Re: List of Meme definitions

Aaron Lynch (
Mon, 06 Apr 1998 12:20:18 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 06 Apr 1998 12:20:18 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: List of Meme definitions
In-Reply-To: <000801bd6158$a3a41de0$144f95c1@user>

Aaron Lynch responding to Paul Marsden.

(I switched the subject line back to "Re: List of Meme definitions." No
sense letting the listserver change the subject on us!)

>>>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.

Note that the definition I give does not propose an objective essential
meaning in defining any specific meme. By referencing replication to
abstraction system of the observer, I avoid essentialism. But Paul is
correct to note that the utility of the meme definition depends upon how
you intend to apply it. More generally, the utility of term "replicator"
depends upon how you intend to apply it. I can define "replicator"
technically as an "entity, identified using the abstraction system of the
observer, whose instantiation depended critically on causation by prior
instantiation of the same abstraction, ("Sameness" of entities is
determined with respect to the above-mentioned abstraction system of the
observer.)" This would form a starting point for generalized evolutionary
replicator theory. Cultural repliconics (often confused with memetics for
lack of appropriate broader terminolgy), is a subfield, and memetics itself
is a sub-subfield. But even the general term "replicator" might be of low
utility for explaining such things as the production of neutrinos. So there
should be no surprise that the term "meme" offers little utility for some

>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.

Nothing about my definition requires that "meaning" be considered
objective. Indeed, I spoke against including the often subjective concept
of parasitism in the definition of the word.

>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.

I would be interested to know which academic disciplines are excluded by my
formal definition of "meme," or whether you really consider my memory based
definition to impose a single cognitive/behaviourist/physicalist
definition. Many cognitive/behaviourist/physicalist paradigms work withing
my exceedingly broad definition. My definition explicitly aviods the
"one-real-true-and-objective-definition" approach to a defining a specific
meme. Moreover, my current wording of the definition merely paraphrases
(without further neologisms) the meme as homoderivative mnemon definition
that I published in 1991. <>. My
1998 paper therefore does not represent any shift from the ecumenical
approach to memetics. Instead, I suspect that you may have underestimated
just how broad my 1998 wording is, which does sound more restrictive than
it really is because of its technical tone.

>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

What I am saying is that the "many levels" which are each vast realms in
their own right deserve distinct words to aviod confusion. I use the word
"mnemon" for non-replicated information patterns in the brain, and other
terms also make sense at that level. Various types of cultural "replicons"
are suitable terms for use at other levels, such as institutions, etc.
There is nothing about the "meme" definition that I offer that stops
consideration of the role of power in replication, either. There is even a
section in my book dealing with wealth and status linked
propagation--though much more can be said.

>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.

The meme definition I give does depend upon the phenomena under
investigation and the abstraction system applied to it. But the word has
been in use for decades in a substrate-specific sense, and you are not
offering a replacement term for this body of work.

>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,

My impression is that he reviews statements about memes presented as
definitions. The section also ignores the 1990-1991 Journal of Ideas work,
some of which that Brodie himself described "wonderful" in correspondence
with me. Brodie seems to want to hide serious memetics works from his
readers unless those works are simply too famous to hide. After getting the
JOI editor (Moritz) to write an endorsement, he avoided any mention of JOI
but instead referred to a bogus "Institute."

> 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.

--Aaron Lynch

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