Re: memetics-digest V1 #13

Paul Marsden (
Mon, 6 Apr 1998 13:35:51 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: memetics-digest V1 #13
Date: Mon, 6 Apr 1998 13:35:51 +0100

>>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


>> I suspect you will prove my assertion that if "meme" means whatever a
writer wants it to mean, then it means nothing at all. (Aaron Lynch)

The project is indeed interesting, and would be useful for further research
and consolidation.

Whilst I would agree with the main thrust (although not some of the
conclusions) of Aaron's interesting paper regarding meme definitions, I
would caution against accepting uncritically his conclusion that

"if "meme" means whatever a writer wants it to mean, then it means nothing
at all."

This is because of the implicit essentialism and naive realism that it
implies, (and thereby raises the whole issue of the positivism within
memetics). In actual fact I broadly agree with Aaron's definition (see
sections 10/11 of his paper for a useful discussion), but its utility will
depend on what you want to do with it. In other words the meme concept must
be understood from within a particular paradigm, and thus it may vary
between the different paradigms in which it is being used which, in turn
will depend on what is being analysed. Now without getting into a debate
about ontology and epistemology, I just want to point out that post modern
theorists (Foucault/Barthes/Derrida etc) particulary within
(de)constructionism, semiotics and structuralism may operationalise the meme
concept very differently, but usefully, to Aaron, as would anthropologists
and sociologists. Multiple definitions do not preclude meaning, only
objective, essential meaning.

Anyway positing an author, who "wants" to express an objective meaning (can
meanings be objective anyway) behind a text is to imply that there is
somebody actually out there issuing all these memes/ideas. The spectre of
homuncularism is lurking right around the corner of the question of
essential definitions.

Instead I think it may be more useful to talk of family resemblances within
the different operationalisations of the meme concept rather than imposing a
single cognitive/behaviourist/physicalist definition from the outset and
excluding the majority of academic disciplines from the paradigm. Aaron's
more ecumenical approach to memetics in Thought Contagion seems to be more
more preferable to this new ""it doesn't mean anything at all"
unless-we-have-one-real-true-and-objective-definition" approach. Whilst it
is necessary to be clear when one operationalises the concept of the meme,
different definitions do not mean that the meme means nothing at all, just
as the concept of a "role" is not necessarily tied to any particular level
of explanation: An institution may have a role, as might my alarm clock but
that role will depend on the context an situation that is under analysis.

Ultimately I think that the concept of the meme can be usefully
operationalised at various levels, but I would point out that a
positivist/Lynch definition may run into problems because of the absence of
(social) structural constraints on replication and an inability to deal with
the notion of power that such a definition might encounter

I personally think a FUNCTIONAL definition of a meme in terms of an evolving
pattern of information (such as Gabora's (IMHO) excellent paper on
creativity) abstracted from whatever substrate may be the most neutral and
useful definition. In this way a meme may be defined as a second order
functional pattern of information within a defined system. Thus the meme
itself would depend on the system which is under investigation which would
be defined from the outset, and thus define its function.

As for your project, please do publish the results on this list: Richard
Brodie briefly reviews Dawkin's, Dennett's and Plotkin's definitions in his
Virus of the Mind, Hull's 1982 article "The Naked Meme" is a good review of
the concept, and the psychologist Sue Blackmore, in her forthcoming book,
"The Meme Machine" takes a radically restrictive, but interesting definition
of the meme. In anthropology David Rindos (1984/1985) has developed the
concept most fully, and in sociology Runciman (1998) has inegrated memetic
thought into evolutionary sociology as evolving units of information encoded
in institutionalised practices. You could also look at Boyd and
Richerson's definition, as well as Dan Sperber's. If you (or anyone else)
wants to contact me we could try and put together a joint paper reviewing of
the different definitions for the JOM.

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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