Re: The "Zenification of Memetics" - neat phrase coined by

Aaron Lynch (
Fri, 16 Apr 1999 12:05:50 -0500

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Date: Fri, 16 Apr 1999 12:05:50 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: The "Zenification of Memetics" - neat phrase coined by
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At 02:04 PM 4/15/99 EDT, you wrote:
>In a message dated 4/15/99 9:51:23 AM Central Daylight Time,
>>> It should be noted, however, that Dennett has expressed doubts about the
> prospects of a memetic science (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995). <<
>I have my doubts as well. However, I think the Zenification of memetics
>(neat phrase you coined there, I think it might be contagious) is even more
>improbable and more potentially flakey then what has gone on before. I
>actually think that we may be floundering toward something - what I do not
>know, but zen memetics definitely isn't it IMO. As the pre-eminent and
>founding philosopher of memetics, I would think that Dennet would hope for
>something more. He certainly has a dog in this fight for legitimacy despite
>his respectable doubts, even though it isn't a career make or break for him.

Thanks, Jake.

I did coin the phrase "Zenification of memetics" in response to your
earlier comments. I don't know if the word "Zenification" has been used
before, but given the wide use of the words "Christianization" and
"Islamization," it would not surprise me in the least.

>>>Meanwhile Dawkins's ambivalence on memetics is famous, and may partly
>from the fact that selfish meme theory offers rival hypotheses to selfish
>theory in certain areas. On some level, keeping memetics too weak for most
>hard-core scientists may appeal to him.<<
>I would think that selfish gene biologists and selfish meme culturists
>legitimately battling over the best explanations for various aspects of
>behavior ought to be the highest compliment to Richard Dawkins, seeing as he
>is the biggest champion for one camp and the symbolic progenitor of the
>other. If I were to end up in a similar situation myself, I would be
>laughing my ass off all the way to the banks of academic and scientific
>I have been considering your thought that these two might privately be
>buddhists. That would explain a lot. Perhaps there is another explanation
>yet. My father-in-law suggested it to me in regards to Dawkins - he shares
>the same publisher as Susan Blackmore. I can't say that I have been in the
>enviable position of a published author like that, but I have been told that
>they might sometimes put pressure on authors in promotion of ather books out
>of the same house. Dawkin's general ambivalence and now-unfamiliarity
with a
>lot of the issues within memetics, plus another opportunity push his name
>there prominently in front of new audiences, plus some pressure from the
>publisher, could have added up to this decision. I couldn't imagine though,
>that he hopes to condemn memetics to spoofdom, as you seem to suggest in

For the record, I should clarify what I meant I said that I would have
thought Dawkins and Dennett would exert a more scientifically conservative
influence--even if they themselves are privately Zen Buddhists. I actually
doubt that they are privately Zen Buddhists, though I suppose it is
possible. My comment was meant to show that one can oppose incorporating
Zen into memetics theory even without being at all Zenophobic, if you'll
forgive the pun.

My actual suspicion is that Dawkins casts a rather skeptical eye on Zen
Buddhism, though this is only a hunch I get from his involvement in Western
Secular Humanism. Nevertheless, under these circumstances, I am surprised
that he would not have exerted a de-Zenifying influence on Blackmores work.
I am also curious about why he would call the work memetics' best shot
after Zen had been incorporated. Calling it the theory's best shot can be
taken to mean that no stronger expression of the theory can be expected. In
other words, he is telling scientists that if _The Meme Machine_ doesn't
persuade you that memetics is good science, nothing will. Yet I suspect
that he also knows that the majority of hard-core Western scientists will
roundly scoff at a theory that incorporates Zen. Hence, saying that a
Zenified memetics is the theory's best shot can be interpreted as a
roundabout condemnation of the prospects of memetics as a science.
(Remember, Dawkins has not, as far as we know, signed any international
treaties prohibiting first use of memetic weapons!)

Dawkins is the symbolic progenitor of memetics, as you noted above. But he
has poured much more of his life work into genetic theory. So we should not
be surprised if he is partial in some rather subtle ways to selfish gene
theory over selfish meme theory.

>Dennet on the other hand is a little harder to make out. Blackmore does
>to refer to him an awful lot, and pumps Dennet up considerably in her book -
>as well he deserves IMO. A small statement on the dust jacket from what I
>see, though I haven't kept up to see if he has offered endorsements
>elsewhere. Not nearly the extensive forward that Dawkins put in for her,
>from the way she thanks him for his input, you would think that Dennet was
>sitting right beside her through the whole project.

I suspect that Dennett has been too busy to get very deeply involved in the
book, which might be why he did not exert a de-Zenifying influence. When I
asked Dennett to consider writing a blurb for Thought Contagion, he told me
that he no longer does blurbs except for former students and personal
protegees. This is because requests for blurbs was taking up too much of
his time. Since my book was already written when I approached him, he had
to decline--lest making an exception to his rule would open the flood
gates. Given the constraints on his time, however, I suspect that the
amount of time one can spend with him even as a "personal protegee" is
quite limited.

>Maybe Dennet has some real zen sentiments that he otherwise restrains on a
>philosophical leash in his professional life. Though I agree with him
>philosophically, I certainly don't adopt that kind of a belief system,
>I could see how it would be compatible with, though not necessarily
>compelling from, the positions that he has taken as a professional
>philosopher. Really though, I think that he must be thinking that memetics
>won't be going anywhere as a science, and will probably remain a
>philosopher's dream for some time to come, and so he concludes "what do I
>have to lose?"
>However, I cannot get the suggestion you made that Dennet and or Dawkin's
>might have some private Buddhist sympathies, especially in relation to
>Dennet. I mean if Blackmore really did consult with Dennet considerably,
>these are strong spiritual sentiments of hers, I couldn't imagine her NOT
>talking about these beliefs and attitudes with him and the role they played
>in her book. I mean, *I* sure as hell would have talked to him about such
>matters if I had his attention for that long and that extensively and I was
>writing a book in subject in which he was generally held to be the
>philosophical nurturer and god-father. That is just a conversation that
>would have happened. As Dennet might say, the conversation would have
been a
>forced move in the possibility space of their interaction.
>Well, it is fun to speculate about the dynamics that went on behind this
>phenomenon, but that is all that it remains - speculation. The fact is that
>we have this book out there with the two biggest symbolic and philosophical
>names behind it in regards to the meme meme. And so we must deal with it
>head on, on its merits especially if the other two celebrities have nothing
>more to reveal on the issue.
>All I can really say for the fun interpersonal observation, is that
>certainly wins for now in the pecking order game whether or not she does so
>on the merits of her book - which I am still digesting myself so I will
>refrain from saying much more. I am sure that whether her star rises or
>falls within this niche, she will always have an important place - she has
>secured that much. Whether or not this counts as a win for the entire niche
>of memetics within the realm of respectable science remains to be seen. I
>would imagine that the reactions of prominent others will play an important
>role in that as well.

Yes, it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

--Aaron Lynch

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