Genes, Memes and Culture
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The term "gene" is defined as a unit of heredity that is passed on from parent to offspring. A "gene pool" is the sum of all genes within a given population and is the mechanism by which a species evolves and is acted upon by natural selection.
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The term "meme" has been proposed as a corresponding element of culture that is passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means. A "meme pool" is the sum of all memes within a given cultural population, and is the mechanism by which a culture evolves and is acted upon by natural selection.
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This explanation of memes is incomplete because it does not recognize that a culture embodies the design for a higher-level living system. The three-level living system model provides a framework to provide a clearer and more robust explanation of memes and their correspondence to genes.


Genes of Independent vs. Dependent Cells
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Independent Cells are those eukaryotes whose behavior is autonomous and competitive with other cells. Once created, their genes are fixed, and cannot be switched on/off for specialization of their capabilities. They do not contain a genome for a higher-level living system, and cannot join together to become components of such a system.
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 Only Dependent Cells have Genes that can be Programmed.
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Dependent Cells are those eukaryotes whose behavior is cooperative with other cells that coexist as components of a higher-lever living system, i.e., cells within an organism. When dependent cells are created, many of their genes are programmable. They can be switched on/off during development to tailor the cell's behavior for specialized work and division of labor within their organism. Each cell contains the organism's genome, and is designed to exist as a dependent, specialized component within that organism. These are the cells whose genes will be compared with memes.
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The Origin of Memes
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In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins explained how genes are the replicators that allow a species' gene pool to evolve through natural selection. He saw a parallel in the way the pool of "ideas" found in a culture also evolve over time. To emphasize this similarity, he proposed the similar term "meme" to describe the cultural element that corresponds to a gene.
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Since that time there has been much exploration of memes and "memetics," together with great controversy over how to interpret Dawkin's views and how to reconcile them with existing theories in various disciplines. This difficulty has revolved around vagueness of the term "culture" and how to identify its components.
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Current definitions of "meme" express this vagueness, and include such loose descriptions as "A practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another, including thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods." Such definitions make it hard to envision "culture" as having a systematic structure, and this is where the Living Systems Model can be applied for clarification. The three-level living systems architecture provides a framework that can help identify the inherent purpose of memes, and their collective organizational structure.
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How Genes and Memes Fit into the Living System Hierarchy
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Genes and Memes are Inter-Level Control Mechanisms:
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Genes: Genes embody organism design. Through internal action, they control cell specialization and integration, they create the structure and action capabilities of the organism.
Memes: Memes embody superorganism design. Through external programming, they control organism development, specialization and integration, to create and maintain the structure and action capabilities of the superorganism.

Where genetics and memetics have the same structure:
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Gene: The design code for creating a characteristic of an organism.
Meme: The design code for creating a characteristic of a superorganism.

Where genetics and memetics have different structures:
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Gene Pool
Meme Pool
The set of all genomes individually embodied in the cells of all organisms within a species. The set of all memes collectively embodied in the set of all organisms within an individual superorganism.
Operated on by natural selection to improve the organism species collective design. Operated on by natural selection to improve both the superorganism’s individual design, and that of its species.
A species-wide gene pool is needed because reproduction is based on bisexual interaction. A species-wide meme pool is not needed because reproduction is based on direct cloning.
Natural selection is carried out across variations in generations of individual organisms. Natural selection is carried out across continuing variations in the existing meme pool within the life-span of an individual superorganism.
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Genes and Memes are Used to Create Living Systems
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Organism Creation begins with a single fertilized ovum mother cell that contains the entire genetic design of the organism-to-be. The design has been drawn through bisexual interaction from an existing gene pool, and is programmed to replicate and develop cells in a systematic way to construct a living organism. Each of the forthcoming daughter cells contain the same genetic design.
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The organism grows by replicating more cells, and as they develop certain genes are switched on or off to prepare them for specialized work within particular organs. The resulting mature cells then perform work within organs to collectively carry out the life functions of the organism.
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Superorganism Creation begins with the development of a meme pool, produced when a group of organisms learns to work together cooperatively and share resources for their common good. The meme pool consists of a set of behavioral rules that its members have agreed to follow. In doing so, the members give up some of their freedom of action in return for the benefits of more readily available sources of nourishment and better protection from the environment.
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The superorganism develops as its organisms reproduce, and the new components undergo education and training for work specialization. This is accomplished by selectively adding (and omitting) specific memes from the overall cultural meme pool to their individual internal models.
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How Genes and Memes Carry Out the Same Basic Function
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During creation, development and operation of a living system, genes and memes both perform the same function, but at different levels within the living systems hierarchy. Genes control the development of cells, and their assembly into the cooperative organs of an organism. Memes control the development of organisms, and their assembly into the cooperative organizations of a superorganism.
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Although they accomplish the same basic living system purpose, there are differences in the complexity of how genes and memes carry out their function. These differences become evident when the structure of human organisms is compared with that of superorganisms. Human organisms are made up of cells that permanently reside within organs, wherein their operational action capabilities are fixed. Human-based superorganisms are made up of organisms that (for work purposes) temporarily reside within organizations, wherein their operational action capabilities are only temporarily fixed for the job at hand. Being more flexible, organisms have the ability to learn and perform new kinds of work, either within the same organization or in some other organization
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Development of cells within an organism involves a fixed genome, where existing genes are switched on/off to produce specialized capabilities. In contrast, the development of organisms within a superorganism involves a flexible, adaptive "memome," where an individual organism selectively receives its work specialization characteristics from an externally-maintained, dynamic pool of memes.
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Another major difference shows up after development, in the operation stage of the living systems' lives. The design of an individual organism is limited throughout its life to a fixed set of genes that has been drawn from an external species gene pool. In contrast, the changing design of a superorganism emerges from a dynamic meme pool of behavioral constraints that continuously evolves throughout its lifetime.
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Note: Although complexity increases and differences appear in the development and operation of living systems at different levels, the basic architecture and functionality remain the same at each level. Within the three-level structure of the living systems model, genes, memes and culture are presented in a single conceptual framework. Genes are the basic design and control elements of an organism. Memes are the basic design and control elements of a superorganism. Culture is defined as an evolving meme-pool.


The next section Information Age makes use of the meme and meme pool concepts to help explain how and where digital technology is changing all three levels of living system.


©1995-2012 Ackley Associates   Last revised: 7/20/11
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