Memes Shmemes

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Memes are described as elements of culture, but culture is nothing but a broad generalization of large numbers of individuals. So it seems memes are to be treated as Platonic ideals, the essence within expressions that merely constitute their vehicles. No such essence is empirically accessible.
Genetics was a perfectly good science even before DNA was identified as their "physical analog". Heck, evolution was even a perfectly good science before mendelian genetics was discovered.

You seem to have missed the point here. Mendelian genetics is based on reproducible empiricism. So far, the only basis we've found for memetics is hyperbole.

Again, see the paragraph below on your argument structure. Also, I'd be interested to know if you consider pre-neo-Darwinian synthesis evolution to be based on reproducible empiricism.

"Genes don't admit a taxonomy because their expression (phenotype) depends on all the other genes in the organism as well as the organism's physical environment. No commonality is necessary within these phenotype expressions, and so no hierarchy can describe their variations." Please explain how your statement is different from this translation, which any biologist would regard as absurd.

Indeed, I also regard it as absurd. It is a StrawMan.

A StrawMan has two features: it is easy to knock down, and it is a poor substitute for a real man. We both agree the translation is absurd; I ask you again how it differs from your argument. [Note: "memetics isn't genetics" and "memetics isn't scientific" are both wrong answers.]

"Memes don't admit a taxonomy because humans reinterpret ideas within their own personal contexts." is "translated", here, into "... expression depends on all the other genes...", but what's meant by reinterpret is "pull apart entirely and re-create some rough analog to". In DNA, the expression of a gene depends on the expression of another gene, but its coding is identical (or else it's a slightly-different gene - think ValueObject). It is not even demonstrated that memes *have* codings. -- DanielKnapp

I do believe we have reached stage three of the "it's incoherent, it's wrong, and besides, we knew it already" progression. Also, memetics isn't just the statement that some ideas are compelling and replicate; it's the study of how and why ideas/concepts/memes (both successful and not) replicate in the context of their environments.

If it were coherent, this page could not exist. As to whether it is right, since it makes no claims we've been able to discover, that's impossible to ascertain. As to knowing it, so far all our efforts have failed utterly. This suggests only two possibilities: either we haven't yet discovered its substance, or else it has none. If memetics is a study of anything at all, it would naturally evidence falsifiable hypotheses and practical techniques of some sort. Despite our best efforts, these remain a complete mystery.

One or even many people not understanding or believing a theory doesn't make it incoherent. Lack of progress in a young and poorly funded field also doesn't mean much. MrAristotle and others wrote an awful lot about physics for a rather long time without come up with many falsifiable hypotheses or practical techniques; I'd hate to conclude that physics wasn't the study of anything at all.

Hope this helps. -- ThomasColthurst

Not yet. Try harder. -- PeterMerel

Okay, let's try again. On the most charitable reading I can come up with of your statements, you have one main argument: "Memetics isn't scientific because it hasn't come up with any empirically reproducible or falsifiable predictions."

Also you have a bunch of subarguments which I guess I interpret as saying that for various reasons, Memetics is poorly motivated, incoherent, or unlikely to ever come up with scientific predictions. [Please let me know if this reading is fundamentally incorrect in some way. Also, see the above paragraph on the history of religion for a possible counterexample to your main claim.]

Anyway, this is all fine as far as it goes, except that you keep on making one structural error: you repeatedly use your main argument as evidence for your subarguments. Clearly, it wouldn't matter one wit if memes weren't digital or if memes were hard to classify or whatever as long as memetics came up with empirically reproducible results. Right now, it often seems like you are saying "memetics won't ever come up with scientific predictions because it doesn't currently come up with scientific predictions".

Just to clarify where I'm coming from, let me offer two of my beliefs about memes. First, I believe that memetics is a young science. Young sciences don't make many empirical predictions but they do offer new ways of looking at old problems and data which sometimes (but certainly not always) bloom into fully adult sciences. It is fully permissible (and even important) to bet on the probability that a given young science will turn into a real science, but it is not at all fair to criticize it for not being a real science (real sciences have to start somewhere, after all).

Second, I believe that the best genetics analogy for memetics are the autocatalytic RNA organisms that are often bandied about as likely early life candidates. In this model, there is no DNA and no proteins, but rather the RNA serves both as the storage mechanism (the DNA role) and as the construction workers (the protein role) that make the cell membrane, copies the main RNA strand, etc. Which RNA substrands get activated (= copied from the main strand) can be a quite complicated function of what RNA substrands where previously activated. [It occurs to me that Stuart Kauffman has done some interesting statistical modelling and simulation of this kind of things and that it might be applicable to memetics. Wouldn't it be funny if the number of distinct moods a person had was proportional to the square root of the number of their memes?] Also, as with many primitive organisms like viruses, "leaping" genetic material (substrands of RNA) would often move from individual to individual.

To make the analogy more complete, consider these organisms as inhabiting a much larger host (e.g., a human), in a mostly symbiotic but sometimes parasitic relationship. Memes are a lot like stomach bacteria for the brain: we keep most of them around because they help us digest, but at the cost of supporting some neutral or even harmful ones around. -- ThomasColthurst

There seems to be a bit of SpecialPleading? in the above argument, insofar as it defends memetics on the grounds that if it is science at all, it is a fledgling one and cannot be criticized for falling short of the explanatory power of genetics. However, the very name "memetics" (as opposed to e.g. "the replicator theory of cultural effects") is designed to evoke comparisons with genetics. (As memes go, it's quite a good one.)

