RE: Papers critical of memetics

Nick Rose (
Tue, 2 Feb 1999 13:54:29 -0500 (EST)

From: Nick Rose <>
Subject: RE: Papers critical of memetics
Date: Tue, 2 Feb 1999 13:54:29 -0500 (EST)

My sceptical tuppence worth...

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

A real definition would require some evidence to support
it. The problem with 'neural' memes is that we have no way
(perhaps only currently) of generating that evidence. If
memes are defined as behaviours (ala Gatherer) rather than
ideas at least we have something we can measure. A good
definition should be like a good theory - testable!

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 changed his mind in the Extended Phenotype. His
original examples of memes would now be considered (by
many) as meme products. However, if we were to define
memes as behaviours would these examples be memes again?
I'd say no. Dawkins was attempting (much like Sue
Blackmore) to avoid the question of memes vs meme

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

Personally I think the fact that computers don't imitate
currently rules out computer memes - I also think it rules
out memes in the overwhelming majority of animals (though
the debate on animal imitation is still cooking).

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

Depends on your definition! As the meme is commonly
defined how could you produce direct evidence? Which
definition would you use?!

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

Transmission. Genes are exclusively vertical in their
transmission (parents to kin) whereas culture and viruses
can transmit horizontally (i.e. to non-kin). I'd say
that's where the analogy stops though...

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

Hmm... Ideally cultural behaviours which cannot be
explained easily in sociobiological terms - the common
examples are blood-doning and adoption. I'd say that by
looking at examples where culture is spread 'horizontally'
rather than 'vertically' we'll find such examples. This is
what needs an explanation at a level of description above
genes - and memes might (one day) fit the bill.

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

I'd say yes - simply because I think we run the risk of
trying to rewrite evolutionary psychology / sociobiology.

2c. ...because traditional cultural studies can't explain

I'm not convinced that trad cultural studies 'explains'
anything - but then I'm a psychologist...

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

Perhaps sociobiology can ... perhaps by introducing
(reintroducing) Group Selection (ala Sober and Wilson).
Alternatively it may be that group selection only occurs
when there is cultural evolution. Sue Blackmore's new book
(Meme Machine, out 4th March) tries to deal with this mine

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

Sigh... I still wonder whether scripts (or some kind of
'cultural scripts') and schemas are more helpful than talk
about neural processess at this stage - I really don't
think we'll ever define a meme in terms of neurons. We
might be able to define them at a cognitive level,

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

Only if they ignore a) psychology, and b) the issue of

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


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

If the fidelity of transmission is too low you won't get
evolution (Dennett's accumulation of good tricks). I think
this is why you don't have memes in animals - yeah, they
can imitate (a bit), but with nothing like the fidelity
required for evolution. How could you measure meme copy
fidelity? I suspect you'd have measure behaviour...

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?

?? I don't understand the phrase 'thoughts can predictably
called into existence without an idea actually being
repeated'. What experiments are these referring to - and
why wasn't I told? ;)

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

Not much at the moment. Memetics is 99.9% enthusiasm and
0.1% method. That proportion will have to balance up quite
a bit before memetics could ever be taken seriously.

Nick Rose
"University of the West of England"

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