Re: Machiavellian Memes

N Rose (
Thu, 09 Oct 1997 12:10:42 +0000

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 09 Oct 1997 12:10:42 +0000
From: N Rose <>
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes

Hi Mario,

First let me apologise a bit for my last listing to you- which
was a bit sarcastic. Hey, I could blame the weather, the
pressures of academia, but there's no real excuse for being
flippant about your objections. So let me start again.

First off, we both *know* that memes do not have agency - but are
passive information. I concede that the term 'replicator' when
applied to memes can, for some people, imply agency. At first I
didn't think people would make that assumption. It seems so
obvious to me that memes cannot have agency that it's hard to
believe that anyone would think that they did - or that *I*
thought that they did. However, some feedback from one of my
supervisors and a fellow memeticist (Hi Alex!) pointed out that,
at times, they had thought I was implying meme agency. So I was
wrong - the term 'replicator' (and 'active' statements) when
applied to memes *does* generate confusion.

When I used the example of "Salt molecules in high concentration
seek to move towards areas of low concentration.", I was wrong to
imply that it was good *scientific* English - upon reflection, if
I read it in a first year undergrad report I would underline it
heavily in red. However, I know that no one *really* believes
that molecules 'seek' anything - so why should anyone think that
memes would have agency? As I said - some people (as well as
yourself of course) have assumed I implied agency - so I was

As for Dennett's tautology it is, of course, "Meme X spread among
the people because X is a good replicator" (DDI p364)- so I
misquoted, and I'm not entirely sure (without re-reading previous
listings) whether I changed the meaning inadvertantly. It's a
tautology - so it's going to be circular. I agree that; "The
replicator replicates because it is a good replicator" is *not*
an explanation. My point about 'machiavellian' memes was
precisely to *attack* this as an ultimate cultural tautology.
It's ironic that I ended up defending it : )

I agree with you that the role of the information processor is
often understated in a lot of meme discussion. Many people
appear to talk about information as if 'information' exists
without an information processor. So (again) I concede that a
shift of emphasis is perhaps worth pursuing.
However, my concern is this; if we place the emphasis on the
processor - which I still think you do with your definitions - we
may encourage people to think that the processor has agency - the
classic Dawkins, and contempory Brodie position that most of my
previous whinings criticised.

As for the passive statements being shorter - well, okay, it was
in your example. But can you express something like "Selfish
meme", in passive form in two words or less? There is a place
for shorthand - but *only* if everyone knows that no
intentionality is implied. However, given the confusion that
exists perhaps you are right! Perhaps we should ban all
shorthand statements! Again - I am actually far more sympathetic
to your position than I have previously said. I think that a big
problem in memetics is that people use shorthand without first
making damn sure that they can convert that shorthand back into
passive processes (like differential survival).

I'm probably going to use active statements from time to time -
hey, sue me!. However, I hope you will challenge me when they
can't be translated back into long-hand, passive processes.



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