Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

Aaron Lynch (
Mon, 14 Sep 1998 17:09:20 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 14 Sep 1998 17:09:20 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance
In-Reply-To: <01a701bde010$cc6f80c0$355195c1@pc>

At 07:23 PM 9/14/98 +0100, Paul Marsden wrote:
> A plea for tolerance and diversity.
>Aaron Lynch wrote.
>>Dawkins has very explicitly explained that the word he coined refers to
>>brain-stored information. See, for instance, p. 329 of the 1989 revised
>>edition of _The Selfish Gene_, or the meme section of _The Extended
>>Phenotype_ (Dawkins, 1982). Yet we have people who want to use mere
>>"trendiness" of the term as a basis for calling artifacts and behaviors
>Who are we referring to here, those trendy folk at the Oxford English
>Dictionary who define a meme as "a unit of imitation," ?

I should have used the word "fashionability" rather than "trendiness," as
am referring to Gatherer's 9/7/98 remark that

"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. ..."

Fashionability should not, in my opinion, be used to modify the class of
replicators identified with the word "meme." A far more productive
approach, if he wishes to pursue it, would be to try to ask a very
prominent behaviorist to coin a new behavior-centered term and publish it.

But it may, in effect, be too late for Dawkins to undo the damage of not
being sufficiently clear in 1976. The propagation of alternative meanings
may have forced at least some lexicographers to recognize non-specific
meanings of the word. Those of us who want a specific term may therefore be
the ones who must stop using the term "meme."

>Or perhaps Dawkins himself, who, half a decade after the selective quotes
>you have provided said
>"McDonald: Let's talk about listening to music and going to Shakespeare
>plays. Now, you coined a word to describe all these various activities which
>are not genetically driven, and that word is 'meme' and again this is a
>replicating process.
>Dawkins: Yes, there are cultural entities which replicate in something like
>the same way as DNA does. The spread of the habit of wearing a baseball hat
>backwards is something that has spread around the Western world like an
>epidemic. It's like a smallpox epidemic. You could actually do epidemiology
>on the reverse baseball hat. It rises to a peak, plateaus and I sincerely
>hope it will die down soon."
>Channel 4 in the UK Richard Dawkins interview on 15 Aug. 1994.

This does not find Dawkins labeling either the backwards hat or the
behavior of putting it on backwards as memes. All it might say is that
there are other cultural replicators than what "memes" as defined by
Dawkins and clarified in 1982 and 1989--unless by "habit" he is referring
to internal learned states rather than the position of the hat or the act
of putting it on. (That is, if he considers a "habit" to be something one
still has even while sleeping with no hat on.) I myself said that there are
other cultural replicators besides memes. The only memes in the baseball
cap example are what Rogers would call "subjectively perceived
information." These might be preferences for backward baseball hats,
beliefs that "the backwards hat is cool," etc. If you can selectively or
otherwise find Dawkins explicitly going back on his 1982 and 1989
clarifications and calling behaviors or artifacts "memes," then I will be
much more impressed.

>This I believe is behaviour. But then Dawkins always has been a trendy kind
>of guy.

>There is absolutely no point in getting into a game of selective quotation,
>I could provide you with numerous quotes from Professors Dennett and Plotkin
>who are "calling artefacts and behaviours memes", as well as Dr. Blackmore
>and virtually all other academic researchers involved in memetics. Maybe we
>just *are* trendy and you are mistaking correlation for causation..

I did not want to use the term "meme" until after Dawkins clarified it in
1982. People suggested I use it, but I stuck to my own neologism in
unpublished papers before then. The term as given in 1976 was simply too

>>We may also have people willing to sacrifice specificity in order
>>to have the term "memetics" explicitly lay claim to as much territory as
>Who are we talking about now? I certainly don't want to lay claim to as much
>territory as possible, although as a selectionist I must eschew
>essentialism - and in consequence I must also eschew restrictive
>essentialist definitions, especially in the infancy of our emerging
>paradigm. Arbitrary reduction of variation in a gene/meme pool usually ends
>in tears.

I do not in any way aim to reduce the scope of JoM-EMIT. Rather, I favor
changing the name to Journal of Memetics AND Evolutionary Models of
Information Transmission to explicitly indicate that we consider more than
memes. Nor do I aim to restrict the scope of ongoing science. But I do
oppose using the word's definition as a means of claiming more territory,
and hope that no one sees this as some kind of advantage. It is much more
likely to convince people that we cannot keep our terms straight.

Perhaps you could give an example of an "essentialist definition." You will
never escape the use of abstractions in science, so mere usage of the term
"abstraction" does not make a definition "essentialist," unless you mean
that all definitions of all replicators are essentialist.

>>Neither of these motives constitute scientifically valid reasons
>>for changing the word's meaning,

>Who's changing it? I'm just being an orthodox pixie following obediently in
>the shadows of OED, Dennett, Dawkins, Blackmore, etc etc. I suggest it is
>you who is attempting to change it, by trying to impose a restrictive
>definition - where memetics are reduced to "how belief spreads through
>society" on what is a flexible, useful and powerful tool in understanding
>human activity form within the selectionist paradigm.

No, you are not following Dawkins.

The subtitle of my book is necessarily a simplification of the broader
range of topics I cover. Many of my topics are not "beliefs" per se, but
replicated personality traits, etc.

>>but only constitute possible reasons for
>>adding a few new words for other kinds of replicators. If there is no such
>>thing as replicated information residing in the brain, then good science
>>dictates DROPPING THE WORD MEME from the accepted science vocabulary.
>According to who? I like to think of myself as a humble scientist - and I
>have absolutely no intention of doing this

>>Those arguing against brain-stored
>>replicated information should refrain from trying to appropriate the word
>>"meme" for other uses, and argue instead for relegating the term to the
>>scrap heap of scientific terms that turned out not to fit real phenomena.
>Thank you for telling me what I *should* be doing, I was in such a muddle.
>I thought I was making a plea for tolerance and diversity in memetics. At
>this early stage in the formation of memetics as a discipline, I think we
>should be tolerant of the many approaches and terminologies that we all
>bring from our respective disciplines.

You can make a plea for "tolerance and diversity" in the word "parameter"
as well, and yet make a major imposition on those who use the term in its
correct mathematical sense. One can insist on a specific meaning of the
word "parameter" without rejecting tolerance or diversity for those who
wish to discuss boundaries or limitations using appropriate terminology.

--Aaron Lynch

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