Re: List of meme definitions

Paul Marsden (
Tue, 7 Apr 1998 11:12:25 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: List of meme definitions
Date: Tue, 7 Apr 1998 11:12:25 +0100

Response to Aaron Lynch

Thanks Aaron, for the clarification and elaboration of your position re. the
problem of defining the meme. The call for a clarification of the meme
concept is of course to be welcomed, (with the minimum necessary
introduction of neologisms). I was just guarding against what some people
could have construed as a call for a one and only definition when you argued

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

In other words I (perhaps incorrectly) took this to be the line of reasoning
"If x = openset then x = nothing" which as you probably realise is not the
point of view I subscribe to. I agree that your definition is broad, (which
is one of the reasons I like it) like it.

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.)" Lynch 1998

However this definition posits certain domain assumptions about the nature
and status of the world we experience, including:

1. We inhabit a physical world and we exist as biological organisms
2. These biological organisms neurally-store information which we
experience as memories (therefore memories are physical entities)
3. That these biological organisms posses abstraction systems
4. That these abstraction systems determine sameness
5. That a meme is an abstracted unit of imitation (2nd order construct)

Whilst I would agree with (5), the other points I do not feel are necessary
(althought they may well be correct) to a working definition, unless one
wishes to tie memetics down to biology. Now I don't want to appear to be
knocking such a project, because I believe that the rapprochement of the
natural and social sciences could be beneficial to both sides, but I think
that memetics could encompass much of what you want to call "cultural
repliconics", and that it is not necessary to define memes as neurally
stored information. I suppose I would want to suggest that a meme is a
functional phenotype (ie a informational object of our phenomenology
whatever its substrate), and that it is not necessary to posit them as
neurally stored anything. I fear we are quibbling over something we braodly
agree on, I just don't want to see my thesis go on memetics go up in
Lynchian smoke!

>I would be interested to know which academic disciplines are excluded by my
>formal definition of "meme,"

Any discipline that questions the status of that the cultural world as
somehow grounded in the physical world.

>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.

I was refering to your overview in Thought Contagion, which appeared to
offer scope for a memetics not tied to "neurally stored information" but
perhaps I was wrong.

>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.

Yes I agree with all this, but I'd question the necessity for this
terrifying expansion of neologisms, which may be more harmful than useful in
a discipline in its infancy such as ours.

>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.

No, here you are wrong, take the Principia Cybernetica definition of a meme
which states that an icon is is meme.

(pron. `meem') A contagious information pattern that replicates by
parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing
them to propagate the pattern. (Term coined by Dawkins, by analogy with
"gene".) Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and
fashions are typical memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme
until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All
transmitted knowledge is memetic. (Wheelis, quoted in Hofstadter.) (See

>>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
>>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."

Whatever. Thom was asking for definitions and Brodie quotes three, and
develops one.

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

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