Friday, 28 June 2013

Google's meme team

Google is saying on its web site that it has assembled a "meme team":

To get to the bottom of these memes, we assembled a team of original thinkers – anthropologists, digital vanguards and content creators – to dig a little deeper into this “visual web.”
They say:

The research showed us that far from just distracting us from more serious things, these viral pictures, videos and memes reconnect us to an essential part of ourselves.
Their article on the topic is titled "Finding the Meaning in Memes". There's news coverage here: Google examines what online memes can do for brands.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013


Much as eugenics is the art and science improving human genes in the gene pool, eumemics is art and science of improving the memes in the meme pool.

As with eugenics there are "positive" and "negative" forms of eumemics. Positive eumemics aim at promoting and spreading "good" memes. Negative eumemics aims at sabotaging, crippling and eliminating "bad" memes.

Eugenics has proved to be a controversial doctrine - one linked in many people's minds with the ethnic cleansing and Adolf Hitler. However, so far, eumemics has not had the same level of controversy associated with it - to most people it just seems obvious that we should seek to improve the meme pool.

Memetic codes

Tied in with the recently-discussed issue of what counts as genotype and what counts as phenotype in cultural evolution is the issue of what memetic codes are. In the organic realm, there's only a handful of genetic codes - and most species share the exact same one.

Some memeticsts has proposed a close link between memetic and genetic codes - arguing that memes exist inside minds and there has to be some mapping from information stored in minds, and the motor outputs that constitute its expression. This would be a single unique memetic code - assuming that there's considerable commonality in how this operation takes place in different individuals. This position is associated with internalism.

However, to other memeticists, there seem to be a much greater number of candidate codes - with every human or computer language in the running for being classified as a "memetic code". I'm in this latter camp. Internalism is not a realistic position.

I see several issues here:

  • Should memetic codes be confined to the first layer of meme expression?
  • Should memetic codes only map from memes to meme-products?
  • What are the implications of study of memetics to the concept of a "genetic code"?
Basically, I think that "memetic code" should mean what it says - i.e. if it's memetic and it's a code, then its a memetic code.

So: memetic codes should not be confined to the first layer of meme expression. Inter-meme codes - as well as codes that map between different meme products can reasonably be classified as being memetic codes.

This form of classification does seem to have some impact on the conventional concept of a "genetic code" - perhaps opening the door to the mapping from DNA to RNA being described as a "genetic code" - albeit a rather trivial one.

Richard Dawkins - Just for Hits

Dawkins gives a brief lecture on memes - that disintegrates into a psychedelic light show five minutes in.

He seems to claim that internet memes are distinguished from other memes by being memetically engineered. Of course, that isn't right - internet memes are popular internet-transmitted memes.

Memeophobe Andrew Brown takes a moment to contribute some sour grapes in Richard Dawkins and the meaningless meme.

Memeophobe Jerry Coyne weighs in as well - in Dawkins as you’ve never seen him before.

Dawkins was interviewed at the same event. There's also a "making of" video from the folks behind the visuals - and a panel discussion from the event: Just For Hits: Memes and the Internet as an incubator of creativity.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Memeophiles vs memeophobes

Memes seem to polarise people. Some people like them - others hate them.

The meme lovers are memeophiles - the meme haters are memeophobes.


The average memeophile is probably around 20-years old, and interested in internet culture. They use memes to express themselves, to enjoy shared experiences with friends, and to show off their interests.


Memeophobes are rarer - and not so easy to profile. The most vocal ones appear to be mostly philosophers, anthropologists and scientists. Memes seem to rub each of them up the wrong way for a different set of reasons.

I'm with the memeophiles. I generally try to be polite about the memeophobes - saying that they failed to find a sympathetic understanding of memes. However, I basically think they are mistaken, didn't have good teachers, and don't have good arguments. I also think they are going to be swamped - either when the next generation that were brought up with memes and the internet grow up - or maybe before then.

Having the term "meme" refer to something daft and wrong is just stupid - it shows that you didn't understand the idea properly in the first place. These days, the memeophobes thinks that this shows they are smart. However, it doesn't. If you don't understand memes, you need to learn about them, is all.

Dawkins on memes at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase

Dawkins introducing memes in 2013 - before performing at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase.

There's are more, longer video interviews with him from the event on the topic of memes below:

Wired has coverage in these two articles: Richard Dawkins on the internet's hijacking of the word 'meme' and Richard Dawkins appears in psychedelic show celebrating internet memes.

