Re: Standard definition

Date: Wed 30 Oct 2002 - 02:01:09 GMT

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    In a message dated 10/29/2002 7:52:26 AM Central Standard Time, Vincent Campbell <> writes:

    > (Responding to Aaron's comments, deleted here just to
    > make the message small).
    > Hi Aaron, interesting comments.
    > I think Dawkins' relationship to the term he coined is
    > interesting, in that he has tended to be rather diffident
    > towards the concept. Perhaps it's because it was only
    > a whim and he doesn't seen it as a genuine scientific
    > idea, perhaps he'd rather the rest of 'The Selfish Gene'
    > was what inspired/excited readers as that was arguably
    > his main purpose, and indeed that has occurred to some
    > extent.

    Hi Vincent.

    Yes, I agree that Dawkins shows much more enthusiasm for evolutionary genetic replicator theory, and that that was his main purpose.

    Given his diffidence to evolutionary cultural replicator theories, there seems to be a high price to pay for pinning such theories on Dawkins's coattails. Scientists on the one hand see meme theorists attaching their theories to Dawkins, and on the other hand, they see Dawkins as damning those theories with faint praise. That's a perception that some critics of meme theories have expressed to me over the past several years. There may be others who get the sense that meme theorists are engaged in outright hero worship of Dawkins. That seems to include Dawkins himself in his references to the "St. Dawkin" title. One can get the impression that it is a personality cult rather than a scientific movement. Resting too much on Dawkins's weak support can appear foolish or delusional.

    I should hasten to point out that I myself have been one of those to make the mistake of over-attributing evolutionary cultural replicator theory to Dawkins, as in my 1996 book.

    > I think I agree with you that the "are ideas memes or
    > vice versa?" discussion is a bit unnecessary when 'idea'
    > seems to work just fine as a category. I suppose one
    > might say the same about artifact or behaviour.
    > Other writers have covered the same kinds of ground
    > without using memes, from Cavalli-sforza's cultural
    > traits, to the pop science of gladwell's 'tipping point'.

    Yes, good point. My own most recent paper Thought Contagion in the Dynamics of Mass Conflict
    ( acknowledges the role of Dawkins and the word "meme" in popularising evolutionary cultural replicator theory. But it also points out that he did not define the term clearly, and that he was not really the originator of the concept either. (Others, of course, have also made these points.)

    > Still, I agree with Bill, that there is some very broad
    > consensus around what the topic of memetics is, even if
    > memes are that relevant. The issue of cultural
    > transmission/inheritance is a clear one, and an
    > evolutionary model is one clear approach, regardless of
    > terminology.

    There is indeed some general consensus about what memetics is. However, to skeptics, making too much use of even that consensus may cause problems. For example, our journal is called Journal of Memetics -- Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. To people familiar with the definitional problems, it can look as though we are trying to fudge the definition of "meme" by instead using an implicit appositive construction to define the word
    "memetics." Some may regard that as sneaky or evasive. The Journal could, in my opinion, do fine with the simpler title Journal of Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.

    --Aaron Lynch

    > Vincent

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