As promised last week, it's time to look at a concrete example of applying memetics to a real-world phenomenon. Luckily, I don't think we have to search very hard to find a good candidate: cooking recipes. As I hope to show below, studying these everyday creatures lets us exercise quite a bit of memetic machinery.

I'm taking the liberty of calling a recipe a memeplex, so maybe this is a good time to address some terminology. A reasonable person might ask, "What exactly is the difference between a meme and a memeplex?" It's a bit arbitrary, but I think of it this way: a meme is a single atomic concept, while a memeplex is a set of distinct ideas that are combined into a group. To use a very rough analogy, memes are like single cells while memeplexes are like multi-celled organisms. Recipes are a good example because the individual steps work together to create a whole which is more useful to its host (and therefore, presumably, more likely to propagate) than any individual step by itself.

It shouldn't be hard to convince the reader that recipes exhibit heredity. In fact if you've ever learned (or taught) a recipe, then you've already participated in copying a recipe memeplex. There are many possible methods for this propagation: parents teaching children, friends swapping tips, or (in the very recent memetic past) instructions posted on the Internet. Regardless of the mechanism the result is that a new brain has started hosting the memeplex, and in many cases that brain will go on to spread it to other hosts.

The variety of propagation mechanisms presents a good opportunity to contrast with traditional genetic evolution. In the biological world the DNA ecosystem has risen to more or less absolute dominance as the copying mechanism of choice. And it's no surprise, given how staggeringly effective it's proven. The memetic world is quite a bit less mature, however. Oral tradition, which was the only game in town until a few millennia ago, is weak in fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. Writing systems, and especially the printing press, helped considerably. However it wasn't until digital communication and storage that a mechanism anywhere close to DNA has been available to eager memes. (Memetic propagation channels are a fascinating subject in themselves, and I hope to explore them in an upcoming post.)

Variation in recipes is also satisfyingly consistent with the memetic model. Most people have had the experience of learning a recipe, and then over time experimenting and tweaking to try and improve on it. If you've been perfecting a recipe for five years and then your friend asks you to teach it to her, you certainly won't just teach her the original version. The memeplex has mutated, and this mutation is what your friend will go on to teach to her cousin. The mutation has out-competed its ancestor.

Again it's worth a pause to reflect on the nature of memetic mutation, which can be a little bit mind-bending because the instrument of mutation is the human mind. This is one of the places in memetics where we have to just be patient and wait for the neuroscientists to come to our rescue. What exactly is it that makes you decide to try adding that teaspoon of cinnamon? We don't know yet, but as with genetic mutation, the only really relevant point is that there is a more-or-less random source of variation in the system.

The final element of the evolution equation is selection, and again recipes are illustrative. It seems intuitively obvious that recipes which taste good will out-compete those that don't; recipes which are fast and easy will out-compete those which are slow and difficult. But memetic selection is a complex process, because it's inextricably tied to human psychology. A meme(plex) is well-adapted if and only if it is capable of getting a large number of human brains to adopt it. To say that this is a moving target is perhaps an understatement.

To me, the question of selection criteria is the most fascinating aspect of memetics. It seems hard to deny that the ideas already present in a brain have a definitive impact on its inclination to adopt or reject any new ideas it happens upon. A meme which is trying to make it in modern America faces very different challenges (and opportunities) from what it would in, say, medieval France. We can certainly see this in effect in recipes, by looking at the "traditional cuisines" of the world's cultures. People tend to develop tastes in accordance with what they're exposed to, and recipes which cater to those tastes have a leg-up on those from the outside. Incidentally, the non-linear feedback inherent in this process (memes compete; some are adopted; this creates a new set of criteria for the next round of selection) is part of what makes the idea of memetic modeling so daunting.

So there you have it, a tour of the memetic perspective. Next time you're cooking your favorite meal, remember that you are actually just being used by a pattern of ideas selfishly seeking to propagate itself. Just be thankful that it's chosen a fairly symbiotic means of doing so - it knows it can get you to spread it by being delicious!

09 Aug 2011 | Tags: Memetics

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