RE: Papers critical of memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Fri, 05 Feb 1999 09:45:20 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 05 Feb 1999 09:45:20 -0600
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: RE: Papers critical of memetics
In-Reply-To: <>

At 11:59 AM 2/2/99 -0600, you wrote:
>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=20
>>different definitions of the meme and what is the real=20
>>A real definition would require some evidence to support=20
>>it. The problem with 'neural' memes is that we have no way=20
>>(perhaps only currently) of generating that evidence. If=20
>>memes are defined as behaviours (ala Gatherer) rather than=20
>>ideas at least we have something we can measure. A good=20
>>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.=20
>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.=20
>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

I should clarify that while conservatively written definitions need not
necessarily be testable in their own right, there are many definitions with
embedded theoretical constructs and other assertions that clearly *do*
demand testing. Polichak found a good example of this in "Meme Central,"
(Brodie 1997,

"Memes are the basic building blocks of our minds and culture, in the same
way that genes are the basic building blocks of biological life."

This is quite an extravagant and untenable claim. It certainly should not
be offered as a scientific definition. Similarly, anyone defining the term
"gene" should not embed a claim that it is the basic building block of
biological life (whether the claim is true or not). Instead, the terms
should be given definitions with a minimum of claims about what role genes
or memes play. In order to respect the empirical basis of science, a term
like "gene" should be defined in a way that leaves investigation of its
role in life processes up to empirical researchers. Likewise for the term
"meme" vis-=E0-vis its role in mind and culture.

--Aaron Lynch

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