Re: The necessity of mental memes

Date: Mon Jan 21 2002 - 07:09:54 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: The necessity of mental memes"

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    Subject: Re: The necessity of mental memes
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    Subj: Re: The necessity of mental memes
    Date: 1/20/2002

    In a message dated 1/20/2002 3:22:05 PM Central Standard Time, Keith Henson
    <> writes:

    > I have said the same thing in various ways for fully 15 years. This is
    > from my article in Analog in 1987.
    > "Memetics comes from "meme" (which rhymes with "cream"), a word
    > coined in purposeful analogy to gene by Richard Dawkins in his 1976
    > book, _The Selfish Gene_. To understand memes, you must have a good
    > understanding of the modern concepts of evolution, and this is a good
    > source. In its last chapter, memes were defined as replicating
    > information patterns that use minds to get themselves copied much as a
    > virus uses cells to get itself copied. (Dawkins credits several
    > others for developing the concepts, especially the anthropologist F.
    > T. Cloak.) Like genes, memes are pure information.* <snip>

    Hi Keith.

    While Dawkins did credit Cloak in 1976, I believe that the credit was faint
    and eventually vanishing. In 1976, the credit only mentions a very modest
    1975 paper "Is a Cultural Ethology Possible?" rather than the much stronger
    1973 paper cited in the 1975 paper. By the time I wrote my Thought Contagion,
    I had forgotten publication priority of the 1973 paper, and hence also cited
    just the 1975 Cloak paper. I have, however, re-read and scanned the 1973
    paper and placed it online at
    While Dawkins was co-editor of a book that contained Cloak's 1986 paper,
    subsequent "meme" authors who worked with Dawkins did not cite that work at
    all, and I am unaware of any citations of it by Dawkins himself either. My
    general impression is that Cloak's 1986 book chapter would have been more
    widely read if the copy he sent to Dawkins had been lost in the mail. Then,
    at least, Cloak might have continued looking for a place to publish it, and
    may eventually have put it on the web if no where else.

    In my book Thought Contagion, I use a variety of terms such as "idea,"
    "belief," "behavior," "artifact," "thought contagion," "doctrine," "opinion,"
    "belief system," "urban legend" alongside the word "meme." The only one of
    these terms for which I have had to subsequently go back and waste thousands
    of words explaining what I really meant was the word "meme." That suggests
    very strongly that the word has been an impediment to communications on my
    subject of self-propagating ideas. This, even though I have been very
    specific and given very restrictive technical definitions of the word in my
    1991 and 1998 papers at Journal of Ideas and Journal of Memetics,
    respectively. Indeed, you and I have had some debats on the relative merits
    of my restrictive definition and your broader definition. Nevertheless, both
    among meme critics and people who describe themselves as "memeticists," I
    have found people trying to suggest that I have been indiscriminant in my use
    of the term. (Why, there was a "self" doing so just the other day.)

    Anyway, since I already have been using the various terms "idea," "belief,"
    "behavior," "artifact," "thought contagion," "doctrine," "opinion," "belief
    system," and "urban legend," I find no communication difficulty arising from
    not using the word "meme" alongside them. My book chapter "Evolutionary
    Contagion in Mental Software" (
    does not contain even one use of the word "meme." Whether I eventually find
    the term becoming helpful to communications about self--propagating ideas or
    not, I think it is important to remind people that the theory does not depend
    on the word. It is also important to point out that evolutionary cultural
    replicator theory was formally expressed by Cloak back in 1973, well before
    the word "meme" was coined. Below are some brief excerpts from and from my Units, Events, and Dynamics in the
    Evolutionary Epidemiology of Ideas paper. (More about the history of the word
    "meme" and evolutionary replicator theory are on the links below.)

    --Aaron Lynch

    "Evolutionary replicator theory of culture was not invented by Richard
    Dawkins, but goes back at least to anthropologist F. T. Cloak, who discussed
    it in his 1973 paper ...

    ..... Unfortunately, Dawkins did not give the word "meme" a formal
    definition in 1976, leading to a profusion of definitions being made by
    people trying to fill the void. Dawkins did clarify in his 1982 book The
    Extended Phenotype (W. H. Freeman and Company) that "a meme should be
    regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain (Cloak's 'i-culture')"
    [p. 109]. However, by the time he published The Blind Watchmaker (W. W.
    Norton & Company, 1986), Dawkins had given a different definition indicating
    that "memes" exist in various media, rendering the term less specific without
    noting that the definition was being changed. Moreover, the new definition
    was given without explaining its value to scientific communications or to
    explaining a particular development in evolutionary cultural replicator
    theory or describing an empirical result. Without justifying the change,
    Dawkins may have given critics the idea that the definition of terms was
    being treated as if it did not matter, creating a widespread sense that
    something other than science was being done. Skeptics might have suspected
    that the word was simply coined first, and a search for definitions and
    purposes launched afterward--raising questions about whether the word arose
    through scientific methods. Changing definitions may also have conveyed the
    impression of an Oxford professor fumbling for a definition and thus needing
    more help in the form of additional proposed definitions--adding to the
    profusion of definitions.

