Re: Lynch's Memetic Theories about Masturbation (Long)

John Wilkins (wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU)
Fri, 20 Jun 1997 17:32:16 +1100

Date: Fri, 20 Jun 1997 17:32:16 +1100
From: John Wilkins <wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: Lynch's Memetic Theories about Masturbation (Long)
In-Reply-To: <>

Quoting comments by Tim and Martha, inter alia:
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 19:57:21 -0500
Subject: Re: Lynch's Memetic Theories about Masturbation (Long)


That sort of thing is get-rich-quick science, if it is science at all. And
so we return to our opening question. Is memetics a scholarly discipline,
with standards for truth, evidence, and theory, or is it guesswork and
opinion based on personal experience in which there is no expectation of
using -- or discussing -- the scholarly literature?

Lynch ended his comments with a ringing evocation of Charles Darwin. Well,
yes, but Darwin collected immense amounts of data before publishing (as
documented, for example, in Desmond and Moore's recent biography of
Darwin). And likewise with memetics: we believe that memetics must with
the specific details of social phenomena as they are recorded in the
literature of other scholars, and must not rely on ad hoc methods of
personal speculation. Lynch's work is valuable because it speculates about
new ideas, but we cannot remain there nor should we blur speculation with
substantiated knowledge. In brief, memetics must develop hypotheses and
test them carefully and judiciously, with all due attention to the methods
of scholarly research.

==end quote==

I second Tim and Martha's points about scholarly rigor.

Much of memetic speculation resembles the sorts of 'science' done by late
eighteenth century and early nineteenth century biologists. There was a lot
of valuable work done by researchers like Schwann, Schleiden and von Baer
but some of their explanatory scenarios are, to put it mildly, far fetched,
and those scenarios usually far outstripped the data. Then there is the
problem of just-so-ism - something memetic explanations are badly prone to.
In order to develop memetics as an echt science, it seems to me that
several conditions need to be met.

1. Terminology must be clarified to ensure that the extension of any term
is either unambiguous or any ambiguities are in the open. We should now be
past the stage where metaphor has any real role in theory development.
Without clear and precise terminology, we can't be sure how to classify
what we are studying, and therefore can't rationally disagree about

2. Theoretical entities should be specified - a plea for a theoretical
ontology. Quine wrote that to be is to be the value of a variable - what
are our variables and what entities do we postulate the existence of?
Without this, we do not even have a model of sociocultural change, and we
can't restrict the domain of our study. Memetics will end up so diffuse it
will equally apply to cooking as to motor mechanics, and with as little

3. Science involves hard work. Although there can be a never ending stream
of papers from a researcher who has been in a field for any time, in order
to reach that stage the scientist must have done an enormous amount of
basic work (and mutatis mutandis, for other research based disciplines).
What we see as 'memetics' so far comprises very little of this hard work,
of the kind that Cavalli-Sforza has done, for example.

If I had a paid academic position, I'd love to do some of this sort of
thing. I look forward to seeing what those who can, do.

Parenthetically, it strikes me that a memetic history of ideas would be a
good starting point - that is, ideas related by descent and social success
rather than dubious typological similarity, which is how the older
histories of ideas were and are written. Hull's work is in this direction.

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