The name implies a theory that is structurally similar to, and in predictive power equivalent to, the modern refinements of Darwinian theory that stemmed out of molecular genetics. It is, however, highly unfortunate for the fledgling discipline of memetics that its name should imply these similarities, because in most respects memes behave precisely in the way genes don't. (As memes go, it might therefore be an example of a "selfish meme" that undermines the long-term survival of its "organism".)

RichardDawkins aptly sums up in TheExtendedPhenotype? ISBN -0-19-286088-7 , p112, the various ways in which "memetics" would be fundamentally different from genetics, and concludes : These differences may prove sufficient to render the analogy with genetic natural selection worthless or even positively misleading. My own feeling is that its main value might lie not so much in helping us to understand human culture as in sharpening our perception of genetic natural selection.

I think it comes down to this then: names don't imply things. They evoke things, sure, and it is vaguely legitimate to critique something for evoking a concept that the named thing has no resemblance to. But they don't imply things, and the name memetics certainly doesn't imply that the named theory has predictive power equivalent to modern genetics, and more than the naming something pineapple implies that the named fruit is red. -- ThomasColthurst
The concept of a meme is no more of a platonic essence than the concept of a species. While it is true in a certain sense that there is no such thing as a species, just a bunch of biological organisms that happen to look and act a lot alike, it is also true that the concept of a species often comes in very useful. Similarly, the concept of a meme often comes in very useful, even though a semistrict empiricist might insist that the only thing that really exists is idea X in the brain of person Y (this after all might one day be identifiable in a CAT scan or the like!). So much the worse for semistrict empiricism, in my opinion.

A species is not just a bunch of organisms that seem alike to you. It's a category of organisms capable of interbreeding to produce similar offspring. Platonism doesn't inhere to this distinction, but to the assertion that a correlation between two forms springs from their expression of some ideal, which in the absence of empiricism is the only available support for the identification of a meme. The import of the remainder of your argument isn't clear to me - can you refine it?

Your definition of species doesn't apply to asexual organisms, which are both the vast majority of species on this planet and the proposed model for memes. [No-one, I should hope, believes that new memes are created only when two parent memes love each other very much.!] You may not like it, but "a bunch of organisms that seem alike" is more or less what most species are defined by. [Really anal biologists use cladistics to make this appear more objective, but that's besides the point.] The rest of my argument merely says that one day, with really good brain scanners, we *might* be able to see memes in people's heads. Thus it is too early to say that memes don't exist.


If genes were likewise expressed by consumption then you'd be sprouting wings from eating chickens.

It's possible to trace the evolution of ideas through history. Ways of making clay pots or arches, for example. I'm not sure what problem you have with this. It seems clear to me that ideas do evolve. This is a matter of their history rather than structural similarity. If you go with structural similarity, you have problems with memes but you have them with genes too. Scientists argue incessantly over how to classify fossils, which features are more important.

I would say that an architect who builds for others is not so much breaking a memeline as introducing a mutation. -- DaveHarris

I think you misunderstand me Dave. To say two fossils are similar you can use empirical techniques. To say two ideas are similar, you rely on your own system of values. I don't argue that you can't trace an evolution of ideas; I only argue that there are other filiations that can be (and are) traced, and there's no empirical method to support one or another interpretation as being more or less correct. -- PeterMerel

You're right, and I still don't understand. To say two fossils are similar is controversial. Experts disagree. It partly depends on which features you consider most important. Evolution tells us there is at least one system that gives unique answers, but some people advocate other systems as more useful. -- DaveHarris
But more than this: genetics, because of its empirical basis, is a predictive discipline. We may not be able to predict the success of an allele in an unknown environment, but we can say that if you express a particular gene you'll get a particular allele.

Memetics is not predictive. If I introduce an idea to you - this one for example - then I can't say what effect it will have on you. ConstructiveInterference rather than genetic evolution dominates your mind, and there's no predicting your reaction to any particular expression. -- PeterMerel

I haven't been able to extract much sense out of the ConstructiveInterference page, so it's hard for me to comment on this. I think the genotype/phenotype distinction breaks down a little here, so that introducing a new meme into my mind is more like introducing a new species into an environment than producing a single offspring with a mutation.

That said, it's wrong to think of genes as being simple programs or blue-prints, with a direct mapping from DNA strand to body feature. It's much more mixed up than that. When you look at the fine scale, it's hard to pin down exactly what a "gene" is. Eg it was misleading of me to write "a gene for a stronger heart". I therefore hesitate to say that genetics is more predictive. -- DaveHarris

It's hard to find a gene for a strong heart, but that's not because the cause is complex so much as the effect is. It's not too hard to find genes for something simple, like sickle cell anaemia. Memetics are unfortunately always going to be "fuzzy". The reason for this, though, is that ideas themselves are fuzzy and any theories about them will have to inherit this.


Taxonomic classification of memes can't be done because to identify two expressions as related is to make value judgements about what is and what is not significant about their relation. For example, I think judaism and islam are similar but most jews and moslems don't; I think taoism and buddhism are different but most Chinese folk don't.

"Meme" is a meme, after all. This recursion totally blows it, like thinking about thinking. You really need to break it down into a simple objective axiomatic framework which you can then derive predictive theories from. Just like neuroscience informs psychology. -- SunirShah

Are you saying that because of recursion, no understanding of thinking can ever be reached - not even a partial one? I think you will find that not everyone has given up on "thinking about thinking" so quickly. And as thinking is a bulk behavior, an simple objective framework needn't help; neuroscience informs psychology the same way hardware design informs software.

