of Memetics -
Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
Report on the Panel Discussion
that occurred at the Symposium
At the end of the three day "Symposium
on Memetics" which took place as part of the 15th International
Conference on Cybernetics in Namur Belgium (24-29th of August
1998) a panel discussion took place. The theme of the discussion was the
current state of memetics and its future as a field.
- Chair: Garry Boyd, Educational Technology Graduate
Programme, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, email@example.com
- Hans-Cees Speel, Faculty of Technology, Policy
and Management, Delft University of Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Francis Heylighen, Center Leo Apostle, Free
University of Brussels, Krijgskundestr. 33, 1160 Brussels, Belgium, email@example.com
- Paul Marsden, Graduate Research Centre in the
Social Sciences, University of Sussex, PaulMarsden@msn.com
- Mario Vaneechoutte, Department Clinical
Chemistry, Microbiology & Immunology, University Hospital Ghent, Belgium,
- Boyd: The workshop has functioned as a forum
for researchers from diverse backgrounds working in the field of memetics.
The presentations and discussions have allowed us to clarify the aims and
boundaries of this emerging new field. It is the first time in my own experience
that such a workshop has taken place. Each panel member is now asked to
make a position statement based on their experience of the workshop.
- Marsden: At this early stage in the formation
of memetics as a discipline we must be tolerant of the many approaches
and terminologies that we all bring from our respective disciplines. We
should not restrict ourselves to technical definitions based on a desire
for apparent and superficial clarity. Superficial and misguided clarity
has been one of the major features of previous applications of Darwinian
thought to culture, eugenics and Social Darwinism; memetics should not
make the same mistakes. "Good" memetic research should generate
and test falsifiable hypotheses upon which "heuristically evocative"
and parsimonious explanations of culture from within the selectionist paradigm
can be made. In this way, defining a meme as an operationalisable tool
such as "`the locus of the point of research' to be explained within
the selectionist paradigm" (as suggested by Rogan Jacobson) seems
to offer an appropriate the level and degree of abstraction required at
this stage. Additionally, since the Oxford English Dictionary defines a
meme as "a unit of imitation", we should make sure that our use
of the concept is at the very least cogent with this definition. Some people
have attempted to define the meme in more restrictive ways which, although
offering superficial precision, actually rule-out vast areas of existing
work where memetics might be usefully employed. Technical definitions are
not critical to the development of memetics, we all agree that memetics
is essentially a stance where cultural objects are understood as evolving
through the production of variation and the application of selection at
some level. Definitional debates will no doubt continue (as in other disciplines)
but this should not stand in the way of operationalising the paradigm in
order to produce theoretically informed empirical research. We do not all
need to agree on a single definition in order to produce, evaluate, understand
and critique good memetic research.
- Heylighen: JoM-EMIT has
established memetics as a field in its own right. It is hoped that this
field can now become a science. It appears that progress is being made.
The attendees at this workshop seem to understand each other which is an
achievement in any multi-disciplinary gathering. However, memetics tends
receive resistance from the established social sciences. A more positive
reception has been received from the computational, biological and natural
sciences. Perhaps one reason for this is a fear from the social sciences
that the natural sciences are attempting to "invade their domain".
The humanities are often resistant to formal systems such as computer programs
and mathematical models. Psychology and Sociology use and accept statistical
tools and evidence. Memetics currently needs empirical work using such
techniques which can be used to justify it to these disciplines. It is
important to note that rash claims can damage the discipline. Memetics
is not physics, memeticists need to learn methods, techniques and bodies
of work from the social sciences, make models and simulations and attempt
to bridge the gap.
- Vaneechoutte: Science is currently
in a state of reduction and specialisation. Here an attempt is being made
to bring the parts back together again to explain and understand social
phenomena. Memetics is a multi-level, multi-disciplinary enterprise. Encouragingly
we see similar world-views emerging around memetics in different disciplines.
However, often we are unaware of the terminology used by other disciplines.
Definitional issues may be more important than has been stated. The danger
is reaching a point where we see everything as a meme. The OED defines
a meme as a "unit of imitation". Perhaps the current usage is
too general to be useful. The issues that need to be addressed are: What
are memes competing for? Memory space? Computation time? What makes a meme
successful? What makes things interesting? My intention is to raise the
quality of life by understanding memetic processes. To understand the relationship
between memes and emotion and to illuminate the analysis of religions.
- Speel: The workshop has evidenced that
we have moved forward. We understand each other. Certainly we disagree
on some points but we understand what we disagree about and consequently
have witnessed productive debate over the last few days. We aim to build
memetics into a scientific community and as such the emphasis on methodology
is correct at this stage. This workshop has been significant in the building
of that community. In order to move forward we need to clarify just what
we want memetics to be. We need to begin to plan the next memetics conference
but we need to be clear as to what is to be achieved. It is important to
involve those academics who have shown interest in memetics but currently
are not part of the community. At this time, we need to discuss how we
can take these next crucial steps.
- Boyd: A major issue here is just what constitutes
a scientific field. A scientific field comprises teams of people who do
work. Their work is represented in conference abstracts and includes people
with recognised academic credentials. The publication of papers allows
others to evaluate and enter the field. From this a positive feedback loop
is established allowing the field to grow and attract high quality research.
It appears that the JoM-EMIT has provided the initial kick
to get this process underway. This workshop is part of that process and
certainly has helped. The panel are now open to questions from the floor.
- Floor: Do we need a definition of meme in order to proceed?
It appears there is still some disagreement about the significance of this.
Is there a compromise position possible here? Is it possible to allow multiple
definitions say four or five from which we can operationalise?
- Speel: Ultimately strict definitions can
be a distraction, the logic of evolutionary replicators should be enough.
