JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

Robin Faichney (robin@faichney.demon.co.uk)
Mon, 24 May 1999 19:24:34 +0100

Date: Mon, 24 May 1999 19:24:34 +0100
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: Robin Faichney <robin@faichney.demon.co.uk>
Subject: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

I think that this probably constitutes enough "gatewaying" of this
thread. From here on in I'll assume that those who are sufficiently
interested have subscribed to jcs-online.

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from: Anthony Sebastian <Anthony_Sebastian@msn.com>
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Subject: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft
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If I were a Professor of Memetics, I should be hopeful about reaching a
student who started my introductory course with this conception of memetics:

"The truth in memetics seems to be the simple fact that we human beings are
indeed always, to some extent, passive recipients of existing ideas - not
because those ideas are parasites infesting us but because we are social
animals, closely bound to those around us by familiarity and affection, so
that we largely pick up our habits from them." [Mary Midgley, "Of memes and
withcraft", jcs-online, 5/20/99]

Perhaps the first thing I would try to engage that student in is a
consideration of what might be the mechanisms whereby human beings "pick up"
their habits from those with whom they associate. I would hope that she
would review the evidence that indicates that among those mechanisms, a most
common and effective one is imitation, whereby one learns to do something by
seeing (hearing, etc.) it done by others. [Susan Blackmore reviews that
evidence in The Meme Machine.] The evidence indicates that the ability to
imitate is innate in humans, and a highly developed skill, and that children
are consummate imitators. In the case of imitation, we do not so much
passively receive or pick up what others have to offer, but rather we copy
what we observe they are doing. It's a more active process than a passive
one. Imitation is 'copy-cat' behavior.

Thus, in trying to understand how we come to behave as others do, a more apt
metaphor than to "pick up" the behavioral patterns of others is to "copy"
them. That is, a 'copying mechanism' (imitative behavior) is involved, and
something (a pattern of behavior) is copied. At least in that regard, one
is reminded of genetics, where a copying mechanism (molecular replication,
or transcription) is involved, and something (molecules, specifically
polynucleotides, or genes) are copied. The aptness of the analogy with
genetics may be further appreciated when it is remembered that, according to
quantum mechanics ('the dreams stuff is made from'), molecules themselves
are patterns of behavior (wave patterns).

It does not seem unreasonable, therefore, to give a generic name to the
various kinds and patterns of behavior that can be copied by the copying
mechanism of imitative behavior. Thus, Dawkins's term, memes. From this
perspective, to qualify as a meme, something must be copyable by imitative

It is a huge jump from those premisses to the conclusion that human beings
are fundamentally copying mechanisms of high but not perfect fidelity,
designed by the process of evolution by natural selection of readily
copyable entities (genes and memes). But the student should not discount
the possibility that the conclusion may be reached stepwise from those
premisses. In proceeding from that possibility, if the conclusion is
invalid, there should be nothing to fear, since the misstep should then
become clear.

Anthony Sebastian

List Moderator: Len Maurer <len@maurer.demon.co.uk>

jcs-online is a service of the Journal of Consciousness Studies


Robin Faichney

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