Re: RE: Papers critical of memetics

Ilfryn PRICE (
Thu, 28 Jan 1999 10:00:07 -0000

From: (Ilfryn PRICE)
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 10:00:07 -0000
Subject: Re: RE: Papers critical of memetics

Richard Brodie asks
> Can anyone answer these points? They could
>be the death-blow to memetics.
I'll have a stab. Apologies for lack of accurate referencing. I am short on

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

The same multiplicity of definitons arises in many other cases of a meme
spreading (see fo example Price and Shaw 1996 and 1999). Compared to genes
memes replicate fast but with less fidelity. The emerging consensus around
something akin to Cloak's (1973) m-culture seems to promise a definition.

>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?

Dawkins answered this a few years later. See Rose (1998) for an excellent

>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?

Open perhaps to discussion, but hardly a criticism of memetics.

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

At the moment the moment no hard experimental evidence has been published. The
memetic stance is advocated as a minimal heuristic capable of unifying a body
of broadly evoluionary approaches in social science, organisational theory,
psychology and economics.

There are lines of experimental approaches discussed in a paper I have
forthcoming and doubtless others can be suggested by contributors to Jou-mit

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

Viruses in the genetic domain are one variant of the replicating double helix.
The conflation of memes and viruses is unfortunate since it risks distracting
the field of memetics from the much larger field of non-viral memes.

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

There are other explanations. The meme concept is simpler across a broader
range of phenomena.

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

The meme - gene boundary is by no means clear however scientific paradigms,
(Hull 1988), economic rules (Hodgson 1993 and refs therein), various social
contagion phenomena (lynch, Marsden) or organisational phenomena (Price and
Shaw 1988 and refs therein) provide examples.

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

They can, but only 'Darwins Dangerous Idea' provides so broad an explanation
within one heuristic.

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


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

It doesn't

>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?

Or are these not possible examples of the influence of group memes?

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

No it speaks to the power of memes to falsify / influence how individuals
perceive and remember a cerain event.

>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?

Why. Existing memes alter information as if in their interest.

>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?

The gene - meme boundary in the brain / mind is a legitimate point of

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

That form of argument has been levied against nearly every progression in


If Price
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Sheffield Hallam University
Unit 7, Science Park, Sheffield S1 1WB
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