Re: re.Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)

Aaron Lynch (
Fri, 13 Jun 1997 14:19:31 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 13 Jun 1997 14:19:31 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: re.Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)
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Aaron Lynch responding to Bill Benzon:

>Aaron Lynch,
>You've provided the following definition of a meme:
>>MEME. Noun. A memory item, or portion of an organism=EDs neurally-stored
>>information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer,=
>>instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of
>>the same memory item in one or more other organisms=ED nervous systems.
>>("Sameness" of memory items is determined with respect to the
>>above-mentioned abstraction system of the observer.)
>I don't have much trouble understanding that definition, nor, I would
>imagine, most folks posting to this list.=20

I certainly wouldn't expect any comprehension trouble on the list connected
with a scholarly journal. Lay-oriented publishers reject such language,
though, because too many people think that "abstraction" means "detachment
from reality," or "conceptual difficulty," or something instead of that
most basic mental act that we have all done from infancy.

>What I do question is whether or
>not those entities play a role in cultural evolution which is analogous to
>that played by genes in biological evolution. I don't see where you or
>anyone else has made a convicing demonstration of that.

Well, Dawkins has only offered only a few short treatments of the subject,
leading many to assume for 20 years that Dawkinsian memetics had almost
nothing to offer. But I have now published a whole book on cases where
memes are not only central to the phenomena, but also where memetic
analysis is critical to understanding the phenomena. So if you want to
evaluate the strengths or weaknesses of Dawkinsian memetics, you have to
read that book--it is the only all-memetics book that Dawkins has endorsed.

But culture and biology ARE NOT isomorphic, so you cannot expect memes to
be as central to as many phenomena in as many ways as genes are. Memetics
is not all there is to culture, psychology, or social reality. To demand
that memetics explain everything or else nothing at all is sheer folly.
Memetics is not a science of all there is to culture, regardless of how
much people would like to inflate the mission. Moreover, memetics is not
just a buzzword for any and all efforts to bring a more scientific
perspective to culture. Memetics is a specific kind of scientific analysis
of culture, and one which needs to live along side other kinds of analysis,
such as economics.

If you wish to assert that the Dawkinsian meaning of the word "meme" is
useless or does not refer to anything that really exists, then you need to
be explicit about it. Physicists once defined a word "tachyon," for
particles going faster than light. But those arguing against such a
phenomenon were, in effect, arguing to retire the word. They were not
attempting to apply it to all sorts of other physical phenomena. And no one
would say that the other physical phenomena do not exist or were somehow
inferior in the eyes of science merely because the tachyon theorists did
not want the word "tachyon" applied to all those other phenomena and
"tachyonics" applied to all sorts of particle theory.

>What I do see is a lot of talk about the power of things like "God is Love"
>etc. Since those things obviously correpond to, are produced by, whatever,
>entities which match your definition of a meme, those things must be memes.

I hope you are not attempting to trivialize the subject by picking "God is
Love," a meme I don't discuss in my book but which I only chose as a
light-hearted example regarding the "sizes" of memes. You might find my
analysis of sex taboos or the Nazi thought contagion a bit less trivial.

>And since memes, by definition, are to culture what genes are to life,

Not so. It is an empirical question as to whether there exists any unit
that is to culture as genes are to life. You cannot assert "by definition"
that such an entity exists. This, therefore, is not a scientifically
acceptable way to define the term "meme." You must first define the term
without reference to genes, and only later observe how much of culture
actually shows the analogy to the genes of life.=20

> it
>follows that your discussion of those things is ipso facto a discussion of
>cultural evolution.

I don't claim to analyze all of cultural evolution.

>I don't buy it.
>What I think is going on is that the homunculus in the brain has been cut
>into pieces which are then parcelled to these "memes." The biological
>analogy is being used as hocus pocus to blind us to the casual nature of
>the arguments being made about these other things.

This remark seems irrelevant to my work, and to Dawkinsian memetics, so I
ask you to give an example, perhaps from one of the memes I discuss in
chapter 1 at How, for instance, am I
blinding anyone to unsound thinking about the evolution of masturbation


--Aaron Lynch

How Belief Spreads Through Society
The New Science of Memes
Basic Books. Info and free sample:


--Aaron Lynch

How Belief Spreads Through Society
The New Science of Memes
Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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