Re: FW: Memetics in Time magazine

Aaron Lynch (
Tue, 27 Apr 1999 23:01:48 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 27 Apr 1999 23:01:48 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: FW: Memetics in Time magazine
In-Reply-To: <00b501be9107$22eb5800$79a1bfce@proftim>

At 04:38 PM 4/27/99 -0700, Tim Rhodes wrote:
>Aaron Lynch wrote:
>>>Derek wrote::
>>>You have a point here, but..... don't you think that your speculation
>>>concerning Dawkins' motives is... erm.... a bit strong?
>>Well, maybe it is a bit strong, or maybe it is a bit weak. Some of the
>>sites he mentions actually seem chosen so as to *invite* the charge of
>>"cocktail-party science," all the more so given the omission of JoM-EMIT
>>and online technical works.
>Have you considered the possibility that Dawkins, as a skilled speaker, was
>simply siting sources that would be readily accessible to the average reader
>of Time magazine? Most lay-folk would be quickly soured on memetics if they
>had to try to pick it up from a source like JoM-EMIT or other "technical

A lot more lay people (along with scientists) are soured on memetics by
hearing that it is "a meaningless metaphor" (Gould) or "an utterly silly
idea" and "cocktail party science" (Orr). I don't agree that merely
mentioning that technical treatments exist (in addition to the
non-technical treatments) is a statement that goes over the head of
readers. It is one thing to spare the readers from seeing technical
details, quite another to prevent them from even knowing such material
exists. There is a wide perception that the whole reason Dawkins and others
do not mention the more technical treatments is that such treatments don't
exist. I believe Dawkins has long been aware of these perceptions, and yet
we still see him not mentioning that more technical work is available.
Instead, he seems to speak of memetics with some sense of bemusement in
parts of the article.

>Understanding your audience--and their limitations--is, after all, an
>important part of communicating new ideas to a wider base. (And it is from
>that wider audience that the funding for memetics research will eventual
>come, Aaron.) I have a hard time seeing how letting them learn to crawl
>before they try to walk is likely to be an act motivated by anti-bipedal
>-Tim Rhodes

Letting them see that others can walk does not stop them from learning how
to crawl first. We don't hide the act of walking from newborns. Mentioning
JoM-EMIT or technical works, or even just the existence of such material
does not cause someone to abruptly stop reading the simple stuff in the
magazine. How many cartoons have you seen in the popular press in which
scientists are shown writing complex formulas at the blackboard? They
clearly do not try to hide the fact that most sciences have their share of
technical material. Yet everyone already expects TIME to keep it simple, no
matter how technical the field. On the other hand, readers looking ahead to
the critical remarks quoted by Kher may have decided not to even bother
with Dawkins's piece. Nothing about Dawkins's piece prevented the editors
and writers at TIME from including remarks such as "meaningless metaphor,"
"utterly silly idea," and "cocktail party science," and this fact alone
should stop us from assuming that "Dawkins knows best" about how to
popularize memetics. Perhaps his article's omissions were mere oversights.
On the other hand, maybe he still is "pulling in his horns" more than he
realizes, and perhaps a conscious or unconscious conflict of interest plays
a part. The possibility is strong enough that it should be noted.

--Aaron Lynch

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)