Re: Papers critical of memetics

Paul Marsden (
Fri, 5 Feb 1999 21:44:15 -0000

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: Papers critical of memetics
Date: Fri, 5 Feb 1999 21:44:15 -0000


How do you define a meme in Thought Contagion, as opposed to formalisms in
your technical papers?

Whilst I hate the blobs in trolleys and box messages in Virus of the Mind as
much as anyone else, Richard's definition of a meme captures both the
subtlety of Cloak's Causal Logic of Natural Selection (1986)
(self-embedding) and is clear, and simple

A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events
such that more copies of itself get created in other minds.

Whilst simple, this *working* definition is flexible and inclusive - (even
if I have a problem with things in minds as opposed to heuristics to
understand behaviour), and his speculations on the action of memes are a
good deal more modest that some accounts I have read. How does the TC
definition stack up?

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

Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission:

----- Original Message -----
From: Aaron Lynch <>
To: <>
Sent: 05 February 1999 20:09
Subject: RE: Papers critical of memetics

At 09:10 AM 2/5/99 -0800, Richard Brodie wrote:
>Aaron Lynch wrote:

><<"Memes are the basic building blocks of our minds and culture, in the
>way that genes are the basic building blocks of biological life.">>
>.... which is from the memetics FAQ. By the way I'm in the process of
>updating the FAQ with a compilation of your answers to the questions I
>posted last week. Thanks to those who have already contributed. If you
>haven't, it's not too late.
>Polichak quoted this to contrast it with Blackmore's "memes are not like
>genes." I didn't think that particular criticism held much water... memes
>are surely like genes in some ways and not in others.
><<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--vis its role in mind and culture.>>
>Yes and no. I thought long and hard about the FAQ answer to "What is a
>meme?" which you and Polichak quote. While I'm certainly not married to it,
>I chose to say something that gives people an analogy to something they may
>already understand. As I'm sure you are aware, evolution is a difficult
>concept for most people to wrap their brains around. I don't know of anyone
>who is using the memetics FAQ as a scientific definition. My working
>definition, found on page 27 of Virus of the Mind, came from a distillation
>of the current thinking of Dawkins, Dennett, and Plotkin, and is in fact
>quite similar to the definition you published shortly after my book came
>I am as eager as you to see memetics grow from the armchair theory that it
>is now toward real empirical experimentation.

Regardless of Polichak's specific comments, he was referring readers to a
statement that many visitors to your web page will take as a definition,
based upon how it is presented. Because he is an anti-memetics critic, I
believe his quotation served a secondary purpose of exposing "extraordinary
claims" in memetics. (The skeptics movement has a motto that "Extraordinary
claims demand extraordinary proof.") Going too far to suit America's
scientifically illiterate masses provokes immune reactions in the more
scientifically literate segments of society. That, in turn, delays funding
and interest in the empirical research.

I would recommend presenting a more formal definition, or perhaps both a
formal and a semi-formal definition, even if it loses some readers at low
levels of science education. I also advise against making overstatements of
the importance of memes as fundamental building blocks of minds or culture.
We do not want scientists such as Polichak to misconstrue that we offer
memetics as a replacement to all the existing work in psychology,
sociology, anthropology, economics, linguistics, etc., or as a replacement
to existing work in specific sub-domains such as state-conditioned learning
and confabulation.

--Aaron Lynch

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For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)