Meme meanie
Posted by aogSunday, 29 April 2007 at 08:05 TrackBack Ping URL

I don’t mean to pick on Mr. Burnett but — oh, wait, yes I do. It’s quite deliberate.

Anyway, Mr. Burnett writes

Well Brit, if those are science, I’d like to know what science they are. They sure aren’t biology. What scientific evidence is there that memes exist?

This displays a common misaprehension of “memes” and other scientific principles. It’s no different from asking “what scientific evidence is there that polynomial functions exist?”. None, because the term is a descriptive one that serves to categorize things that are themselves purely mental constructs. Memes exist because they are defined to be an abstraction of things (human mental processes) the existence of which is not disputed.

One can, of course, dispute the rigor and utility of the category “meme”, much like certain baseball statistical measures, but existence is not arguable. This gets back to a post I have needed to write for years now, which lays out the conceptual framework I use to analyze these issues and ties it in the faults of post-modernism, the primary one of which is to blur the distinction between those realms of existence that are subject to human will (categorical definitions) and those that are not (laws of physics).

Comments — Formatting by Textile
Peter Burnet Monday, 30 April 2007 at 07:19

This is why we liberal arts types have to keep such a close eye on you boffins and geeks. Your argument is what I imagine you folks might call something like a “systematic categorical conceptual fallacy” and what the rest of us might call a piece of crap.

If Dawkins wants to wile away his leisure hours in his basement making up new words for cultural impulses and instincts, bless him, but why does he think the English language was so lacking in the first place? The phrase “polynomial function” was needed to describe something abstract and invented that didn’t exist before, but that is far from true about memes. Dawkins purpose was to take something ethereal that everyone knew about and experienced and then concretize it and convince everyone of its objective existence as he defined it. At this, he was wildly successful.

It is very interesting to look back at how Dawkins first talked about memes. No Hitler he, he was the model of scientific caution and English reserve. “It is just a theory…”suppose something like memes exist…there is no evidence yet, but…”. Thirty years later they are a full-blown part of the Darwinian vocabulary, a whole generation thinks they are as real as horses and Dawkins leans heavily on them in his current hatemongering campaign. He has deftly caused them to be inserted as an integral part of natural evolution in the public mind, even though no more objective evidence of them exists now than did then. There is a long and troubling history of this kind of stuff whenever scientists decide to tackle human affairs. How far do you think Freud would have got if he hadn’t invented a whole new vocabulary of gobbledegook it took the world several generations to realize was very faulty, if not downright drivel?

A complementary error is when, instead of inventing a new word, scientists (especially social scientists) appropriate an existing one and give it a new “systematic” meaning. This allows them to take full advantage or the positive or negative normative appeals of the word in the public square without being limited by them. An example would be the leftist political scientist who begins his turgid tome with a “comprehensive, scientific” definition of democracy that ends up bearing an eerie ressemblance to the political culture of North Korea. He then goes on for the rest of the book to argue why America isn’t really democratic. And the kids listen.

Why can’t you people be content with your widgets and little icky things?

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 07:39

Liberal arty types love the idea of memes. Especially advertisers.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 30 April 2007 at 09:16

I hadn’t realized Dawkins originated the concept. I don’t believe in ad hominem argument, so that’s not enough to cause me to discard it. But let me say, before I address your specific points, that I must be sticking to my widgets and little icky things because I haven’t read anything like what you describe, although I am willing to take your word that it’s out there.

Your description of how Dawkins talked of memes would lower my intellectual respect for him if that were still possible. The issue of categorization and utility is one I addressed in my doctoral thesis and frankly had I known of Dawkins’ statements at the time I would have used him as a negative example of confusing the map for the terrain. Objective reality is a many layered thing and Dawkins seems guilty of confusing his layers, the classic error of post-modernism.

I don’t buy the analogy with Freud because the problem there wasn’t Freud’s terminology, but his theory of how the human mind works, which was wrong regardless of the lexicon used. Clever jargon obsfucates that only if the confused are the type easily distracted by bright shiny objects.

As for concretizing things “everybody knows”, isn’t that much of what science does? I.e., concretizing the knowledge that things fall down to the Law of Gravity?

As for me, I find the concept of “meme” useful in that part of my work that involves user interface design. It helps in working with a “user conceptual model” for an interface, which is not how the interface works but how one expects the user’s mind to work while using the interface. Memes are the elements of that conceptual model.

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 09:44

Of course Dawkins never talked about memes like that. Sorry, but Peter’s just way off on this one. Dawkins coined the term and used it like everyone now uses it, to describe ‘bytes’ of culture.

Peter Burnet Monday, 30 April 2007 at 11:36


Peter’s just way off on this one

Pistols at dawn? Bring your copy, mate.

