Re: RE: Papers critical of memetics

Thu, 28 Jan 1999 10:32:24 -0500 (EST)

Subject: Re: RE: Papers critical of memetics
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 10:32:24 -0500 (EST)

On Wed, 27 Jan 1999 19:05:14 -0800 Richard Brodie
<> wrote:

Well, here goes.....

> 1a. Why do so many people interested in memetics have different
> definitions of the meme and what is the real definition?

Mine is the real definition (ho, ho!). But seriously, I don't know why
there are so many very different definitions. The absense of a big
name in the field, probably - if Dawkins or Dennett had decided to run
with the ball instead of passing it, we'd probably have a much stiffer
status quo in terms of ground rules etc.

> 1b. The examples Dawkins gives in The Selfish Gene---"tunes, ideas,
> catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building
> arches"-- don't even seem to fit most definitions. Why not?

They do fit my definition. It is the Dawkins A definition, the
original and best! The problems began when Dawkins switched to Dawkins

> 1c. Does a chunk of information have to be in the brain to be a meme?


> Why isn't being transmitted, say, from computer to computer just as good
> as being transmitted from brain to brain?

Because computers don't exhibit learned imitative behaviour patterns.
When they do (and I'm sure they eventually will), they'll have memes.

> 1d. Is there any direct evidence for the existence of a meme?

My definition, yes. You can observe learned behaviours. The
internalist definition, no, and I'd go so far as to say that such
things cannot exist. The idea that, for example, a sentence exists
instantiated in a brain as a neural structure (or some vaguer
'software' element) is not consonant with current thinking in
neuropsychology or cog. sci.

> 1e. How exactly are memes like or unlike viruses, computer or
> biological?

They're not much like viruses, except for those behaviours which are
genuinely contagious, and which are fairly well documented in the
social contagion literature.

> 2a. What is the best example of a cultural phenomenon in which the meme
> concept is necessary to explain it?

Contagious suicide, I'd say (see Paul's article).

> 2b. ....because biological selection does not explain it?

Biological selection cannot really explain contagious suicide.

> 2c. ...because traditional cultural studies can't explain it?

I'll leave that one to Paul.

> 2d. Can't traditional biological Darwinism explain religion? Why do we
> need memetic Darwinism to explain religion?

Because religion is a learned behaviour. It is however an adaptation
that exerts its effects primarily at the level of the individual.
Religion is good for you. It makes you happier, healthier etc (well
documented - I gave one ref. to a review in a previous post). It is
also false (but truth or falsehood has no bearing on its adaptiveness
to the individual).

> 3a. Why does memetics appear to ignore the entire field of psychology?

Because most (???) memeticists are biologists or physical scientists,
and wherever two or more biologists are gathered together, sooner or
later somebody will make a rude remark about sociologists, historians
etc. It's a sad fact of academic life.

> 3b. Don't memetic approaches ignore the extent to which environmental
> factors influence human memory, e.g., drug use, similarity of physical
> environment, same people in room?

Memory has nothing to do with it. It's about behaviour.

> 3c. Doesn't the tendency of people to make up false memories speak
> against the validity of memetics?

Same answer.

> 3d. Since experiments show that people severely alter information before
> passing it on in most cases, doesn't that invalidate the memetic
> approach to human information processing?

No, that's just a high mutation rate.

> 3e. Hundreds of experiments in social and cognitive psychology show that
> thoughts can be predictably called into existence without an idea
> actually being repeated aloud. Does memetics recognize this?

Again, memetics is not about ideas or thoughts.

> 4. Isn't memetics just a circular argument? Is it good for anything, or
> simply a collection of just-so stories?

I have to confess that my attempts to do empirical memetics (on
football, theatre and student learning styles) have yielded nothing.
The problem I think is that these things have strong genetic variation
- certainly student learning styles seem to be correlated with fairly
deep-seated (and therefore possibly genetic) personality profiles. It
may well be that most variation in human behaviour is, if not exactly
genetic in the old hoary sociobiological sense, produced by the
interaction of the environment with the underlying neurogenetic
hardware in a Chomskian manner - I'm not explaining this well, see
Steven Pinker's works for a fuller and clearer exposition. I obviously
disagree with Pinker and would like to prove him wrong, but so


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