Re: Meme Machine reviewed in Science

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Thu, 15 Jul 1999 17:44:18 EDT

From: <>
Date: Thu, 15 Jul 1999 17:44:18 EDT
Subject: Re: Meme Machine reviewed in Science

In a message dated 7/15/99 1:40:40 PM Central Daylight Time, writes:

>>>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

Philsophically, I think this is much ado about nothing. The assumption that
leads toward people seeing this is a fundamental philosophical problem is
what I sometimes call atomic materialism - "atomic" in the Aristotilian sense
not refering exactly to what we know and refer to as "atoms" today. Another
term that alludes to this more directly was employed by Daniel Dennett as he
referred to "greedy reductionism" -- though I believe that Dennett himself
falls victim to his own greedy reductionism on issues that are not
immediately relevant to this discussion.

That genes and memes have *some* material manifestation is philosophically
important. That we can consistently point to some particular piece of
matter/mechanism and say "that is a gene" or "that is a meme" is not
philosophically important. Though genes have a single obvious stable
mechanism for information retention - DNA - that is not the sum total of what
a gene is. While DNA is definitely selfishly replicated - it is in no
stretch of the imagination a solipsistic replicator - unfortunately excessive
reductionist myopia deludes or lulls some into assuming that it is. (Actually
RNA would make a better candidate for solipsistic replication - assuming that
we could eliminate other biological processes from interfering with the

That memes have diverse mechanisms for information retention of varying
stability/fidelity does not make memes any less "real" or have any less of a
material manifestation than genes do. It may make memes seem somewhat more
"Lamarckian" as the line between memotype and pheMotype blurs, but that is an
entirely different issue.

Until we start taking a more emergent materialistic approach to memetics, we
will continue to fall for a hopelessly immense array of philosophical
"problems" based on the fact that memes do not have a consistent, discreet,
and readily identifiable instantiation or information storage like genes do
in DNA. We will never be able to point to a neuron and say, "that is a meme"
and capture any significant sense of what we are talking about. This does
not mean that memes are any less a part of the material world despite its
less consistent, indiscreet, and plural mechanisms for instantiation and
information storage.

It may make important differences in how we study memes, but it does not make
any philosophical difference as to the existence of memes -- and we should
stop acting like it does. The argument between Gatherer and Lynch -- despite
the personal heat, and even the partisan dynamics that have developed around
it -- is not one that makes or breaks memetics philosophically. As far as
how to progress in the study of memes, it may be extremely important, but
recruiting outside voices to say that one particular approach or the other
invalidates memetics as a whole is simply not the case.

BTW - just for the record since this does get occassionally "hot" on here, I
am not endorsing either the Gatherer or the Lynch position. When it comes to
memetics, I am a self admitted philosopher king - not a practicing memeticist
like you guys are. The only memetics I actually engage in is the
participatory, messy and subjective, not objective or professional - though
my conceptual doors are open for such a thing and I am optimistic that you
will succeed in it.


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