Re: Sue Blackmore lecture Wednesday 5.15pm London

From: William Benzon (
Date: Tue 18 Feb 2003 - 14:00:08 GMT

  • Next message: William Benzon: "Re: Sue Blackmore lecture Wednesday 5.15pm London"

    on 2/17/03 10:53 PM, Keith Henson at wrote:

    > Ah, so far memetics is close to epidemiology, more a mathematical abstract
    > understanding of how diseases spread than it is on the details of how a
    > particular bug makes people sick.

    So why aren't memeticists gathering real data about real phenomena to test their mathematical models? There are people who do this, but they aren't memeticists, e.g.:

    Henrich, J. (2001). "Cultural Transmission and the Diffusion of Innovations: Adoption Dynamics Indicate That Biased Cultural Transmission Is the Predominate Force in Behavioral Change." American Anthropologist 103(4): 992-1013.

    (If you google Henrich's name you should find his website, where you can get a PDF of that paper, and others.)

    > To get into *why* this meme and not some
    > other one spread well, you have to consider the class of memes involved. A
    > better way to chip rock or make pots or shoes spreads by people seeing that
    > they can spend less overall effort on the new approach than the old
    > one. That's easy to figure out, since the people can use the extra time to
    > hunt more or make more babies.
    > The pathological cases, like Jim Jones or Heaven's Gate baffled me for
    > about a decade. You can read the story of how I came to understand how
    > these worked in the paper at,
    > but in short form, cults memes induce large amounts of highly rewarding
    > attention between members. For some people the rewards are on a par with
    > addictive drugs and involve the exact same reward pathways.

    You've got an interesting conjunction of information in that article, but it's not closely reasoned scientific argument. Your discussion of the brain's "reward" system is far too vague. And much about dopamine is still obscure. Specifically, the idea that it is a "reward" chemical is not fully accepted. See, e.g.:

    Ikemoto, S. and J. Panksepp (1999). "The role of nucleus accumbens dopamine in motivated behavior: a unifying interpretation with special reference to reward-seeking." Brain Research Reviews 31: 6-41.

    Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience. New York, Oxford University Press.

    What bothers me is that you seem to think this is all a slam-dunk, that the fundamental intellectual issues have been worked out and all we have to do is clean up some details here and there. On the contrary, fundamental issues are still very much up in the air.


    > My work makes it clear that you have to consider more than memes. The
    > power of memetics is that it brings out the replicating aspect of
    > information in human societies.

    And all it does with that viewpoint is says that information spreads, which is hardly news. Memetics seems to be an earnest attempt to give the mere fact of spreading some mysterious explanatory power.

    > But besides that viewpoint, you have to
    > consider in addition a person's genes and their mind, shaped by genes,
    > memes and experiences.

    But you have to consider these things in some detail. Memetics doesn't give you any tools for doing so. Rather, it just gives you the doubtful assurance that it will all work out in the end when someone else -- those guys over there, perhaps -- does all the intellectual dirty work and gets the details worked out.

    * * * * *

    I really don't want to get into a long debate about this. I did that in the early days of this list and have no desire to repeat all that. I figure memetics will keep ticking along regardless of what I or anyone else says.


    Bill Benzon

    William L. Benzon
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