RE: Papers critical of memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Sat, 06 Feb 1999 16:49:58 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 06 Feb 1999 16:49:58 -0600
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: RE: Papers critical of memetics
In-Reply-To: <000a01be5206$d9805420$153c2299@uymfdlvk>

At 11:28 AM 2/6/99 -0800, Richard Brodie wrote:
>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.

What kind of "fantasized importance" does it take to call oneself the
author of "The Bible of Memetics"? Do you see yourself as the God of the
memes? Notwithstanding, you should assume that most of the direct feedback
that authors get for their work will be positive. I get overwhelmingly
positive feedback for my own best-selling book, but still do not call it
"The Bible of Memetics."

>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.

p. 116: "But following sexual mores makes you behave in the interest of
*everyone else's* DNA, not your own." This runs counter to the fact that
sexual more laden groups like Hassidic Jews, Roman Catholics, Muslims,
fundamentalist Christians, Mormons, etc. all have high birth rates.

><<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.

GEB has nothing on memes at all, and it should not be classified as a "Zen"
book either. MT was far more relevant as a reference in a book on memes.

><< 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?

There is nothing wrong with listing articles as well as books. Carl Sagan
does so even in his most popular books. The articles do not need to be
widely available, either: authors can be looked up and contacted for

><< 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...

Moritz wanted funding to establish a real institute. Along comes someone
dropping names like Bill Gates and Microsoft. Did he write the endorsement
in hopes of ingratiating himself to someone who could land him the funding?
Would he even say so now if that were his reason? I don't know. I do know
that you have received endorsements from at least 2 scientists who happened
to be looking for ways to get their work funded. They could easily have
been swayed by the "Bill Gates" name dropping, and I suspect that others
were likewise swayed.

><< 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!

What does KMO (Kevin Michael O'Connor) do to his art critics (or more
exactly, to critics of treating his lion as "central" to memetics)? I find
you saying "watch out!" quite a bit.

The only thing I can see that makes Mr. O'Connor's cartoons "central" to
memetics is his fawning adulation of you. The effect on research scientists
and many others is to convince them that "memetics" is an enterprise of
adolescent boys.

>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..

Overall, you and Mr. Rhodes provide a long list of denials and excuses,
even an implied threat from "KMO." Of course new scientific theories
provoke controversy, especially in the science literature. It is not a good
sign, however, when the skeptics movement takes a theory as an
extraordinary claim worthy of debunking.

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

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

Depending on how long you stayed in the program, I would have expected you
to take the culture and mindset of research scientists into account in your
promotional campaign.

I think that your book and your promotional campaign are much better suited
to the self-help segment of the book market. Had you placed your book in
self-help section of the bookstore rather than the science section, you
would not have provoked so many anti-memetics immune reactions in
scientists and would probably have reached a larger part of the general
public. (And no, I would not have had a problem with that.) As a
self-published author using his one imprint (Integral Press), however, you
did not get the kind of experienced help on this that you would have gotten
from an established publisher.

In any case, thank you for at least agreeing to improve the "what is a
meme" part of your FAQ.

--Aaron Lynch

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