LogoSpeel, H-C. (1999). On Memetics and Memes as Brain Entities.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

On Memetics and Memes as Brain-Entities
- a commentary on Gatherer's paper: Why the `Thought Contagion' Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics

Hans-Cees Speel
Faculty of Systems Engineering, Policy Analysis and Management
Department of Policy Analysis
Jaffalaan 5, PO box 5015, 2600 GA Delft, The Netherlands

Derek Gatherer argues quite strongly against memes defined as brain entities and for a memetics that sees memes as cultural artefact-replicators, including texts, parts of texts and so on (Personal communication). He argues that only memes as artefacts can be observed directly and that memetics is retarded by the use of the brain- entity definition. In doing so he refers to me (Speel, 1997b) as a user of the orthodox Dawkins B definition or of a close relative of that definition. I will argue that his claim for memes as cultural entities is valuable, but his dismissal of the meme as a brain entity is not. I will also show that his reference to me is not entirely correct: my definition of a meme is meant to allow both memes as brain entities and memes as cultural artefacts, where both can be member of identical memetic lineages.

Before I will start with the points above I want to thank Gatherer for his thought-provoking article. Although I do not share all his conclusions, I do share the care for analysis of the definitions memetics uses coupled to the question how memetics as a scientific endeavour can advance (A while ago in (Speel, 1997a) I commented on a paper by Bill Benzon (1997) in which he reached conclusions similar to those reached by Gatherer). However, it was only after having red Gatherer's paper that I realised properly that the memes I study in public policy are in fact almost always texts and phrases, and not brain entities. Most of the memes that show up in empirical studies in JoM-EMIT are cultural entities or Dawkins A memes as well.

However, I can see no evidence that memes seen as brain replicators halter the memetic endeavour. I think that memetics must include more empirical study. Therefore a better involvement with scientists that study cultural memes would be positive. In this regard I agree with Gatherer, who implicitly claims that memetics needs to include more empirical study.

However, I do not think that disregarding the meme as brain entity will help us at all. The meme as a brain entity is needed for the simple reason that cultural entities, like words in texts that function with specific meanings, have no meaning without referral to these brain entities. What makes a vase a vase is that humans think it is a vase. A vase can only be replicated if people do this replicating (or their machines). In other words, the replication of a cultural replicator can often not be described properly without describing some brain entity form of the same replicator. To take another example, if words in texts that we grant to be concepts are only replicated after giving them thought, we cannot overlook the part of replication where the word is a brain entity. The word in the text replicates into the brain, making the brain entity and the word direct replicators in the same lineage. Therefore memes as brain entities must be included in memetic theory, even though empirically we will often only see the word in the text.

Moreover, memetic cultural entities can not be explained or defined without the notion that they are replicated with the involvement of (human) brains, or have been in the past.

Derek's arguments against memes as brain entities seem to boil down to mainly one thing: memes as brain entities are hard to define properly. I agree with that concern but not with his conclusion. There are two arguments I want to put forward.

First of all, there are also problems with definitions of memes as cultural artefacts. As an example I can refer to the analogous entity gene, that to this day is defined in different ways in different fields. It is well known that the gene as used by Dawkins (1976) comes from G. C. Williams and is not the same as the referral to a gene as a piece of DNA that codes for a protein for instance. More directly relevant, Susan Blackmore (1988) has very recently shown that there are `problems' with the definition of behavioral memes as well.

Secondly, I think that many problems with the definitions of a meme as a brain entity can and will be solved. Just stating that there are problems, such as the question if beliefs are memes, does not qualify the conclusion that they cannot be solved let alone that the question should be abolished. I think the question on what kinds of beliefs are memes or not needs an answer. The same argument is valid for the question if memes as brain entities can be measured. Measuring what people believe or think might be difficult, but not impossible. Surely the measurements take place in indirect ways (by interview for instance), but that is perfectly valid. I would think that many measurements in physics are not direct either: how direct are sub-atomic particles measured? Examples like the ones with the Windsor knot just show that the relation between cultural entities and brain entities is a complicated one so that we must be careful wit our definitions and analysis.

Another argument against memes as brain entities is that people do not have memes, while organisms do have genes. Gatherer refers to this notion as the meme-host duality that he claims is wrong. I find it hard to reply to this argument because I do not understand the sense of it at all. It might be my lack of understanding of the English language, but because Gatherer puts so much emphasis on this argument it does need a response. I fail to see in any way that saying that `people have memes' is wrong. It is just a manner of speaking as far as I know. Just as there is a duality between genes having organisms and organisms having genes, there is such a duality between memes and people. People can have memes, like I have knowledge of the word democracy and its meanings, and I also adhere to the values of democracy. This does not mean that memes like a style in pottery that spreads cannot be studied. I fail to see any problem. Perhaps Gatherer tries to show that the spread of memes cannot always be measured by referring to human individuals alone. There are many ways in which memes have a social status unrelated to specific individuals. Official reports of governments and concepts in it are such memes that are difficult to measure with referral to human individuals alone. But this does not qualify his strong conclusions at all.

According to my arguments above it might become clear that I see memes as replicators that can form lineages from artefacts to brains and so on. If I see a cultural entity like a Windsor knot I might want to learn how to tie it, and ask my mother or father to show how to do this. When I noticed the knot and realised there were specific knots and that a specific one was called the Windsor knot, the cultural entity was replicated to my brain. After I have learned it, I had mastered the complex movements needed to tie the knot, and the tying-meme had replicated from the body of my parents to mine. Not a simple replication, but a replication nonetheless. I may forget all the things needed to learn the tying-patterns, but I do still know how to tie it. If we look very hard, the knot itself became (and was already) a meme when I noticed it, but the tying pattern another one. Often the analysis of memes is difficult, but not impossible. Often a meme-lineage `jumps' from brain to cultural artefact. This cannot be ignored and therefore memetic theory needs to incorporate memes as brain entities.

The definition (Speel, 1997b) of memes I previously used is : `pieces of data that are a) copied from individual to individual without too much alteration, or B) that are interactors'. I cannot blame Gatherer for thinking I probably dismiss memes as cultural artifacts, since my definition does not mention them at all. The empirical matter I discuss in my papers however makes clear that I use texts and concepts in texts as memes. I do think however that a cultural artifact is only a meme if it has been replicated by a brain in its past. I do not mean to say that this definition will do in any circumstance, but it will in my research.

In conclusion I think that the current discussion is important. I hope memeticists become more aware of problems of definitions, but I also hope that they do not let such issues stop them from empirical research. I have argued that Gatherer's arguments need attention, for instance the question of the status of beliefs in memetic theory. However, narrowing the meaning of meme to a cultural replicator only seems unnecessary and counterproductive to me.


Benzon, W (1996) Culture as an Evolutionary Arena. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 19:321-362. http://www.newsavanna.com/wlb/CE/Arena/Arena00.shtml

Blackmore, S (1998). Imitation and the definition of a meme. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1998/vol2/balckmore_s.html

Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gatherer, D. (1998). 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

Speel, H.C.A.M. (1997a) A short comment from a biologist. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 20:309-32.2 http://www.sepa.tudelft.nl/webstaf/hanss/jses.htm

Speel, H-C. (1997b); A Memetic Analysis of Policy Making. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1. http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1997/vol1/speel_h-c.html

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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