Re: List of meme definitions (reply to Paul Marsden)

Aaron Lynch (
Tue, 07 Apr 1998 16:00:14 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 07 Apr 1998 16:00:14 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: List of meme definitions (reply to Paul Marsden)
In-Reply-To: <001101bd620d$ce226760$674195c1@user>

>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)

Actually, I do not assert that the organisms under study must have
abstraction systems, so point 3 applies only to "the observer" in my
definition. My paper proposes an experiment in avian population memetics,
for instance, without specifically requiring birds to have abstraction
systems. I also don't say that memories are physical entities per se, but
that they exist in a physical substrate.

>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!

A thesis that contains what your colleagues consider misused terminology
may, in general, be re-worded without going up in smoke. I would say that
there are probably also insightful articles that contain non-standard usage
of the term "parameter."

>>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.

Actually, many scientists expect a variety of neologisms in a new branch of
science. Just look at psychoanalytic theory, for instance. Or for that
matter, the profusion of terms in Glenn Grant's lexicon. Still, we must
hesitate before proposing new terms, and make sure that they are very
useful. A lack of conceptual and terminological consistency poses a greater
threat to memetics than do excess neologisms. Notice that the symposium
call for papers refers to the "chaos" that besets our field.

>>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.

Actually, I don't know if pcp has an official definition, just a number of
articles by various authors that contain definitions. Notice the other
definition by Heylighen at Heylighen
only requires the potential for replication, rather than actual
replication, for meme status--a stand that generates questions of how to
define "capability" of being copied, among other things. (I do not consider
"capability" of being copied to be a priori knowable, and therefore will
only accept that "capability of replication" has been demonstrated when
replication itself has been demonstrated.) Grant formally requires
replication for meme status. I side with Grant on formally requiring
replication, and with Heylighen on formally referring to memory content.

>(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

It is not clear that this definition refers to artifactual icons, or ideas
of icons. If the former, then it is another inconsistency, since "meme" is
defined as information that parasitically infects MINDS. I do not consider
the "lexicon" to be particularly well done. For example, I would like to
see just where Grant perports to have quoted Wheelis in Hofstadter. Too
much in the "lexicon" is sloppily done for it to be used as a standard
reference, and I do not know how to reach Grant himself, either.

--Aaron Lynch

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