Re: Papers critical of memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 28 Jan 1999 16:03:23 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 16:03:23 -0600
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Papers critical of memetics
In-Reply-To: <>

At 04:05 PM 1/27/99 -0600, Dr. (Mr.) Kelly J. Salsbery wrote:
>On the web one can find many sites that are devoted to listing
>papers that advocate the notion of memes and memetics. I think
>that it would also be good to list papers that are critical of the
>meme concept as well. We often learn a great deal when we
>attempt to answer our critics.
>For instance, I've heard nothing on this list about a
>recent paper in _Skeptic_(1998, Vol 6:3) titled, "Memes: What are
>They Good For" by James W. Polichak. I don't agree with Polichak's
>conclusions, but he makes some good points. Overall, he seems aware
>only of the less technical aspects of the memetics literature. He seems
to ignore
>the more technical of Lynch's papers, all of the papers of Gabora, and
most of
>the memetics papers written by our talented group of social scientists
>(Gatherer, Marsden et. al) except for Speel.

Thank you for pointing this article out to me, Kelly. I have a number of
friends who have probably seen the article, but perhaps they figured that I
must already know of it! (Such a private conclusion is not a meme, by the

Polichak seems to have missed the Journal of Memetics as well. I have
written to him to ask if he has seen my more technical work, and if he can
find anything circular in it. My 1998 JoM-EMIT paper does not contain the
word "fitness," so it does not have the circularity of saying that an idea
is fit because it is prevalent, and then prevalent because it is fit. Many
of his other arguments clearly do not apply to my view that memes are only
a special subclass of memory items.

Polichak also misrepresents or misconstrues my work. I do not claim that it
is "the 'missing link' that will allow researchers ... to unify the social
sciences." I only call memetics *a* missing link, and am very clear that it
should not be taken as a replacement to other social sciences. Insisting
that I provide anything like a complete review of the social sciences is
therefore completely unreasonable.

In regard to the "just so stories" objection, I offer the following from
the preface to the paperback edition of _Thought Contagion_ (which is too
recent for Polichak to have seen before writing his article.):

"When Darwin first published his theory of natural selection in 1859, he
had no measurements of total populations, survival rates, and reproduction
rates for different varieties of life-forms. He could not compare the
evolutionary trends predicted by his theory against population sizes
measured over time. It would take decades for this sort of work to begin in
earnest, yet such work could only begin _after_ scientists had Darwinís
relatively uncorroborated thesis in hand. Likewise, only a few of the meme
examples in _Thought Contagion_ are backed by measured data for
reproduction rates, child inculcation rates, peer conversion rates, dropout
rates, and so forth. For other proposed meme examples, it is my hope that
publication of _Thought Contagion_ will inspire new research projects to
test the memetic evolution hypotheses. In the meantime, I ask the readerís
forbearance from demanding immediate and full empirical corroboration. Time
will tell whether each application of memetic evolution theory stands or
falls on empirical evidence."

Still, one of the questions he raises about the "baby dolls for girls" meme
suggests that he did not read the whole section. He states: "One wonders
why, if [baby] dolls make women have more children, they would not do the
same for men? The passage he seems to have missed is this one:

" Desires to have children also replicate parentally in males. Yet to have
the maximum number of offspring, most males must learn to distance
themselves from babies long enough to go out and provide the material
support. Hence, the taboo against play and attachment with baby dolls holds
a replication edge in the male population." (Lynch 1996, p. 57.)

Polichak also objects that "A second concern with this analysis is the fact
that the people who give their children the most and nicest dolls--that is,
the wealthiest segments of the population--have the lowest birth rates." I
was recently in the ~$20,000,000 home of just such a family, where I was
invited to discuss memetics. When leaving, I passed through a room filled
with their little son's and daughter's play things and saw no dolls. I did,
however, see plenty of cute little snow skis, ski boots, etc. It is only an
anecdote, and dolls might have been hiding elsewhere. But it triggers a
thought that perhaps more expensive forms of play start to displace play
with dolls for the richest children--a possibility that might be
investigated by formal surveys. If true, the lack of baby-doll play may
then contribute to lower birth rates among the rich. Another point is that
people with relatively few or weak quantity parental memes may
disproportionately accumulate in the uppermost socioeconomic strata because
hosts of those memes subdivide their wealth less over the generations. Far
from raising a grave objection to the memetic analysis, Polichak may have
brought up more points that support it.

I could go on and on answering other objections in Polichak's paper, but
have to get back to doing work for people who find memetics extremely
useful in explaining phenomena that were baffling from a pre-memetic
viewpoint. Perhaps I'll write a letter to the editor of SKEPTIC.

--Aaron Lynch

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