Re: Meme Conference

Paul Marsden (
Mon, 17 May 1999 10:40:29 +0200

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: "memetics" <>
Subject: Re: Meme Conference
Date: Mon, 17 May 1999 10:40:29 +0200

I was planning on attending this conference, which will undoubtedly be a
landmark event in memetics, and write up the conference in a paper for the
JoM. Unfortunately, a number of research students, (conducting research in
memetics) have been banned from the critically important second day of the
conference by the organiser, on the grounds that our PhDs are not yet
completed (and no, I don't understand the logic either), but I am sure the
organiser has the issue in hand of imparting the words of wisdom uttered
during this "closed session" to the relevant journals so we all may benefit.
But perhaps somebody more qualified than myself (any PhD relevant or not
will do, I think) will be able to report directly to the JoM?

Anyway, the focus of the conference has been passed on to me - and for your
interest, here it is.


The study of kuru, a degenerative neurological disease first isolated among
the Fore in the New Guinea Highlands, has produced two Nobel Prizes in
Medicine: once in 1976 to D. Carleton Gajdusek and Baruch Blumberg, and
again in 1997 to Stanley Prusiner. Both awards have been controversial.
Gajdusek (1977) argued the disease is produced by a slow-acting virus. This
constituted a new strategy (long-term dormancy) in an existing class of
replicator. Prusiner (1995), on the other hand, believes kuru (and related
diseases) are caused by an entirely new class of replicator which
reproduces independently of DNA: prions (short for "proteinaceous
infectious particles"). Only one of these arguments can be correct.

Analogous options exist for explaining another phenomenon which also
"infects" the brain: culture. Culture is either a new phenotypic strategy
used by the most prominent class of replicators, genes (e.g., Flinn and
Alexander 1982; Flinn 1997), or the product of a novel, quasi-independent
class of replicators with their own interests (e.g., Brodie 1996; Lynch
1997). These basic units of information, able to reproduce themselves
during transmission between individuals, were called "memes" by Dawkins
(1976). One of these theories is wrong: either memes exist or they don't.

Nevertheless, many researchers blithely discuss features of memes, ignoring
the fact that their existence has yet to be proven. Much of current
discussion in memetics (see particularly the Journal of Memetics) simply
assumes that memes exist when in fact there is as yet not even a standard
codification of the concept (Rose 1998; Wilkins 1998). For example,
Blackmore (1999) argues we can get some way without bothering about the
details of defining a meme, while Gatherer (1998) has suggested we simply
ignore the difficulties, and adopt a behaviorist stance (at least
temporarily), to make some progress while ignoring the "indefinable" mental
states associated with memes. Similarly, work in gene-culture coevolution
(Boyd and Richerson 1985; Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman 1981; Durham 1991) is
founded on the assumption of a quasi-independent line of inheritance, and
hence implies the existence of a cultural replicator. Models from this
school indicate that natural selection can favor the transmission of
acquired information and the persistence of social learning processes
(e.g., Boyd and Richerson 1996). However, they do not prove that such
abilities underlie human culture, nor that information packets with the
characteristics of cultural replicators exist.

Strangely, no one has sounded an alarm over this state of affairs, which is
quite astounding considering the controversy which has greeted the similar,
though less radical, hypothesis of a second form of biological replicator,
the prion. What has not generally been recognized is that, at least from
the perspective of evolutionary biology, this claim of a cultural
replicator should be controversial. The ease with which the notion of memes
has been accepted in some circles might be thought to arise from
differences in the level of discourse in the social as opposed to natural
sciences -- except that the word "meme" was coined by a prominent
evolutionary biologist, and much of the interest in the meme hypothesis has
remained among philosophers of biology and others, like computer
scientists, relatively far from that history of discourse.

There are even a number of purely philosophical arguments against memes.
First, the memetic perspective posits the existence of an additional kind
of heritable lineage to explain cultural species. However, postulating
replicators adds a dimension of complexity to cultural explanations,
violating the principle of parsimony. Just as a new variant on an existing
theme was first tried out to explain kuru, positing a new class of
replicators is only to be preferred in explaining culture if all else

Second, unlike kuru -- an obscure and now eradicated disease -- culture is
a major, ubiquitous phenomenon which has attracted considerable theoretical
attention over a long period of time. Thus, a number of alternative
explanations exist to explain cultural phenomena. Indeed, some argue that
all of anthropology has been built on the concept (e.g., chapters in
Borovsky 1994). Why should we invest in a new theory of culture if the old
ones work tolerably well? (One might counter that this suggests there has
been reasonable progress in the study of culture using the existing
explanatory framework when in fact standard social science has not proven
very fruitful; however, I will not pursue that line here).

The lack of conceptual or empirical advance in memetics for over twenty
years implies that memetics is a non-progressive research program (Lakatos
1973). There must be some underlying problem with the present conception of
memes which accounts for this stagnation. Surely, if memes exist, they must
leave traces in the world. It is possible that, if we had a better search
image for memes, we would begin to find them. But in the absence of a
well-founded model, recourse has simply been to argue from analogy to the
best-known replicator, the gene, with no mention of mechanisms for either
replication, selection, variation or transmission. Thus, I argue (contrary
to those above) that many of the claims made about memes are likely to be
false because this analogy to genes has not proven productive. Memetics
remains linked conceptually but not ontologically to biology.

In conclusion, the meme hypothesis can only be preferred if:

1) it leads to correct, novel predictions which can only be accounted for
by tortuous complications made to alternative theories (so that the meme
hypothesis proves a more elegant or more general explanatory framework,
negating the parsimony argument); or

2) cultural entities which have the characteristics of replicators can be
shown to exist (the ontological argument). Such a demonstration would
dominate any other consideration, because memes would then simply have to
figure in any explanatory account.

Memetics therefore needs to come up with supported, unique predictions
and/or an existence proof to become valuable. The challenge to our
speakers, then, is to provide some support -- either theoretical or
empirical -- for the meme hypothesis, or to provide additional grounds for
lowering our expectations of ever finding such entities." B. Aunger

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex

Tel (44) (0) 958 733 414

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