Re: Standard definition

Date: Mon 28 Oct 2002 - 22:53:19 GMT

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    In a message dated 10/27/2002 5:00:34 PM Central Standard Time, Keith Henson <> writes:

    At 10:49 AM 25/10/02 -0700, you wrote:
    >> Dawkins begins his definition of "meme" in "The Extended
    >> Phenotype" with, "A unit of cultural inheritance". In
    >> recent discussions I have assumed that that was a necessary
    >> part of any definition of "meme".(That seems not to be the
    >> case for everyone, however. ;-))
    >> I propose that "A unit of cultural inheritance" is also
    >> sufficient to define a meme, and thus, is an acceptable
    >> standard definition.

    > There are several alternative expressions which amount to
    > the same thing. I usually use "replicating information
    > pattern." And, of course, the culture does not have to be
    > human. I have talked to Dawkins about this and he has no
    > problem with it. As for a meme, the only part that is
    > essential is the information. This is in close analogy to
    > genetics were a listing on paper of base pairs for some
    > protein is a gene.

    Hi Keith.

    A non-objection comment by made many years ago by Dawkins does not solve anything. It just becomes another item in the debate over what did he mean and when did he mean it. If Dawkins seriously cared about having a science of memes, I believe he would have long since written a serious journal article to clear up the confusion in highly explicit technical terms, and to explain WHY he defines a term the way he does or WHY he favors any changes in meaning from what he has said in early pieces. On might say that "yes, but DAWKINS is too important for such things." However, he has in 2001 accepted a $100,000 Kistler prize basically for having coined the word meme and written a handful of non-technical articles using it. Unfortunately, even if Dawkins steps in to offer a new clarification tomorrow, the definitional confusion has already made its mark in dictionaries and other works.

    Against the backdrop of all the speculation among those using the term "meme," and criticism of definitional vagueness by serious scholars, Dawkins's not objecting to what you have told him or to what I have told him strikes me as a resounding "yeah, whatever!" He could very well have given his non-objection to numerous mutually contradictory definitions.

    I have previously commented on the equivocal nature of Dawkins's promotion of memes in the past several years. On this list, some of those comments regard his 1999 article in Time Magazine. (I assume the archives are still there for that year.) That article called attention to various popular and web based works, but did not mention technical works or JOM. In particular, he poked derision at the idea of "St. Dawkin." It would be foolish to assume that he only meant to deride a single occurrence of that phrase on the web. In my judgement, he is poking fun at a whole movement: those who insist on making him a figurehead for a collection of theories that he does not especially support any more. (People might want, in effect, to pillory me for thus blaspheming "St. Dawkin," but that would only further justify Dawkin's own implied derision.)

    Dawkins's recent endorsements of books can also be read as flattering to authors and books while undercutting the theories expressed. His latest book endorsement indicates that he was actually surprised to see that there was more to say about memes. That, in my view, suggests that he regards memetics as dead end science.

    I made a serious effort to use the word "meme" in my evolutionary cultural replicator work. I got involved in ultimately futile debates over definitions of "meme." So I will not try that again. It was Martin Gardner who finally convinced me to seriously consider no longer relying on the word. In 2000, Martin Gardner had published an article criticizing various meme works, including my book Thought Contagion. I wrote to Gardner and showed him my technical work and a draft of my contribution to Sternberg's book The Evolution of Intelligence. Gardner was very impressed with those works, and thanked me for showing them to him. But he strongly recommended that I do without the word "meme." So I began researching the history of the definitional confusion by re-reading some old works. I found that Dawkins had indeed vacillated on the definition without giving any reasons for changing definitions. Under those circumstances, and without any subsequent serious clarifications from him, I realized that serious definitional problems were likely to persist.

    So I published newer works of evolutionary cultural replicator theory of ideas without relying on the word
    "meme." Nevertheless, correspondence has suggested that some people place more priority on using the word than on clear scientific communications.

    There was an earlier thread about whether memes are ideas. To me, if there is so much doubt, then why not simply use a term for which there is less doubt. Yes, one can argue about the various meanings of the word "idea" as well. And changing terminology is unlikely to sooth any enraged academics -- they might actually become louder in reaction to greater clarity given to messages they don't like. But at least I do not have to deal with leading skeptics such as Gardner (and others) getting the misimpression that I am being evasive about the meaning of the word. Nor do I have to deal with people insisting that only external behaviors or artifacts can qualify as "ideas."

    Shortly after dropping reliance on the word "meme," one person wrote to me to say that I should regard the word
    "meme" as a brand name. As I explained in my reply, the fact that the word "meme" has become a brand is actually one of the problems that I and many scientists have with it. We do not want to be seen as pushing a brand, but rather, proposing tentative ideas that we ourselves will drop if evidence warrants. No one expects real scientific discourse with brand promoters or brand loyalists. In particular, brand promoters cannot be expected to let
    "mere" scientific evidence lead them to drop a claim or to stop hyping their brand. In brand marketing, it can be good business to keep pushing a bad product if the brand name is popular. Such behavior is much less appropriate in science, however. This is another way that brand status turns off many scientists. You just do not even try to engage in real discourse with people paid to promote a brand. Instead, you expect them to carry on with brand marketing behaviors for as long as profitable: taboos against mentioning anything seen as "brand X," the use of misleading gimmicks, fictional characters, etc. Having this kind of behavior connected with the word "meme," is actually a serious indictment against the status of "memetics" as science.

    Efforts to define the word "meme" may also have been used as roundabout ways to attempt to control research agendas. Then, even when people attempted to define the term merely for clarity, even that might have aroused suspicions that they were really also just trying to control the research agenda. This might be one (but not the only) source of acrimony that erupted in some of the definitional disputes.

    While the word "meme" has a bunch of derivatives that work like those of the word "gene," this actually causes still more trouble. On the one hand, some might like the similarities. There is an aura of high achievement and prestige in genetics and evolutionary genetics. So using similar terms may offer the unconscious attraction of allowing evolutionary cultural replicator researchers to share a piece of the aura surrounding genetic biology. Unfortunately, this very possibility also stirs deep and perhaps often unconscious suspicion of those who use the term. People can easily regard use of the word "meme" as an attempt to grab some of that aura without first having established a highly advanced and useful science. This is a problem that did not exist for the word "gene" when it was introduced. A better alternative for cultural replicator work might be to pursue the scientific advancements first and foremost. Then, only if and when a highly advanced and useful science emerges, let it accrete its own aura of success.

    -- Aaron Lynch

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