Re: Meme Machine reviewed in Science

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 15 Jul 1999 12:44:27 -0500

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Date: Thu, 15 Jul 1999 12:44:27 -0500
To: Memetics Listserve <>
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Meme Machine reviewed in Science
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At 11:23 AM 7/15/99 -0400, Bill Benzon wrote:

Thanks for calling our attention to this, Bill.=20

>Flying Over Uncharted Territory
>A review by David Sloan Wilson*
>The Meme Machine
>Susan Blackmore
>Oxford University Press, New York, 1999. 286 pp. $25, =A318.99. ISBN

> <snip>...but one of the largest problems is not addressed. The
>oft-repeated accusation that natural selection is a tautology fails
>because fitness is not defined in terms of whatever evolves but in terms
>of the properties that enable organisms to survive and reproduce in
>their environments. Moths that are colored to match their background
>have a high fitness with respect to bird predation, but cryptic
>coloration may not evolve if the appropriate mutations either do not
>arise or are lost by genetic drift. The ability to define fitness
>independently of what evolves saves the concept of natural selection
>from being a tautology. For the meme concept to escape the same problem,
>we must define cultural fitness independently of what evolves. If the
>first four notes of Beethoven's fifth is a powerful meme only because it
>is common, we have achieved no insight. <snip>

The problem of tautology is effectively addressed by expressing memetic
selection theory mathematically. My own presentation of this (Lynch, 1998)
does not even depend upon having the term "fitness." Hence, there is not
even the appearance of saying that a meme spreads because it is "fit," and
is "fit" because it spreads. I prefer not using a single parameter called
"fitness," but instead, multiple parameters. Such sets of parameters for
specific memes can be taken as "propagation profiles" (Lynch, 1996)
expressed formally.=20

Unfortunately, Blackmore does not mention the existence of mathematical
population memetics. So the charge of "tautology" was raised not only by D.
S. Wilson, but also by Jerry Coyne in _Nature_ (Coyne, 1999). When I called
Coyne's attention to the equations, he agreed that the "tautology" problem
does not apply to them. (Likewise, mathematical population genetics is what
keeps genetic selectionism safe from charges of "tautology.")

In post publication remarks about my population memetic equations, I have
an entry that discussing the use of equations 1 and 2 for non-brain based
replicators (

"Although labels of individuals based solely on artifacts and behaviors are
not defined as "memes" in this paper, equations 1 and 2 can be generalized
to apply to such labels. That is, equations 1 and 2 can model the natural
selection of artifactual abstractions and behavioral abstractions as well
as memory abstractions, provided that the individual person is still taken
as the measure of transmission. For instance, N1 can be defined as the
population possessing a certain kind of artifact, and N2 defined as the
population not possessing that kind of artifact. Alternatively, N1 can be
defined as the population exhibiting a certain behavior, and N2 defined as
the population not exhibiting that behavior. However, as population
equations, equations 1 and 2 cannot directly model the number of copies of
an artifact or the number of instances of a behavior. The latter quantities
would require modification of the equations or the development of different
types of equations. One possible method of proceeding is to separately
model the number of artifact copies or behavior instances per person
counted as "possessing" the artifact or exhibiting the behavior, and
multiply this quantity by the numbers N1 or N2 as modeled by equations 1
and 2. Naturally, that is a much easier task in those cases where the
behavior or artifact count per person can be treated as constant over the
time interval under study."

Thus, the behaviorist/artifactualist/internalist controversy should not
prevent our work from being defended mathematically against charges of


Coyne, J. "The Self-Centred Meme" (Book review of The Meme Machine by Susan
Blackmore). Nature 398: p. 767.

Lynch, A. 1996. Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society: The=
Science of Memes. New York: Basic Books.

Lynch, A. 1998. "Units, Events, and Dynamics in Memetic Evolution." Journal=
Memetics-Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission.

--Aaron Lynch

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