Re: Nazi Thought Contagion

N Rose (
Thu, 09 Oct 1997 13:47:34 +0000

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 09 Oct 1997 13:47:34 +0000
From: N Rose <>
Subject: Re: Nazi Thought Contagion

Aaron Lynch wrote:

>Hi Nick.

>>Some thoughts, comments and general devil's advocacy about your
>>piece on Nazism:=20

>At least it's not F=FChrer's advocacy! ;-)

F=FChrer's ?? Is this a failure of my mail client to interpret

Re: Nazi Thought Contagion

Although this is made in response to Aaron's new print article -
it's directed much more widely than Aaron's piece on Nazism. You
shouldn't feel I'm accusing you personally, Aaron ; )

One of my abiding concerns about memetic 'explanations' of
history and cultural change is that they have a tendancy to over
simplify the issues. Certainly some simplification is necessary
- even desirable - but it makes it very difficult to convince
non-memeticists that our kind of work is serious and not just an
exercise in rhetoric. Unfortunately memetic evolution is as
complicated as history - so is there anything we *can* do about

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of using selectionist
explanations (in biology) is that we can postulate fewer
functions than biological features. If you like - we don't have
to come up with a new theory for every feature in biology - we do
not have to invent a new mechanism for each example found in
nature. This is where selectionist accounts of biological change
win out (IMO) over the sort of 'spandrel' kinds of explanation
often used by Gould (and others).

In memetics, however, my concern is that there is a tendancy to
form a new theory for each element of culture we examine. As
such many memetic explanations of cultural phenomena risk falling
into the 'just so story' category of explanation. It's not just
important that a memetic explanation can defend itself against
rival hypotheses for one element of culture - but that the *same*
memetic explanations can be used to understand multiple elements
of culture. Only then will we have less theories than elements
of culture, and be able to claim that memetics is the equal to
selectionist explanations in biology - and better than
sociological reasoning (in an Occam's razor kind of way).

Many mechanisms that have been suggested for memetic propogation,
like being intimidating for instance, could quite easily cut both
ways (i.e. attract lots of new hosts - or simply put people off).
What we badly need is clear mechanisms which I) hold for any
number of circumstances, and II) hold for more than one
element of culture (and preferably many). Otherwise the rest of
science will think we are just enthusiastic (but misguided)
supporters of an interesting (but ultimately unworkable) idea.

Perhaps I'm just being a bit pessimistic here.


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