There's coverage of Dawkins' "Just for hits" performance is covered here.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Memes are cool

OK, I risk stating the obvious here, but: memes are cool. By this I mostly mean that memes are cool to the younger generation - the kids who are growing up with the internet. Yes, some memes are a daft waste of time - and it's possible to overdo it - but meme literacy is critical for anyone who wants to follow the latest trends, absorb and embrace youth culture - or just generally appear to be "with it".

I like mememolly's way of putting it - her memethusiasm is infectious.

Here's what it's like to be square:

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Blending inheritance is an oxymoron

Blending inheritance is a traditional topic in the study of the history of evolutionary theory. The story goes that it was thought that the observed blending together of parental traits in offspring would rapidly destroy any variation for evolution to act on - through regression to the mean. This puzzle was resolved with the rediscovery of Mendel's work, showing that inheritance of DNA genes is particulate.

The topic relates to memetics, since - supposedly - cultural evolution exhibits blending inheritance. This means that the objections to Darwin's theory of evolution which were discredited by the discovery of particulate inheritance destroy the prospect of a theory of adaptive cultural evolution and - blah, blah, blah.

My story here is that "blending inheritance" is confusing terminology. In universal Darwinism, blending is a form of selection - not a form of inheritance. What people call "blending inheritance" is better thought of as being selection or recombination operations followed by inheritance. However, to call this "blending inheritance" seems like an oxymoron to me. The term mixes together different sorts of operation (selection and inheritance) - concepts which are best kept separate.

Blending during selection is ubiquitous in organic evolution. Blending during imitation in cultural evolution is paralleled by blending during mimicry - which is widespread in nature. Cuckoo eggs mimic the eggs of their hosts. Tasty moths mimic poisonous ones. Insects mimic sticks and leaves for camouflage purposes. Tigers mimic dry reeds. Very often multiple models are copied from. A tiger does not just mimic one dry reed per-generation - probably influences from thousands of reeds are involved. Blending is a widespread evolutionary phenomenon - not something confined to cultural evolution.


In the organic realm, there are pseudogenes - which are genes that are no longer expressed. This naturally raises the question of whether there are pseudomemes. The answer is pretty clearly "yes".

One example comes from computer science. There objects in many modern programming language stop being able to affect the execution of the program significantly when all references to them are obliterated. Then they wait to be "garbage collected". These are the computer-equivalent of a deactivated idea.

Memories are probably deactivated inside human brains as well - if their triggers decay. Most memories require repeated reactivation to persist, so the triggers of memories that don't get reactivated are likely to decay - and are eventually replaced. If a meme's triggers decay before the meme itself, it becomes a pseudomeme.

Outside brains, all kinds of memes can go out of circulation without being destroyed. The dusty old books, library basements, and filing cabinets of the world are full of pseudomemes.

The internet generation often seems to have different idea about what the term "pseudomeme" refers to. They seem to think that pseudomemes are "wannabe memes" - usually failed forced memes. They have a reasonable point - but this terminology runs counter to the meme-gene relationship.

Monday, 17 June 2013

The excesses of externalism

While I've written about the problems with internalism, so far, I haven't written much about the Benzon / Gatherer position on cultural genotypes and phenotypes.

Benzon and Gatherer have an unusual position on what constitutes a meme - somewhat reminiscent of behaviourism. Benzon is still promoting the idea in 2013.

Benzon says:

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist's phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype.
Gatherer says:

This is a behaviourist scheme, which treats memes as cultural events, behaviours or artefacts which may be transmitted or copied. Outside the occurrence of the event, the practice of the behaviour, or the lifetime of the artefact, the meme has no existence.
A similar position appears to be shared by Sylvain Magne, who says:

All I want to say here is that the fact that memes are not in brains does not mean that memes don't exist. I go back to my own ideas here which are that memes are actually travelling on the media that we use to communicate, and that our cultural brain structures are the phenotypes of these memes.
Firstly, my own position is that memes are inherited cultural information, and they exist both outside and inside brains. This position appears to be shared by Dennett, Blackmore, Williams, Wilkins, Hull - and others.

The Benzon/Gatherer position at least avoids internalism, which seems to have many adherents, despite being pretty dopey. It seems \\evident that peer-to-peer movie copying (for example) mostly takes place outside of minds, and the pleasures and rushes they produce inside minds are phenotypic meme products.

So: what's the problem with this defining of memes as existing outside minds? Isn't this just a matter of different definitions? I don't think so. What is genotype and what is phenotype influences what counts as a developmental process. There can't easily be no fact of the matter about what counts as a developmental process in cultural evolution. To the extent that the dispute is down to terminology, it is part of our task to decide what terminology is best.