Dawkins coined the term and used it like everyone now uses it, to describe ‘bytes’ of culture.

“Bytes” of culture? Yes, that clears everything up nicely. But I must say it bolsters your case that the West will be saved by ordinary commonsensical blokes in pubs who throw beer and crisps at purveyors of intellectual drivel.

As with Freud and Marx, the whole problem with Dawkins and his merry band of god-killers comes down to their leaning on science and its artifical abstract language to restrict or even root out the subjective, free will and the authority of conscience and consciousness in human affairs by ordaining 100% uncontrollable, unconscious, materialist origins to them. True, there is great confusion between what the sages actually say and what their fans say they say, but I see little interest among the sages in risking book sales with the truth. In our time, it is the thinking religious who lead the reaction, but it is a problem that has afflicted religion many times in the past and still does on the edges and in the Middle East. The debate may be irresolvable at an intellectual level because no one denies there is some/much influence of biological and cultural factors. The question is whether that is all there is. Dawkins, who raises coyness to new levels, is ambiguous on this point. He spends 95% of his books arguing that that is all there is, and then steps back in sudden embarassment about where it is leading him and urges us to love mankind and enjoy more sex. He is quite incoherent about human nature, as was Mayr. Darwin himself seems to have been far more cautious, but he didn’t rein in his bulldog.

Now, the next question is how much all this philosophizing matters. Brit says it doesn’t—that we will be saved by ordinary, tolerant, well-grounded folks with widepread interests and mundane priorities that bear an uncanny ressemblance to his own. He may be right—in fact, he obviously is right most of the time. Amy sings a mean tune and keeps Dawkins in the smaller lecture halls, and when she tires there is always the FA Cup. But there have been plenty of examples in history of intellectual absolutism grabbing the zeitgeist with lots of horrible results and a few good ones. God made us social conservatives to worry about that.

This is one area where I think the Europeans are quite a bit ahead of us anglospherics, especially North Americans. Our sunny, can-do optimism keeps us beholden to the idea that progress is always upwards, the past is a drag and our ancestors were thick and cruel. The Euros know their Nietzche, Dostoevsky and Conrad much better than we and realize fully that human moral automatons are not robots, they are killers. Their problem is that, although they know the dangers of scientism and rationalism, they are embarassed by their heritage and are throwing the dice on some new-fangled comfy postmodern paganism instead.

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 11:53

During the football World Cup last year, a few people started driving around with little plastic St George’s cross flags that clip into the door frames of your car. They were quite a neat little gimmick, and they are by way of being self-advertising, since by driving around with them, other people see them. Other people saw them, thought they were neat, bought them. More people saw these, and so it spread. Soon every other car had them. When England crashed dismally out of the World Cup, the flags disappeared.

Now we can call them ‘little flags’, and we could call it a ‘craze’, or we could say that the flags were a ‘meme’.

That’s all it is Peter. The fact that you see some sinister project behind describing phenomena as ‘memes’ just suggests to me that you are paranoid about Richard Dawkins.

Peter Burnet Monday, 30 April 2007 at 12:13

Perhaps. I’d certainly feel much better if somebody could persuade Dawkins to re-write the books and replace all the references to “memes” with “little flags”.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 30 April 2007 at 12:36

Mr. Burnet;

Unfortunately, Brit gets that quite wrong (a point for disputing the rigor of the definition of “meme”). No physical object (such as a flag) can ever be a meme. The meme in his example is the reduction of the general concept of “showing support for my national team” to “I will put a little flag on my car to show support for my national team”. I could probably write a Sokal-ish paper on how the emergence of such memes is just like the collapse of a quantum wave function, a host of possible physical expressions coalescing into a single consistent one.

Perhaps I am living in my own little world again while you two go at it, but this is the essence of the diffence between “cultural impulses and instincts” vs. “memes”.

P.S. Thanks for the comment, I will now use it riff on a related subject.

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 12:41

Look, Dawkins came up with this word ‘meme’, and people found the concept interesting and useful, so pretty soon it caught on, and spread, and eventually everyone was using it and not many of them even realised it came from Dawkins originally.

Hmmm…somebody should come up with a name for that sort of thing.

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 12:42

Those flags are perfect examples of memes. For proof, it’s not even my example.

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 12:45

From Wikipedia:

Dawkins gave as examples of memes: tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots, or of building arches.

Peter Burnet Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:08


Looking at that Wikipedia article, are you still as confident as you were when you wrote this post that you can distinguish between the definition of memes and their “applications” in any but the most restricted technical sense? I believe that under your careful and endlessly patient tutelage, I might eventually grasp the definition of polynomial functions without having the slightest idea of what they are good for or any interest in knowing. Can you do that with memes? Isn’t it a little like defining the superego without making any assumptions or drawing conclusions about what it might say about our emotional make-up? Why exactly do you think we need or benefit from a collective noun that describes “tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots, or of building arches”?

