Re: Definition of meme

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Mon 19 May 2003 - 17:26:01 GMT

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    At 11:17 AM 19/05/03 -0400, Bill Benzon wrote:


    >It seems to me that this is a quibble. The notion of a replicator is
    >certainly a more general one than that of a gene or a meme, but it really
    >isn't any more precise. Nor does it change my basic point.
    >OK, so a meme is a mental replicator: Find one. No one has actually found
    >mental entities within brains that replicate from one brain to another.
    >Richard Aunger has written an incoherent attempt to find such things in the
    >brain. I don't see any reason to believe that they will ever be found.

    Do you have any doubt that the physical representation of a meme in a brain
    (where memes exist as a class of memory) can be found? (Given fine enough tools of course.) Here is a thought experiment on how to do it:

    Take a snapshot of the places and states of every atom in a brain. Immediately have the brain learn a new a new phone number, snapshot again. Subtract. Ignoring the (eventually solvable) engineering problems, what is left is the physical representation of the encoded phone number or meme or whatever. Might be hard to figure out how it is encoded, but that's just detail.

    We know enough about how sea slugs form memory (with only a few giant neurons) to strongly suspect this physical/chemical change encoding memories will be in synapses. (I am ignoring the possibility that memory may be in circulating electrical patterns for a while before it gets committed to physical structure, but we *know* long term memory is retained over complete electrical shutdown of brains--much like a computer disk retains information when the power is off.)

    If you don't buy this model, then are you making a claim that memory has no physical encoding or that it is outside the physical world?

    >These mentalist memes are purely hypothetical entities. Now, if these
    >hypothetical entities had given rise to a good research program with
    >substantial empirical results, that would be a different matter. But that
    >research program has not come into being. Memetics doesn't have a Gregor

    I don't think that's the problem with research on memetics. The problem is like the baseball-island experiment, the outcome of such experiments are just *too* obvious to get funding.

    The universe is just full of things we can't see because they are too small, too far away, or deep in the past or future. That doesn't keep them from being of great interest to science. Darwin had to infer evolution from rather indirect evidence. We know about ice ages without having been there. Mendel couldn't see genes, but he could see their effects. We can't see them (yet) but memes-in-the-brain can be detected by the effects they have in experiments such as baseball-island.

    Keith Henson

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