RE: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

Richard Brodie (
Mon, 7 Sep 1998 18:54:10 -0700

From: "Richard Brodie" <>
To: <>
Subject: RE: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance
Date: Mon, 7 Sep 1998 18:54:10 -0700
In-Reply-To: <>

Responding to Derek Gatherer:

First, I want to thank you for a delightful weekend. I spent it in Ashland,
Oregon watching Shakespeare plays and considering how all behavior might
stem from self-replicating learned behaviors with no intangible attitudes,
opinions or beliefs guiding the way. It was stimulating!

As my buddy Aaron Lynch, author of the only memetics article by a North
American included on the "Social Sciences--Other" page in the Microsoft Home
Education & Reference Directory, said so eloquently, neither he nor I claim
that the meme is the only cultural replicator, or even the most interesting
one. We both used the term "meme" to refer to information in a mind or brain
simply because that was the common usage that prior writers had settled

As you might guess from the title of my book, the most interesting cultural
replicator to me is the virus of the mind. Mind viruses (whether designed by
conscious intent or self-organized through natural selection) are
self-replicating bits of culture that use people as at least part of their
replication machinery. Most participants on this list are of course familiar
with the usual examples: chain letters, religions, multi-level marketing
businesses. When people encounter these mind viruses, some of them are
influenced to participate in spreading the virus to others. Self-replication
is the key. Of course we all know that this is simply a point of view we use
to understand and make predictions, not an implication of conscious intent
in a piece of paper. But to say this phenomenon does not exist is to miss
out on some big-time happenings.

As I strolled around beautiful Ashland, I noticed the behaviors I saw.
Several people were walking dogs. Score one for Derek; this could clearly be
explained as a replicated learned behavior. People were eating big dripping
waffle cones. Another point for Derek. I wanted one myself but remembered
that my Lactaid was back at the inn. I got turned on to Lactaid, which keeps
me from getting stomach aches when I eat dairy products, by a friend of mine
who told me about it. Hmm. Maybe I actually saw him taking one; him telling
me about it would argue for some kind of intangible thought aiding and
abetting the replication of behavior. Let's be generous and give this point
too to Derek.

Then trouble started. I ran out of Lactaid. Panicked, I realized I had never
seen anyone actually BUY the stuff. How would I replicate that behavior?
Fortunately, I was able to perform some quick mnemon calculus and found a
supermarket with a drug section. I saw a familiar package, the Lactaid brand
for which I had a distinction-meme already. I recognized it, using perhaps
the same mental hardware the Cro-Magnons used to recognize faces of family
members, just different software. But next to the Lactaid brand was a
generic lactase at about half the price. Wow. How was I going to learn the
behavior of buying the generic Lactaid? Could it be mnemon calculus again?
Thinking back, I remember talking with my mother about generic drugs,
reading news reports about there being no real difference other than the
price, and feeling foolish that I had ever bought name-brand drugs. Somehow
this produced the desired behavior and I got the pills. Whew.

I wondered about advertisers getting people to buy their products. If
Coca-Cola hired Derek as a consultant, would he seriously advise them to
junk their multimillion-dollar campaigns and simply show people in
supermarkets reaching for a Coke? Is that really the way behaviors get
programmed into people?

I pondered that as we gathered for the evening's performance of A Comedy of
Errors. Thought by many scholars to be Shakespeare's first play, it is a
simple farce with little plot but TWO sets of identical twins to cause twice
the usual amount of confusion. Throughout the play, I was hoping that not
too many of the behaviors demonstrated would replicate in me. Honestly, when
I experience cultural events I'm hoping to educate myself at a higher level
than simply replicating the observed behavior. Doesn't a college professor
spread some memes other than how to write on a chalkboard? And I can say for
pretty sure that you don't learn public speaking by watching somebody speak.

Then I thought about Shakespeare in general. Do those books in print really
replicate because of transmitted learned behaviors? Isn't Shakespeare rather
a weak and benevolent mind virus, a snippet of culture which, when some
people encounter it, infects them to a degree that they pass on the
Shakespeare MEME?

I don't know.

One thing I think is boiling out of this turmoil that we can all agree on:
we need to perform experiments. All these spiraling intellectualizations are
nothing more than hand-waving without some real science to falsify and
affirm our theories. I of course am not a scientist; I am a college dropout
and software engineer. I've been doing some tinkering and learning a bit
about which psychological buttons need to be pushed to make people pay
attention. But I am so hungry for some real science. Memetics can be a
revolution. Memetic engineering is already being done for both good and evil
purposes. Will the science catch up with it?

Richard Brodie
Author, "Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme"
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