Peter Burnet Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:18


Hmmm…somebody should come up with a name for that sort of thing.

Happy to be of service:

act, ape, burlesque, caricature, copy, copycat, ditto*, do, do like*, echo, enact, fake, go like*, impersonate, look like*, make like*, make-believe, mime, mirror, mock, pantomime, parody, parrot, perform, personate, play, resemble, ridicule, sham, simulate, take off*, travesty

Peter Burnet Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:20

And mimic.

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:24

If the term were not useful, we wouldn’t use it.

Peter Burnet Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:26

It is only useful if you think you need a noun to do the work of a verb.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:29

Mr. Burnet;

Yes. Perhaps under your patient tutelage I will see what the ambiguity is.

Both of you;

Let me quote the article itself to show Brit where he’s gone wrong —

a unit of cultural information […] tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots, or of building arches

A meme is information, encoded in a human mind. A meme can therefore never be a physical object, such as a flag. Note that even the Wikipedia quote is clear on this, noting that a pot is not a meme, a way of making a pot is a meme.

Y’all seem to see this as a very subtle differentiation, but to me, your question is the equivalent of “can you distinguish between a software module for a car building robot and the car it builds?”. Well, yeah. Quite obvious to me.

Perhaps is just my personal experience, because I have to do that sort of thing every time I pick up a keyboard to work. For instance, distinguishing my user interface code (memes in my mind) from the actual user interface it generates (lit pixels on a computer monitor), and both of those from the user conceptual model (memes in the client’s mind) I am trying to get my interface to work in conjunction with.

And there is an example of how “meme” helps me in real life with real work. It was also helpful when I was a graduate student doing work in computer-human interaction. To take an example from that field, one can consider the entire concept of what an “intuitive” user interface is. It is one where the user can express his memes for interaction. This leads naturally to questions like what are those memes? Where do they come from? Can we create new ones to improve CHI? How? Should we? It’s much easier to talk about answers to such questions with the concept of “meme”.

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:41

Mr. Burnet;

You complained earlier about “making up new words” like meme and then about redefining existing words. Well, if while sticking to our widgets and little icky things we need to talk in a highly specific, well defined way about something to do with those widgets, we must either invent a new word or redefine an existing one (or leave off the sticking with). One advantage of “meme” in this regard is that it is a new word and can therefore be used to be more precise.

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:49

I understand your distinction, but it is an esoteric one. Ok, the flags are the physical manifestation of a mobile patriotism emblematic meme.

You’re like the pedant who insists that “I didn’t see nothing” means that you did see something. Maybe strictly true, but after a while, the pedant is the one who is wrong.

Peter Burnet Monday, 30 April 2007 at 13:51

This is great. I feel like inventing a new word to describe a three-way argument where everybody thinks the other two are off their nut for completely different reasons.

A meme can therefore never be a physical object.

‘Nuff said. So what the heck is it doing claiming pride of place in the biological theory of natural evolution? Social Darwinism, Round Two, here we come!

Annoying Old Guy Monday, 30 April 2007 at 14:20


I still don’t see what’s esoteric about distinguishing twixt thought and deed. But even if it is, it’s an important distinction for me, which is the only important thing.

Mr. Burnet;

I have no idea. Generally when I read work in the field, it’s memetics applying evolutionary theory to itself, not vice versa.

However, human evolution is special (ooh, I’ll regret that later) because only humans can have rich sets of memes. Those memes have physical expressions which can in turn effect physical evolution. For instance, the discovery of the scientific method by Europeans has had a profound effect on the physical evolution of the human species. It’s the killer app of the ideosphere.

Brit Monday, 30 April 2007 at 14:28

Peter: A rock-scissors-paper argument, perhaps?

Peter Burnet Tuesday, 01 May 2007 at 05:46


I surrender. I thought hard yesterday about what you are saying and tried to think of something interesting to say in response, but I just became very confused and tired and went to bed early.

However, this whole question of how our professions colour our preceptions of the grand philosophical questions and our non-professional lives is fascinating. I see it all the time in the context of marital breakdowns. For instance, police and military types are full of notions of duty and vocation and are thrown into an lifelong controlled rage by what they see as selfish spouses and no-fault divorce. Software engneers like to write their own separation agreements that go on forever and stipulate exactly how everyone is going to live for the rest of their lives, with all potential eventualities covered. But the worst are lawyers themselves and members of the caring professions, who tend to completely reject the objectification of the situation they urge on their patients/clients and become out-of-control, take-no-prisoners litigants.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 01 May 2007 at 06:57

Well, that was interesting.

