RE: Memetics not tautological or circular

John Wilkins (
Mon, 07 Jun 1999 17:13:38 +1000

Date: Mon, 07 Jun 1999 17:13:38 +1000
From: John Wilkins <>
Subject: RE: Memetics not tautological or circular
In-Reply-To: <>

On Fri, 04 Jun 1999 13:12:01 +0200
(Gatherer, D. (Derek)) wrote:

> Cavalli-Sforza did include voting tendency (Republican vs.
> Democrat) as a bi-allelic cultural trait in his magnum 1983
> Science paper. Here the mental content (for instance if I feel
> strongly right-wing) will correlate with the behaviour (ie. I am
> likely to put my X next to Pat Robertson etc.)
> The others are a little more difficult.
> What memes do you infer from an achievement test? Suppose the
> test asks: "What is the capital of Turkey?" You get the right
> answer straight away, but I struggle to remember and fail the
> test. Half an hour later it comes to me in a flash "Of course,
> it's Ankara!". Now what does that tell us about our memes? Did
> you have the meme and I didn't? Did I have it later when I
> remembered but not at the time of the test? Did I always have it
> in some way but somehow couldn't access it? These are the kind
> of problems we run smack into as soon as we try to start
> quantifying any kind of mental or memory entity.
> You see what I'm driving at here, Richard, is not that mental
> content doesn't exist (no Skinnerian behaviourism from me), nor
> that the idea that there are replicating mental entities is in
> any way particularly implausible (I mean I held to Dawkins B for
> many a year myself....) but rather that it doesn't stand up to
> close scutiny. The difficulty is methodological.
> To what extent is the ability to drive a car memetic? Car
> driving, once one has learned is cerebellar. While you're
> learning it's cerebral. Different parts of the brain are
> involved depending on one's degree of expertise. A driving test
> tests behavioural ability, not anything concrete inside the head.
> That seems clear to me.

Hi, I'm back... got dropped off the list by an Evil 'Bot.

Why is this all or nothing? We can sometimes track the existence and
spread of memes (eg, linguistic memes) even if they are not expressed at
all times (I know, for example, the meaning of the word
"sesquipedalian", even if I only use it to show that I can use words a
foot and a half long). What we are tracking is not whether cultural
genes are *expressed* but whether they are carried (we have all sorts of
assays to find that out, including short term and long term reaction

Other times we cannot track them with any precision - all we can do is
locate their existence in that deme. So, this means less resolution in
the data, but it doesn't mean that memes are not mental objects.

However, if we ask whether the "Capital-of-Turkey" meme is in the
meme-pool of some cultural deme, we can answer that even if not all meme
bearers in that deme can express it. It may just reside in our shared
ability to look it up in an almanac (it's in the deme if there's an
almanac available). In other words, memes may be, but are not
necessarily, mental or neurological configurations.

And yet, if an individual expresses the meme (in linguistic or other
behavioral dispositions, such as pointing reliably at a dot on a map of
Turkey), it must be a mental object, or at least a neurological one.

I'm glad to see you have sworn off Skinnerism :-)


John Wilkins, Head, Graphic Production The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research Melbourne, Australia <mailto:wilkins@WEHI.EDU.AU><> Homo homini aut deus aut lupus - Erasmus of Rotterdam

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