RE: Replicating in and out of minds

Richard Brodie (
Thu, 8 Apr 1999 17:11:11 -0700

From: "Richard Brodie" <>
To: <>
Subject: RE: Replicating in and out of minds
Date: Thu, 8 Apr 1999 17:11:11 -0700
In-Reply-To: <>

Bill Benzon wrote:

<<If one defines a meme as that entity in cultural
evolution that plays a replicator role analogous to that which the gene
plays in biological evolution, then the question of whether or not memes
are in the mind/brain is not a matter of definition. It is a matter of how
cultural evolution works. That is an empirical question.>>

Well, I'll just say you've got bigger balls than I had when I wrote VM. I'm
really in complete agreement with you that the self-replicating mental datum
is NOT the most interesting perspective from which to view cultural
evolution; the self-replicating cultural institution and its interaction
with human psychology is much more interesting, and so is the poorly
understood mechanism of self-organization that Price rightly keeps trying to
pique our interest in. But in 1995, when I went to press with VM, everybody
with letters after their name who had written on memes had defined them as
being in the mind. So I went with that.

Whatever you call it, replicator-in-the-mind really is an interesting
distinction to make (replying to Tim). It focuses on the mechanism of how
beliefs affect behavior. I catch a meme somehow. What does it do to me? It
influences me to whistle a tune, wear a hat backwards, or speak a slang
phrase. But I'm not sure there's much you can do with engineering a "pure
meme" that doesn't quickly evolve into an artifact-centered replicator. So I
would be really happy if meme were defined as what Dawkins and I call a
virus of the mind. My concern is that you're going to confuse everybody
should you do that.

<<I realize that, in saying this, I'm saying that Dawkins doesn't understand
how cultural evolution works. Columbus thought he landed in the Indies,
but he was wrong. Dawkins thinks memes are in the mind/brain, but he is
wrong; he's linking the term he coined to the wrong entities.>>

I think Dawkins would be the first to admit that he doesn't know how
cultural evolution works. He coined the term only to point out that DNA was
not the only possible replicator. In VM, I pointed out that meme-in-mind is
not only not the only possible CULTURAL replicator, but it's not even the
most interesting one. But I still spent a lot of pages on it, both because
it was a starting point for people who had read The Selfish Gene and because
the whole idea of memes as components of our individual map of reality is
essential to understanding the cognitive model of psychology.

<<I've already explained why I think that the meme, thus defined, is in the
environment, not in the mind/brain. I don't think my argument are at all
definitive; but I'm not at all impressed by the arguments for the orthodox
position. However, I don't want to go through that yet one more time.

But I don't think empirical matters can be settled by calls for consistent
use of terms.>>

You are completely right and justified philosophically. It's just a
political and PR battle that I don't think is worth fighting.

Richard Brodie
Author, "Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme"
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