I was going to comment that the distinction here between memes and their application is precisely the distinction one needs to use to debug software, i.e. the difference between the implementation model in your head and the code you actually wrote. However, that tends to support Brit’s point because I have encountered a lot of software engineers who have difficulty with that and consequently with writing working code. It is so common to see someone look right at the buggy code but not “see” it because his mind rewrites his perception of the code to be consistent with the mental model.

The amusing (to me) bit of that is that it also means you can help someone debug just by listening — the act of explaining to someone else somehow prevents that mental rewrite and the problem suddenly becomes blindingly obvious. I am left wondering how much that applies to normal problems and psychotherapy. That’s also my advantage — the extra voices in my head give me someone to talk to about my code problems even when I’m alone.

Brit Tuesday, 01 May 2007 at 07:21

the extra voices in my head give me someone to talk to about my code problems even when I’m alone.

That is most definitely not cool.

Annoying Old Guy Tuesday, 01 May 2007 at 07:28

Profitable, though.

Peter Burnet Tuesday, 01 May 2007 at 07:57

the extra voices in my head give me someone to talk to about my code problems even when I’m alone.

Best argument for theocratic dictatorship I’ve seen in ages.

Jeff Guinn Thursday, 03 May 2007 at 06:54

Apologies for showing up late.


As with Freud and Marx, the whole problem with Dawkins and his merry band of god-killers …

I almost had to laugh. David has frequently chided atheists for rebelling against the God of their own creation. That is to facile by at least half, and your statement demonstrates that very nicely.

There exists an single objective truth about God, whatever it might be. Let’s call that objective truth, after David’s usage, G-d.

There are also many, many, theoretical instantiations of G-d; let’s call that class god. You must agree that within the class god, mutual exclusivity means that, at most, only one instance within the class can be consonant with G-d.

Dawkins and his merry band are not killing G-d, but rather are pointing out that no instance of god survives even glancing contact with reality; in other words, every attempt to put G-d into a humanly contrived box fail.

For example, there is absolutely nothing Darwin said that negates the existence of G-d. However, to the extent Darwin is correct, the G-d box of at least a few religions is wrong; to bad for those gods, but G-d is untouched.


Unfortunately, Brit gets that quite wrong.

Brit may be guilty of a little shorthand, but he does not get it wrong. The meme is not showing support for the national team — that is the end, not the means. There are innumerable ways to reach that end. The little car flags are but one of them; viewing the flags as a meme provides a way to frame the question: “Why car flags, and not (fill in the blank with an alternate means to the end)?”


Your list of words entirely misses the point. Pick another example: girl’s names. Within the US, the 30 most popular girl’s names is very volatile compared to boy’s names (see Freakonomics).

Treating each name as a meme makes it conceptually easy to apply evolutionary principles to determine why girl’s names come into sudden prominence, how they radiate through the culture, then just as rapidly recede.

That is how the term is useful.


A meme is information, encoded in a human mind. A meme can therefore never be a physical object, such as a flag.

Wrong. A meme originates in the mind, but until it attains some physical expression, it has no cultural existence. Your word “splodeybope” is brilliant. So long as it remains in your skull alone, in cultural terms — which is intrinsic to the definition of a meme — it does not exist.

The moment you give it physical expression, however, it becomes a part of the culture: having seen “splodeydope”, which I would never have thought of on my own, I now try to use it in a complete sentence at least once a day.

Peter Burnet Thursday, 03 May 2007 at 07:37

Treating each name as a meme makes it conceptually easy to apply evolutionary principles to determine why girl’s names come into sudden prominence, how they radiate through the culture, then just as rapidly recede.

I guess we must be in a period of stasis with Katherine and Anne.

Boy, you rationalists do like your paper-thin subtleties, don’t you? Nothing Dawkins says negates the existence of God, but he thinks it is child abuse to tell one’s child He does? We country boys are a little confused.

Jeff, we musn’t test our host’s patience and stray too far from geeky things here. You really should do a post on the Daily Duck on your ideal of a God-fearing society without religion. And then you can do one on the well-nourished society that has rooted out family dinners.

Annoying Old Guy Thursday, 03 May 2007 at 09:09

You must agree that within the class god, mutual exclusivity means that, at most, only one instance within the class can be consonant with G-d

No, that doesn’t follow. It might well be a reprise of the contest between wave / particle theories in physics in the early part of the 20th Century. Which one of those turned out to be the exclusively correct theory?

A meme originates in the mind, but until it attains some physical expression, it has no cultural existence

Ah, not so. You contradict yourself. If you are going to apply evolutionary theory to memes, as you do in reply to Mr. Burnet, then you accept that there are individual instances of memes that exist in human minds, and therefore it exists culturally even if it’s in just one member of the society. Otherwise, tell me the number of minds in which it must reside in order to exist in cultural terms. 2? 10? 100?

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