Re: Machiavellian Memes, Comments by Mario Vaneechoutte

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Wed, 01 Oct 1997 17:19:07 -0700

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 01 Oct 1997 17:19:07 -0700
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes, Comments by Mario Vaneechoutte

Niki Ritt wrote:
> 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.

OK. But asking how exactly they are replicated (instead of 'How exactly
they replicate?') and asking questions about fecundity, ... can be done
by looking at memes as information which is replicated instead of as
considering memes as 'replicators'. The question then sounds: 'Why do
human minds preferentially spread some information and not the
alternative(s)?' The human mind is the active selective environment, but
of course the selection taking place will also be influenced by other
memes already present (and selected or imposed by others in previous
encounters between mind and meme).


> > 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.

They are, the mind compares different memes and picks out the most
useful, i.e. the most attractive for the individuals purpouses. Or:
others impose memes on one's mind (e.g. child education).
By habituation (or by the fact that most people believe the same thing,
one can take some ideas (e.g. 'God is allmighty' or 'memes are
replicators, and use our minds') for granted.

This has to do with will, an animal genetically based characteristic,
which is not related to 'free will', which is a typical meme (an idea
which aids some people who want to defend an anthropocentric world

> 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.

I do not consider phonemes as memes, just like I don't consider
nucleotides as genes.

>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'?

Anthropomorphism is not the problem. Saying that memes 'use' minds, has
nothing to do with anthropomorphism.
When you use such terminology you simply consider memes as active
processors, just like enzymes, cells, organisms, humans, machines:
systems which DO something.

When physicists say that electrons and protons attract each other they
are describing an observable phenomenon, and only because of limitations
of language (or for ease of speaking) they use the word 'attract'. This
is a different case than for memes, because 'physical attraction' (i.e.
the getting closer to each other when separated not too far) is an
existing observable phenomenon. In the case of memes as active agents
you defend a hypothesis (which might be true, and I might be wrong) but
you have no observations: it is just an interpretation of ongoing
interactions that some people make.
'When genes make themselves bodies': again this is an observable process
which is largely unraveled by science. (Although we would better say
that cells make themselves bodies). In this case, indeed cells (together
with their genes) do something, which you can observe.

When you observe some cultural information spreading rapidly, can you
say that it is the information which makes itself copied? You'd better
say that this information happens to be copied faster than other
information because it has some characteristics which appeal to the
copying activity of the human mind.
In this terminology, the active agent then clearly is the human mind.
And then you can ask the right question: 'Why is it that some
information is preferentially being copied by human minds and their
associates like copy machines and computers?'

I caution again against this 'replicator' terminology, because it is
rapidly misleading.

Mario Vaneechoutte

=============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see: