Friday, 3 February 2017

Meme is a degenerate sign

An oft-cited criticism of memes comes from Kalevi Kull (2000) who wrote:
Meme is just an externalist view to sign, which means that meme is sign without its triadic nature. I.e., meme is a degenerate sign in which only its ability of being copied is remained.
Other critics cite Kalevi's criticism as though it is meaningful. For example it appears on RationalWiki's farcical page about memes. I recently thought of a new way of explaining how weak this criticism is: a word also a type of sign without its triadic nature. A word is similarly a type of degenerate sign.

To recap, the "triadic" nature of signs refers to Charles Sanders Peirce's ideas. Here's a diagram:

Kalevi is arguing that memes are only the bottom left. However, the same can be said of words. We count "park", "play", 'bark", "chair", "left" and "right" as one word, not two - despite their multiple meanings and even more numerous interpretations. This would be a feeble criticism of the concept of "word". We should assign it no more weight when it comes to memes.


  1. "kalevi is arguing that memes are only on the bottom left"
    Lol wrong, you don't even understand that the triadic structure is that of a process.
    Maybe you should bother understanding firstness secondness and thirdness and Peirce's categories.
    Just give up Dawkins. Not only are you wrong about memes you are wrong about how genes come to mean anything as well.

  2. Alas, that's not very useful feedback. Note that Kalevi is not the only semiotics enthusiast raisng this point. See Terrence Deacon's "Memes as signs" for a more articulate statement of the criticism. IMO, this criticism is too straightforwards to be easily misinterpreted. Kalevi is saying that memes are symbols, and thus lack referents and interpretations (which are the other elements in semiotic triad). It's true, but so what? The same can be said of words. There's nothing wrong with having terminology that refers to the things that are copied during cultural transmission.