RE: Papers critical of memetics

Richard Brodie (
Sat, 6 Feb 1999 11:28:18 -0800

From: "Richard Brodie" <>
To: <>
Subject: RE: Papers critical of memetics
Date: Sat, 6 Feb 1999 11:28:18 -0800
In-Reply-To: <>

Aaron Lynch wrote:

<<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.>>

Apparently you fancy yourself an expert in the politics of science. Again,
do you have any evidence to show what works and what doesn't in motivating
people? Or is this more untested armchair theory?

<< One of these is to offer a
self-help style book containing hyperbole>>

In spite of your apparent calling to become a nuisance in my life, perhaps
because for some reason you consider my best-selling book a threat to your
fantasized importance in the grand scheme of things, I have had
overwhelmingly positive feedback about the content and style of Virus of the
Mind. I say that not to brag, but perhaps to broaden your perspective. I
frequently meet people who get so excited about memetics after reading my
book that they make it a standard gift to friends.

Of course there's the guy who left his copy on the beach in Mexico...

<< 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.) >>

That doesn't sound like my language. What passage do you have in mind? I do
discuss how hypocrisy around sexual mores might be selected for.
Unfortunately I'm on the road and don't have a copy with me or I could look
for what you might be talking about.

<<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.>>

Aaron, this may be a tough pill to swallow, but I recommend everything I
think is worth reading. Form your own conclusion.

<< 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.>>

I do recommend Hofstadter in the reading list. I thought GEB was better. The
MT article didn't really add much and was a very small portion of the book.

<< 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

I glanced at it. I didn't and don't find it interesting and so didn't
recommend it. As for the praise, I was being polite and encouraging. Your
contribution is your energy and intelligence, especially when channeled in
positive directions. Then it can be wonderful.

<<You clearly knew about the Journal of Ideas. Again, no mention. You knew
Moritz's technical paper. No mention. >>

There was one possibly interesting article on evolution of language, but
since J. Ideas was unavailable I didn't mention it.

<<Scientists browsing the bookstore and
deciding they want more technical 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.>>

My book went to press in 1995. What other books on the evolution of memes
were published then?

<< 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.")>>

You'll have to take that up with Elan Moritz, who gave me that generous
quote. Hey, I offered to replace it with one of yours if you gave me a
better one...

<< Your "
Memetics Bookstore" also gives the impression that Csikszentmihalyi is the
only other person to write about the evolution of memes.>>

The only other one I recommend. Of course Dennett's books are there too.

<< 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

In what way? Are you going to say that "no one" was inaccurate because .001%
of the population had heard of memetics? I surrender. You got me.

<< 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.>>

You are sure about a lot of things, aren't you?

Good luck trying to prevent reactions, Aaron. Believe me, the most
technically sophisticated treatment of evolution will provoke a reaction in
a creationist. Memetics hammers against people's worldview. Other than
instilling it from childhood, there's no was to prevent a reaction. Hey,
that's not a bad idea...!

<<Paul's reaction to the box messages and "blobs on trolleys" is likely to
fairly common, too. I suspect he feels the same way about that animated
lion at your web page.>>

You can disparage my artwork all you want (it's not very good). But when you
start disparaging KMO -- watch out!

Aaron, something can be important without being deadly serious.

<< The fact that you include such material suggests
that you are not familiar with the culture and mentality of research

It does not suggest I do not know. It does not even suggest I do not care.
It suggests that I decided it wasn't as important as other priorities to
cater to it..

<< What was your college major before dropping out, anyway? >>

I majored in Applied Mathematics at Harvard, with an emphasis on computer
science. Why?

Richard Brodie
Author, "Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme"
Free newsletter! Visit Meme Central at

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