Memes and Transmission Pathways

From, Why Cultural Evolution Is Real (And What It Is)

(Because watching other people say that thing you were saying and be like ‘omg I was saying that’ and then they give it their own twist and you are like ‘oh yes I see where this is going and it gets back to the morality model’ and then the joy at how much fun it is.)

(Guys guys we are talking about memes, okay. And the big question brought up by the part I quoted is, of course, What are the long-term effects of changing transmission pathways?)

“How Transmission Pathways Matter

In my outline, I mentioned that the transmission pathway – vertical or horizontal – matters a great deal for the content and friendliness of transmitted cultural items.

In biology, there is already support for this model. Parasitic entities like bacteria that are limited to vertical transmission – transmission from parent to child only – quickly evolve into benign symbiosis with the host, because their own fitness is dependent on the fitness of the host entity. But parasitic entities that may accomplish horizontal transmission are not so constrained, and may be much more virulent, extracting high fitness costs from the host. (See, e.g., An empirical study of the evolution of virulence under both horizontal and vertical transmission, by Stewart, Logsdon, and Kelley, 2005, for experimental evidence involving corn and a corn pathogen.)

As indicated in an earlier section, ancient cultural data is very tree-like, indicating that the role of horizontal transmission has been minimal. However, the memetic technologies of modernity – from book printing to the internet – increased the role of horizontal transmission. I have previously written that the modern limited fertility pattern was likely transmitted horizontally, through Western-style education and status competition by limiting fertility (in The history of fertility transitions and the new memeplex, Sarah Perry, 2014). The transmission of this new “memeplex” was only sustainable by horizontal transmission; while it increases the individual well-being of “infected carriers,” it certainly decreases their evolutionary fitness. …”

Okay, right. So your meme-mitochondria will most likely protect you from dying, but don’t much give a shit if you end up killing people who are not-you or at least don’t share your genes. And meme-viruses will try to get you to not kill society at large (which is busy propagating them,) but don’t particularly care if they kill you.


1. Will modern mass-media destroy itself by accidentally destroying the people that use it? Can mass-media be a stable, long-term part of the human cultural/technological toolkit?

2. Does modern mass-media create an actually different moral meme-environment from the vast majority of the human past? Is this good/bad/neutral?

3. Will we evolve to be adapted to this meme-environment, say, by people who believe that Western Education is Sin kidnapping girls, selling them as brides, and then massively out-breeding people who “Lean In”?


8 thoughts on “Memes and Transmission Pathways

  1. Keep in mind that Mass Media has been with us from the start of culture & society. Oral Literature is as much Mass Media as the printing press and the internet. New Mass media technology will change things more rapidly because the technology is changing & growing rapidly.

    Modern technology rests on a well educated population. A well educated population can not thrive with restrictions that undermine the resources of highly skilled & educated population. You need more doctors – you have to start educating women. Equalize the education of both genders leads to eventually social equality or else the system collapses and you can not access the intellectual resource needed to maintain the society.

    We could go backwards socially, but everything else follows.


    • Hi, thanks for the comment!

      In this context, referring to “oral literature” as “mass media” is redefining things in a way that just makes the words useless–not to mention that I disagree with your definition. Mass media is defined (by Wikipedia, though the dictionary defines it similarly,) as “diversified media technologies that are intended to reach a large audience by mass communication.”

      Oral literature does not reach a mass audience. Oral reaches, at most, everyone in the room with the person telling the story. Oral literature is modified by the speaker to suit the needs of the audience and occasion, in a process that can be highly interactive. Each person in an oral-lit society can end up with their own favorite version of a popular tale, and pass their own version on to their own children–there need not exist one single, authoritative “text” of the story, and often isn’t. Thus your version of the story (or recipe or whatever,) is likely to just be whatever version you heard from your parents, grandparents, or village storyteller (who in a small, pre-modern society was highly likely to be a relative of yours for the simple reason that everyone was.)

      Mass media can reach millions of people at once, recorded once and forever in a permanent form that does not alter depending on the audience or occasion (that is, your DVD of a popular movie is not going to spontaneously change the plot one day just because you look like you could use something different.) The system is much less interactive, and there exist permanent “texts” of the “real story.” People resist the notion of individual versions of mass media stories–even George Lucas is criticized for changing his own story, (“Han Solo shot first!”) Mass media is not transmitted to you by your parents or relatives or village elders, (unless Walt Disney was your grandfather,) but by total strangers who may not even live on the same continent as you.

      Or as the quoted portion of the article states, “ancient cultural data is very tree-like, indicating that the role of horizontal transmission has been minimal. However, the memetic technologies of modernity – from book printing to the internet – increased the role of horizontal transmission.”

      So, given that oral literature is not mass media, at least as the terms are being used in this context, I think the questions still stand.

      I understand the point of your second paragraph, but I must confess I don’t quite see how it relates. A well educated population cannot thrive if it ceases to exist, after all.


      • I understand your restriction with hard technology to define mass media. I was thinking of oral literature as playing the role that eventually gets taken over by more complex technology. Keep in mind the story teller is reaching as large a mass group as possible within the limits of that society. The story teller is poet, singer dramatist, historian, library of the group. They needed to have a significant memory to recall and convey the stories – consider the scop(poet-performer) of Old Anglo Saxon recounting Beowulf. Picking up the “Game of Thrones” serial night after night from where s/he left off. The First Nation Native story tellers who share the same story with twelve others who then share it with another twelve – orally passing and replicating files.

