Re: List of Meme definitions

Aaron Lynch (
Sun, 05 Apr 1998 22:26:50 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sun, 05 Apr 1998 22:26:50 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: List of Meme definitions
In-Reply-To: <>

>Ok, list, I would like to put together a big list of all the different
>definitions of the meme for everyone!
>Please, send various definitions and the sources to me at

This is an interesting project. In my paper Units, Events, and Dynamics in
Memetic Evolution
<>, I discuss the
original definition, my own technical refinement of that definition
(below), and some of the plethora of expanded and even opposite
definitions. When you gather together the long list, I suspect you will
prove my assertion that if "meme" means whatever a writer wants it to mean,
then it means nothing at all. My paper proposes a way around this problem,
namely, that we recognize CULTURAL REPLICONICS as the superset of memetics.
Many attempts to redefine the term "meme" are in fact efforts to discuss
other areas of cultural repliconics besides memetics.

The term "gene" has undergone definition changes based partly on the
empirical findings of molecular biology and partly on various theoretical
refinements. Yet when drastically different classes of phenomena such as
prions were analyzed as replicators, biology did not attempt to expand the
term "gene" to include them. Dawkins in 1982 explicitly clarified that
"meme" refers to imitational information in the brain. Attempting to make
the word "meme" refer to artifacts, etc. is analogous to trying to make the
word "gene" refer to prions, enzymes, bee hives, etc., even as we note that
these entities all play (complicated) causal roles in generating new copies
of themselves. Some go well beyond even this, all the way up to an
alt.memetics article proposing that "meme" refer to "information, in all
sectors of the universe." Some definition expansions are less extreme, but
still insist that even genes are subsets of "memes." In order to avoid such
chaos and resultant ridicule, we need to exercise some discipline. We need
to consider refinements of the definition carefully, and avoid drastic
expansions of the definition unless there are overwhelming reasons for
them. Instead of loading down the one little word "meme" with every
conceivable cultural item we would like to study from replicator or
evolutionary perspectives, we need to shift some of the load to new
terminology such as "cultural replicon," "text contagion," "meme relic,"
"meme phenotype," etc., or perhaps the older term "cultural ethology." To
make sure that these other valid subjects are still included in the scope
of JOM-EMIT, we should perhaps change the name to "Journal of Memetics AND
Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission." Much valid work is and
will be done on evolution and replicator theory of non-meme cultural
entities. But even as many of these be meme phenotypes, calling all of them
"memes" will result in confusion for everyone, especially for critical
outside reviewers of our works. Getting more articles and topics in the
Journal through an expanded definition may be tempting, but it is not a
good enough reason to expand the definition of a scientific term either.

There are sound reasons for defending "restricted" meanings of a word,
though the "restrictive" definition of "meme" is quite vast. When you
expand the meaning of a scientific term, you may effectively take the word
away from those who use it to refer to a specific class of entities. Hence,
mathematicians and other scientists defend the word "parameter" from those
who would assign it a drastically new meaning. The new meaning has no
compelling reason for it, except that the word sounds impressive. And those
who misuse the word generally do not offer to replace it with a new
technical term for the specific definition they would take away from
scientists. Likewise, those who attempt to expand the term "meme" often do
so without offering a replacement term for those who have been using it for
the specific meaning consistent with Dawkins for decades.

In addition to recognizing the supersets of memetics, we also need to
explicitly recognize the subsets of memetics. Not all memes call out for
the term "thought contagion," for instance--a point that I make in my paper
and my book. Not all memes are viral or parasitic, either. I regard most as
symbiotic or neutral. Arguments against memetics based on the the
misconception that it attempts to treat all memes as harmful parasites must
therefore be dismissed. Thus, the "Memetic Lexicon" by Glenn Grant is
flawed: it DEFINES memes as infecting parasitically, even as it
acknowledges that all transmitted knowledge (including host beneficial) is
memetic. Insisting that all memes are parasitic also taints the scientific
credibility of memetics, by giving it the appearance of being a system of
judgmental opinions rather than objective science.

If someone wishes to argue that there are NO entities which satisfy the
Dawkinsian definition of "meme" or refinements thereof, then they should
not attempt to make their argument by asserting some wholly contrary
definition, such as one that asserts that memes never exist in brains.
Instead, they should assert that the Dawkinsian meaning of the word refers
to non-existent phenomena, and should therefore be retired from active
use--much as has happened with the physics term "tachyon."

My own neutral but technical definition (a refinement of Dawkins), from
<> and
<> is:

MEME: A memory item, or portion of an organism's neurally-stored
information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer, whose
instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of
the same memory item in one or more other organisms' nervous systems.
("Sameness" of memory items is determined with respect to the
above-mentioned abstraction system of the observer.)

--Aaron Lynch

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