Like internalism, the position features a lack of germ-line continuity. It has what is inherited flipping back and forth between genotype and phenotype in a manner that is quite different from what happens in the organic realm. Adherents thus tend to subscribe to Lamarckian interpretations of cultural evolution. The position features inherited phenotypic mutation and recombination - operations normally applied to the genotype. Where did the word podcast come from? From the words "iPod" and "broadcast" having sex. However, this took place inside a mind. With memes inside minds, this is simple, obvious and mirrors what happens in the organic realm. With memes excluded from minds, this idea is more awkward to express.

Yes, it's nice to be able to measure things. We are beginning to be able to measure memes inside minds using MRI machines - e.g. see neuromarketing. We should not dismiss memes inside minds due to mere measurement difficulties.

The transition from memes inside minds to memes in artifacts and behaviours is memetic metamorphosis. We see organic metamorphosis in the transition from caterpillar to butterfly. However, we don't argue over whether the caterpillar or the butterfly is the phenotype. Both contain the inherited information responsible for their construction. As with the organic realm, in cultural evolution, elaborative developmental processes that result in non-inherited products aren't confined to any particular lifecycle-stage. They occur both inside and outside of minds.

I don't have much to add to the "traditional" objections to this whole idea. For example John Wilkins' article Memes ain't just in the head pretty much nails my own views on the topic. Consider this an endorsement of these decade-old criticisms.

Having the "germ line" consisting of what is inherited and the "phenotype" being things the germ line produces seems beautiful and simple to me - and it applies equally to organic and cultural evolution. It is a neat, general-purpose model - which is what the denial of memes inside minds lacks.


Sunday, 16 June 2013

Meme warfare

There's a fair amount of conflict in the biosphere - and some of it is between memes and memeplexes. Memeplexes sometimes share an ecological niche with direct competitors - and the result is fairly often a battle to the death. VHS vs Beetamax and Blue Ray vs HD DVD are well-known examples from the tech realm - which is often characterized by winner-takes-all battles.

Probably the most common established terms for this sort of thing are Culture war and However, these terms seem to have acquired some pretty specific connotations. For example, culture war is typically used to refer to conflicts between entire cultures - rather than conflicts within whole cultures. I think this leaves a substantial niche which the concept of meme warfare could usefully fill.

Meme wars happen in the realm of marketing and advertising. They happen in politics. They happen in science. Famously, they happen in religion.

Meme warfare is often characterized by nasty tactics. F.U.D., negative advertising, astroturfing, culture jamming and agitprop. Thus the saying: all's fair in meme warfare.

Not all kinds of conflicts qualify as "war". If the parties have conflicts of interests - but come to an agreement, that's not normally classified as "war". It's the same with cultural conflicts. Sometimes memes compete for resources - but are never in danger of wiping each other out. Unless it's a serious conflict - in which one bunch of memes is fairly explicitly acting so as to exterminate and eliminate its competitors, that's not really "warfare".

Writers and artists often produce memes that compete - but it's only rarely meme warfare. Their memes can often peacefully coexist.

The history of meme warfare is interesting. One of the effects of the virtualization of conflict is that a lot of conflict has moved into the ideosphere. However, while memes have gained in power and numbers over time, they have increasingly found ways to cooperate, form large groups - and avoid conflict.

Monday, 10 June 2013

The rush for the low-hanging fruit

Science typically proceeds by making the most important and significant discoveries first. In some fields, the low-hanging fruit have mostly already been taken. Other fields remain relatively under-studied. One of the attractions of memetics and cultural evolution is that these are very important fields, which have yet to receive much attention from science.

In 2004 Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland wrote:

By recognizing that our current understanding of culture is comparable to that attained by biology in 1859, perhaps some shortcuts can be taken by learning lessons from the succeeding 150 years of biological research.
This might have been a bit of an exaggeration - but it seems pretty clear that low hanging fruit still abound. There's a scientific lag for cultural evolution and an even bigger lag for memetics.

Cultural evolution and memetics are the key sciences we need to understand if we are interested in prediction or influencing the future of civilization. It's hard to overstate their significance as areas of science of importance to humans.

It takes little or no specialized equipment to enter the field. Raw data can be gathered using questionnaires, field observation - and vast quantities of relevant data are freely available on the internet. Most people will find that their life's experience furnishes them with sufficient data to easily test many relevant hypotheses in their heads, without doing any additional data collection work at all. The "bar to entry" is pretty minimal.

Everyone should learn some basic memetics, just to keep their minds free - and prevent themselves from being manipulated by cultural forces without their knowledge or consent. Disinfecting your mind is an essential part of basic mental hygene.