        Oral literature includes musical accompaniment, dance, mask and theatre. Shakespeare’s work is written, but it is mass communicated on the stage. It straddles the line between different forms of mass media. By today’s standard of numbers it is insignificant compared to movies and television. By the standards of the time it was accelerating the transmission of the narrative. Compare how many read the original source of Romeo & Juliet to those who saw the stage version, and yes his version was different – the medium changes the message.

        What I was trying to get at was that in a sense mass-media has be a stable, long-term part of the human cultural/technological toolkit. The technology of mass media keeps changing into new forms. Mass Media conveys values, beliefs & ideologies within their constructed realities. As a consequence, it changes cultures.

        My last point was looking at your observation on counter cultural response by extreme religious groups. Their success still depends modern technology. Their attempts to re-set cultural norms leads to a lack of access to the technology they depend on. For example, in ISIL controlled territory there are now severe measles outbreaks. Their attempt create a new generation of fighters by rape and control of women fails, if the women and their children die through lack of proper medical attention. They collapse on themselves. However, in the process they corrode and destabilize our culture.

        As to sending out the same Disney/Hollywood version of reality in multiple copies, there is push back in terms of how they lose control of the copies and how others appropriate their imagery, graffiti art and personal video art. The question is whether the current traits of interactive responses and self-publishing continue to grow within Mass Media or if those with money & power find ways to limit/restrict it. If the later then many of the outcomes you suggest may indeed come to pass.

        Many thanks for responding to my comment. 🙂 I am just a retired secondary school teacher with a small background in the areas of English Literature, Mass Media and Special Education. I found your post very intriguing & thought provoking. The comparison of information transmission & transformation to biological transmission is very interesting. I really have to work at understanding the terminology and the implications. Great for keeping my brain active. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    • Hello again 🙂 I am not yet sure about how the commenting structure works, so I am replying to your first comment to make sure you receive the comment, but I am responding to your second comment.

      I always welcome nice comments and try to reply. 🙂 I am glad to have provided some entertainment. If you have not read them, I explained the “mitochondrial memes” theory in more depth over here in Mitochondrial Memes: and Memetic Separatism:

      I agree that oral poets have done their very best, and that many forms of communication may be thought of as intermediate stages. But when we look at the primary directions that information is traveling in different societies, I think there’s a big difference between different technologies–a difference that has become more pronounced even in our own lifetimes. Just speaking to an older relation the other day about “How society has changed since he was younger,” he cited as one of the biggest changes that people get far less of their information from other people, and far more of it from electronic sources like TV or internet. A hundred years ago, even literate people got the majority of their information about the world from the people around them (after all, there was no TV.) Today we get far more from non-human sources.

      “Mass Media conveys values, beliefs & ideologies within their constructed realities. As a consequence, it changes cultures.” I suspect this is true of oral lit as well; we are all constantly conveying morals and ideas, whether we want to or not. I theorize that the nature of the information pathway has an effect on the kind of information it most easily conveys, creating social changes.

      I agree that ISIS (and many similar organizations) cannot maintain the level of civilization once common in their areas. Civilization there collapses, just as it has many times before. But they are unlikely to all die of measles; humanity has survived devastating plagues before. Even an ISIS member who loses half his children to disease will end up with more children than a NYC career-woman who chooses to “lean in” instead of having children.

      To what extent will the future be created by those who show up, verses the ideas we currently have?


      • “I theorize that the nature of the information pathway has an effect on the kind of information it most easily conveys, creating social changes.” I can give a classic example of that – Nixon Kennedy debates. It was the first televised debate. As a consequence there were those that watched it and those that just listened to it on the radio. Those who watched it said Kennedy won, while those who listened to it said Nixon won. The visual information and its emotional content altered the context of the words. Nixon appeared haggard and worn out under the harsh lighting of a B&W television studio, while Kennedy looked calm and cool.

        When children watched the Kennedy funeral at school, it was noted afterwards that those who watched colour televisions had a different set of emotional reactions & recalled the events differently than those students who watched it in B&W.

        These are examples of how changing the medium, alters the content/message. What we now know about neural plasticity of the brain suggests that the brain’s neural network accommodates changes based on input. If the brain is receiving information in a particular form it adjusts to most efficiently process that form of information – if it is part of the communication system it will become more proficient at using that system.

        I suspect that radical organizations use our technology effectively because they are made up of the young who are more adept & more willing to make use of it. The problem they face is that in time their organizations , in order to survive, must stabilize into actual societies (states with governments). They then must age up as it were. If you remain in a constant state of war mentality you either must always be on the attack or under siege, your society can not flourish. Note that they do not produce technology, they use others. The can create radicals, but to get more wealth they have to resort to selling drugs and antiquities. Their actual survival is dependent on the failure of various official states to agree on an plan of action; they grew in an implied space of social inaction.

        Some form of anarchy always exists in a society and it may have multiple outlets – arts, religion, politics, social action. What changes is the technology and in particular the mass media technology. This changes the way the anarchy finds expression and the way others respond to it in turn. The expression & response becomes what I believe you are referring to as a sequence of cultural memes. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • Great examples.
      When an organization uses another organization (culture, state, etc.,)’s technology to attack it from within, without producing any of its own, it becomes a social cancer.

      Cancers can go three ways:
      1. Defeated by the organism’s internal protection measures, (that is, put down by state police/military,)
      2. Kill the organism, killing themselves. Replaced by organizations that can maintain themselves. (These organizations need not be pleasant ones.)
      3. Cancer-izing themselves–destroying themselves through infighting.

      ISIS cannot produce a modern society anymore than Maoist China could, but then, this is not ISIS’s goal.


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