Re: Whacking on memetics

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Mon 16 Feb 2004 - 14:05:50 GMT

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    At 09:57 AM 16/02/04 +1100, Steven wrote:


    >No, I am not familiar with the work of all memeticists. My point is not
    >that there are no memeticists studying social life at all,

    That's silly. Every social primate studies social life all the time. Read Jane Goodall if you don't believe me. Have you ever put "sex drugs cults" into Google and looked at both the article and the extensive linking? Richard Brodies book on memes is used as a *textbook.*

    >it is a more general point that memetics did not begin with a study of
    >social life

    Meme is a renaming of culturgen. You are going to get objection on this statement from Lumsden & Wilson

    > - the notion of memes does NOT derive from inquiry of any kind
    > whatsoever. Anyone who thinks scientifically should be immediately and
    > strongly suspicious of any notion that is not grounded via investigation.

    I have pointed out this is not true in a previous posting re Dawkins.

    >Why did no many rush to embrace memetics? Whatever the answer is it has
    >nothing to do with scientific findings.

    That's just *wrong* in a self referential way. The answer to such a question would have roots in evolutionary psychology

    >Second, memetics has, as far as I know, no worked out agenda of inquiry.
    >There is, again as far as I know, no attempt to jointly set out the
    >difficult questions that memetics needs to answer before it can be
    >considered a science. Questions such as:
    >Where do memes come from and how do they relate to genes?

    Previous post which you either didn't see or ignored re the origin of memes when our ancestors had chimp sized brains.

    >How do memes explain the existence, workings and change of the full range
    >of social phenomena, including institutions, selves, and social emotions?

    Memetics is a very simple little corner of knowledge, in math it would be a lemma. None of the works of people on memes makes the claim it *can* explain anything beyond the obvious that elements of culture are subject to Darwinian evolution.

    >What elements of sociology are in tune with memetics and what are the
    >strongest challenges thrown up by sociology?

    That's more your problem than ours, but as others have pointed out there are a lot of people in sociology who have picked up on memetics and the more general approaches applying evolutionary biology to sociology. I.e., sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

    >Those who call themselves memeticists are a very, very diverse bunch who
    >are offering utterly incompatible definitions of a meme and incompatible
    >explanations of social life.

    This news group is probably the most diverse place you can find. If you go out on the net looking for articles that mention memes, the majority of them stick fairly close to the commonly understood usage.

    >All that holds them together is the word meme. This all adds up, in
    >scientific terms, to a 'hill of beans'. Until there is the beginnings of
    >an agreed upon program, designed to solve agreed upon disputes about what
    >memes are and how they express themselves as social life, or constitute
    >social life, memetics cannot be taken seriously as a science.

    The biggest problem I can see with scientific research on memetics is that the experiments are too obvious. Memetics is just a way of understanding cultural phenomena. It is very widely accepted model among a high percentage of computer scientists, engineers, programmers and a substantial fraction of other educated people. Times I have discussed memetics at the Hacker's conferences *everybody* was up on it.

    >In two year time, memetics will be thirty years old (at least Dawkins came
    >up with the idea twenty eight years ago). If anything consequential was
    >going to come out of memetics, scientifically speaking, its shape would
    >already be emerging. It is well past the time when memetics can be spoken
    >of as new.

    Well, *that* I won't disagree with. You can make the case from the data I posted re uses per year on Usenet that the concept has become so accepted that people just use it and don't argue about memetics as much as they did years ago. It would be an interesting research project to sample the last few hundred mentions on Usenet and the web and rate how well the person using the term understands it.

    Keith Henson

    PS. We would need a sample size of perhaps 300. I am willing to rate 30 of them, so if there are another 9 people who are interested, email me. I can run off a list of three hundred and send each person 30 URLs.

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