[updated 2009-03-03]

The core thrust of making memetics a respectable science with falsifiable claims and other tell-tale signs of ‘rigour’ has been the idea of replication.

As I wrote in a much older post about memes, there have already been some interesting replicators posited as possible memes. Unfortunately, this path hasn’t yielded the big breakthroughs that would firmly establish memetics as a discipline. Too bad, cos it would have meant that real-life, genetic replication of the deoxyribonucleic kind, with its attendant body of knowledge and tried-and-tested paradigms, would have been the perfect model for the fledgling science of memetics.

Bruce Edmond‘s article here neatly sums up the problems of the replicator-based model, and why memeticists have… well, disappeared into the ether.To quote from Edmond’s article:

Here I distinguish between what might be called the “broad” and the “narrow” approaches to memetics.  The former, broad, approach involves modelling communication or other social phenomena using approaches which are evolutionary in structure.  Work within this approach is often done without appealing to “memes” or “memetics” since it can be easily accommodated within other frameworks.  In other words, it does not require an analogy with genetics.  The later, narrow, sense involves a closer analogy between genes and memes – not necessarily 100% direct, but sufficiently direct so as to justify the epithet of “memetics”.  What has failed is the narrow approach – that of memetics.  Work continues within the broad approach, albeit under other names, and in other journals.

Well, if raw replication / narrow approach is not at the heart of memetics, then what is? According to him, nothing that can’t be explained by other sciences / other disciplines.

But still… what if we’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Why is it that replication ‘feels’ right when talking about memes? I mean, what if memes – which for the sake of argument I’m just going to call ‘a pattern-holding’ construct – aren’t perfect replicators, but rather (for example) pseudo-prionic in behaviour? I’m sure people who know better would roll their eyes at yet another pathetic attempt to ground memetics in evolutionary biology.

So okay forget bio for a moment. Back to just the idea of a ‘pattern-holding construct’ (I DEFY you to be more vague!) Let ‘pattern’ be anything from a shape to a sound to a way of walking or talking to skirt lengths for the season. Anything. Anything observable, really.

What if patterns induce other constructs in the environment into holding, not the exact same pattern, but rather a similar pattern? What if there’s no heredity in it’s purer sense, but rather a sort of ‘self-similarity’ wave propagating in several dimensions at once?

Several ‘variations on the theme’ of any single pattern can proliferate, zinging off in every direction and ocassionally colliding into each other and reinforcing each other or cancelling each other out or getting squished into some kind of joint, ‘mashup’ pattern.

This seemingly ‘brownian’ mess doesn’t preclude, through several such interactions, the arising of common ‘strains’ of related patterns.  It’s this ‘frequently occuring cluster of patterns’ that perhaps gets recognized as a meme (or more specifically, the lay person’s idea of a meme – and that includes yours truly).

To cut my ramblings short, what if imperfect copying is simply good for memes? Whereas most replicators have to sneak a bit of mutation past Selection’s razor, other types of information processing just aren’t penalized for being sloppy. Some information signals have a crappy signal to noise ratio and do just fine. Maybe the ‘noise’ portion of the signal carries it’s own information, even.

It only sounds a bit backwards because we’re so used to the idea of noise in an information signal being… well, noise. But if we put ‘perfect copying’ aside, and are willing to embrace something more akin to mimicry, we can still propagate information in a way that might give rise to memes. And if you apply this idea of ‘noise is ok’ to human communications, it doesn’t need to degenerate into a sorry case of broken telephone / ‘Chinese Whispers’. Why not, you might ask? Well, because the latter has the totally artificial constraints of:

a) not allowing recipients to verify or check the original signal (eg in a game of Chinese Whispers, asking the last person to repeat what they just said), and

b) not allowing the signal to be sent severally, randomly (straying from the circular, linear sequence), or loudly (signal strength).

In fact, Chinese Whispers is a totally artificial, fabricated sequence of events: one that causes us to forget that fidelity in human communications is usually quite unnecessary. Cumulatively it’s still necessary, but each single signal at a specific point in time can get away with a surprisingly tiny payload of actual / relevant information.

In fact I’d take a bet: that with perfect replication, the cultural space as we know it would probably just implode, held together as it is by the steady accretion of countless ‘errors’ in communication… everything from tiny local misunderstandings to giant myths and juicy gossip. Human culture exists in a highly symbolic space, one in which (in my experience) ‘if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck…’, it tends to be recognized as a duck, whatever else it might actually be. More importantly, even things that don’t walk like a duck or sound like a duck can get to be passed off as ducks, under the right conditions.

All this is very far removed from the narrower, ‘perfect imprinting’ (or as a Bodhisattva would say, a ‘mind seal’) of an idea from one mind to another. Does that mean ‘pure’ memeticists should lose heart? Not necessarily. They clearly like sinking their teeth into intractable problems. And ‘similarity’ is a much, much harder problem to solve, informationally speaking, than the implicit perfect equivalence of ‘replication’.

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