- Floor: Speel is correct. Other fields use words like "belief"
and "idea" and can still understand each other. They don't need
a definition of these terms in order to produce useful and good research.
In many fields the terms used have no fixed definition and change over
- Floor: This is certainly true in the management sciences. The
concepts of "institution" and "design" produced long
and hard debate and searches for definitions. Still there are no agreed
definitions of these concepts but this does not stop work proceeding. The
work which uses these concepts clearly and usefully becomes an example
- Boyd: This last point is important. It indicates
that we often work from prototypes and exemplars based on existing work
rather than starting from cut-and-dried definitions from the outset.
- Marsden: We need not get bogged down
in definitional debates. Memetics is the selectionist paradigm applied
to culture and as such, it is concerned with replication by imitation,
selection and variation at the cultural level. Work within this paradigm
is memetic work.
- Floor: It is this issue of the central paradigm of memetics
which we need to focus on most of all, more than just debate terminological
and definitional issues. We need to avoid making naive epistemological
mistakes at this stage in whatever methodology we end up using. For instance,
a major example is the need to emphasise that memetics is a non-homuncular
paradigm, and that it will fit in as just one level of some future, more
integrated view of culture.
- Floor: Going back to the concept of exemplars, it is important
to include negative and positive examples of work. It seems for example,
that many of those here view some of the strict definitional terminology
and symbolic formalisms introduced by Lynch(**) as an example of how not
to proceed. The identification of what is bad as well as good work is useful
and part of the on-going debate.
- Boyd: We can certainly proceed without an
agreed single definition. We can as a community hold-up some good ones
and hold-up some bad ones.
- Heylighen: Perhaps we can begin to
produce a taxonomy of terminology in this area. If we can produce this
then the different kinds of memetic work can be placed into a broader scheme.
- Boyd: Certainly a taxonomy and methodology
are important tools to produce co-ordinated and exchangeable ideas and
work. However, we should be careful not to insist on a single taxonomy.
- Floor: Surely we already have a basic division to include in
any taxonomy. The distinction between micro and macro memetics. The one
concerning individuals the other concerning populations.
- Floor: But a taxonomy may or many not be useful. If a taxonomy
proves useful as a tool then we should attempt to converge on one but this
may not be the case.
- Floor: It is certainly not our intention to produce some fixed
and definite taxonomy. It should be allowed to evolve as and when this
- Floor: We should aim within two weeks of this workshop to produce
a taxonomy in which memetic work can be placed.
- Heylighen: We should be careful in
rushing into producing a complex taxonomy. What can be done now is to produce
a set of distinctions, such as micro and macro memetics and then combine
these simple distinctions to produce a taxonomy.
- Marsden: (on ways forward) We should
try and exploit the fact that 1999 will be a good year for memetics. The
publication of "The Meme Machine" by Sue Blackmore of Meme Lab
by OUP next year will raise the public and academic profile and awareness
of memetics. The book will no doubt be heavily promoted by both OUP and
Blackmore, and we should exploit this as a publication opportunity for
us in our own fields to further our common objective of establishing memetics
as a successful and respected discipline.
- Boyd: I think that the Artificial Society
and Artificial Life methodology my help to bridge the gap between theoretical
memetics, other fields and the popular understanding. This route seems
initially attractive. However, there is a problem with communicating complex
algorithms to those who are not practitioners within these areas.
- Floor: There is certainly a growing public understanding of
the word "meme". Promoted by popularises such as Lynch and the
popular press such as "Wired" magazine. As has been stated the
word "meme" is now officially part of the language, being listed
in the OED. Certainly with the publication of "meme machine"
in 1999 by Sue Blackmore of the meme lab, this understanding will grow.
- Heylighen: But this may not be all
good news for serious researchers. When a concept or area becomes too popular,
too hyped, this can be a problem. It can often lead to academic institutions
with funding not taking work in this area seriously. We should be careful
of this hype.
- Floor: Surely the important issue is to facilitate the production
of research and publication of high quality memetic work. We need to organise
to promote and nurture this work. Names and individuals are not important
in the long run.
- Floor: It is important therefore to harness any popular understanding
of memes and ensure that the serious work is there such that those who
become interested can go further and enter the field.
- Floor: We need to be aware of the existing journals (other then
JoM-EMIT) who publish memetic work. We also need to encourage
criticism of our work from outside since this will help us to focus and
strengthen our concepts and direction.
- Floor: Memetics is a new paradigm or stance that can be taken
towards cultural and social issues. Currently however there is little real
theory and even less solid empirical work. These areas need to be addressed
- Boyd: I think three broad issues have arisen
here: definitions, terminology and methodology. I feel that the consensus
is that the definitional problem has been solved and I'll say no more about
this. Terminology and taxonomy still requires more work and views on methodology
appear to be converging (though not unanimously).
- Floor: We would all like to thank the organisers of this workshop
for the time and effort they have donated. It has been a stimulating and
productive three days. We hope this is not the last but the first of many
Brainstorm of Activities
It was then decided before the workshop broke-up to brainstorm a list
of activities that the attendees should involve themselves in over the
next few months in order to achieve the goals that had been discussed during
© JoM-EMIT 1998
- Publish the main points raised in the panel discussion.
- Produce a list of related journals (those interested in memetics).
- Publish memetically-stanced material in the related journals in order
to gain recognition fort he validity and use of the memetic approach in
traditional problem domains.
- Formulate and list some real-world applications of memetics.
- Produce a JoM-EMIT related meme FAQ.
- List and seek funding possibilities.
- Invite evolutionary researchers, academics and thinkers to make a comment
in JoM-EMIT concerning where they feel memetics is as a field.
- List a set of memetics research proposal that can be of use to students
looking for projects.
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