{I don't think recursion blows it. Just because the word "dictionary" is defined in the dictionary paper book, under the word "dictionary", doesn't blow the english language out entirely, nor does it blow out the dictionary as a useless tool. You can think about thinking; you can think about other people thinking about things.}


The claim that memes bring nothing new to the table isn't true. The entire point of memes is that ideas need not exist for anyone's benefit but their own. This is a slight shift, but still a significant one, and it helps explain why people will cling to fads, fashions, crazes and so forth to their own personal detriment - not such an obvious thing, to me.

It does not help explain any of the above, it just observes it and puts a new label on it.

The effects of memes can't be predicted either because we don't know anything about the way an expression will be received by an arbitrary person. Memetics explains this by suggesting that a person may already be infected with other memes that affect their reception of a meme, but this is the same logic that was used to sell phlogiston; it's circular.

Now this isn't to say I have any problem with folk classifying things as memes and building their worldview that way. Neither do I have a problem with scientologists classifying their experiences as thetans and trying to reconstruct themselves by "clearing" them. But neither do I find either approach constructive, especially when used as dialectic.

It seems that ideas are propagated by consumption rather than by replication, and what's predictive is the dynamics and harmonies of ideas rather than their filiation. We see this explicitly in patterns: patterns fit together in languages or systems, and the applicability and success of a pattern depend on its harmony with the other patterns in application. Patterns can't be cut and paste - they don't work by replication - because they all depend explicitly on mapping context. -- PeterMerel

Viruses have a very difficult time replicating without proper context. I think that memes can be treated comparably; there can be different memes for different contexts, just as different viruses infect different things. And at a base level, you could have instinct memes that pave the way for their friends. -- JoshuaGrosse


I agree that patterns individually are memes, but so are pattern languages, and indeed the idea of patterns. And I think you can point to ways in which memes are transformed discretely: after all, the medium of exchange for memes in software is a combination of human language, a programming language, and a modelling notation, all of which are discrete systems. We can even trace lineage (for example, of Model/View, a mutation of MVC).

One way of looking at software culture might be to identify the memes (not just patterns, of course) which bind a community - some of these shared beliefs and assumptions can be expressed as patterns in a pattern language, but others ("goto considered harmful") are much simpler.

-- DavidHarvey

Patterns are spoodges. So are pattern languages, and likewise girls, moustaches, pianos, and bowling balls. Whoop de do. Now if only I knew what difference things being spoodges made, I'd really have something.

What difference does things being memes make? What is *not* a meme? What test can you use to determine whether something is a meme or not? What predictions can you make based on the memetivity of a thing? I think maybe memeticists just like typing the word "meme". Meme meme meme meme meme. Yeah, it made me feel all tingly. -- PeterMerel

Now now. You'll find any number of definitions of meme-ness in the memetics literature, (try http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit/ for a start) which, while by no means identical, establish a space for the concept with at least as much precision as "design", "analysis", "pattern" and so on. I think a contention like Dennett's "a scholar is just a library's way of making another library" says something valid about the tangled relationships between a culture's beliefs and artefacts, an observation that is just as germane to the culture of software development.

To a two-year-old with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a memeticist with a metameme, everything looks like a meme. To me, it seems that a meme is a 100% nugatory concept. It predicts nothing, reveals nothing, constructs nothing, but reduces everything - just as does any dogmatic religion. If there is any value at all in memetics, I don't know what it is. I regard it as an academic tar-baby that can neither be falsified nor tested - as a grandiloquent kind of horological astrology.

Why such distaste? Because the notion that minds are mere replicators for expressions denies the basic process of mind - the flow, growth, and continuity of experience. We understand experiences by constructing maps for them, certainly, but nothing suggests these maps are replications of some platonic ideal. We commonly discard and digest our maps whenever this is convenient - something a replicator can not do. We don't simply accept and copy passing expressions - we test and construct and modify and harmonize and symmetrify our ideas. Each human mind is as unique and dynamic as a garden - where memetics teaches that minds are machine-like containers for replicating ideals.

Basically, what I'm saying is that minds are more like ecosystems than they are like organisms. So genetic replication is a flawed metaphor to begin with; ideas engage in cycles of growth, predation and decay, they are symbiotic, parasitic, antagonistic and interdependent in the manner of zygotes, not statistically competitive in the manner of gametes. To understand mind we have to map the ecology of mind, not bucketsort its spoors and signs.

One approach to the analysis of this ecology is PersonalConstructTheory. Unlike memetics, PCT has both scientific rigor and concrete applications both to clinical psychology and real-world knowledge engineering. There are other approaches; I only raise this one as a functional example.

So, again ... Patterns as memes? Well, what does it matter if they are? What does it matter if they're not? What difference if they're memes or spoodges?-- PeterMerel

PCT as an ecology of mind is all well and fascinating (and there are now any number of models of the mind, none of which escape the resource to metaphor and analogy which would render any of them "truly scientific"). I'll even buy your characterization of mind as more ecosystem than organism. None of this though says much about those alignments of ideas in populations by which we define culture.

The ubiquity of memes should not surprise us: by analogy, there's not a square inch of the surface of the planet, the lower atmosphere, the upper seas, that's not colonized by DNA in some form or another. One view of evolution holds that the process requires only (1) a representation of information, (2) a means of reproduction, and (3) selective pressure: indeed, given this state of affairs, evolution is inevitable. If you accept this, then memetic reality is an inseparable consequence of mind, just as the diversity and ubiquity of life arises from characteristics of the physical universe and the chemical makeup of the early earth.

