Memory, Social Networks, and Language: Probing the Meme Hypothesis II

The purpose of this second symposium on memetics is to further probe the epistemological value of the notion of meme conceived as a unit of cultural transmission or imitation that is subject to variations and selections similar to the processes observed in evolutionary biology.

Some thirty years after the publication of Dawkins’ landmark book, The Selfish Gene, in which the notion of meme was tentatively introduced, many disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, religious studies, psychology, sociology, media studies, economics, and zoology have adapted this notion to their heuristics to the extent that memetic terminology is now commonly found in their publications, albeit with a variety of conceptual nuances, and often with purely metaphorical values.

However, it is still debatable whether this notion is heuristically sound and holds robust epistemological promises. It definitely remains the focus of many discussions that address the issue of cultural changes as was demonstrated by the position papers that were presented in our symposium of May 4-6, 2007. In view of the promises as well as frustrations generated by this concept, it seems that it would be extremely valuable to determine under which conditions the meme hypothesis could be empirically, if not experimentally tested. One of the liabilities of the meme hypothesis is indeed the lack of efforts made to understand it in the context of what is known about memory, imitation and learning. The aim of the symposium was to focus on the relevance to this inquiry of the current state of knowledge in social networks theory and memory research with a special emphasis on language not only as the main vehicle of memes, but also, possibly, as a memetic phenomenon itself.

The program consisted of eight position papers followed by in-depth discussions from the point of view of seven different disciplines: historical linguistics and sociolinguistics, cognitive neurosciences, epidemiology, sociology, history of science and computer science. The participants have been selected for their proven ability to engage in pluri-disciplinary dialogues.

The participants included researchers who have addressed memetic issues or used memetic concepts in their publications but did not do so uncritically. The presentations of the position papers by the participants who will agree to this will be videotaped and put online, as it has been done for the first symposium of May 2007. It is expected that a selection of the papers and comments will be published in Semiotic Inquiry.

A Memetics Compendium (File size: 15MB)
Robert Finkelstein (Robotic Technology Inc. and University of Maryland University College)

List of Speakers

Morten Christiansen is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Co-Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Cornell University (Ithaca, New York, USA). His research focuses on the interaction of biological and environmental constraints in the processing, acquisition and evolution of language, which he approaches using a variety of methodologies, including computational modeling, corpus analyses, psycholinguistic experimentation, neurophysiological recordings, and molecular genetics. He is the author of more than ninety scientific papers and has edited volumes on Connectionist Psycholinguistics, Language Evolution, and most recently, Language Universals.

Robert Finkelstein is President, since 1985, of Robotic Technology Inc., a professional services firm that provides technical analyses, technology assessments, technology transfer, operations research, business development, and other services in the field of unmanned vehicles, intelligent systems, and military robotics. He is also a Collegiate Professor teaching graduate courses for the University of Maryland University College in the Graduate School of Management and Technology, and occasionally for the University of Maryland Clark School of Engineering. Dr. Finkelstein earned a DBA, with the primary field Systems Theory and Cybernetics (and with the supporting field in the Management of Science, Technology, and Innovation) from the George Washington University (GWU, 1995); an Ap.Sci. (Applied Scientist degree) in Operations Research (GWU, 1977); an M.S. in Operations Research (GWU, 1974); an M.S. in Physics (University of Massachusetts, 1966); a B.A. in Physics (Temple University, 1964); and he completed post-graduate courses in Physics at MIT (1968-1970).

Paul Higgs is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at McMaster University. Since 2002 he holds a Canada Research Chair in Biophysics with joint appointment between Physics and Biochemistry. He was a Lecturer in Bioinformatics at the University of Manchester (1995-2002). He received his Ph.D. in 1989 at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, UK. Paul Higgs defines his research interests as follows: “I started out as a statistical physicist working on polymers and soft condensed matter. I became interested in applications of statistical mechanics to biological problems. This led me to study RNA folding and various problems in population genetics and evolutionary biology. In recent years I have been working in bioinformatics and molecular evolution.”

Bernie Hogan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto in the Department of Sociology. He is presently a research coordinator at NetLab, focusing on the Connected Lives and Connected Lives North projects and the development of software for personal networks. Barry Wellman is his dissertation supervisor. In 2009, he will be working as a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. In addition to his academic work, he has an interest in word art and cyberpoetics (making computer assisted poetry).

Morris Moscovitch is Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto where he holds the Max and Gianna Glassman Chair in Neuropsychology and Aging, and Senior Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Health in Toronto. He has published numerous articles in neuropsychology and the cognitive neurosciences. The objectives of his current research program are to gain an understanding of the processes and brain mechanisms mediating memory, attention and recognition of faces and objects.

Domenico Pietropaolo is Italian and Drama Professor at the University of Toronto where he holds the Emilio Goggio Chair in Italian Studies. He is also chair of the Department of Italian. His major research interests include literary theory, commedia dell'arte, theatre history and 18th century Italian literature, and the evolution of Italian dialects. Domenico Pietropaolo is cross-appointed to St. Michael's College and is president of the Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies.

Nikolaus Ritt received his MA and PhD at Vienna University, where he now teaches English linguistics. He was foreign lecturer at Durham University, and guest professor at Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest), and Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznam). He is the author of Quantity Adjustment: Vowel Lengthening and Shortening in Early Middle English (Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution (Cambridge University Press, 2004), and co-editor of a number of books on English linguistics, e.g., Words: Structure, Meaning, Function (Mouton de Gruyter, 2000). His present research focuses on the cognitive and social mechanisms behind language variation and change, which he tries to explain in terms of generalized evolutionary theory.

Barry Wellman is S.D. Clark Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His areas of research are community sociology, the Internet, human-computer interaction and social structure, as manifested in social networks in communities and organizations. His overarching interest is in the paradigm shift from group-centered relations to networked individualism. He has written more than 300 articles, chapters, reports and books. Many have been co-authored, with students comprising about half of his nearly 100 co-authors.Among the concepts Wellman has published are: "the network city" (with Paul Craven), "the community question", "computer networks as social networks", "connected lives" (with Bernie Hogan) the "immanent Internet" (also with Bernie Hogan), "media-multiplexity" (with Caroline Haythornthwaite), "networked individualism" and "networked society", "personal community" and "personal network" and three with Anabel Quan-Haase: "hyperconnectivity", "local virtuality" and "virtual locality".