Appendix 3 : Pitfalls regarding memetics
1) Memes are not agential and not sentient. Likewise, a cultural entity formed by co-evolving memes within an overall narrative framework (a memeplex), is not agential and not sentient. Like prions, which are not considered to be alive, or viruses, which fail some of the definitions of life, memes have some of the properties that we associate with life. For instance they are replicators; strictly speaking, ‘scaffolding’ replicators, because just like the above mentioned biological entities they borrow some ‘scaffolding’, i.e. the equipment that enables their replication, from larger entities in their environment.
2) Human languages are not geared to talk about things possessing some of the properties of life, without using agential language. Or at least it’s incredibly clumsy to do so. So one may say that Mad Cow disease has an agenda to continuously exploit weaknesses in the cow genome. But the prions which cause Mad Cow disease are most certainly not alive. It is taken as read that words like agenda and exploit, which are more typically associated with fully living entities that either think or at least deploy instinctive actions, are only useful shorthand.
Within a biological context, almost everyone seems to get that this agential language is shorthand. They know that prions aren’t sitting around drinking gin and making evil grins while consciously planning their world domination of bovines. Yet for some reason within a memetic context it’s not uncommon (outside the relevant fields at least), for folks to make the mistake of thinking that this kind of language must mean that memes, or narrative entities, posses the full characteristics of life, perhaps even of higher life. While this is not true at all, they can, just like the prions in Mad Cow disease, dynamically leverage purely by virtue of differential selection over many meme generations, our psychological responses, via which their replication is achieved and indeed constantly maximized.
Hence the main post and other Appendices have plenty of agential language, without which they would be much bigger indeed. None of this language implies that memes or memeplexes are alive. This kind of misunderstanding leads some people to reject memetics out of hand, which would be understandable if the field did indeed make such claims about living entity status.
3) Everything written or spoken is technically a meme. However the vast majority do not have highly selective value, or have severe constraints that curtail their evolution, and so are not interesting. For instance certain words in a Shakespeare sonnet, let’s take ‘sweetest’, don’t over the passing centuries come to dominate the entire text, despite some copying errors or plagiarism over the years. This is because, not only are there no particular selective pressures on the word ‘sweetest’, there are powerful pressures against selection too (the strict rules of sonnets, plus our desire to read the original words of the master as purely as possible), which are far stronger than any mild selection pressure that might arise. There is some selective pressure on Shakespeare sonnets as a whole, i.e. above other sonnets; he’s very popular.
More mundanely than sonnets, a scribbled shopping note or the technical manual for a fridge simply have extremely low selective value, the latter constrained to distribution of the particular fridge. There is an analogy to these uninteresting memes in genetics. Although the precise fraction is argued over for various reasons, a large majority of human DNA has no selective value and doesn’t contribute to our biological function.
The interesting memes are the ones that have relatively unconstrained evolutionary potential, and upon which there is high selective pressure. While emotion is not the only criteria for high selection, emotive memes are the ones that result in cultural entities, memeplexes, and this makes them very interesting indeed; the CAGW memes mentioned above are in this category.
4) Another shorthand. This one rather lazy. There is a tendency to only term the interesting memes as ‘memes’, and ‘forget’ that all the uninteresting ones with low or zero selective pressure, are also memes. I have in this post sometimes retrieved that situation somewhat by using the term ‘emotive memes’ (which reminds that there are also non-emotive and probably therefore uninteresting memes too), but not always.
5) A memeplex, while composed of memes, is not merely some kind of plural of ‘meme’, for which we have the more obvious word ‘memes’. A memeplex, or co-adapted meme complex, is an entity that can only exist across a population. ‘Complex’ implies structure, expressed across the population, e.g. via a social entity with its own cultural promotion and defense mechanisms etc. And ‘co-adapted’ implies selection, which also can only happen across a selectable population. A memeplex cannot fit inside someone’s head. Oppositely, while a meme can clearly fit inside a population, it’s characteristics within that population are very different to those of a memeplex (of which it may be a part). My reply at Climate Etc to the string of gross errors by David Steele provides more detail. For an approximate biological analogy, a meme is to a memeplex as a gene is to a species.
6) A common fallacy derived from trivial comparisons to biology, is that memes cannot evolve through Darwinian processes because they do not have the high copying fidelity of say human or rat or fish genes. However, that fidelity is itself the result of about 4 billion years of selection. For a very long time indeed, primitive replicators did not have high fidelity copying mechanisms, and also different lines constantly interchanged coding sequences in a kind of ambiguous broth from which more distinct forms eventually arose, via Darwinian selection. Memes are the narrative equivalent of this primeval state, upon which selection works just as well.
In an echo of those primitive times, viruses can still exchange code sequences with each other and with their hosts. And very simple replicative forms can sustain a lot of change and still (to a greater or lesser degree) stay functional. Flu viruses for instance mutate relatively swiftly, and indeed this is a source of variation and so a strength that allows some strains to always keep up with the dynamic defense of the entry portal they aim at in mammals and birds. Notwithstanding that websites and CDs have increased memetic copying fidelity and religious books have preserved memes for millennia, natural selection will, over extremely high replication figures (and possibly sometimes with periods of devolution from the optimum), still produce evolution overall from relatively low fidelity replicators.
Considering a meme family like ‘we are special’, or ‘the past is always better’, it can be expressed in any language and millions of different ways and yet still hit the same emotive hot-button, which is its entry portal to more basic emotive responses like fear and worry and hope and excitement or whatever, which guarantee replication. Frequent change produced via error or intelligence, can lead to new strains rapidly sweeping through populations. Here is a one 5500 year old version of ‘the past is always better’, rendered from the ancient Sumerian, and here is a modern version (of which there are hundreds of variants with much accumulated nonsense meta-data, such as very many wrong attributions). These two are each very suited to their era, but there are many far more subtle instances than these very obvious types. The modern one is nevertheless widespread on the web and has even been well represented in print and in speeches.
For more background see The CAGW Memeplex (warning: very long) published in Nov 2013 at Climate Etc and WUWT. This is a hypothesis and by no means fact, but the memetic explanation for CAGW does have the advantage of not resting upon any political or philosophical positions as a foundation, only upon value-neutral mechanisms such as the penetration of memes into the psyche and the differential selection of successful narratives (which are not agential and not sentient). This does not mean for instance that highly activist style politics isn’t an important factor. But it isn’t a root factor because this too is driven by value-neutral mechanisms beneath, which work in the same manner for any political stripe (and memetics is a useful way of perceiving those mechanisms). The memetic explanation also does not imply in any way whatsoever that Consensus folks are in the slightest degree deranged or delusional or ill or impaired. Due to common misconceptions a lot of folks appear to vector down that path the moment they see the word memetics, and stop reading any further. Memeplexes are normal territory for all humans.