Re: Three Scientists and Their Gods

Date: Tue Jan 22 2002 - 17:27:44 GMT

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    Subject: Re: Three Scientists and Their Gods
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    In a message dated 1/22/2002 12:17:14 AM Central Standard Time, Francesca S.
    Alcorn <> writes:

    > I have been thinking about Aaron's idea that we should dispose of the
    > word meme, and call them replicators. Then we could look at the
    > process of replication, and how ubiquitous it is. So I dug out my
    > copy of Three Scientists and Their Gods, which IIRC, Ed Fredkin is
    > talking about information theory and the whole universe is a
    > computer. It strikes me that in his own way he is looking at a sort
    > of Grand Unifying Theory of replication of information. I am going
    > to go back and read it again, and wondered if anyone else has read it
    > too, what your thoughts were.
    > frankie

    Hi Frankie.

    I havn't read the book, but it sounds like it might be related to some of the
    discussion of recursive processes in everything from astronomy to economics
    in section 7 of my paper Units, Events, and Dynamics in the Evolutionary
    Epidemiology of Ideas at

    As for what Richard and others say about the definition of "meme" being clear
    cut, I wish I could agree. But numerous articles by scientists (some
    concerning my own work, some concerning other works) have concluded
    otherwise. In 2000, I went back to re-read some old materials to see how so
    much confusion could arise. This is summarized in some further paragraphs at, pasted below.

    --Aaron Lynch

    "... As for the word "replicator," it is documented in the Oxford English
    Dictionary, Second Edition, as going back to the early 1960s in connection
    with biology and the more general meaning of "that which replicates." No
    mention is made of Dawkins as the source of the word "replicator." While
    Dawkins did not originate evolutionary replicator theory or the word
    "replicator," he did originate the word "meme" with this particular English
    spelling and gave some examples in his 13-page chapter "Memes: The New
    Replicators." That, however, does not mean that Dawkins should be credited
    with Cloak's evolutionary cultural replicator work any more than the
    originator of the word "gene" (Johannsen) should be credited with launching
    Mendelian genetics.
        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
        In recent works, Dawkins has strongly promoted philosopher Daniel
    Dennett, who uses a still less specific definition of meme--while neither of
    them even mention Cloak in connection with memes. Writing in his book
    Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Simon and Schuster, 1995), Dennett treats meme
    theory as merely a perspective (as distinct from a scientific hypothesis or
    theoretical framework), and expresses doubts for the prospects that it might
    become a rigorous science. Dennett sums up the perspective he calls "the meme
    perspective" with the slogan: "A scholar is just a library's way of making
    another library." This slogan, the expression of meme theory as a
    perspective, and much other material were also used in an October 27, 1989
    lecture called "Memes and the Exploitation of the Imagination," republished
    in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48:2, Spring 1990, p. 127-135.
    That journal may have been a good place for reviewing aesthetic or artistic
    perspectives, but was not a peer-reviewed science journal whose reviewers
    could be expected to have read even popular works on evolutionary cultural
    replicator theory. While the slogan expresses the inverted and
    counter-intuitive thinking that often arises in evolutionary cultural
    replicator theory, it departs radically from the clarification of the term
    "meme" given by Dawkins in 1982. Dennett also treats artifacts such as spoked
    wheels as being or containing memes. In going along with this usage and
    publicly endorsing it, Dawkins implicitly abandons his 1982 definition again
    in favor of a far less specific and more ambiguous definition for which the
    prospects of rigorous science may indeed be doubtful. A pithy slogan thus
    seems to have played a larger role in the definition change than any
    theoretical or empirical developments of science. In contrast Dawkins, whose
    professional interests lie more heavily in genetics, has not promoted any
    work that treats genetics as a mere perspective. For instance, it seems
    unlikely that he would endorse a change of definition for the word gene even
    if someone popularized the provocative slogan, "An amino acid is just a
    prion's way of making another prion."
         As a reader of draft chapters from Dennett's 1995 book, Dawkins might
    have persuaded Dennett to recognize Cloak as originator and elaborator of
    evolutionary cultural replicator theory, but apparently he did not. The
    writing style and non-mention of Cloak's 1973 paper by Dawkins's 1976 book
    can easily give readers the impression that the theory was invented along
    with the word by Dawkins, although Dawkins did say in his 1982 book that he
    did not know the human culture literature well enough to authoritatively
    contribute to it (p. 112). Fortunately, the authoritative contribution of the
    theory by Cloak did in fact come from a human culture specialist: a cultural
    anthropologist. In both his 1989 lecture and his 1995 book, Dennett includes
    a paragraph (1995, p. 361) indicating that Dawkins was describing the
    "extension of classical Darwinian theory" (to cultural replicators) as "his"
    [Dawkins's] innovation -- even though Dawkins cites Cloak's 1975 paper, which
    in turn refers readers to Cloak's more technical 1973 paper for elaboration
    of the theory. Misattribution of the theory to Dawkins, along with Dawkins's
    subsequent promotion and endorsement of works containing that misattribution,
    have helped to widely disseminate the misattribution. Having Dawkins
    incorrectly credited with launching evolutionary cultural replicator theory
    may have vastly increased the weight given to his implied approval of a
    nonscientifically-based drastic change in the definition of the word "meme."
    It may also have fostered a wide misconception that evolutionary cultural
    replicator theory sprang from "offhand remarks" appended to a work of
    genetics popularization rather than from more serious and dedicated efforts.
    Further discussion of some of these problems appears in section 1 and the
    first two footnotes of an otherwise very technical paper called "Units,
    Events, and Dynamics in the Evolutionary Epidemiology of Ideas." The online
    version of Cloak's 1973 paper also has a short foreword discussing some
    history of Cloak's early papers.
         In 1997, The Oxford English Dictionary apparently took note of both the
    early profusion of definitions and the recent shifting of definitions to come
    up with a very broad definition for meme. By that usage, some thought
    contagions are "memes," some thought contagions are not memes; some "memes"
    are thought contagions, and some "memes" are not thought contagions.
        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.

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