are the products of those memes, their machines and broadcasters.
Memes need not to be compared strongly to viruses. Some meme machines may indeed behave as such, but most memes are just like our genes, they are just simple entities which are our intimate partners. We make memes and they make us.