My own working definition of meme is "an element of cultural transmission" - which certainly acts as a decision process (so a tree or a species of tree is not a meme, but the World Tree, Tyburn Tree, the Tree of Life are all. A girl isn't, but the Gioconda is...). Why does it matter? Well, there are plenty of memes out there attempting to wield influence (not always benign) through their hosts: poets, authors, composers, marketers, orators, journalists, politicians, bishops, cult leaders, generals, CEOs, development team leaders, pattern writers... "an idea is what you have, an Ideology is what has you".

I certainly don't regard myself as one, but it's clear from the activity reported on the web that many researchers are indeed involved in introducing a level of methodological rigor to memetics. Most of these have moved beyond blindly following analogies from genetics. The theory of biological evolution had to wait a century before the science of genetics provided an explanation of the mechanisms involved.

Your distaste finds eloquent expression in invective...it seems to me too that no-one apart from us two cares about the issue any more...so though I've enjoyed this debate, I'll leave you the last word. This is DavidHarvey signing off...for now...

Hmm, a last word ... David, you've filled me with questions. I take it from your examples that you mean memes as specific where platonic ideals are abstract. But of course this is a matter of degree; you say that a girl is not a meme but La Giaconda is; there are many renderings of La Giaconda, so if we specify Leonardo's is that somehow more a meme than otherwise? And if generics are excluded then how can we apply memetics to religious concepts like souls and reincarnation - surely they're generic?

Moreover I wonder at these cultures that you say are transmitted. If you transmit the common cold to me then we can easily predict my symptoms. But if you transmit Catholicism, say, then what can we predict? I wonder whether cultures don't exist more by way of relation than construction; catholic vs protestant like right vs left or up vs down. It makes no sense to talk about "left" as an entity complete in itself, but it apparently makes sense to talk about a meme in isolation - or does it?

As to invective, I meant no offence (none taken! - DH) and if I've given any then please accept my apologies. I'm attacking this concept of memes because I don't understand it, and haven't understood it for some time. But I'm not attacking you or any other folk fond of the idea - I just want you to explain it to me so that I'll get it.

So here's another sally, and perhaps you or anyone else still reading this will show me how to knock it on the head: "Meme" means the same thing as the Scientologist "Thetan" or the Christian "Sin". It's a word that you can use to avoid direct intercourse with someone thus:

 * Memeticist: "He's just saying X because he's infected by the X meme."
 * Scientologist: "He's just saying X because he needs to be cleared of the X thetan."
 * Christian: "He's just saying X because he's a sinner"

Perhaps I'm hearing this stuff all wrong; or are these really similar statements? -- PeterMerel

You missed one....
 * Scientist ""
That's right; these may all be the same thing but they are commenting on issues that science does not or perhaps cannot deal with. -- AlanChristiansen

Or perhaps refuses to deal with because the correct scientific view (meaning the view which is obtained by correctly following the principles of science - as opposed to the view obtained by any particular practitioners) holds that any "He's just saying X because..." is an inherently ridiculous statement. -- DanielKnapp


I'm having a hard time understanding the discussion between Peter and David, so I'm going to give my two bits about one of the original questions:

DouglasHofstadter calls the set of all memes the ideosphere. He argues that an especially reproductive configuration of ideas behave like a virus in the ideosphere, and that the viral form is shared by most, maybe all, of the world's religions:

1. This idea can be propagated to others 2. A believer has an obligation to propagate the idea to others. 3. Terrible things happen to the believer if the idea is not propagated.

In its canonical form the viral meme has a replication hook that is associated with a personal and social agenda, often including extended ritual and behavior.

So, by parallel construction, is there a patternSphere? Can a pattern self-replicate, and are there viruses in the patternSphere?

First: I don't see self-replication anywhere but the last sentence, and doubt it is really key. In terms of the three points, it would seem that chain-letters as self-replicating entities do not in-and-of themselves matter. What matters is that believers are propagating an idea to others because they believe there is an obligation to do so and that bad things will happen if they do not. It could be argued that this is self-replication, and that everything that meets the three conditions is self-replicating. I just don't think that the capacity to self-replicate appears to matter in-and-of itself.

Second: Do members of the patterns community have an obligation to propagate their ideas to others? And will terrible things happen to those members if their ideas are not propagated?

It seems to me that the argument for viral entities in the patternSphere hinges on what we mean by obligation and by terrible things. What drives the propagation of ideas within the community? What obligates members of the community to propagate their ideas? If I believe in patterns and pattern languages, and use them in my daily life, but don't tell others, what terrible things happen to me?

Or is this, as was so eloquently stated above, so much spoodge?

-- BillJamison

Spoodge it may be, but rather nice spoodge I think. Okay, let's think this through. Do patterns replicate because they are believed, or because they are useful? If the former, then perhaps we can talk in terms of pattern cultures (no I won't use the word meme until someone can tell me what a meme is supposed to mean in terms that make some kind of sense to me). But I suspect that it's the latter that turns people on about patterns. If a bunch of people claim to have found a pattern useful, perhaps I will too - if it fits why not try it? If I've found a pattern useful and I don't see it mentioned then why not write it up? Perhaps someone else will get a use from it. I don't think either of these are belief, or at least not belief in the religious sense; I think they're compassion.-- PeterMerel


A meme can propagate for reasons unrelated to any benefit it might bring its hosts. You can have a mene for martyrdom. For me this is the key insight. It doesn't particularly help to know that patterns are memes unless it predicts something new, which usually it doesn't. When it does, I'd expect it to be connected with this insight.

