General Replicator Theory


Kevin Aylward B.Sc.



This paper is to address some aspects specific to memes. The fundamental difference of memes to that of genes, is that, although they are both traits of a Replicator, meme traits can be replicated by any physical Replicator, they are not limited to physically related Replicators.

Memes have been defined by:

Definition - a trait is a Replicant and is any entity that can be copied.

Definition - a meme trait is a virtual trait of a physical Replicator. 

These very general definitions prevents undue restrictions being placed on them. They are capable of coding for anything whatsoever.

For example, whether an individual learned his way through a maze by physically traveling the path, or by simply watching another travel the maze will result in, essentially, the same meme states in the brain.

Meme Definitions

It has been argued by Blackmore that memes should be defined only by cultural learning, such that, for example, the claim is made that no imitation is being performed if animals can find where they have hidden food. This is clearly false, that is imitation is being performed as obviously something is being copied into the brain. If nothing was being copied, they couldn't find their way back to find the hidden food. Furthermore, the animal internally undergoes a selection procedure that allows it to improve its ability to learn its environment in the future. Thus, a Darwinian process is undertaken internally which makes it clear that for a general description of all of human Behaviour, definitions need to be broad enough such that Darwinian Evolution can be applied to all of the relevant situations that might occur.

Properties of Memes

Starter - the fundamental method of meme propagation is by maximizing the numbers of the meme's Replicator.

Meme traits are physically replicated by the human brain-body combination. This very complex system is simply referred to as a Replicator, the exact details being immaterial.

Memes are only recognized in the brain.

Whether a particular meme is replicated depends on information residing in the brain. This information is both gene and meme based, the gene hardware being specifically constructed to maximize the numbers of its Replicators. The replication instructions themselves are a function of the memes copied from the environment, so in principle, the human Replicator can replicate anything such programming might instruct. There is no absolute way for a meme-gene Replicator to determine whether a particular meme will result in maximizing the replicators numbers. Any long term net detriment to total Replicator numbers will result in that meme being driven to extinction.

Meme Replication

The human Replicator is assumed to have evolved some selection procedure to select for traits that maximize themselves, thereby maximizing the numbers of the Replicators genes and, thereby itself. The simplest selection method is simply to select the most numerous traits observed in other Replicators. It is noted that the human Replicator acts to maximize all of its traits, genes or memes, on the assumption that all such traits selfishly benefits itself. It is noted that:

1 - a gene trait acts to maximize the numbers of its host Replicators.

Replicators will select and copy popular traits from other Replicators. Since all Replicators will attempt to copy the same very popular maximizing traits, and pass those on to offspring, from the traits perspective, a selfish maximizing meme trait is therefore a meme trait that induces all replicators to copy it. Therefore, the net effect is as if:

2 - a meme trait acts to maximize the numbers of any Replicator.

1 and 2 may be in conflict with each other. The root cause being that gene traits are Replicator specific, where as meme traits apply to all Replicators. 

Meme traits can only maximize themselves by maximizing the numbers of Replicators that replicate them. Meme traits can not, and do not literally maximize themselves. Only Replicator machines can replicate traits. Once meme traits have been copied to all existing Replicators, the only way such traits can further increase their numbers, is to take action that increases the physical replication numbers of those Replicators. That is:

Memes can not spread simply because they are good for themselves, they can only spread because they are good for their Replicators.

So, although, a meme trait was genetically evolved to aid its own Replicator, its maximizing loop necessarily results in it attempting to maximize all replicators. Since a meme can be maximized at a greater rate by maximizing all Replicators, rather than just its host Replicator, a meme trait, from its host Replicators point of view, is somewhat altruistic. If maximizing all Replicators, outweighs any long term net Replicator disadvantage, such traits will be observed. 

Thus, there is a direct evolutionary drive for meme traits to propagate to all Replicators, and hence induce some mutual co-operation between Replicators.

The Meme Replicator

The above has major implications on how memes are perceived and applied to explanations. It is contrary to many memetic views that consider examining memes from the point of view of what is in their own interests, irrespective of what Replicates them. This approach is wrong, and has been missed principally because little attention has been paid to how memes actually get copied in reality.

The only and fundamental reason why inherent meme altruistic behavior is successful, is because it maximizes the total number of all Replicators, i.e. Replicator genes. Any meme which takes action to reduce total Replicators numbers will not survive evolutionary selection.  That is:

3 - a meme trait acts to maximize the total number of Replicators.

Where it is noted by assumption, that 3 refers to meme traits that have been well replicated and selected. Clearly a newly generated meme has no properties at all, other than the ability to be copied.

In the short term, i.e. short compared to the genetic generation time, by appealing to the self-referral nature of morals and emotions, memes can indeed be propagated between Replicators and temporally act as f they are maximizing themselves for their own purposes. However, all this does is essentially account for short term fads and fashions, which, in general, are not very important in explaining overall behavior. Its little more than noting that its pretty easy to fool all of the people some of the time. What is much more significant, is how such memes have actually survived over many generations of human Replicators replicating. In these cases, only memes that do not result in net disadvantage to the total number of Replicators will be observed.

It should therefore be strongly noted that whenever discussing memes, one must always ask,

in what way does the meme attempt to maximize the total number of its Replicators? 

not "in what way does the meme attempt to maximize itself". It can't. Memes are passive.

This means that it is the total number of real genetic machines that must be maximized by a meme.

Meme Self-Sacrifice

A meme "attempts" to maximize itself by maximizing the numbers of any Replicator. As far as the meme is concerned, all Replicators are the same and will all faithfully copy it, so if sacrificing a few Replicators results in a net larger number of Replicators that will copy it, it will do so. Thus, memes for the general greater good of many can persist, as clearly, such a meme will not result in all of its Replicators being driven to extinction. 

Essentially, any set of memes that proscribe that a few Replicators should sacrifice themselves for the majority of other Replicators, may be expected to be self sustaining as this maximizes the total number of Replicators. This view has been pointed out by Susan Blackmore, in explanations as to why many take action to the obvious net detriment of themselves.

The key point here is that the total numbers of Replicators are maximized, hence they can not be driven to extinction by such a meme. Total numbers of Replicators will still increase, despite those poor souls who have been suckered into providing for others.

A typical example is the meme "fighting for ones contrary". This meme will instruct and persist indefinitely, as the few that do die will still allow the many to continue replicating that meme. If the few didn't protect the rest, all might die, thus extinguishing that particular meme. If memes behaved as genes behaved, self-sacrifice of unrelated Replicators would be completely inexplicable, as evolution would have driven that particular meme to extinction.

Meme Replication Motivation

Biological genes are active. Any newly generated biological gene is, essentially, guaranteed to be copied. 

Memes are passive. For a new meme to be copied, it must appeal in some way to a Replicator to be copied. A particular meme will not be replicated if the internal meme and gene state of the host Replicator doesn't want to copy it.

Meme-Gene Interaction

Genes can exist without memes. Memes can not exist without genes. Therefore, in a battle between them, genes must always win.


Memes propagate because the human Replicator assumes that popular memes will aid in maximizing its numbers, that is, the human Replicator will copy popular memes by default.

Memes act to maximize all Replicators

Genes act to maximize its host Replicator.


S. Blackmore

These papers may be freely copied only for non commercial use,

provided full credit is given to the author.

Kevin Aylward 2003 - all rights reserved