RE: Papers critical of memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Sat, 06 Feb 1999 12:03:35 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 06 Feb 1999 12:03:35 -0600
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: RE: Papers critical of memetics
In-Reply-To: <000601be51a7$eedb72a0$fa95fbd0@uymfdlvk>

At 12:08 AM 2/6/99 -0800, you wrote:
>Aaron Lynch wrote:
><<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. >>
>Two questions:
>1) How is it "going too far" to say that memes are the basic building blocks
>of culture? Isn't that what Dawkins intended when he invented the term?

Dawkins certainly did not mean that memes are the basic building blocks of
the *mind*, which is the extravagant and untenable part of what you said.

>2) I've read you write about memetic immune reactions several times. Do you
>have any evidence to support this theory? Kuhn's model of scientific
>revolution would predict a reaction, but then predict progress through
>stages toward acceptance. You speak of reaction as if it is an undesirable

I do not say that memetics can become established without provoking some
immune reactions along the way. However, there are ways of approaching the
scientific community that worsen the situation. One of these is to offer a
self-help style book containing hyperbole and hypotheses formed in
opposition to well-known evidence (e.g., saying that sex taboos lower
fertility despite the high fertility of sexually repressive sects.)

Yet I do not mean to speak against popularizations. Carl Sagan, for
instance, wrote popularizations that provoked relatively few immune
reactions among scientists. An important ingredient in his method was to
provide readers with information on where they could find more technical
and mathematical treatments. You, on the other hand, have taken the
opposite course--a kind of anti-popularization. Instead of calling readers'
attention to more serious technical works in memetics should they need to
see more, you effectively deflect their attention from such works. For
example, you had read Hofstadter's 1985 "Viral Sentences and Self
Replicating Structures" chapter in _Metamagical Themas_ long before you
started your book. Yet your book gives the impression that Hofstadter wrote
about "Zen," not memetics. You read my 1991 mathematical and symbolic
treatment well before writing your final draft, and even wrote me to say
that I was "making a wonderful contribution." No mention of it in the book.
You clearly knew about the Journal of Ideas. Again, no mention. You knew of
Moritz's technical paper. No mention. Scientists browsing the bookstore and
deciding they want more techical memetics material might reasonably look
for a bibliography in the back of your book. On looking for one, they get
the impression on p. 232 that Csikszentmihalyi is the only other person to
write about the evolution of memes. The "Director's" plug from the
"Institute for Memetic Research" suggests that your book (like Sagan's) is
based upon all the latest memetic research, which in turn suggests that
browsing scientists need look no further for the references they seek. (Or
worse, that they should try to contact that "Institute.") Your "
Memetics Bookstore" also gives the impression that Csikszentmihalyi is the
only other person to write about the evolution of memes. On TV, you tell
the audience that "I wrote Virus of the Mind because there was this
incredibly interesting topic that no one was talking about..." Clearly
wrong. All of this, along with your claims of writing "the Bible of
Memetics" allows scientists to reasonably suppose that VOTM is the most
technically sophisticated treatment available. Once they get that idea,
they conclude that memetics is mainly hype and euphoria. I have found
myself successfully correcting people who had this sort of entirely
preventable immune reaction, but this has often resulted from them going
public with their impressions. I do not have formal surveys, but I am sure
that many other scientists have been quietly going away in disgust.

Paul's reaction to the box messages and "blobs on trolleys" is likely to be
fairly common, too. I suspect he feels the same way about that animated
lion at your web page. The fact that you include such material suggests
that you are not familiar with the culture and mentality of research
scientists. What was your college major before dropping out, anyway?

><<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. >>
>Good idea...I will implement it when I revise and extend the FAQ.

Thank you.

--Aaron Lynch

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