Hmm. Parasitic patterns. I sense a PrisonersDilemma coming on. Perhaps we need a ParadoxPatternLanguage?? You want a pattern that is generally applicable but which destroys its host. I don't know if such patterns could get used - would you use one? Double Hmm. Perhaps the suicide squads made famous by the Japanese Kamikazes and Arab extremists would qualify? But this still doesn't overcome my objections to memes, I think.

For example, if there were two closely related patterns, or two expressions of the same pattern, such that they compete, we wouldn't necessarily expect the "best" one to win. For example, the meme that "A pattern is a solution to a problem in a context" is sometimes more successful than the version which adds the word "recurring". Short, simple slogans sometimes beat longer and more precise ones, even though the longer one is "better" in some other sense. -- DaveHarris


Further I'm saying that memetics isn't science because it's neither testable nor falsifiable. In this it's worse than Lamarckianism - it's a lot more like Scientology.

I agree that predictability is an important component of a scientific theory. However, being digital is not, though I would agree to a softer requirement that being quantifiable on some level is.

Proteins fold up in a complex geometric way; predicting the geometries that will result from a given set of base pairs is non-trivial, possibly even non-recursive. Nevertheless, we can state that a particular genetic sequence will invariably result in a particular expressed protein. We can't do anything like that for a meme - what distinctive configuration of axons and dendrites codes for Catholicism? What receptor patterns correspond with junk-mail? There are no such configurations - many different configurations codes such things, and the behaviours that result - what we call Catholicism and junk-mail - are just as varied.

More than this, some of what you might identify as expressions of the same meme may be the result of a convergent evolution of thoughts. Both the Mexicans and the Egyptians, for example, built pyramids, but nothing suggests that there was any transmission of pyramid building from one culture to the next. The fact is, with only a limited set of technological possibilities, it's quite likely you'll see the same forms appearing again and again. Patterns are a lot more like this than they are like inherited traits.

The other question is of predictability. Just as with genetics, memetics is not currently an exact science, although the two differ greatly in degree. While have some idea of how certain phenotypes are encoded and expressed, we are much less certain about the encoding and expression mechanisms for memes. However, we can draw some parallels between genetic and memetic systems, especially in the context of evolving ecologies.

I can draw parallels between the king and a stream of bat's piss, but that ain't science neither.

One example is that of 'adaptive radiation'. This is the expansion of a base species to fill other ecological niches. If you consider the population of various niches by marsupials in Australia, you'll see that the original ancestor marsupial evolved in many different directions to fill many of the available niches. Kangaroos are different from koalas, but they both descend from the same ancestor. Beetles are another good example - there are more species of beetle on the planet than any other kind of animal, possibly than EVERY other kind of animal species combined. The beetle is a very successful pattern, and through adaptive radiation it has populated ecological niches almost everywhere on the planet. Memes can undergo adaptive radiation as well. Look at Christianity. From the base religion, Christianity has adapted through schism and reformation to fill dozens of major ecological niches in the religious ecosystem.

Ah, so by a similar logic, because astronomy and astrology both describe the motion of planets, if we credit the one then we ought to credit the other too? I have an exciting land deal for you down in Florida :-)

Another common genetic evolutionary mechanism is that of parasitism. Any new species which evolves creates new niches for potential parasites. Likewise for memetic evolution. The "monastery" meme has evolved as a parasite of the religion meme many times in human history. As soon as you evolve the concept of a clergy, you create an opportunity for the idea of a cloistered order of clerics. We can see monastic life in both western and eastern religions, even though the religions are quite different in origin and nature. The monastery meme could not survive without the religion meme, thus it is a parasite.

Quite so. Likewise Apollo and Hermes could not do without Zeus and Athena. But is this science? I don't mean to insult you, but what you're saying assumes the antecedent. Memetics is valid because memes relate to one another?

I believe these two behaviors are quite useful for predicting evolution of memes. If a meme evolves that is successful, it will adapt to fill other similar ecological niches. For example, the Pattern meme started in the field of architecture, and has now populated the fields of software design and interpersonal collaboration. I can predict that the Pattern meme will continue to adapt and radiate into new fields. It is also likely that parasitic memes will attach themselves to the Pattern meme.

Oh, how we love to type the word meme! But let's see how this reads without it: "Pattern languages started in the field of architecture, and have now populated the fields of software design and interpersonal collaboration. I can predict that Pattern languages will continue to adapt and radiate into new fields. It is also likely that parasitic concepts will attach themselves to the study of patterns." Hmm. Gee, perhaps memes apply here after all :-)

Personally, I find the concept of memetics useful when thinking about transmission of ideas. Just as organisms can evolve to be resistant to parasitic infection, I believe memes can be made more resistant to parasitism which might detract from the value of the base meme. I also think in terms of memes to try to distinguish an idea from its parasites, its close evolutionary kin, etc.

-- JoshuaSusser

I still don't see why the concept of a meme is necessary. I can do all the things you say without it. What's more I've read many other folk who can do likewise. In short it still seems like superstition to me, like crossing your fingers or knocking on wood, to invoke this boojum of memes every time you want to think about ideas. Why not just think about ideas? -- PeterMerel

The issue is surely "What do you think about ideas with? ... What are the tools you bring to bear upon your given topic of thought? ... and where did you get those tools from?" Steve Herridge (just poking my head round the door)

That's the point Peter, I do think about ideas. But don't you think it's more effective to think about genes than just expressed traits? The appeal of memetics is to drive analysis of the transmission of ideas to a level where it can be dealt with scientifically - at least that's the point for me. I readily admit that memetics is not yet a powerful tool for quantifying or predicting idea transmission, but neither was genetics in its early days, and it could be argued that it still has a way to go.

