Critical thinking in memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Sat, 16 May 1998 14:41:11 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 16 May 1998 14:41:11 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Critical thinking in memetics
In-Reply-To: <19980515195838.AAA28025@[]>

A certain amount of euphoria has arisen over memetics, and this now
combines with a widespread euphoria about the Internet. In the long run,
however, critics outside of memetics will play a major role in the
selection pressures applied to memetics tenets. They in fact are already
playing this kind of selection role. All of this necessitates the role of
critics within the field of memetics itself. The formal peer review process
is one of the places for this, but it will not be sufficient if limited to
that setting alone. I don't especially relish the role of critic, but will
nevertheless be playing this role from time to time (sometimes more than

What does the presence of critics within memetics do for the field? Take as
an example my earlier comments on the _Memetic Lexicon_ by Glenn Grant.
This work is cited quite a bit, but it will nevertheless be possible for
people outside our field to question whether Grant has accurately found a
quotation of Wheelis in Hofstadter for his meme definition. I cannot locate
Grant, and have not asked Hofstadter, but no matter: the lexicon lacks the
requisite references for quoted material. Having problems like this brought
up from within memetics serves our purposes better than having it brought
up by the anti-memetics critics. Grant's work has not, to my knowledge,
passed formal peer review. But its frequent citation means that it must be
subjected to review by informal means such as this listserver.

More serious objections are and will be raised against memetics works from
without, so again the need for raising objections from within. Every
respectable branch of science now seems to have a pseudoscience element
tagging alongside. Sometimes, the pseudoscientific ideas arise by confused
uncritical thinking or the use of unscientific methods in reaching
conclusions. Sometimes the pseudoscientific ideas arise by way of outright
fraud. Alleging any of these is an unpleasant task, but will nevertheless
need to be done at times. Entire organizations such as the Committee for
the Scientific Evaluation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, exist to provide critical review to items that so
often lie beyond the reach of peer-reviewed journals, as well as to certain
items that make it past an imperfect peer-review process. Examples of
CSICOP work include the debunking of pseudo-physics ideas such as "zero
point energy machines." The role of critic is for me an unpleasant role
that can get me into an unpleasant frame of mind. But I for one would much
rather play this role from within memetics than open my mail some day to
find an anti-memetics critic treating memetics as pseudoscience in the
_Skeptical Inquirer_ or elsewhere.

--Aaron Lynch

Editor, Journal of Memetics:
How Belief Spreads Through Society--The New Science of Memes
Basic Books. Online Brochure:
Most recent paper: Units, Events, and Dynamics in Memetic Evolution.

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