RE: Papers critical of memetics (My skeptic answers!)

Bruce Edmonds (
Thu, 28 Jan 1999 15:49:24 +0000

Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 15:49:24 +0000
From: Bruce Edmonds <>
To: Memetics Discussion List <>
Subject: RE: Papers critical of memetics (My skeptic answers!)

OK, here are my answers. Probably the most skeptical so far!

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

Some want memes to explain too much... some want to define the field
*their* way... many do not tie thier definitions into concrete models so
they end up fudging the issue... becuase the term is overloaded due to

> 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?

Becuase many things are *not* memes or the result of memetic processes
(even many of those that would seem on the surface to be)... becuase
many of the definitions are not concrete enough so as to apply to
obvious examples (bird-song, tunes, legal phrases and nursey rhymes) but
the authors want the idea to apply to HUGE and COMPLEX structures like
religion etc. without anything to support this other than the
attractiveness of explanation and that it fits in with their world-view.

> 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?

One could strech the idea of memetics to such replicating data but it
generally applies to *information*, i.e. the data needs some semantics.

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

Some in specific areas, there is absolutely no *hard* evidence for it
more complex things like religion, fashion. It seems plausible for
these but nothing that would stand 5 minutes critical examination.

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

Viruses are self-replicating, memes are replicated by other beings to
whom they give some advantage.

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

I am unsure there are any for which it is *necessary*.

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

Neither explains such complex cultural phenomena, in any but the
most superficial way.

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

..... because many memeticists are arm-chair philosophers/social
scientists and prefer to speculate rather than get down to some hard
or field studies ...

> 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?

Yes, it is a class of abstract models which covers only one aspect of
some phenomena. For some other phenomena it is so streached as to be
useless (e.g. context-dependent information, inference, information
learnt from the real-world etc.)

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

Yes, at the very least a LOT of other processes exist other than memetic

> 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?

Almost always YES. Only in cases where a high degree of faithful
replication occurs (e.g. nursery rhymes, legal phrases etc.) can one
begin to be justified in claiming the process as evolutionary in any
meaningful sense, or in other words a model with an evolutionary
structure just does not otherwise give a very good fit.

> 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?

Most models in memetics are so basic they could not begin to capture
such a distinction.

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

At the moment it is 99.9% just-so stories. Whether it turns out to be
good for anything depends on whether memetics academics turn to some
serious modelling and field work or whether they prefer to keep memetics
as an exclusive and comfortable club for arm-chair theorists.

There! (OK, so I am feeling a little frustrated with the general
qulaity of work in memetics, but I still mean what I say above, even if
I could have said it a little more diplomatically). :-/

Bruce Edmonds,
Centre for Policy Modelling,
Manchester Metropolitan University, Aytoun Bldg.,
Aytoun St., Manchester, M1 3GH. UK.
Tel: +44 161 247 6479 Fax: +44 161 247 6802

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