I never suggested you don't think about ideas Joshua. And I think it would be effective to look at the genetic mechanisms of ideas if only they had genetic mechanisms . Until you can demonstrate that they do, I think you're ignoring the fundamental basis for their creation and transmission. Ignoring this basis is rather like ignoring the fundamental motions of the planets and stars - you can get a lovely system of astrology that way, but you'll never evolve astronomy. Details are vital to science.

Your "this is silly" argument is just that - silly. If you don't want to talk about memes, then don't. But there's no point in trashing a concept that people find a useful tool just because you don't find it useful yourself.

I've never described memes as silly - where do you get that from? I don't think they're silly - I think they're non-existent. I think they're like phlogiston, orgone, and canals on Mars - the results of fuzzy, wishful thinking. But I'm not trying to trash memes; I'm trying to question them - and so far I get no answers. -- PeterMerel

This page proves its own point. Took a long time, but it's definitive. -- rj

It may be unfair to compare memetics to genetics because genetics is a mature science and memetics is still groping. Rigor is important but to insist on it too early may lead to PrematureAbstraction. But some rigorous work has been done on the evolution of words.

I've been to folklore festivals and you could see songs and stories "mutate" to fill new niches. Knights in shining armor would mutate to cowboys when they crossed the Atlantic. Princesses would become Mary Sue and Cinderella's coach would become a cadillac. You could see the same structure but with variants.

-- CayteLindner


I want to help Peter make his point (since I agree with him that "memes" are rank pseudoscience). Unfortunately, Netscape won't let me add more than about a paragraph to what's already here, so I will post my comments on MemesShmemesContinued.


This page is long but I didn't see my point mentioned...

Some examples of memes which are well-defined and have obvious consequences:

Any fad. People unquestionably mimic superstars. Super stars are rich, but they do not dress like rich people, they come up with some gimmick. Michael Jackson wore one white glove, other people then wore one white glove.

The action and the consequence are clear. An ad uses a jingle, such as the catchy part of the fifth - why is it catchy? Nevertheless they use it because it is distinct and memorable and they aim to associate their product with something distinct and memorable.

Fashions of all types are obviously definable and obviously mimicked. When I was younger, the "hyper color" t-shirt was worn the majority of people in my age group before general consensus moved elsewhere. Of course it had to start somewhere, not everybody would just decide to wear them because it seemed sensible or whatever.

Most know what a popular fashion was in the '60s. This fashion is still carried on, yet in much altered forms. Few people still dress like flappers though.

Please tell me how this cannot be usefully described by memes. People on this page seem to be using complex ideologies, world views, and life choices as a way to discuss benefits of memes, but my examples (for instance) are much more easy to discuss because the motivations could not be too complex to provoke them.

-- DavidPorter

Hi David. The question isn't whether these things can be described as memes. Or ideas. Or fads. Or marketing gimmicks. Or mass media feedback. Or thetans. There are an endless number of abstractions we could use to describe them. The question is, what does describing them as memes predict? How can we test the prediction? And what further experiments can we run? Without good answers to those questions, why should we think of a meme as a concept with any scientific or engineering relevance?

The difference I see between memes and those other things you mentioned (except for thetans, which I had never heard of before so cannot say), is that memes are a 'how' type thing and 'fad' or 'mass media feedback' are descriptions of phenomena. They do not explain how the ideas have successfully propagated to a large amount of minds (I hope that terminology does not rub you wrong), merely that they have. Ideas do spread. They may not spread literally like genes (I will not defend that they do), but obviously they do. The proposal that we can understand how they spread and successfully model it is the value.

If you can explain the "how" of memes, or give pointers to same, I think that would help the conversation a lot. That ideas propagate is plain. That we can call ideas memes is equally plain. But where is the how here?

Can you, for example, use your study of memes to predict which of two possible fashion developments will be the more successful? If you can, the world will beat a path to your door. Or can you tell me, for another example, how to design an anti-meme for racism or pederasty - presuming those are memes? Or can you quantify the reaction of meme-infected daytraders to, say, rumors about the breakup of some monopoly?

And tell me, can you use your study of meteorology to predict the weather successfully two weeks in advance for a particular day or time of day for a particular place? Just because something is chaotic and extremely complex does not mean we should not strive to model and understand it.
That's a RedHerring. Sure, meteorology can't predict the weather very far in advance. But, statistically, it greatly improves your chances of predicting the weather in the short term. What's more it's easy to test its predictions. Its theories can be falsified. I still don't have any idea what memetics predicts or how to go about testing it in any term, or what it would mean to falsify it. If you can explain what is predicted, how to test the prediction, or what it would mean if the "theory" of memetics were demonstrated false, then we'll have something substantial to talk about.

But MemesAreNotScience.

In Thought Contagion, Aaron Lynch discusses homeopathy as a contagious cure:

This appears to me to be amenable to empirical testing.

What appears amenable to empirical testing? Where is the meme here, what does it predict, how can we set up a control, and what does this tell us about "how"?

