Life in Organizations LO10092
Fri, 20 Sep 1996 15:11:57 -0400

Replying to LO10042 --

If's response to Peter Marks sounds right, but I needed to think it

Is genetic replication, compared to memic replication, more repetitive and
more accurate? You have to specify the viewpoint and units of analysis
before answering.

Consider a set of genes as a template from which cells and individuals are
generated. The template slowly evolves through generations of
individuals. Within an individual, every cell contains some deviations
(compared to a set of genes that are assumed to be healthy). Some
deviations occur in the zygote and are replicated in the individual with
high accuracy. Additional deviations occur with every cell replication in
the individual.

Consider the English language as a memic system. There is a template of
grammar, pronunciation, and essential vocabulary. This template evolves
slowly. Every utterance contains some deviation from an idealized
template (based on BBC announcers, statistics, etc.). Some of the
deviations are habitual in a sub-community or individual, while other
deviations are one-time.

The English grammar template evolves faster than a genetic template of an
animal. That must mean that there are more generations per minute
occurring in the memic system. Also, where is the novelty in the genetic
system that corresponds to the novelty in English utterances?

The equivalent of novel utterances is the novelty of gene 'expression'
during sexual reproduction and early development. Genes are switched on
and off, like word selection. If every utterance is a generation, then we
really do have a lot of generations, and that would explain the relatively
rapid evolution of English grammar. Also, memic evolution is driven
faster because the speaker can select or even coin effective expressions
instead of waiting for one to occur randomly. A lot of what is chosen,
however, is reassuring repetition.

Kent Myers

FOOTNOTE (warning, don't read)

I'm glad that Richard Dawkins, by using the word "meme", stirred interest
in looking at culture as if it were a system of genes. But I don't
understand why linguists and anthropologists didn't speak up and say that,
indeed, it is a good idea that has been in use since the early 60s.

Kenneth Pike wrote an influential general theory of language. He argued
for both etic and emic analysis. Etics concerns the physical features of
speech sound, emics the subset of meaningful sounds. A phoneme is the
smallest unit of speech that is recognized as meaningful by a native
speaker. Phonemes can clump into larger units of arbitrary size, with the
speaker again judging whether the unit is complete, meaningful, and
different from compared units. Pike eventually called these units
"tagmemes". The full approach has proven to be useful in understanding
cultural as well as language systems, including the regular ways by which
meaning systems change and how they are learned. I always hoped that
somebody would cross over from anthropology to organizational studies and
bring this along. Perhaps the pressure of complexity theory will force
somebody to make the connection.


Kent Myers

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