The Memetics Stance and the SSSM

Paul Marsden (
Wed, 9 Sep 1998 12:17:17 +0100

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: "memetics" <>
Subject: The Memetics Stance and the SSSM
Date: Wed, 9 Sep 1998 12:17:17 +0100

Mario, (sorry for misattributing your earlier comment to Richard) a few
comments on mental memetics and answers to your points on the relationship
between the memetic stance and standard social scientific model (SSSM)

>Is thinking or talking to myself behaviour?

If introspection is not simply a "user" illusion about internal states, then
yes - but the point I was making was that since we cannot currently reliably
observe thinking activity let alone measure it, reproduce it or validate it,
then it is of no use for scientists who make their living studying human
social behaviour.

>It is my impression that social psychologists tend to deny that thinking
even exists, since it results in no
>observable behaviour or artefact. It is an illusion. Am I right?

It all depends on what you mean by thinking. Is there brain activity that
occurs and modifies responses to stimuli? Well of course!
Are the simplistic cognitive models we use of thoughts, beliefs attitudes
and values *real* occurring processes in the brain. Well of course not!

Thinking, from this perspective is a functional (not real) device that
mediates input and output. For us lowly social psychologists, what happens
internally is black box stuff (containing, who knows, glorious 3D
representations in a plush internal Cartesian theatre, or perhaps it is a
product of specialist circuits operating in parallel pandemonium, who knows

Fortunately not knowing the mechanics of the brain hasn't stopped social
scientists from making fairly accurate predictions about the relationship
between input and output that is mediated by brain activity. We do this by
positing "as if" crude models containing a number of imaginary, pretend,
made up, invented, NOT REAL variables such as intentions, beliefs,
attitudes, and values etc, that together seem relate input to output pretty
well. But these models are heuristic devices, abstractions, models and
nothing more and there content might as well be pixie dust. A big problem
has resulted from the popularisation of psychology where members of the
public have started reading about these models, and some individuals have
mistaken these models for actual processes going on in the brain (probably
by not getting beyond page 3.). You may think this is ridiculous, but it is
true! Some poor souls actually think there are real things such as beliefs,
attitudes and values in the brain and that if we opened up their heads we
would find them as real observable and measurable entities. They didn't
realise that a thought is an arbitrary set, bearing absolutely no a priori
relation to brain activity whatsoever (I wonder what colour these poor
misguided souls think the thought of the colour blue is?) I doubt anyone on
the list believes this preposterous stuff, but there's no limit to public

>I do not have objections to behaviour as a means to study thought, my
>against Derek's proposition is that he simply wants us to abandon studying
>mental activities and look at behaviour as if it could exist without host
>of his claims).

Fine but without a pocket PET scanner how are you going to do mental

>It is not because methodology to study mental representations
>of reality (concepts, *mental images*)

Where is this mental image being shown, and to whom?

>or symbolic mental representations of these mental representations (words
inside our head)

Who is there to read them, and what language are they in Mentalese?

>is problematic, that you can simply change the meaning of the word meme
into something completely else
>and consider these problems as resolved or the questions as no longer

I'm not changing the definition, I'm sticking to the Official definition of
meme (Oxford English Dictionary) as a unit of imitation - no change has to
be made. Mental memeticists seem to be picking the one definition that
leads us down a representationalist theory of mind road that cannot, for
moment be operationalised. Now Dawkins has proposed a number of
definitions, so has Dennett, so has Plotkin - all I want is a definition
that will allow me to do some empirical research, (and get funding and get
rich etc ;-)

>I happen to agree - but starting from fundamentally other reasoning than
>of Derek - that memes, when they are to be compared with genes - AS IT WAS
>SUGGESTED BY DAWKINS - also through the use of replicator for both -,
cannot be
>mental entities

Good. I'm glad you reject mental memetics as well.

>but that rather something like printed texts can be considered as the true
analog of
>genetic information. E.g., such texts can be replicated like genes by a
>processor (resp. press, polymerase), without prior transformation, just

Great, but the key question is how could we usefully use your insight to
research human (or other life form) culture?

>But one should not confuse these textual artefacts which have 'digital'
>informational content with pottery and church buildings.E.g., such texts
can be replicated like genes by a
>processor (resp. press, polymerase), without prior transformation, just
>copying. But one should not confuse these textual artefacts which have
>informational content with pottery and church buildings.

Why not?

>I try to add to these social sciences an evolutionary point of view (and
>us from the adaptationist arguments of many evolutionary psychologists,
who -
>to paraphrase Bill and Derek - have not understood basic standard books on

Did they say this? Please don't write off yet another discipline without
giving a reason for doing so. And the same goes a fortiori for Bill and
Derek, if they did say this.

>Some questions in return:1.

>Is it because things have been studied before that we should say: Oh, our
field definitevely has to go about
>something else.

No but it has to do, or offer, something new, it has to add to what is
already known. Memetics has, I think, a lot to offer in this respect (see
below), but we are wasting time if reinvent the wheel and explore how
internal attitudes, beliefs and intentions affect behaviour without
referring to the discipline who has made this its central concern. And if
we think individual cognitivism is inferior to memetic cognitivism
(whatever that may be), and thus does not merit being referred to, then we
have to demonstrate this by logic and evidence.

You can't just say (well, you can but it won't get you very far), "The
established social sciences who have been researching human culture for over
a century might be respected and funded - but I think they are all wrong - I
haven't bothered reading what they have to offer, but take it from me, I
know. And I'm not going to tell you why - it's an (internal :-) secret.
But, don't worry I have a better idea (memetics)."

If you have a better idea, support it with argument and evidence!

>2. How does your view on memetics differ from social sciences?

It doesn't. For the simple reason that memetics is about the transfer of
culture between human beings (and possibly other creatures) so it is social,
and they way it investigates the phenomena, I believe, should be scientific.
Therefore memetics is social science.

If you mean how do I see the memetic stance helping social science, I'll
repeat what I have already said.

Memetics, if properly constructed can add an evolutionary dimension to the
study of influence, and more generally, socialisation by using the
evolutionary loop of variation, replication and selection. This will help
social science break free of the legacy of dualist and Cartesian explanation
that continues to haunt it, by deconstructing the notion of an irreducible
autonomous self. In doing this memetics may help align the social sciences
with the human sciences, and science in general. By opening the door to
evolutionary psychology, and extending individual behaviour to social
behaviour memetics can help social science drop the ridiculous notion of the
mind as tabula rasa (or RAM - which is nevertheless) by showing how we have
innate predispositins to replicating certain aspects of potential and actual
culture. In doing so memetics will by laying one more foundation in the
construction of the long overdue Kuhnian paradigm shift that may finally see
the integration of social science within a broader evolutionary paradigm.

I hope this answers your questions and addresses the point you raised

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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