Re: Meme Machine reviewed in Science

Mark M. Mills (
Thu, 15 Jul 1999 14:33:37 -0400

Date: Thu, 15 Jul 1999 14:33:37 -0400
From: "Mark M. Mills" <>
Subject: Re: Meme Machine reviewed in Science
In-Reply-To: <>

Great review. Here are my comments on it:

>Flying Over Uncharted Territory
>A review by David Sloan Wilson*
>The Meme Machine
>Susan Blackmore

>there have been no recent breakthroughs in meme research...

First point, there is no recent breakthrough in meme research. The
logical construct has not helped anyone design an experiment which produces
noteworthy results.

>Part of the problem stems from the replicator concept, which has led to
>some interesting insights but often merely redescribes the familiar.
>... selfish memes often turn out to be a
>convoluted way to describe the obvious. ..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.

Second point, Blackmore uses a tautology.

>Another problem is that Blackmore addresses such large issues--our big
>brains, language, sex, altruism, religion, the concept of self--that her
>analysis becomes hopelessly superficial. ... Blackmore's
>enthusiasm for the meme concept is genuine and may even be justified,
>but to make progress she will need to exchange her pilot's cap for a
>pith helmet.

Point three, Blackmore has no mastery of detail to support her 'big picture.'

All of these are good points. Based on my reading of memetics book
reviews, these are the common complaints.

As an advocate of the 'instantiated in the brain' meme (Lynch-meme), I
found the following comment particularly interesting:

>More problems arise when we try to think of culture as broken into
>replicating units like genes. Unlike genes, memes do not exist in a
>physical form.

This comment points a finger directly at the problem. The reviewer's
complaints are caused by using the 'non-physical' meme definition
(Gatherer-meme). Apparently, the reviewer is unaware of the two
definitions in use, Lynch-meme (physical instantiation) and Gatherer-meme

Blackmore uses the Gatherer-meme definition and runs into the usual
problems. If a meme is non-physical, where is the connection to physical
reality? How does one design an experiment for it? If a meme is
non-physical, how does one scientifically describe a selective process
involving physical entities? What motivates selection of one meme over

Had Blackmore used the Lynch-meme (physical instantiation), the reviewer
might have been better satisfied. The hypothesis that there is a
Lynch-meme instantiated across neural tissue can be tested in the lab. Our
experiments may be crude, but the future will probably yield decisive
results. Second, it established the genetic 'genotype-phenotype'
relationship in memetics. This solves the tautology problem. The detail
problem (#3) is solved, too.

Both the Lynch-meme and Gatherer-meme support the notion of cultural
evolution. The general picture described by Blackmore is served by both
definitions. The Gatherer-meme avoids the difficult neurological work and
thus delivers 'results' faster than the brain oriented Lynch-meme. The
Lynch-meme is not likely to get much 'prime time' coverage this year, but
in the long run, I think the Lynch-meme will offer more lasting rewards.


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