RE: Papers critical of memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Tue, 02 Feb 1999 11:59:48 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 02 Feb 1999 11:59:48 -0600
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: RE: Papers critical of memetics
In-Reply-To: <>

At 01:54 PM 2/2/99 -0500, Nick Rose wrote:
>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!


Good to hear from you, Nick.

I agree that a good *theory* must be testable, but *definitions* used
within such a theory need not be testable in their own right at all. A meme
is not some new kind of entity; it is merely a subclass of a class of
entities already recognized and researched, namely, memory items.
Specifically, it is the subclass of memory items whose causation depended
upon previous instances of the same memory item. If one already agrees that
such a subclass of memory items exists, then one is not claiming anything
new simply by giving a name such as "meme" to it. Merely giving a new name
to an existing class of entities is a scientifically conservative move that
does not require new empirical work. Dawkins was not claiming to discover
any fundamentally new kind of entity that required empirical verification,
but was merely giving a new name to a subclass of long recognized entities
(items of brain-stored information). He did so only to encourage a certain
line of evolutionary replicator theory, and it is that theory that requires
testing, not the definition. Of course, if the theory were completely
falsified then the definition would likely be discarded as useless.

Even meme critics such as James W. Polichak agree that such things as
"memories" exist, and that "memories" are valid subjects of scientific
study despite not being *directly* observable. When Polichak refers to
"false memories," for instance, he is referring to something that we can
measure, even though it is something we cannot measure *directly*. We
measure it by its effects, much as we measure electrons, body temperatures,
and many other things by their effects. Measuring memes by their effects on
behaviors therefore does not challenge their status as neurally stored.

Those who imply or seem to imply that "the meme" is a newly discovered kind
of entity tend to provoke the greatest scientific skepticism. Claiming to
find a new kind of entity (rather than just naming a subclass of already
recognized entities) really does require that one produce a new body of
evidence from the start, and lacking such new evidence leads to criticisms
such as Polichak's. My 1991 Journal of Ideas paper (Thought Contagion as
Abstract Evolution), was clear that the word "meme" only signifies a way of
partitioning the realm of memeory items. However, the reaction of Polichak
and others has me going to greater lengths to clarify in non-technical
works that using the word "meme" does not imply a newly discovered class of

--Aaron Lynch

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)