    ..... With sharp differences between different dictionaries and among
    "memeticists," meme has gone from its early specificity to a word looking
    for a definition--and a retinue of derivatives that seem to have been created
    mainly because they could be created. Although the word was coined to
    popularize a specific theoretical paradigm, that fact seems to have been
    forgotten as people eventually began devising theoretical paradigms to go
    with the word rather than words to go with their theoretical
    paradigms--perhaps due to the word's versatility and popularity. People were
    trying to make the science fit the terminology rather than the terminology
    fit the science. (Word versatility and popularity are, of course, not
    scientific criteria for forming and testing theoretical frameworks.) This
    situation may give the false impression that the word and its similarity to
    the word gene were the impetus for the original theoretical paradigm. It also
    creates a state of academic, scientific, and terminological gridlock that may
    impede application of the original theoretical framework, thus serving
    various interest groups including those who want only alternative theoretical
    frameworks (strict sociobiology, hard-line behaviorism, etc.) to be used.
    These difficulties favor the use of more specific, self-explanatory, and
    unequivocal terms such as "idea," "belief," "behavior," "artifact," "thought
    contagion," "doctrine," "opinion," "belief system," "urban legend," and so
    forth--some of which are widely accepted even without the versatility of a
    monosyllable. The difficulties with meme starting in the 1990s call for new
    caution against confusing thought contagion theory with various theories of
    "memes." Accordingly, some very recent works avoid the confusion by not even
    using the word "meme" -- except in reference to literature that does use the
    word. However, the ambiguity of a word with many definitions swirling around
    it can actually increase its propagation, even as some scientists recoil from
    it. When people are able to read into a word the meaning that most suits
    them, it may increase the numbers of non-specialists and even social
    scientists who adopt and use the term. ... "

    EXCERPT FROM "Units, Events, and Dynamics in the Evolutionary Epidemiology of
    Ideas" at

    "...Dawkins did co-edit a volume containing a subsequent non-metaphoric
    technical paper by Cloak [Cloak, 1986], but by that time, a great percentage
    of people aware of evolutionary cultural replicator theory had been convinced
    that the field arose by analogy and metaphor to genetics [note 2]. Making
    matters worse was the remarkable fact that Cloak's 1986 paper did not cite or
    mention his own 1973 paper, but described the 1986 work--instruction theory,
    event diagrams, and all--as being a formalization of later works by Dawkins.
    While the 1986 paper did contain new material, and did make clear that there
    are more kinds of instructions than the neural and genetic kinds discussed in
    the 1973 paper, it was not chronologically possible for the considerable body
    of instruction theory presented in both papers to have been simply a
    formalization of The Selfish Gene [Dawkins, 1976] and "Universal Darwinism"
    [Dawkins, 1983]. However, Cloak's own published statements of 1986 could
    subsequently be read as attributing the origins of evolutionary cultural
    replicator theory to Dawkins, even though this clearly was not the case.
    Meanwhile, a short discussion of the history of evolutionary cultural
    replicator theory in The Blind Watchmaker, [Dawkins, 1986, p. 157-158], can
    easily be read as misattributing the origins of evolutionary cultural
    replicator theory to The Selfish Gene [Dawkins, 1976]. While Cloak's 1986
    chapter contains some speculations about early selection in macromolecules
    that could have benefited from collaboration with a physical or biochemical
    scientist, the overall paper was much more technically developed than
    Dawkins's works. By 1989, Dawkins had published a revised edition of The
    Selfish Gene [Dawkins, 1989], three years after he co-edited the volume
    containing Cloak [1986]. Yet the 1989 edition of The Selfish Gene made no
    mention of Cloak's 1986 paper, despite containing an updated bibliography and
    11 pages of new endnotes to what was originally a 13-page chapter on cultural
    replicators in Dawkins [1976]. Thus, at least 12 years of academic and
    popular writing came to widely misconstrue evolutionary cultural replicator
    theory as originating in metaphor, popularization, and even word coinage,
    while most scientists remained unaware of the technical foundations of
    evolutionary cultural replicator theory. ... "

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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