Virtual Symposia

Imitation, Memory and Cultural Changes: Probing the Meme Hypothesis

Symbiosis and the Leiden Definition of the Meme

George van Driem


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Symbiosism is a Darwinian theory of language that recognises language to be an organism residing in the brain of its human host. Language is a semiotic life form, and its abode is the human brain. By the Leiden definition, memes are meanings in the linguistic sense, or signs in the sense of Ferdinand de Saussure. Meanings, whether grammatical or lexical, exhibit the mathematical properties of a non-constructible set. Each neuroanatomical instantiation of a meaning is unique to the individual host brain, but all such neuronal analogues are roughly isofunctional amongst members of the same language community. Meanings exist in indivi- dual brains and nowhere else, though their transmission has a social dimension.

Meanings do not abide by the constraints governing Aristotelian logic such as the principle of the excluded middle. Rather, they act as non-constructible sets in the mathematical sense, and their inherently dynamic character is modelled in terms of intuitionist set theory or con- structivist mathematics, as developed by L.E.J. Brouwer in the first half of the 20th century. Meanings thrive, replicate incessantly and constitute the essence of language. The Leiden conception of the meme contrasts with the Oxford definition as a unit of imitation, a behav- ioural notion that in Leiden is captured by the term mime. In contrast to memes, the fecundity of mimes as replicators and their fidelity of replication are limited, more so in pre-linguistic contexts.

Language is a mutualist symbiont and enters into a mutually beneficial relationship with its hominid host. Humans propagate language, whilst language furnishes the conceptual uni- verse that informs and shapes the thinking of the hominid host. Language enhances the Darwinian fitness of the human species. Yet individual grammatical and lexical meanings and syntactically articulate configurations of memes mediated by language may be either beneficial or deleterious to the biological host. The symbiosis is rendered more complex than just simple mutualism both by the physiological discrepancy between language as an overall condition and the nature of individual meanings and ideas conveyed through language as well as by the ecological difference between vertically and horizontally transmitted memes. Symbiosism or the symbiotic theory of language grew out of the Leiden school of language evolution fathered by Frederik Kortlandt in the early 1980s.

George van Driem is Professor of Linguistics at Leiden University, and Director of the Himalayan Languages Project, Trans-Himalayan Database Programme, Languages and Genes of the Greater Himalayan Region ( He is the author of Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region with an Introduction to the Symbiotic Theory of Language, 2 vols (2001), and “The language organism: The Leiden theory of language evolution” (2003).