When is a meme not a meme (Price-TP/MC)?

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (perpcorn@dca.net)
Sun, 8 Jun 1997 22:24:41 -0500

Message-Id: <199706090223.WAA03598@global.dca.net>
Date: Sun, 8 Jun 1997 22:24:41 -0500
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: perpcorn@dca.net (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: When is a meme not a meme (Price-TP/MC)?

>>>Timothy/Martha ask, picking up on the end of a post of mine
>>>They replicate through phemotypes which include
>>>language, rituals, and various cultural artefacts. Most books are probabl=
>>>better thought of as phemotype than memotype.
>>How does such a view differ from Platonic idealism? I asked this before,
>>to deafening silence as an answer, but sooner or later the issue must be
>>addressed: what do you mean when you, or any memeticist, says that a meme
>>"replicates" and that it "induces" structures of thought, perception, and
>My understanding of Platonic idealism is limited to the synopsis T/M
>provided in an earlier post. May be it does not differ what, but so? If the
>meme hypothesis 'explains' Platonic idealism [and the various people who
>have made the same point since], as well as school of evolutionary
>economics [see for example Hodgson 1993], the role of language in crafting
>meaning in social organisations and, the numerous observations of the role
>of mental models in shaping individual and organisational learning [dare I
>say see my papers for references] then, even if it is Platonic idealism so
>what?. You could equally say Mendelian genetics was simply updated
>practical pig breeding.

TP/MC: And you'd be quite correct. In fact, practical agricultural
genetics is extremely significant in the history of genetics (we obtain
virtually the entire apparatus of quantitative genetics, including the
statistical technique called "analysis of variance" from agricultural
genetics). The reason why Plato (or any other philosopher) is important to
memetics is that Platonists have been harvesting in these fields for two
millenia and more, with some interesting results. Another reason is that
Platonism is NOT the only epistemology (or ontology) that can be put

I am not at all sure I understand your comment that "the meme hypothesis
'explains' Platonic idealism" -- minimally because I'm not sure what you
mean by "explain." But that's secondary, perhaps, to the major issue:
memetic Platonism (or Platonic memeticism) is only ONE way to look at how
information affects people. To assume, by unexamined fiat, that Platonism
and memetics are identical is to foreclose all further discussion.


>>>T/M go on to say [and yes I have not yet addressed their second question]
TP/MC, here TP>>
>>In my own view, memes are simply packages of information that are
>circulated in a society. Knowing a piece of information -- a meme -- does
>nothing to you. Thus: "To make fried potatoes, take boiled potatoes,
>slice them, and fry them until yellow-brown." Has any reader leapt up,
>driven like a robot, to perform these instructions? In what precise sense
>is it alleged that "memes" cause or induce behavior? Until that issue has
>been addressed, memetics is silliness -- pure verbalism claiming to be
>significant understanding.
>Given the original definition of the proposed 'meme' as "literally
>parasitising a brain turning it into a vehicle for the meme's replication"
>it seems to me presumptous to redefine a meme thus.

TP: I have no problems being presumptuous, if that is what you call someone
who wants an *concrete* example of an idea -- or meme -- that actually
parasitizes someone's brain. But we also need some qualifications. We
need to exclude various viruses, like the agent of kuru, which literally
and in fact *does* live in brain cells (to their detriment). We also need
to exclude forced conversions to a religion, achieved by threatening the
unconverted with death if they don't convert.

Well, here's a possible example -- what about language acquisition in
infancy and childhood? Young children actively seek and accept the sounds
and words of the language spoken around them. To be sure, linguists like
Chomsky have argued that the brain/mind have existing mechanisms
("generative grammars") that create or produce language in people and, a
fortiori, children learning language. Language acquisition looks to me to
be an example of how a living organism seeks information of an especially
rich sort from its environment, but this view emphasizes the *agency* of
the organism rather than the of the memes. Can memeticists produce a
*memetic* theory of language acquisition? It would seem that language
acquisition and use would be a *very* fruitful test case for memetics.


>The fried potatoe
>recipe, for the reason given, would probably not qualify as a meme [sensu
>Dawkins]. Those who seek to redefine the meme as simply a package of
>information confuse the issue. Memetics may or may not be silliness. If you
>wish a separate dialog based on a different definition of the meme it might
>be easier if you used a different term.

TP: Hmmm? You have not actually shown that a recipe for fried potatoes (or
any other recipe, rule, law, or principle) is or is not a meme -- and I may
say, without intending in the least to give offense, that your argument is
"truth by assertion." Likewise with the idea that redefining the meme
causes confusion -- is there a canonical, generally accepted definition of
the meme in the first place, deviation from which causes confusion? And if
there is not, then the confusion is not *my* doing! It strikes me that the
discussions on this group are centered on trying to hash out just such a

But we need a precaution here. On 6/7/97, TP/MC posted:

**In my own view, memes are simply packages of information that are
circulated in **a society. Knowing a piece of information -- a meme --
does nothing to you. **Thus: "To make fried potatoes, take boiled
potatoes, slice them, and fry them ****until yellow-brown." Has any reader
leapt up, driven like a robot, to **perform these instructions? In what
precise sense is it alleged that "memes" **cause or induce behavior? Until
that issue has been addressed, memetics is **silliness -- pure verbalism
claiming to be significant understanding.

I want it VERY clear that the phrase Price quoted -- "Memetics may or may
not be silliness" -- is out of context and incomplete: it had an all
important introductory clause: Until the issue of how memes work has been
settled. I add this observation so that no one is tempted to engage in the
*selective deletion of memes* during this discussion.

>snip a long, elegant, and quite evocative metaphor between landscape and mi=
>which I liked very much.<
>Well established patterns become social and cultural norms and preserve,
>replicate, themselves through their influence on people=92s ongoing
>perception of the world.

Of those paragraphs, I think only the preceding sentence uses the word

I frankly think *very* little in Price's metaphor is changed if we write
"... become social and cultural norms, and preserve themselves and are
replicated through their influence..."

But memetics, at least for some people, takes the change very seriously,
for the change from the active to the passive verb reflects an important
statement of philosophy. For the Full Fledged memeticist, the memes are the
prime movers, and people are their vehicles. It is *that* image of
meme-as-puppet-master that I am challenging, and challenging repeatedly in
my postings.

One last point may be worthwhile. Price asked "So what?" about the
connection between memetics and Platonism. The answer, once again, is not
that Platonism is a Bad Thing, but that (a) it should be acknowledged and
(b) one needs to understand that it is not the only viewpoint possible. In
fact, I sense a tension, if that is the right word, between two views in
Price's own comments. In his expository discussion, he presents the memes
as Platonic entities, but in his metaphor, people are both sculpted
recipients of information *and* sculpturing agents in transmission and use
of information. I suggest that the sculptured/sculpturing metaphor for how
people are affected by information is far more accurate than the Platonic
view of meme as puppet master.

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