Re: Machiavellian Memes, Comments by Mario Vaneechoutte

Niki Ritt (
Wed, 1 Oct 1997 11:15:33 +0000

Message-Id: <>
From: Niki Ritt <>
Date: Wed, 1 Oct 1997 11:15:33 +0000
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes, Comments by Mario Vaneechoutte

Hello colleagues,

sorry for intruding on a conversation I havn't been part of from the
beginning, but from my own point-of-view as a historical linguist
trying to adopt a memetic pespective on my particular subject, I
can't resist commenting on two observations made by Mario
Vaneechoutte and reproduced below.

> 'Memes survive and replicate because they are good at replicating'.
> 1. Here you take an observation (memes are good at replicating) as an
> explanation. You don't answer the question: 'Why are they good at
> replicating?'

In a way, Mario seems to have a point here, but only in a way: A
statement like 'meme A is alive because it has managed to replicate
before disintegrating' does sound tautological. While I don't see why
we ought to be frightened by the occasional tautology, it definitely
raises further questions, like where and in what material form do
memes exist, how exactly do they replicate and what parameters
influence their fecundity, stabilty and copying fidelity. Yet the
very fact that the tautology just mentioned poses exactly
such questions makes it valuable as a central tenet of a (potential)
theory of memetic evolution. This is also, I believe,
because it prevents one from (rashly) focussing on
hypothetical explanations such as 'meme A is alive because it's so
useful to people'. Thus, it pays to be aware that memes replicate
first and foremost simply because their makeup is such that under
certain conditions its triggers processes that amount to copies of
them coming into existence. However tautological it might be, this
view helps averting the danger of Memetic Lamarckianism and/or
Teilhardianism, while not excluding in principle that 'usefulness to
hosts' (however that is measured ...?) might be a powerful parameter
in determining 'meme fitness'.

> 2. Memes do not replicate, they are being processed and - to some degree
> - replicated by human minds. Like you, many on this list put homunculi
> inside memes, blaming others to put a homunculus inside the human mind.

I don't think I would want to agree with this. While I do not deny
that memes seem to require human minds for their replication (though
this may only be the typical case, not the only conceivable one),
this doesn't imply that memes must be thought of as mere passive
objects being manipulated by active minds. Take the case of phonemes,
for instance, if you grant them meme status in the first place. If a
mind has acquired a certain phoneme system (which it can't help
acquiring, because the human language acquisition device is innate
and instinctive), it can't help 'using' it either and thus
willy-nilly promotes the replication of the phone-memes in question.
To argue that phone-memes thus 'use' the neuronal hardware of human
brains for the purpose of their own replication is therefore
perfectly justified. And it doesn't necessarily cast phone-memes as
'humunculi' at all, if we take words such as 'use' to have more
abstract and technical meaning instead of the normal one, which in
everyday language implies 'human-like' agents. After all, nobody
accuses physicsist of anthropomorphism when they say things like
'electrons and protons attract each other'. - And nobody
accuses biologists of anthropomorphism when they say things like:
'genes make themselves bodies through protein synthesis'. - So, why
shouldn't a memeticist say 'memes use minds for their replication'?

Nikolaus Ritt
English Department
University of Vienna
Universitaetsstrasse 7
A-1010 Vienna

Phone: int. 43 1 4277 424 24
Fax: int. 43 1 4277 9424


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