Re: Papers critical of memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Fri, 05 Feb 1999 16:50:54 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 05 Feb 1999 16:50:54 -0600
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Papers critical of memetics
In-Reply-To: <000d01be5150$ae82e500$725095c1@PaulMarsden>

At 09:44 PM 2/5/99 -0000, Paul Marsden wrote:
>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?


I have no problem with substituting the informal definition above for the
online statement that "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." The online statement, incidentally, mirrors one of those
box messages (p. 36) that "The most interesting thing about memes is not
whether they're true or false; its that they are the building-blocks of
your mind." I consider these statements extravagant and untenable whether
presented as FAQ items or box messages. (Memes do, however, play a
*substantial role* in building what we call "the mind." The problem in a
FAQ format is worse, since the statement there can be easily read as a

My book does not go into formally defining "meme" at all, leaving it merely
as "an actively contagious idea." I had wanted to include the material from
my 1998 JoM-EMIT paper as an appendix. The definition there is equivalent
to the definition in my 1991 paper. But my editor found such material too
technical even for an appendix. Needless to say, I am not happy with that
situation. However, the paperback of TC has a preface that refers readers
to my web page for links to more technical material.

For technical usage, there is a subtle problem with defining "meme" as a
unit of information in the mind, as this seems to presuppose that there are
already generally *recognized* units of information in the mind. I believe
this is one of the tacit irritants to Polichak and others. Hence my
technical definition does not contain the word "unit." It also does not
contain the word "mind," or even pre-suppose that "minds" exist. It does,
however, suppose that there is neurally-stored information that can be at
least indirectly observed.

MEME: A memory item, or portion of an organism's neurally-stored
information, identified using the abstraction system of the observer, whose
instantiation depended critically on causation by prior instantiation of
the same memory item in one or more other organisms' nervous systems.
("Sameness" of memory items is determined with respect to the
above-mentioned abstraction system of the observer.)

--Aaron Lynch

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