Re: To have a mnemon

Aaron Lynch (
Tue, 09 Jun 1998 08:31:55 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 09 Jun 1998 08:31:55 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: To have a mnemon
In-Reply-To: <>

>I'm a little puzzled by your reference to 'shrill denouncements'
>and 'attempts to summarily dismiss' memetics, in one of your
>postings yesterday. I trust that you don't think that my
>postings, or any of the other recent contributions by a few other
>list members, constitute any kind of 'shrill denouncement'. If
>you think I am motivated by any desire to suppress memetics
>because I 'feel threatened at the very idea of analyzing how
>certain cherished beliefs became so common', then you are simply


No, I certainly do not see your own arguments as anything other than an
attempt to advance a position by using calm and serious reasoning. In
particular, you have been attempting an a priori argument. I consider a
priori and empirical arguments welcome. On the other hand, I would hope
that you do not endorse a previous assertion (by a third party) that we
should regret that you and Mr. Best have to "waste their valuable time" on
scientific discourse.

>I have to confess that I have a great deal of difficulty
>comprehending your system, and the more you attempt to explain it
>to me the less I think I understand it.

>You want to make mathematical models for subsequent empirical
>testing. There's nothing wrong with that, but your model has to
>bear a passing resemblance to reality. Even in quantum mechanics
>(your background, I infer?) theorists were only driven to the
>counter-intuitive by the overwhelming weight of experimental
>evidence. Admittedly, the workings of the mind are a bit of
>a mystery, but I don't think that they are so strange that you can
>justify adopting a theoretical framework that is so arbitrary and
>divorced from reality.

If you don't understand the equations in section 16 of my paper, that does
not mean they are arbitrary and divorced from reality. Birth rates, death
rates, child inculcation rates, etc. refer to real phenomena, especially to
those of us who accept the notion that mnemons or memes are instantiated in
human brains. My general impression is that Mr. Best read my math section
about as hastily as he seems to have read Campbell (1974), and generated a
series of confused attacks. So I have sent in a rebuttal to Mr. Best's
letter. The only point where Mr. Best raises a well considered question
about my equations is in regard to how they handle biparental families. The
answer is that they actually handle first-order biparental effects (such as
cross-inculcation) better than they might at first seem to, by way of K12
and K21. Still, as with all aspects of the model, there are vast numbers of
second-order, etc. elaborations possible. The equations were explicitly
billed as an idealization. As I have stated before, a truly ambitious
modeling or simulation project should expect complexity on par with the

My paper identified a number of problems with the general usefulness of
meme definitions containing an embedded theoretical construct of "unit
size," and also held to Dawkins's brain-based definition. This was all
handled in a respectful manner, and I even expressed these points to Mr.
Best by private correspondence long before his 1997 paper came out. (He did
not offer the same courtesy regarding his recent letter.) I do not know why
Mr. Best has now taken a derisive tone, but it is possible that what he
really did not like was the points that my paper made about meme definition
he is using. In any case, I find it unfortunate that the tone of discourse
between Mr. Best and myself has taken this turn, especially if over a
matter of mere terminology. This does not further empirical testing of my
equations or event-based simulations, but rather, discourages readers from
taking the next steps in what promises to be a very extensive line of

>What you especially cannot do is to then call that abstract
>mathematization, ‘a solid and broadly unifying theory whose
>time has come’. Such relentless self-advertisement isn't going to
>make you any friends among academics, and let's face it, if
>academics don't buy your theory then it's never going to be
>intellectually respectible.

Just because academics who wish the term "meme" to focus solely on
non-brain information do not like my theory does not mean that other
academics don't. I am not going to supply a list of those who have read and
liked my JOM paper, but they do exist and some are quite prominent.

>You may be engaged in a circulation
>war with a certain Mr Brodie, but the rest of us aren't.

The conflict with Brodie has arisen from the use of certain marketing
tactics that have no place in science. Books are not like computer programs
that must fiercely expel all "competitors" in order to gain control over an
industry standard. People can read several memetics books much more easily
than they can have several word processors or several operating systems.
Therefore, books should not be marketed like operating systems. I do not
expect anything you might call a "circulation war" with other memetics

>Less I be accused of flaming (sorry, Mr Moderator), or even
>'shrillness', there are a few other more technical points I'd like
>to raise:

You were not accused of shrillness, so I would hope that no one accuses me
of flaming you. Indeed, I even included a joke in my last reply to you. You
were not the one making the suggestion that this discussion is a waste of
valuable time, so I have not reacted to you as the source of that one. If
someone else does not have time for this, then he does not need to

>a) your nomenclature or A and ~A suggests that a new born baby is
>in a state of multiple ~A (infinite ~A, I think, but I won't start
>that argument again). You do state for instance that 2
>believing parents give birth to a not-yet-indoctrinated child, as
>2A gives 2A + ~A. This would seem to be a clear restatement of
>Locke's theory of the tabula rasa, (Locke 1690, II.i.2):

>'Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void
>of all characters, without any ideas:- How comes it to be furnished?
>Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy
>of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has
>it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in
>one word, from EXPERIENCE. In that all our knowledge is founded; and
>from that it ultimately derives itself.'
>Replace 'Experience' (Locke uses capitals in the original -
>they're not just added by me for emphasis) with
>'heteroderivative mnemons' or 'memes', and that would seem to be
>the basis for your theory.

The mnemon concept does not imply tabula rasa. Dawkins, for instance does
believe in the existence of instincts. Yet he defines "meme" such that
one's hostship status for all memes and all possible memes is also negative
at birth (or at least negative at the time the brain begins functioning). I
likewise believe in human instincts, including language instincts. I do not
purport to offer anything like a general theory of mind, and view memetics
as only a part of the broader range of social and psychological sciences.

>and b) There have been a few other attempts at producing similar
>'calculus' formulations of human interactions, notably by my
>fellow Glaswegian Ronnie Laing, back in the 1960s. You ought to
>be aware that these kinds of formulations, however mathematically
>satisfying they may be, usually collapse because they are just too
>unlike what actually goes on.
>You ought to beware that you aren't repeating the mistakes of the
>past. After all, you reinvented memetics independently of Dawkins
>and then reinvented cultural trait tranmsission models
>independently of Cavalli-Sforza. These are perhaps good ideas and
>you should be pleased you had them too. However, you ought to
>worry that you have also reinvented the tabula rasa independently
>of Locke and Interpersonal Calculus independently of Laing.
>These are not such good ideas (although they seemed like it at the
>time) and you want to steer clear of them.

Thank you, Derek.

>Laing RD (1967) The Politics of Experience. Penguin, London.
>Laing RD, Phillipson H and Lee AR (1966) Interpersonal Perception:
>A Theory and Method of Research. Tavistock, London.
>Locke J (1690) Essay Concerning Human Understanding

--Aaron Lynch

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