The combination of these factors mean that there are currently some rare opportunities to make a big difference with little effort available. If you're interested in the topic, I don't recommend hanging around. Now is an amazing time for the field - and it won't come again.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Terence McKenna: Culture is not your friend

Terence McKenna - on the downsides of bad memes.

Terence talked a lot of nonsense, but at least he showed that he had some understanding of memetics.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Meme therapy


Meme therapy aims to improve health and well-being with interventions that use or target memes. It's named after gene therapy. "Gene therapy" has historically been a rather narrow term. However, meme therapy is probably best interpreted rather broadly - referring to a wide range of therapies based on memes.

Some common forms of meme therapy resemble vaccinations. For instance, hearing a story about someone who got burned in a pyramid scheme can help protect people about pyramid schemes they might encounter in the future. As with organic immunity, vaccines - in the form of weakened versions of dangerous real-world memes - can subsequently provide protection against the real thing. Another approach is to combat bad memes with good memes. There are also forms of memetic preventative medicine - such as skepticism.


Meme therapy was an important part of memetics from its inception. The book Virus of the Mind had a strong self-help element. More recently there's the book Disinfect Your Mind: Defend Yourself with Memetics Against Mass Media, Politicians, Corporate Management, Your Aunt's Advice, and Other Mind Viruses. The theme of these books has generally been that your brain is under siege by a crowd of memes that seek to manipulate you - for the benefit of advertisers, politicians, religious leaders - and indeed the memes themselves. Only by mastering the self-help side of memetics can you hope to properly defend yourself.

Susan Blackmore is among those who have written about the self-help aspects of memetics - for example in her article, "Meditation as meme weeding". Sue talks about weeding out the bad memes, so that good ones might flourish. This gardening metaphor seems quite appropriate.

Mental illness

More recently, there have been more medical-based approaches. Hoyle Leigh has become one of the pioneers of meme therapy. He has written a fine book on the topic titled "Genes, Memes, Culture, and Mental Illness: Toward an Integrative Model". This notes that the symptoms of obsessions, paranoia, schizophrenia, depression and some kinds of stress appear to include over-growths of memes inside the minds of the patients - with particular memes often dominating their attention. It then goes on to propose treatment regimes - including meme therapy. Such meme therapy is part of Darwinian psychiatry.


Common meme therapy techniques include:
  • Meditation;
  • Skepticism;
  • Affirmation;
  • Mantras;
  • Music;


Meme therapies can be classified in several ways:
  • Broad-spectrum vs narrow spectrum;
  • Self-administered vs other-administered;
  • Anti-biotic vs pro-biotic;
  • Preventative vs restorative;
For example, meditation is an example of broad-spectrum anti-biotic meme therapy. It targets a range of memes, but the therapy doesn't really involve much in the way of memes. Affirmations are a form of pro-biotic meme therapy - they try to replace bad memes with good ones.

It's also possible to classify meme therapies based on the type of problem they treat. Treatable categories of disorder include excesses of negative memes, insufficient positive memes, and various kinds of auto-immune memetic disorders.


Self-administered meme therapy is ubiquitous. People spend a lot of time listening to music and watching movies. These are basic forms of meme therapy.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Basic concepts in memetics

I have a page where some of my memetics-related content is indexed. However, there's a lot of content from me on this blog (and elsewhere) that hasn't been indexed there yet.

This post is a step towards indexing some of this content - under the general theme of basic concepts.


Memetic engineering - Synthesizing memes;
Memetic hitchhiking - Memes being taken for a ride;
Cultural kin selection - Memes have relatives too;
Population memetics  - Meme frequency analysis;
Phylomemetics  - Meme frequency analysis;
Memetic algorithms - Harnessing the meme to optimise;
Memetic linkage - Memes can be linked to other memes;
Memealogy - Memes form family lineages;
Retromemes - Memes that spread via hitchhiking;
The meme's eye view  - Adopting a meme-centric perspective;
Meme warfare - Memes locked in battles to the death;
Meme therapy - Memes for improving health and wellbeing;
Memes and the red queen  - Memetic coevolutionary dynamics;
Memetic assimilation - Like genetic assimilation but in reverse;
Memetic takeover - The new replicators triumph;


Generalised epidemiology - Epidemiology beyond parasites;
Epidemic threshold - When memes go viral;

