Re: Robert Aunger essay

From: Jesse Micheal Fagan (
Date: Thu 13 Apr 2006 - 22:12:49 GMT

  • Next message: Robin Faichney: "Re[2]: Robert Aunger essay"

    This is my first post to the memetics list myself, although I've been reading it for several months. I've been following memetics for about a year now and it has invigorated me to study Christianity in my life and my community (here in Fort Collins, Colorado). As such I've been busying myself lately with a linguistic analysis of the LDS Church (Mormonism), but I've been running into (or over) some ethical roadblocks. I'm only an undergraduate though, so treat my ideas with a grain of cautionary salt.

    Now from the quotes you pulled, I can't seem to find a full copy of the essay in question, two strike me:

    2/ "Why is memetic science ailing? I think most of the problems have to do with the lack of a useful definition" [178].

    I fully agree with this. I have gotten in very long winded confusing debates with friends, professors... and even pastors... about the definition of a meme. Everyone seems to agree that it's a replicator with modifcation acting under differential survival, but what exactly is being replicated is a big issue, what are the methods of selection, and how does it vary are very ill-defined.

    For instance, from this quote: "Replication is not a necessary component of an interesting Darwinian process, and may not be involved in the explanation of human culture..." I become a bit confused on what a Darwinian process is. Can someone help me understand how a process can be Darwinian without replication of some sort? It seems to me that if the meme does not replicate than it's not a meme and if culture does not evolve from replicating components like memes then memetics is probably not the course we want to take in describing cultural evolution.

    In addition, memetics, in my opinion, should not and will not be a total picture or explanation for human culture, but rather will become the tool by which we understand how information transmits and changes over time
    (strangely the electrical engineering courses I took in communications principles gave me some interesting insight on memes from this perspective).

    I do not think memetics should be *the* encompassing science of human culture just like ecology is not the encompassing science for describing evolutionary biology. Memetics will be just another fragment of the urn we contruct for to describe the evolution of culture.

    The other quote I like is the mention of birdsong, but that's just because my doppelganger (or I'm his doppelganger), the other Jesse Fagan, is doing bioacoustic studies of birds. He won't respond to any of my inquiries on his opinion of memetics though, so I wonder if he thinks I'm a stalker...

    Anywho - sorry if I just blurted out a bunch of nonsense over my head... =P

    -Jesse Fagan

    On 4/12/06, Christopher Kelley <> wrote:
    > Dear list members,
    > First off, thank you for providing this excellent list-serve & Journal.
    > I've just recently joined the list and I'm very excited that it exists.
    > My name is Christopher Kelley and I'm a graduate student in Buddhist
    > studies at Columbia University in New York City. Presently I'm working
    > on a memetic analysis of Buddhist philosophical culture.
    > My purpose in posting today is to elicit your feedback on Robert
    > Aunger's thought provoking essay in the new anthology, "Richard
    > Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed The Way We Think." I've not had a
    > chance to read the entire book, but I thought his essay raised some
    > important points that deserve professional reflection.
    > Below I've enumerated some excerpts, but obviously it would be ideal to
    > read them in context.
    > 1/ ". . . no significant body of empirical research has grown up around
    > the meme concept (the birdsong work being the sole, limited exception),
    > nor has memetics made empirically testable propositions or generated
    > much in the way of novel experimental or observational data. In fact
    > the memetic literature remains devoted almost exclusively to
    > theoretical antagonisms, internecine battles, and scholastic
    > elucidations of prior writings on memes" [178].
    > 2/ "Why is memetic science ailing? I think most of the problems have to
    > do with the lack of a useful definition" [178].
    > 3/ "As we will see, getting specific about the nature of memes leads to
    > questions about whether there is indeed any subject matter for memetics
    > to study" [178].
    > 4/ ". . .what makes the meme concept special as an account of cultural
    > evolution is its role as a replicator in culture. . . replication can
    > be defined as a special relationship between a source and a copy such
    > that four conditions hold: causation. . similarity. . information
    > transfer. . . duplication" [179]
    > 5/ " . . replication of information is unlikely to be how most social
    > learning occurs. Neither are memes necessary to explain cultural
    > traditions. . . So taking the stability of culture as prima facie
    > evidence of the existence of memes is mistaken. Replication is not a
    > necessary component of an interesting Darwinian process, and may not be
    > involved in the explanation of human culture" [185-86].
    > 6/ "My attempt to provide a more precise definition of memes has,
    > ironically, shown that memetics appears to be in search of subject
    > matter because its central claim, the meme hypothesis, lacks substance"
    > [186].
    > 7/ ". . .it will be difficult to deny memes a role in the future of
    > cultural evolutionary studies. This is because the meme meme has
    > already become part of the culture it was supposed to explain . . .
    > people will continue to use the word 'meme' in a vague way when
    > discussing cultural change. . . but . . . memetics is unlikely ever to
    > become an empirical science, because when we define memes in a manner
    > precise enough to start making testable predictions, we find that we
    > have largely defined them out of existence" [186].
    > Thanks!
    > Christopher Kelley

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