LogoMarsden, P. (1999). A Strategy for Memetics: Memes as Strategies.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

A Strategy for Memetics: Memes as Strategies
- a commentary on Gatherer's paper: Why the `Thought Contagion' Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetic

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex

Gatherer's (1998) demolition tour of mental memetics and the thought contagion metaphor is convincing and is to be applauded. Memetics organised around the interactions of thought contagions (e.g. Lynch 1996, 1998) is problematic because that interaction is neither observable nor measurable. This simple fact renders the thought contagion metaphor both conceptually vacuous and empirically redundant. It is certainly not by performing arbitrary mathematical manipulations and endowing the objects of introspection with contagious properties that will improve the status of a partial and misleading metaphor.

As Gatherer notes, the thought contagion metaphor persists largely because of what could charitably be called a `disregard' for linguistics and cognitive science. To this I would add a dangerous `disregard' for the corpus of social science in general, and evolutionary social science in particular (Dietz, Burns and Buttel 1990, Flinn 1997, Durham 1990, Sanderson 1990, and Runciman 1998 provide good primers on this research area).

At least two further elementary points can be added to demonstrate why the thought contagion metaphor should be definitively buried. First, a `thought' (if memeticists could ever isolate a single thought) has meaning, like a letter in a word, only by virtue of its specific position within an environmental context. Therefore, there can be no general laws of combination and permutation. Secondly, the essentialism implicit in the thought contagion metaphor is incompatible with the very selectionist paradigm within which memetics is grounded (Palmer and Donahue 1992).

Dawkins has recently declared that he is "alarmed" that his readers have taken his memetic speculations at face value as a theory of culture (Dawkins forthcoming). Dennett (1995, 1998), Plotkin (1997) and a number of leading evolutionary psychologists (e.g. Pinker 1998, Flinn 1997) have also made known their scepticism as to the scientific viability of the whole memetic enterprise. Of course, the fact that the founding fathers of memetics have doubts about memetics, qua scientific enterprise, is no reason in itself to abandon research. But surely we should be addressing their specific concerns, and those of other evolutionary theorists, rather than burying our heads in outmoded pseudoscientific introspectionism (see Rose 1998 and Clewley 1998 for an exposition of some of problems underlying these concerns).

A further more practical point, not underlined by Gatherer, is that meme theory built on the thought contagion metaphor is simply bad strategy for the establishment of memetics as a respectable and respected research enterprise. If memetics wishes to be taken seriously, it must first explicitly address the established theories that already seek to explain the object of memetics' own enquiry and demonstrate theoretically and empirically how the new memetic approach is superior. Growing memetics in an intellectual vacuum on a staple diet of partial metaphors is not only foolhardy, it is intellectual suicide. An alternative and more successful strategy might be to emulate the one taken in the establishment of evolutionary psychology (e.g. Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby 1992) as a credible alternative to the Standard Social Scientific Model. Current paradigms were attacked and undermined, their weaknesses exposed, and then an alternative proposed which was then tested to demonstrate its utility.

For Gatherer, a viable strategy open to memetics would be a return to the `Dawkins A' conceptualisation of a meme, and to adopt a research programme broadly similar to that of the established field of social contagion research. (Note that Gatherer is not advocating the rejection of the contagion part of the thought contagion metaphor, indeed there is a wealth of evidence supporting the behavioural contagion hypothesis; Marsden 1998b, 1998c, Levy and Nail 1993). In other words, by focusing on the epidemiology of behaviours, which would of course include verbal behaviour, Gatherer is advocating a reconceptualisation of memetics as behavioural ecology.

Whilst I agree with Gatherer's diagnosis, and whilst I also agree that memetics has much to learn methodologically from social contagion research (Marsden 1998b), I find his prescription for memetics ultimately unsatisfactory. It is not that there would be anything intrinsically wrong with such an approach, it is merely that it is difficult to see what it would offer in terms of increased understanding of the social world. Gatherer's approach would reduce memetics to an, albeit innovative, counting exercise. To be sure, if trends and correlations were to be identified over time, such an approach would have explanatory and predictive power, as I have previously shown elsewhere with the case of suicidal behaviour and media representations of suicide (Marsden 1998a). However, non-memetic research can generate the same correlations and predictions quite adequately without the application of the selectionist paradigm (e.g. Phillips 1980), and it is unclear what Gatherer's behavioural stance would add to these approaches. Further, whilst counting behaviours may be more scientific than counting thoughts, neither is particularly useful in a social world which is defined by structure and context.

Gatherer asks at the end of the `focus' whether there is a viable third approach for memetics, to which I would reply in the affirmative. As I assume Lynch and Gatherer would agree, memetics involves the application of the selectionist paradigm to the sociocultural world. However, unlike Lynch and Gatherer, I maintain that the appropriate unit of analysis in this application should be neither the 'thought' nor the 'behaviour', but rather the strategy. A meme conceptualised as a culturally transmitted behavioural strategy has a number of advantages.

First of all, an approach characterised by a focus on the differential replication of strategies would allow for a more comprehensive memetic theory of culture. Social learning and socialisation cannot be reduced to localised imitative behaviour, strategies are copied and executed differentially across space and time. Replicating (conditional) strategies, rather than behaviours, could account for such differential and contextual behaviour (see Cloak 1975 and Cohen and Machelek 1988 for early attempts at such a project).

Secondly, by conceptualising memes in terms of functional and conditional strategies, a possible path between thorny methodological and ontological problems can be navigated. A strategy is an abstract concept, a heuristic device that (unlike thoughts) may be taken to link observable stimuli and responses. By focusing on the populational dynamics of strategy selection, memetics could leave open the question of how strategies are actually instantiated in the brain, yet still retain explanatory power and falsifiability by employing a methodological (as opposed to ontological) social behaviourist stance. All such an ontologically minimalist approach would involve would be the positing of a heuristic device (strategies) to explain and predict behaviour; this is what I call taking the memetic stance (Marsden 1998b).

Thirdly, meme theory thus conceived would allow for a theory of institutionalisation and structure emerging non-miraculously out of the reciprocal execution of strategies (see Burns and Dietz 1992 and Runciman 1998 for a similar approach). The reciprocal execution of strategies, by producing reciprocal action, would result in the establishment of practices and the foundations of institutions including, importantly, institutional power.

Further, by grounding memetics in the evolution of culturally transmitted behavioural strategies our enterprise could be a) conceptually integrated with behavioural ecology (e.g. Krebs and Davies 1981), b) draw usefully from evolutionary game theory (e.g. Maynard Smith 1993), and c) carve itself a legitimate and coherent investigative niche within the field of evolutionary theory.

Finally, by understanding the social self as web of memes, qua culturally transmitted behavioural strategies, meme theory may provide a useful non-reductionist alternative to a naïve folk psychological conceptualisation of social agency. The self could be deconstructed into networks of contextually dependent strategies that evolve according to the familiar evolutionary loop of variation replication and selection (Dennett 1991, 1998). Herein lies the exciting potential of memetics, a potential that is alas being retarded by the partial and ultimately vacuous metaphor of thought contagion.


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© JoM-EMIT 1999

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