Re: Rare original memetics document found

Date: Fri 13 Feb 2004 - 05:32:26 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: (Sociology's problems)"

    In a message dated 2/5/2004 8:46:36 AM Central Standard Time, writes:

    > >that, as far as I know, the first published appearance of the word
    > >"memetics" used as a noun to name a line of study appeared in
    > >Hoftstadter's _Metamagical Themas_, page 65. (Basic Books, 1985).
    > >To quote: "... Arel Lucas suggested that the discipline that studies
    > >memes and their connections to humans and other potential carriers
    > >of them be known as _memetics_, by analogy with 'genetics'. I think
    > >this is a good suggestion, and hop it will be adopted.">
    > >
    > Thanks Aaron, but I'm still confused. How can this be attributed to
    > someone, when it's merely a logical linguistic step from meme to memetics,
    > as in gene to genetics, and similarly why would someone be writing things
    > like 'hope it will be adopted'?

    Hi Vincent.

    Well, it's like how you can take "sarcast" and form
    "sarcastic," and from there it's just a skip, hop, and a jump to "sarcastics." That's when you know you have a new discipline on your hands. And practiced by "sarcasticists." I guess that makes me a professional sarcasticist, so I send you bill... Or we can go from "ontic" to "ontics." That would prove yet another science exists, right? One practiced by "onticists." Say it til something hurts, then go see a laro-rhino-onticologist. Have a symposium on the status of ontics as a science, but carefully exclude sarcasticists. And especially operatic satirists, the danger of which are well known. (Another chair, please!) But do invite phonemeticists to study how things are said and report their findings in Journal of Phonemetics. (Or maybe phonemicists doing phonemic study?) Surely they will know that pronouncing the word gives them more than a theory or incipient line of study, more than mere status as science, but indeed, status as "a science." By collaborating with sematicists, they could tell us how the single letter "a" and its phoneme make the difference between simply doing science on the one hand and getting that work recognized as "a science" unto itself, "a science" in its own right, on the other. Continuing the theme, we call in the thematicists to do a full thematic analysis, by practicing their own new science of thematics. As for me, I will go see a detoxicist and try to recover from neologium tremens.

    But seriously, now, simply forming the word "memetics" is not any grand achievement. There were probably many others who thought up the word after reading of the word "meme" introduced in analogy to "gene," given that the message was propagating into combination with knowledge of linguistic steps commonly used to form derivatives of root words. Many unspoken instances of the word would have been formed by creative invention or reinvention among widely separated people. Perhaps Dawkins, too, even if he did not like the word. Some fraction of those who thought of the word would have gone on to speak it. Still others may have written it down. Arel Lucas wrote it down and sent it to Hofstadter, who then included it in a centralized communication event. At that point, the number of people learning the word by retransmission may have quickly exceeded the number who had independently formed it from the root word. But the combination of ideas Hofstadter disseminated was also important. He was saying not just that "memetics" is one of the words derived from "meme." He was also saying that it actually did refer to an ongoing line of study. In that respect, he went a bit further than did Arel Lucas, whose letter only asks the question "Will there now ensue a new study--memetics?" She does not presume that there is a science already simply because a name for it could be coined. And Hofstadter only used the term to name a line of study after finding that there indeed was some ongoing study in progress. Widespread unawareness of this history has helped cause many people to conclude or suspect that
    "memeticists" have jumped to the conclusion that they had a science simply because they coined a word analogous to the name of an existing science. Some may consider that bad procedure even if they have come to believe that science fitting the name did follow sometime after the word coinage.

    Questions about how the word "memetics" formed and propagated should not be confused with personal preferences of who should become famous, remain famous, or who should be honoured for having been honoured, who has or does not have the most illustrious university name on their CV, or even who has an impressive list of brilliant works accurately credited to them. We may feel more proud and confident of words we use if we can attribute them to our favorite sources and treat "lesser" sources as unmentionable. Even evolutionists may cherish and propagate creation myths about scientific ideas being "handed down" from the pantheon, the patron saint, or even a lofty chair. But the questions of the early formations and transmissions of ideas and words are themselves also scientific questions, topics where data and observation are not to be distorted or falsified in pursuit of economic, political, or social goals. Whether we want to associate our work, however incidentally, with Arel Lucas, or can bear mentioning her in a paper is irrelevant to the scientific question of whether she acted at the start of the causal chain that led to wide use of the word "memetics" in reference to a particular line of study. We may find that the origins of our favorite words or ideas are more humble than we want to admit, but if we are actually scientists rather than just another crowd of socialites, then we must admit to those humble origins in spite of impulses to the contrary.

    > Besides, the concept of memes is what's
    > important, and surely that's what's important to get adopted, assuming one's
    > in agreement with the concept. Still, if people want to cling on to their
    > claims to fame...
    > Vincent

    On the Memtics History topic raised by Keith Henson, the comments Douglas Hofstadter made about my early work appeared not in his 1983 Scientific American column, but in the book where that column was re-printed -- _Metamagical Themas_ (1985).

    -- Aaron Lynch

    Thought Contagion Science Page:

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