virus: Comments on Brodie's Posting

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Sun, 8 Jun 1997 13:55:45 -0500

>Tim Perper wrote:
>>The hypothesis of the meme, which is a hybrid between genetics and
>>Platonism in terminology and concept, needs a good deal more substance
>>it now has. As it is, the notion of a self-replicating, behavior-inducing
>>but unchanging meme explains everything and therefore explains nothing.
RB>Isn't this a little overstated? After all you could make the same
>argument about genes, couldn't you?

TP: Not any more. Since I'm a geneticist, let me trace in some *very*
brief history. Back in 1910-20, when the gene concept was just being
worked out in relationship to chromosomes (in the so-called "chromosome
theory of inheritance"), genes did have a strong quality of Platonic
idealism. They retained this flavor through the era of beanbag genetics
(from Sewall Wright through Ronald Fisher). Philosphers -- Woodger, for
one -- had a good time trouncing the theory (which it deserved). However,
with Beadle and Tatum (the "one-gene, one enzyme" hypothesis, 1939-1945),
Watson and Crick (the gene as DNA; 1953), Gamow and others (the "genetic
code" for amino acid sequences; 1954 ff), the "central dogma" of molecular
biology ("DNA makes RNA makes protein" 1960ff), and the discovery of the
molecular basis of genetic regulation (Brachet in embryology (1950s);
Jacob and Monod in microbial genetics, 1963), a new view of genes became

To make a long story short, genes are NOT unchanging, self-replicating,
behavior-inducing monads. They change through mechanisms of recombination
and mutation, now both understood at least partially on the molecular
level, and their three-dimensional physical structure also changes (NOT
their primary or nucleotide sequence structure) when they are transcribed
and/or replicated. Furthermore, it has become clear that genes (= DNA
nucleotide sequences) may be decoded in multiple ways (I'll skip the
mechanics of how the amino acid code is redundant) depending on a variety
of external factors, such as where the cell is located in the developing
embryo. Finally, we have learned that no such things even exist as
"behavior-inducing" genes -- instead, we have what is called the
"epigenetic landscape" and "pleiotropy," both referring to the exact ways
in which "genetic" information is meaningless unless one specifies an
environment in which gene expression occurs.

To be sure, against these findings we have a large popular press clamoring
that genes control behavior and so on, but I can't help it the popular
press is wrong. Genes are replicated by cells, they themselves do nothing
more than specify amino acid sequences in proteins and/or nucleotide
sequences in various RNAs, and they change all the time as the DNA molecule
moves around during transcriptional regulation.

Bye-bye, Platonic genes.


>>To be sure, fans of such memes can enjoy arguing about them, but such memes
>>cannot be used to address concrete problems in history, culture, or
>>politics. (Be careful how you read what I just said: "such" memes.) The
>>reason is that one cannot show that a given historical, cultural, or
>>political phenomenon is transmitted or induced by such memes, except by
>>that marvelous form of logic called "truth by assertion."
>I suspect that you are throwing down a gauntlet here, much as I have
>tried to do, to stimulate thinking. =)

TP: Not a gauntlet, exactly, Richard, but yes, certainly a challenge to
stimulate some thinking. You see, I think the great value of memetics is
to enable us to look at how information is packaged and utilized in
societies. That, to me (an empirical-style biologist) is an open-ended
activity that can be foreclosed very easily by *assuming* that we already
know by definitional fiat what memes are and how they work.

For example, I do not see how memes are supposed to influence their
carriers to do things -- anything -- without making some *large*
assumptions about human behavior. Thus, the Full-Fledged Memeticist, once
again to borrow Omar de la Cruz' expression, seems to believe that the mere
possession of one's mind *by* a meme is sufficient to explain how and why a
person behaves in a certain fashion. Now, in one way, this works fine --
we can argue that if person A did X, then the meme for X seized control of
the poor fellow's mental equipment. But then sometimes people are exposed
to meme X and do NOT do anything. We could say that this person was
"resistant" to meme X, but that says nothing we don't already know. Right
now, memetics seems to lack a psychology of action or process that is
needed to explain what memes do and how. Those are precisely the sorts of
things that geneticists *did* work out for the genes during the 20th
century -- and one result was the disappearance of the Platonic notion of
gene, at least among biologists (the retention of the Platonic view in the
popular mind is a very different issue).


>>In my own view, memes are simply packages of information that are
>>circulated in a society. Knowing a piece of information -- a meme --does
>>nothing to you. Thus: "To make fried potatoes, take boiled potatoes,
>>slice them, and fry them until yellow-brown." Has any reader leapt up,
>>driven like a robot, to perform these instructions? In what precise sense
>>is it alleged that "memes" cause or induce behavior? Until that issue has
>>been addressed, memetics is silliness -- pure verbalism claiming to be
>>significant understanding.
>My book "Virus of the Mind" is deliberately (and overtly) infected with
>language designed to plant memes designed to make the reader leap up and
>recommend the book to others. I modeled this phenomenon on my perceived
>reason for the success of another book, The Celestine Prophecy (oops,
>there go my memes, making me leap up and mention TCP again!). While it's
>certainly not a controlled experiment, the sales curve for Virus has
>demonstrated consistent word-of mouth sales (i.e., unrelated to
>publicity appearances).

TP: As one writer to another, more power to you. Word of mouth is a very
powerful way of speading the word, be it the word of God (anyone's God) or
your book.


>I'm in LA right now hanging out with people who use NLP techniques in
>designing direct-mail (DM) pieces (sales letters). Believe me, the
>techniques of implanting people with memes that cause them to leap up
>and buy are tested extensively in DM. Modern, effective sales letters
>are rife with embedded commands, use or misdirection with imagery,
>Trojan-horse devices and so on. But this is not memetics per se.

TP: Persuasion has existed for a long time. Threatening to burn people
alive if they don't convert also works. But it seems to me that to the
extent that one NEEDS such devices, then memes do NOT infect people all by
themselves. It's like Voltaire on prayer -- "Prayer can kill a cow if you
add some strychnine."

On the other hand, the undeniable efficacy of this sort of brain-washing
*is* what one would expect if people -- not the memes -- were the active
agents in their behavior, and if memes were only information packages
without a life of their own. The organism resists change (a sort of
behavioral homeostasis) unless it can be deceived, tricked, forced, cajoled
or otherwise pushed, prodded, or enticed into changing. And sometimes all
we need to do is point out that something interesting exists (like your
book) and people will pick up on it. Was that because the memes took over
their minds or because they were already prepared to be influenced by the


> When
>they learn to make these things self-replicating, as many
>personal-growth groups have perhaps stumbled into by accident, then we
>will have designer mind viruses that are "technology" stemming directly
>from the science of memetics. In my view, it's the self-replication
>aspect that makes memetics rise up above semiotics, behavioral
>psychology, and so on.

Absolutely. That has always fascinated people about ideas, whether one
calls them memes or something else. The question I'd like to see discussed
is whether the memes are the prime movers in and of themselves, or if they
are only convenient ways people have for packaging information in order to
influence other people -- information that sometimes is acquired and
repeated by the recipient, and sometimes is not.