LogoLynch, A. (1999). Misleading Mix of Religion and Science.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

Misleading Mix Of Religion And Science
- a commentary on Gatherer's paper: Why the `Thought Contagion' Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics

Aaron Lynch

In the abstract and the body of his paper, Gatherer shows particular concern with the incorporation thought contagion memetics into critiques of religion. In this, we see continuity with objections expressed in his paper "Meme Pools, World 3, and Averroës's Vision of Immortality" (Gatherer 1998a). There he states that "Richard Dawkins has developed his meme concept as the philosophical basis for a militant atheism," and attempts to demonstrate instead that "acceptance of the meme concept need not necessarily lead to atheism, as Dawkins and his more zealous followers would maintain." The paper also argues for a particular concept of immortality. Elsewhere in that paper, Gatherer clearly considers his religious views as being challenged and berated by those zealous Dawkinsians and "mind virology." Against this background, we can understand Gatherer (1998b) as an extension and intensification of his largely religious agenda of countering "militant atheism." We can also take it as a continuation of his critique of "mind virology," (Gatherer 1998a) which focused attention on the pejorative connotations of the term "mind virus." In both respects, Gatherer's efforts are misguided. First, thought contagion theory is not offered as a basis for atheism or as a critique of religion. It is offered as a theory of how both religious and secular ideas evolve and spread. Second, the term "thought contagion" was explicitly given a neutral connotation in (Lynch 1996a), and was even applied to socially positive ideas.

Gatherer's present method of defending religion from what he perceives as the "thought contagion/mind virus" critique is more drastic than the approach he took in his 1998a paper. He has quickly switched from accepting the memetic analysis of religious belief in (Gatherer 1998a) to treating this subject as forbidden by definition in closing his present paper (Gatherer 1998b). Exactly what happened to change his mind so quickly and sharply is unclear. However, pages 206 to 210 of his 1998a paper suggest that he was recently still unaware of the evolutionary epidemiological ("thought contagion/mind virus") explanation for the origins of prevailing forms of monotheism by natural selection, as advanced in (Lynch 1996a). Having presumably finished reading (Lynch 1996a), Gatherer now walls off all belief from memetic analysis, by redefining meme to exclude all internally stored information. This new "external" memetics then doubles as something whose progress is "retarded" by the "thought contagion metaphor." With its subject thus phrased in terms of the "progress of memetics," the article may appear to have a mostly scientific agenda rather than the religious agenda expressed in his 1998a paper, which appeared in a journal of religion and science.

Gatherer offers so many misrepresentations of Lynch 1996a, Lynch 1996b, and Lynch 1998 that I must advise anyone reading Gatherer's present paper to read my work directly to see what it really says. I do not in any way suggest that the brain has something analogous to RAM memory, for instance. Even material Gatherer presents as quotations must be double checked for context-changing distortions. For example, I do not pretend to know precisely how the brain stores information. So I used the conditional sentence "If a mnemon resides very redundantly in someone's brain, that person still counts as only one host and one mnemon instantiation." (Lynch, 1998). In (Gatherer 1998b), the antecedent is quoted alone to give the impression that I definitely posit that "a meme - sides very redundantly in someone's brain.'" This becomes the basis for his assertion that I treat the brain as containing "memory banks" of awarenesses "reminiscent of a computer RAM." In correspondence, Gatherer finds nothing at all wrong with this, so I can only invite readers to check the passages in question themselves and form their own conclusions. Gatherer's present paper has so many other misrepresentations of my work that I cannot discuss them in the limited space allotted to commentaries.

The question of whether ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and opinions are valid subjects of science is yet another topic far too extensive to cover in the space of a commentary. Hard core behaviorists treat these as unobservables that cannot be independently verified. They stand in opposition to cognitive scientists, sociologists of ideology, and many others. Nevertheless, I should clarify that many instances of what I call "mnemons" are highly connected to behavior. If a rat is operantly conditioned to run a maze, then the learned and internally stored skill is a mnemon, while the actual running of the maze is not. If the rat conditions her pups to likewise run the maze, then their internally stored skill is not only a mnemon, but also a meme by virtue of being copied. In any case, memetic analysis of internally stored information does not repudiate empirical science as Gatherer suggests. I refer readers to the discussion of empirical methods and animal experiments in sections 17, 18, and 19 of (Lynch 1998).

