Re: Machiavellian Memes, Comments on comments by Mario Vaneechou

Niki Ritt (
Wed, 1 Oct 1997 18:45:34 +0000

Message-Id: <>
From: Niki Ritt <>
Date: Wed, 1 Oct 1997 18:45:34 +0000
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes, Comments on comments by Mario Vaneechou

> > 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).

Well, if one thing is obvious, it is that while we all seem to be
attracted by the 'meme' concept in some way or other, we don't seem
to be nearing anything like an agreement on what we are really doing
or how we ought best to approach the issues that might be at stake.
But I guess good things take their while, and there's no need to
worry about all of us being a bit confused at this stage, or is

What I do find a bit puzzling about your views, though, is why you
insist on employing the term 'meme' at all, while rejecting Dawkins'
definition of memes as replicators. If one insists that memes are
passive, why not keep referring to them as 'pieces of information' or
use some similarly established term?

> > > 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
> view).
> > 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.

Nor do I, but shouldn't we leave a few options open at this stage of
the discussion? As far as I know, the 'size' of memes is still among
the many unresolved issues relating to memes and their ontological
status. So my humble advice is to take things easy and keep playing
around with various possibilities until we have a better view of
which perspective turns out to be more productive in the end.
At least for the strictly linguistic problems I'm used to dealing
with, the idea that phonemes might be replicators and thus memes in
the Dawkinsian sense, yields quite interesting results - or at least
perspectives. Sorry, folks, I'm a linguist, can't help it.

> >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.

I'm sorry if I didn't make myself sufficiently clear. I was under the
impression that if somebody invents a 'homunculus' without good cause
then s/he is guilty of unwarrented 'anthropomorphism'. So, when
you, Mario, raised the issue of 'homunculi' I took this to imply that
'anthropomorphism' was at least vaguely related to the problem. Or
was I misguided by the fact that 'anthropos' and 'homo' are somehow
related in meaning ... ?

> When you use such terminology you simply consider memes as active
> processors, just like enzymes, cells, organisms, humans, machines:
> systems which DO something.

I never said 'processors'.

> 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:

Sure, not really. But neither had Mendel when he proposed his theory
of inheritance. All he could observe were colour
correlations between successive generations of pea flowers. It took
quite some time until the actual material units of inheritance were
'discovered'. The same might be the case with memes, or might it not?

> it is just an interpretation of ongoing
> interactions that some people make.

Well, uuhm, yes, it is, isn't it?

> '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

Why is that better?

> ). 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?

Actually, yes. It's sure possible: 'It is the information that gets
itself being 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:

the 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.

Well, I absolutely agree that caution is always warranted. So
I promise to remain as cautious as I have tried to be so far before
deciding whether or not the replicator terminolgy is misleading.

Honest injun. Cross my heart and want to die.

Have fun, folks. See you later. I guess I'll do some more thinking
before joining you again.


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


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)