Universal Darwinism

Universal Darwinism - Copying with variation and selection - in general;
Universal selection - Natural selection of non-living objects;
Universal reproduction - On the ubiquity of copying processes in nature;
Positional inheritance - The most basic form of inheritance;
NanoDarwinism - Darwinism with fewer axioms;
Degenerative Darwinism - Darwinism without cumulative adaptations;
Informational Genetics - Genes as information;

A New Kind of Evolution

A New Kind of Evolution - Future evolution will be performed by intelligent agents;
A New Kind of Evolution - Textbooks - Cultural evolution - what the textbooks say;
A New Kind of Evolution - Quotes - Cultural evolution - quotations on the topic;

Memes and specific adaptations

Memes and the upright gait hypothesis - Memes made humans walk upright;
The big brain as a meme nest - Memes made humans have large brains;
Memes and the evolution of human ultrasociality - Memes made humans highly social creatures;

Early videos

Synthetic Life Is Here Already -  New self-replicating agents are here, now;
Misunderstood Memetics - Memetic misunderstandings;
More Memetic Misunderstandings - More memetic misunderstandings;
Misunderstandings within memetics - Misunderstandings from the ranks of the supporters;
My memetic misunderstandings - About my own issues with memetics;
Evaluation under simulation - The virtualization of conflict;
Memetics: Death Report Exaggerated - Comments on the meme's premature obituary;

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Cultural variation visualized on a phylogenetic tree

The following diagram shows a two dimensional representation of an asexual species with the ability to learn exploring a fitness landscape.

Time is vertical, green bars represent DNA-based hosts, red bars represent ideas being copied inside their hosts' brains. Social learning is not represented in the diagram - for the sake of simplicity - so the red learned variants are destroyed when their associated hosts die, but the reader can imagine what social-transmission would look like, if it was illustrated on this diagram.

The learned variation alters the environment the hosts are selected in - and so influences their evolution. There is no attempt to illustrate this in the diagram, though.

The basic point in this post is to illustrate the similarity between this diagram, and plant roots:

The diagrams look similar because both represent evolutionary tress. In both cases, the ancestors are neared to the root than the descendants.

Indeed, the resemblance is closer than it may at first appear - since the plant roots are hosts to mycorrhizal fungi. So, in both cases, there's a host and small, rapidly-reproducing symbionts. The symbionts explore the surrounding space, and help to determine the path that their host takes through that space.

In my book on memetics, I make a somewhat-related comparison, comparing brains with tree root nodules.

Daniel Dennett: Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (video)

Daniel Dennett at Google, introduced by Peter Norvig, on his latest book: Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking.

Anna Salamon from CFAR asks after Newcomb's problem 41 minutes in. Dennett doesn't seem to have a cached answer to this problem yet. It's a kind of abstract and esoteric puzzle, but it is kind-of to do with free will.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Memetic assimilation

One of the basic ideas of gene-meme coevolution is genetic assimilation. The concept refers to acquired phenotypic traits turning into genetic ones over time. In the context of cultural evolution it usually refers to learned behaviours becoming encoded in DNA genes.

Examples of genetic assimilation in action include walking, speaking and eating cooked food. These all started off as culturally-transmitted practices, but became successful - and went on to be encoded partly in DNA genes.

The best way to intepret the concept of memetic assimilation is probably to consider cases where traits coded in DNA genes get taken over by learned behaviours. To best carve nature at the joints, it seems best to ignore the distinction between individual and social learning in this case, and to lump them together.

Examples of memetic assimilation include:

  • Human fur - largely replaced by bedding and clothing;
  • Human large intestine - partly replaced by practices such as cooking and grinding foods;
  • Locomotion - largely instinctive in many animals - humans learn to walk from their parents;
  • Communication - largely instinctive in many animals - humans learn to speak from other humans.
Humans have large developmental plasticity. Many behaviours that used to be instinctual have been replaced by more flexible traits that are acquired through learning.

Since these are still civilization's early days, many of the more interesting examples of memetic assimilation seem likely to lie in the future:

  • Memory - largely outsourced, reducing the human brain's memory to a local cache;
  • Immune system - partly replaced by hospitals;
  • Repair systems - partly replaced by hospitals;
  • Digestion - partly replaced by food pre-processing;
  • Thermoregulation - partly replaced by air conditioning;
  • Transporation - scheduled to be largely replaced by cars and aircraft.
Since memes seem generally more flexible than DNA, it seems reasonable to expect that memetic assimilation will eventually go all the way - resulting in a memetic takeover. I.e. brains will be replaced by machine intelligence and bodies will be replaced by robotics and nanotechnology.

Terminology note: Memetic assimilation should be distinguished from meme assimilation - the latter being part of the process of meme acquisition - a normal part of enculturation.