The only value introducing the concept of a meme could have would be to shed some new light on the subject it describes. What is this value? If there isn't one, why not simply call a fad a fad and forget about memes? -- PeterMerel

Indeed. Unfortunately, calling it a fad will never explain anything and is of no use unless you want to merely identify it by name. Maybe we will eventually forget about memes (if empirical testing is unsuccessful), but the modelling information transfer between people cannot be forgotten. Do you believe that human social interactions are impossible to model or just that memes are a bad model? -- DavidPorter

I believe I haven't heard anything that suggests memetic descriptions can be tested or falsified. The use of the word "meme" seems to add nothing to modeling social interactions because of this. Your example of homeopathy appears to be described without loss of generality by substituting the words "con", "cult", or "scam" for "meme". So what does "meme" add?

I read people talking about memes and memetics as if it were an explanation of something - indeed, in some cases, of everything. But "meme" is semantically null as far as I can see; if it implies anything of substance, anything valuable, or anything predictive, I can only repeat I'd be most grateful if you could explain what that might be.


PeterMerel commented that the idea of memes does not allow prediction of the future memetic content. Here is a counterexample - people will strongly tend to have the same religious views as their parents; where they have different views, they will follow a religion with a similar social pattern.

Memes are somewhat Lamarckian, in that the medium of transmission is non-chemical, and hence memes are more flexible than genes. It's akin to those bacteria that can exchange genetic material - memes flow between people in conversation, print, art, etc. Also, addition of new memes is easier than the duplication of a section of chromosome, so it happen faster. In essence, memes propagate more like viruses do, and less like higher organisms.

-- Pete Hardie

Plainly, memes either explain the persistence of religion, or they don't. If they're predictive, then they'll make a prediction about the persistence of religion that you can test, to see whether they're a better explanation than just the simple observation that people tend to believe what their parents tell them at an early age. I can't think of any such test - can you? If there's no such test, then plainly memes don't predict.

Now as to Lamarckianism, I'm afraid you have the wrong tack. Lamarck didn't suggest that adaptation isn't chemical; he suggested that it occurs in the phenome rather than the genome. "Giraffes have long necks because they're constantly stretching them to reach the upper branches" is a Lamarckian hypothesis. It may well be that giraffes do stretch their necks to reach the upper branches, but testing the predictions of Lamarck vs. those of Darwin conclusively demonstrates that Darwinian evolution is what makes their necks long.

Poor choice of words on my part - I was trying for the fact that memes, unlike genes, can be acquired during life, like the Lamarckian taller giraffe. I'll pick this up in the MemesPropagateByConsumption thread.

As to viruses and other means for bacteria to exchange genes, the analogy to the propagation of ideas is as poor as the other memetic analogies that draw on genes. The genes so transmitted are replicated exactly. Ideas never are - we think about them and construe them within personal contexts. We're not infected by them - we ReFactor them to fit. So they're not replicated - they're evaluated and assimilated according to the other ideas we've got. In short, just because a cloud looks like a horsie to you doesn't mean it looks like a horsie to me. -- PeterMerel

I'm not sure that the comparison to bacterial genetic exchange is entirely incorrect. The gene horizontally transferred must itself appear in the new context of the bacterial genome. In the case of two closely related bacteria, the transferred gene would be in a similar or virtually identical context. In the case of a more distant cousin the integration of the gene might have unexpected results. If we assume that the target organism successfully integrates the gene into its genome, we might expect the evolutionary path of that particular gene to diverge from the one described in the originator.

Of course, 'memes' would have to be considered to evolve in 'real time.'


The best defense I have yet seen of "memetics" is DanielDennett's Memes: Myths, Misunderstandings and Misgivings, available online at http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/MEMEMYTH.FIN.htm . In particular he points out that the two "all too standard objections" of cultural evolution being Lamarckian (or at least non-Mendelian) and polyparental (most ideas have more than 1 or even 2 parents) also apply to the evolution of viruses (for which "horizontal transmission" of DNA is apparently common, and for which there is no clear separation of the germ and soma lines). Since the evolution of viruses can and has been studied rigorously and mathematically, there is no reason (at least no reason based on the two standard objections) that the evolution of memes can't be studied in the same way. As Dennett puts it, "Memes are indeed not very much like elephant genomes, but so what?"

Also of interest is Adam Westoby's "The Ecology of Intentions: How to make Memes and Influence People: Culturology" at http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/ecointen.htm.

-- ThomasColthurst

Neither Dennett nor Westoby seem to offer anything that meets the criterion that distinguishes science from pseudoscience - that theories admit of empirical refutation, and that empiricism be reproducible. In other words, they don't admit of KarlPopper's "FalsifiAbility?". Despite alluding to rigor and maths, no such things are provided. In short, this seems to be just more of the same. Nevertheless Thomas I must confess I don't possess time nor inclination to examine either work in sufficient depth to dismiss them out of hand. Can you provide references to any sections of these works that we can regard as scientific?

I (and many philosophers of science, including on some readings, late KarlPopper) disagree with your definition of scientific. Also, it really doesn't matter to me if memetics is scientific under any definition; it would be enough if it were useful. For example, if I can write a meme based cultural history of post-Renaissance Europe that is shorter and more insightful than other such histories, then why shouldn't I be able to go around saying that memetics is a good thing?

My definition of scientific? I don't think I've given one except for blabbing on about prediction and falsifiability. We could perhaps duke it out on the ScientificMethod, but since you doubt its relevance here let's stick to your criteria of utility and economy of expression.

There are several decent histories of post-Renaissance Europe that don't mention memes. "Civilization" was the one I suffered through in school, but pick any one of them that will serve. You'll have to help me out with the memetic version, for I don't seem able to find one online. Still you'll certainly make your point if you can explain just how the meme concept would shorten and provide insight. Future historians would be in your debt for even a simple worked example.

