Re: Terminology and Quantification

Aaron Lynch (
Mon, 19 Jul 1999 10:24:57 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 19 Jul 1999 10:24:57 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Terminology and Quantification
In-Reply-To: <>

At 08:37 PM 7/18/99 EDT, Jake <> wrote:
>In a message dated 7/18/1999 12:26:44 AM, writes:
>>> When memetics is presented to journals such as SCIENCE and NATURE, it is
> necessary to do considerably more than just show that memetics works as a
> philosophical stance consistent with materialism and "the evolutionary
> algorithm." If we claim that some kinds of memes spread more than others,
> we must be prepared to be very specific and tell just *how much* more they
> spread and at what time schedule. That is, the theory needs to be stated in
> dynamic quantitative and mathematical terms. Otherwise, we run into charges
> of "superficiality," "circularity," "tautology," "cocktail party science,"
> etc. <<
>I agree. We certainly cannot submit philosophy alone as science.
>However at the same time we cannot ignore philosophical issues when we
>our terminology. We have to keep in mind why we call these things "memes"
>the first place rather than just using more established terms from cognitive
>and behavioral sciences and cultural anthropology. Otherwise we run into
>very understandable and expected accusations from these more established
>sciences that memetics is just a faddish upstart that confuses things which
>have already been studied empirically by using trendy new words like "memes"
>for no better reason than fashion.
>>>By these criteria, Dennett (1995) is utterly inadequate. In fact,
>Dennett (1995) even claims that "The prospects for elaborating a rigorous
>science of memetics are doubtful..." (p. 369) --a situation I see as
>arising from his unfamiliarity in 1995 with quantitative population
>memetics. He only defended memetics as a "valuable perspective," not as a
>"rigorous science." (Indeed, this opinion about memetics may even account
>for his long delay in reading more rigorous population memetics work.)<<
>Yes. Though obviously Dennett is and always will remain the philosophical
>godfather of memetics, memeticists should be ready and willing to part
>company with him when he makes statements like this. As a philosopher
>Dennett has no interest in defending memetics as anything more than a
>"valuable perspective" -- i.e. a philosophically legitimate position. That
>is all he needs to keep talking about memetics as a philosopher. It is of
>less concern to him as a philosopher whether it turns into a rigorous
>science. Indeed, it would be in his interest to hedge all bets on it
being a
>rigorous science at all until such a thing were to be imminently
>To do anything else would be to risk credibility as a philosopher. Though I
>think he would as excited as any of us would be to see that actually happen,
>I wouldn't expect him or any professional philosopher to lead the charge.
>That's for people like you, Aaron.
>All that said, however, memetics probably more so than any other rigorous
>science that I can think of, cannot afford to ignore philosophical issues.
>Because memetics deals with culture - OUR culture -- in a much more
>and direct way than just about anything else that aspires to be a rigorous
>science. We aren't studying hunters and gatherers, we aren't studying just
>an individual human's psychology, we aren't studying ancient civilizations,
>or primates, or any other thing somewhat removed from our power struggles
>that seethe at the heart of any dynamic culture. We are studying US and OUR
>beliefs. Anything that you say about memetics is immediately and
>applicable to our culture.
>Direct entanglements in our culture -- especially by anyone who wants to
>claim the mantle of 'rigorous science' means entanglements with our
>philosophy. Memetics must necessarily be a fusion of science and philosophy
>if it is to survive. I think that to forget that is to be ignored, no
>how empirical, rigorous, or technical your approach.
>Considering how important philosophy is, we need to be ready to even
>with Dennett himself on other philosophical matters that would otherwise be
>distracting to memetics should we treat him as philosophical gospel.
>Specifically, I am thinking about Blackmore's recent book where she goes out
>of her way to treat even the having-of-a-self to be a memetic illusion and
>her "zenification of memetics." Some people suggested that this is a
>extension of Dennett's position about self as being merely the narrative
>center of gravity -- and that this isn't just zenification, but also
>Dennettization. Considering Dennett's endorsement of her book, and the lack
>of any forthcoming dissent on these issues, I think they may be correct.
>Obviously I disagree with Blackmore and Dennett on this issue. While I see
>Dennett's self as narrative center of gravity to be insightful (I don't
>subscribe to homoncular selves either), I also think that he underplays the
>importance of the embodiment of the narrative self, and the profundity of
>narrative and language in human thought and embodied metaphysical
>constructions. I think a good reading of Vygotsky, as well as Lakoff and
>Johnson ("Philosophy in the Flesh" 1999, Basic books) would dispel a lot of
>this silliness of selves as illusions, and leave the subject of memetics
>every bit as intact if not more strongly so than when Dawkins and Dennett
>first conceived it.
>If Dennett remains our only philosopher, I think we may be at a dead end.
>some extent we all need to be philosophers even though some should aspire
>be rigorous scientists first and foremost. In addition we should be looking
>to some other professional philosophers for guidance other than just Dennett.

Thanks, Jake. We agree on most points, including that philosophy is
essential. Note that I have included some philosophy of science in my 1998
JoM-EMIT paper (but skip or skim the mathematics in section 16 if you find
it too technical).

Dennett has made important contributions to memetics, and is recognized for
such in my book. He does, however, treat memes as existing in both brains
and artifacts. Aesthetically, my problem with this is that it makes
memetics even less similar/analogous to genetics. It is as if one said that
a "gene" complex for bee hives were located not only in the organism's DNA,
but also in the hives themselves. The practical problem with this is that
locating "memes" in both artifacts and brains makes the quantification and
mathematics more difficult. Better, in my opinion, to use separate words
for interpersonally spread brain-stored information as a replicator and
artifactual replicators, even though artifacts are often media of
transmission for brain-stored information and vice-versa. Note that biology
does just fine treating protein-based replicators and nucleic acid based
replicators with the separate terms "prion" and "gene."


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

--Aaron Lynch

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