Despite the discussion of mathematical and quantitative methods in memetics in section 16 of Lynch 1998, Gatherer claims that "Quantification became impossible." This comes partly from Gatherer's unfounded insistence that quantification requires a one to one correspondence of observed behavior to internal information. By this argument, we might as well throw out all science of operant conditioning as well, for not giving us perfect correlations between conditioning history and behavior. Or we might forbid use of antibody tests to infer the presence of HIV, again because they are imperfect and indirect. Opinion polls and various other indirect tests for internal information can, of course, be deliberately confounded. But indirect tests for internal information will be hard to escape regardless of how the word "meme" is defined. Indeed, universities use imperfect instruments called "exams" to indirectly quantify something they call "knowledge."

A wealth of original, if confused arguments permeate not only the whole body of (Gatherer 1998b), but also particular subsections, such as the section 2.6 argument that forms the basis for his claim of non- quantifiability. Consider just the passage where he attempts to show that mnemons for awareness of a proposition are impossible because having one such mnemon supposedly requires the individual to have an infinite number of them: "However, any individual who has heard of Napoleon at all will be capable of constructing and transmitting an infinite variety of mnemons of the form `Napoleon died in x'." This demonstrates a casual lack of understanding of the term "infinite." Not only is it physically impossible for humans with finite brains to construct an infinite number of dates for Napoleon's death, but there are single numbers that humans cannot construct. If we could construct 10 digits per second for 100 years, this is still only 32 billion (32 thousand million) digits in a lifetime. Therefore, there are individual dates that cannot even be conceived. I don't claim to know just how many alternative possible Napoleonic death dates typical people might consider--I have focused on other topics. But there is nothing to my work that requires the number to any greater than the number of years of recorded history, let alone infinity.

Gatherer goes on to claim that treatment of beliefs as memes "lacks explanatory power." While many people who do not wish to see their belief systems explained in terms of evolutionary epidemiology may feel drawn to this position, I must again recommend that scientists read works such as (Lynch 1996a, Sperber 1996, Balkin 1998) and others to decide for themselves. Does internally stored information about numbers of players to recruit explain why baseball out-propagates tennis in the U.S? You have to read (Lynch 1996a) for yourself. Gatherer asserts that "To say that behaviour can be explained in terms of something which cannot be observed (e.g., beliefs) is unhelpful." Has he never told anyone "I wasn't there because I thought the meeting was tomorrow"? Anyone who makes such a statement is explaining their behavior in terms of something that, according to Gatherer, cannot be observed. If one person's belief causes behavior that leads to another person having the same belief, then this is the replication that makes the belief a minimal meme contagion. So if Gatherer ever explains his actions in terms of beliefs acquired from someone else, then he is going back on what he has said in focus item C. Still, if anyone tried to call meme contagion the totality of psychology, then they would indeed "trivialize psychology." But it is a gross misrepresentation to suggest that my work does so.

My initial reaction to Gatherer's 12,000 word paper was to type my numerous rebuttals as red text in the html file. Those comments took up far more space than is allotted for our journal's commentary format. So I instead offer this shorter commentary that barely adheres to the 1500 word limit. Besides, a careful reading or re-reading of (Lynch 1998, 1996a, 1996b) would probably clear up any confusions imparted by reading (Gatherer 1998b) much more efficiently than reading a paragraph by paragraph rebuttal. Suffice it to say that I still consider "internal" memetics highly tenable despite Gatherer's attempt to persuade otherwise.


Balkin, J.M. (1998). Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology. New Haven: Princeton University Press.

Gatherer, D. (1998a). Meme pools, World 3 and Averroës's Vision of Immortality. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, 33:203-219.

Gatherer, D., (1998b). Why the `Thought Contagion' Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/gatherer_d.html

Lynch, A. (1996a). Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society: The New Science of Memes. New York: Basic Books.

Lynch, A. (1996b). Contribution to `Memes: Self-replicants or Mysticism.' Wired debate October 1996. http://www.wired.com/braintennis/96/43/bt0a.html

Lynch, A. (1998). Units, Events and Dynamics in Memetic Evolution. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-mit/1998/vol2/lynch_a.html

Sperber, D. (1996). Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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