Re: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

Dave Gross (
Mon, 24 May 1999 12:32:35 -0700 (PDT)

Date: Mon, 24 May 1999 12:32:35 -0700 (PDT)
From: Dave Gross <>
Subject: Re: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft
In-Reply-To: <>

> "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]

This is a pretty awful summary of memetics. It's like saying that the
theory of evolution via natural selection can be reduced to the
observation of heredity. Evolution goes beyond this observation and uses
it as the basis of a theory as to how the variety of life has developed.

Similarly, memetics uses the 'summary' you've quoted above as the basis
for something much more than "people copy other people." It's a theory
about why we're surrounded by so many complex languages, religions,
fashions, movements, myths and such. It hopes to explain the complexity
and variety and change-over-time of human culture, or, in its humbler
moments, to explain at least some of that story.

And as evolutionary theory in biology progressed by abandoning the idea
that the variety of life forms were the result of the whim of a
creator-god whose motives must be analyzed in order to understand His
creation, in favor of seeing these creatures as agents in an uncannily
creative but unconscious generative process - meme theory is using a
similar perspective in the hopes of gaining more insight into the
perplexities of the human social arena than folk psychology (or its many
sophisticated descendants), with its own whimsical creator-ego, seems to
be able to provide.

-- Dave Gross

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