Re: Papers critical of memetics

Paul Marsden (
Tue, 2 Feb 1999 15:39:50 -0000

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: Papers critical of memetics
Date: Tue, 2 Feb 1999 15:39:50 -0000

Okay - just for the record, here goes...

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

Probably because their initial exposure to the concept was very vague.
Dawkins' chapter in TSG on memes was simply an attempt to pre-empt
criticisms of genetic determinism, not an outline of a theory. Similarly,
Dennett and Plotkin have used the meme concept to make other points not
specifically related to memetics and have only obliquely addressed
evolutionary theories of culture. As for the real definition - it all
depends on what you want to do with the concept - I think memes are best
understood as heuristics rather than things in themselves to help
understand, describe and explain patterns of human behaviour from a (neo)
Dawinian framework. Ultimately, unless an established authority picks up
and runs with the concept, definitions will compete with each other in a
selective landscape defined by the empirical results, theoretical advances
they generate.

>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?
Because such an all embracing term is indistinguishable from the term
culture. Dawkins qualified and refined his definition in the EP as a
cultural instruction - a far more useful and operationalisable concept.
This, as you know, I like.

>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
Depends on how you define a meme - I think not, social learning can be
conceptualised as the non-genetic appropriation of instructions, in which
case computers can engage in social learning and therefore be modelled in
terms of the transfer of instructions

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

Depends on how you define a meme. If social learning is synonymous with
memetic acquisition, then yes, there is de fact evidence (not of memes but
that it might be useful to use memetic transfer as a heuristic for
understanding behaviour).

>1e. How exactly are memes like or unlike viruses, computer
>or biological?
The partial analogy with viruses highlights how whether we 'want' to be
infected/socialised with certain cultural instructions has little (or in my
book, no) effect over what is actually appropriated. Wanting to catch a
cold or sneeze has little impact on actually catching a cold or sneezing,
just as your computer has little real choice over what viruses it is exposed
to. Just as you wanting to believe the moon is made out of cheese will
probably not have much impact on whether you do believe it (thanks Nick).

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

Non rational behaviour, especially the clustering of behaviour such as
suicide contagion, or hysterical contagion such as UFO sightings.

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

Hull's example of a tutor investing in his students - conceptual inclusive

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

What are traditional cultural studies? If you mean the human and social
sciences, then they have no conceptual framework for understanding and
explaining non-rational behaviour, it's there for the taking.

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

Yes sociobiology probably can make some inroads, see .P. Rushton, Race,
Evolution and Behavior. New Brunswick, NJ.: Transaction Publishers, 1995 for
such an approach. But the dynamics of social transmission cannot but be
determining in any explanation of religion.

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

This is changing, as it must, if memetics is to be anything other than a set
of crack pot "theories of everything according to me"
>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

Nope, not if you conceptualise memes (and genes for that matter) as
contextual dependent instructions that are differentially cued, that enable
behaviour; theory has gone beyond the old innatism-environmentalism

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

I do not understand this - but if it is a swipe against using personal
phenomenology as a method then I agree with your conclusion - that is why I
use a memetic stance to understand human behaviour, not memories.
>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

Nope, a meme is a heuristic device, and by interpreting culture
(non-genetically transmitted information) as a set of instructions, you can
reverse engineer behaviour into the necessary instructions for its

>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?
Hmm, like reading - if you say that these hundreds of experiments show that
the brain can produce something out of nothing then I'd like to know about
them since they would violate fundamental tenets of what is known about the
physical world.

>4. Isn't memetics just a circular argument? Is it good for
>anything, or simply a collection of just-so stories?
No, I think so, mostly. Many models are tautological (e.g. F=ma) - but they
can still be useful. Adaptationism or reverse engineering is a method for
generating testable hypotheses and is not about truth claims.

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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