Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

Mon, 7 Sep 1998 13:08:01 -0400 (EDT)

Subject: Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance
Date: Mon, 7 Sep 1998 13:08:01 -0400 (EDT)

and now Aaron:

On Sun, 06 Sep 1998 13:34:07 -0500 Aaron Lynch <> wrote:

> In addition to those objecting to the word "thought," there are always
> going to be people who object to the term "contagion," too. These will
> often be people fixated on the negative connotations, not the positive
> connotations of the word. They ignore such phrases as "contagious joy,"
> "contagious laughter," etc., and ignore the fact that even beneficial
> microbes are still contagions. When the term "contagion" is applied to
> venerated ideas and traditions, such as religion, it generates particularly
> irrational responses--even in some former believers and complete
> non-believers.

I do worry a bit that it is often deliberately applied to generate that
kind of response (and thereby generate a bit of publicity). I'm not
suggesting that you do that in any of your work, but that is how I
interpret Dawkins' Virus of the Mind article. Also a lot of the
peripheral 'Net-memetics' seems to revolve around religion-baiting. I
can't see any point in this, as the whole religion-science debate is
completely passe. At worst, the whole memetics movement could come to
be seen as some kind of anti-religion pressure group (like the Indian
Rationalist Association). Anyway, I don't see that mind virology
necessarily provides any novel critique of religion, and certainly
serious theologians simply ignore it. In my Zygon article I try to
make the case that the mind virology critique of religion is the modern
manifestation of a similar critique (superstition = an infection) that
goes back to 17th century non-conformist sects such as the Diggers, the
Levellers and the Ranters. These groups were attacking organised
religion rather then religion per se (they said that faith in ritual =
disease, or Catholicism = disease) , but in the post-Newtonian epoch
the critique was taken up by the Deists (Christian theology as a
whole = disease) and others in and around the Royal Society (many of
whom like Newton had ultra-Protestant backgrounds). It only became a
fully-fledged atheist theory in the aftermath of Hume and Diderot (God
= disease) , and the line can be traced from there to Dawkins by way of
Bentham and the Logical Positivists. In other words, it's fairly old
hat, 17th century English ultra-Protestantism in some
pseudo-scientific clothes, but with a Cromwellian glint still in its
eye. Some poor uneducated hill-billy fundamentalists might be driven
to 'irrational responses', but among the theologians there is scarcely
a word of comment. I had a lot of trouble persuading the editors of
Zygon that a reply to Dawkins was actually warranted. They simply
didn't think that such a crass argument merited a response. I got the
article published because they liked the parallels I drew between
Popper and Averroes in a memetic context - but that's another matter.
[Zygon 33, 203-220]

> No matter how many times I say that thought contagions are not the only
> kind of cultural replicators, there will probably always be people building
> straw-man arguments asserting that thought contagion theory somehow
> specifies no other kinds of replicators. Sure, I take the term "meme" to
> refer to an information replicator in the brain, after Dawkins's 1982
> definition. I also have personally chosen to specialize on thought
> contagions. Yet my 1998 paper offers a number of terms more general and
> more specific than the word "meme," to encompass a wide range of non-mnemon
> replicators.
> Does quark theory insist that quarks and gluons are the only kinds of
> elementary particles? No. They do not need to be the only kinds of
> elementary particles to be important subjects of study. Nor does insistence
> that "quark" refer to just one kind of particle somehow imply that there
> are no other particles worthy of study.
> Does memetics theory insist that memes are the only kinds of cultural
> replicators? No. They don't need to be the only kinds of cultural
> replicators in order to be important subjects of study. Does Dawkins's
> insistence that "meme" refer to just one kind of cultural replicator imply
> that there are no other cultural replicators worth of study? No. (Indeed,
> he even discusses computer viruses in his revised 1989 edition of The
> Selfish Gene.)
> Does thought contagion theory insist that thought contagions are the only
> kinds of cultural replicators? No. They don't need to be the only kinds of
> cultural replicators in order to be important subjects of study. See
> sections 10 and 11 of Units, Events, and Dynamics in Memetic Evolution at
> JoM-EMIT. Does my insistence that only certain kinds of cultural
> replicators be called "thought contagions" mean that there are no other
> cultural replicators? Again, no.
> If science needs more than one word to describe more than one specific
> class of cultural replicator, then this does not in any way "retard" the
> science any more than does the variety of particle names in physics.

My use of the word 'retard' stems from what I see as the placing of
'internal' memes or mnemons at centre-stage. Other more promising
avenues of investigation have been closed off or made less fashionable
by the insistence that the replicator (or the main replicator, if you
prefer) is internal to the brain. Thus I believe that potential for
empirical progress has been held back, by an attractive but ultimately
hollow theoretical construct.

> anything, confusion and vagueness have been responsible for holding back
> progress during the two decades following first publication of the word
> "meme."

I agree that precise definitions are preferable to vague ones. But
with the internal meme we have a precise definition which is
counterproductive as it inhibits quantification. Quantification is at
least as important as precision of definitions (if not more so).

I look forward to your longer response.


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