On Dennett's web page, he reviews a history of religion written by a distinguished historian (Walter Burkert's _Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions_, http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/papers/burkert.htm) and criticizes it for ignoring the possibility that aspects of religion propagated even though they reduced biological fitness. This idea that a meme can survive indefinitely even though it is bad (in strict fitness, or happiness, or economic wealth, or whatever) for its hosts is natural and obvious from a memetics perspective, but not at all intuitive from others. [Indeed, the very words (like fad or fashion) that are usually used to describe such things imply a short time duration which memetics accepts as possible, but not necessary.]

For me, this counts as useful. -- ThomasColthurst


[Taking a poor insight from EliminativeMaterialism; this is merely a shake, not a roll... take it good humour, please.] It is a mistake to attribute a scientific stance to media culture (which entails things like NicholasNegroponte, Wired magazine, and the unimportant but overhyped blue hair of CraigKanarick? of RazorFish?). Memes are "cool" but I find it difficult to believe they are anything but skience [sic]; folk skience at that. A culture of culture theorists, talking in a circle. -- SunirShah


The whole discussion about Memes vs. Science reminds me of ThomasKuhn's "normal science" in StructureOfScientificRevolutions. Maybe we're in for a paradigm shift. PaulFeyerabend also comes to mind. -- HaskoHeinecke


CosmaShalizi and I are spending a few too many months writing a scholarly review article on memes and other models of CulturalTransmission?. If you don't know Cosma's notebooks, see the page there at http://www.santafe.edu/~shalizi/notebooks/memes.html. -- BillTozier


Let's suppose that MemeTheory? is absolutely true.

Then all other theories are not to be trusted because they are "nothing more than memes," a form of intellectual virus, not actually valued for their "truth" or accuracy in prediction, but promulgated between scientists and students solely because they are successful memes. Naturally, such a statement would annoy most scientists.

But consider also this: if MemeTheory? is true, MemeTheory? must be nothing more than "just a meme". And therefore we'd have to conclude that we have no rational reason to believe MemeTheory?.

An interesting contradiction, no?

No. The fact that a theory is a meme (by definition) has no effect on the "truth" of that theory. Truth can be copied by imitation. Being true is a good survival strategy for memes. Being "just a meme" isn't a value judgement on the content of the meme. It's a model of units of culture.

Meme's are a metaphor, not a science. Yet I would argue that they can be useful.


03 27 2009--The above discussion was undertaken by a gaggle of morons. If we acknowledge that science is a linguistic and a mental activity we should be prepared for the inevitable circularity that will arise from the activity of science. In producing this circularity we produce a set of sentences that "are", collectively, "science". Indeed, science is merely a collection of (presently) unfalsified--though possibly falsifiable--hypotheses, written, spoken, or otherwise transmitted and/or stored. "All science exists as sentences", "All sentences exist-in/are-caused-by the minds of men", "The science of sentences exists in the minds of men". Do not despair. This does not make science less objective (unless you were a scientifical-ist, i.e. religiously, to begin with!). It simply curtails our hubris.

In fact, one could argue that memes (read here "Humean/Lockean impressions/ideas") are more real than, say, atoms. Or photons. Have you felt a photon lately, or did your memes tell you that you felt a photon strike your skin? When is the last time you saw an atom (and, NO, the pictures in the pop-science magazine DO NOT count, as they, too, are mere representations of a hypothesized entity). Shall we doubt atoms too? It is possible (though it is extremely difficult, and it should only be attempted by Doctors' of philosophy who regularly think, in-depth, about problems in epistemology) to doubt the REAL existence of atoms and still maintain a scientific perspective.

To illustrate this point, one need only to recognize that the alchemists required--as the modern idustrialists do--a mental representation of the events that were going to occur, and, regardless of whether or not these representations were, strictly, physically speaking, true, they proceed to do the reaction and take the result. Understanding what ocurred is secondary to bringing about the occurence. All other considerations, it seems (especially these days), are secondary to the profit that comes from these occurences!

So, you see, truth is not needed by the average Joe, until the desired result ceases to occur. Then, of course, a new theory is needed. What will explain this aberration of natural law? Ah Ha! I have it. A new theory! This is where memetics is today.

My prediction: The mature science of computation, and of human perception, and the science of evolution and our mature view of metaphysical problems will crack the problem of human-like cogitation, and you will see strong-AI in your time.

And, as with the old alchemists, this will come about, not because the old methods failed to bring about the standard "occurences", i.e. those that matched the old "mental representations", but because a synthesis (and critical mass) of knowledge of the possible "occurences" that can be obtained with our present "mental representations" will actually come to invalidate those old "mental representations". The new mental representations will bring about new occurences AND explain the old occurences. Reductionism, stood on its head (that is, if "-isms" had heads!)! Thoughts first (human thoughts , NOT God's thoughts--I cannot stress this enough!) and matter second! (this should be a no-brainer: we must sense things before we are aware--and are convinced of--their REAL existence).

In short, and in summary, memetics is merely a refinement of Western (applied) Philosophy, i.e. "science".

Also, of historical note, see Aristotle's/Plato's "mnemos" and "eidos", Locke and Hume's "ideas", "impressions" and "perceptions"--and the subtle differences between the concepts of these two philosophers--,, Kant's "neumenon" and "phenomenon", Semon's "mneme" and "engram", Baldwin's effect, Lashley's search for "engram", see--but ignore!--L. Ron Hubbard's "engram", Pike's "emics" and "etics", and Wilson/Lumsden's "culturgen".

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