virus: Will the real meme please stand up.

Tim Abbott (
Sun, 3 Aug 1997 12:16:06 -1000 (HST)

Tony Hindle writes:
> And if you believe 20 seconds on cnn wouldnt infect more than
> one suitable host then you are seriously missing the point of memetics.

Actually, there's a nice little leader, thankyou Tony. What exactly *is*
the point of memetics? Clearly, I am new to the list and somewhat new
to the whole field. So far, I'm not impressed. Any emerging "science"
must be very careful to define its terms. As far as I can tell, no-one
really knows what a meme is. Some aren't even sure of what it's not.
Most definitions that I have heard are characterized by hand waving
and excessive example rather than by specific phrasing and concrete
statement, boiling down to "Oh you know" and "Life, the Universe
and Everything." (But *not* "red", to cite Dennet, which I don't fully
understand because "red" is a very large concept, linking to many ideas.
This would seem to make it an "arch-meme" to me.)

If a new field is unable to clearly and rigorously define its terms
then it is open to abuse and redefinition at any level and to suit
any remotely connected purpose. Any argument built on such terms is
by definition suspect.

Sure, 20 seconds of fame will get your idea across to millions of
people, but your proposed vehicle, the murder of a representative
of a group you don't like, is distinctly suspect, and probably
likely to backfire on you. Do you really want to be remembered
as a murderer, or an assassin, or a terrorist? That's what they'll
call you. The odds of being hailed as a martyr, or perhaps a messiah,
if that's what you're after, are pretty slim. There's certainly nothing
much heroic about the act.

Anyway, back to memetics. It seems to me that, at best, it's a neat
idea and a new way of thinking about ideas. At worst, it's a jingoistic
new jargon used to make old and boring ideas sound new and interesting.
Tony suggests that 20 seconds of CNN will "infect" many "hosts". He
may be right, but what's wrong with more normal terms like "CNN is
a powerful route for getting my idea across to many people"? It
says the same thing, and in more obvious terms.

Is that the point of memetics? Another way of saying the same old thing?
No it's not. The real point is the, unproven, premise that human ideas
within their own particular environment are subject to the same mechanism
of natural selection as are genes with theirs. The word "meme" has been
coined in an attempt to put a neat verbal wrapper around the concept, but
in fact has failed since the consequences are too complex and misunderstood
to be easily wrapped.

Tony's attitude is a case in point. The analogy has been carried too far,
or at least in the wrong direction. Ideas are not viruses with humans
as hosts. Viruses and their interaction with their hosts, including
the tendency to spread into suitably vulnerable others, can be used
as a model to present an alternative way of looking at ideas and
their dissemination. I suggest that it is an incorrect inference
that just by exposing a large number of people to your meme, that you
can expect them to take it up and integrate it ( infected by...).
If the meme is not acceptable to your hosts, I think the word "auto-toxic"
is appropriate, then you'll probably just end up with a lot of annoyed
hosts. If the meme is acceptable, then it will be taken up by the
entire vulnerable population through the exposure of a small number,
perhaps just one, if (s)he's suitably garrulous. You have no way of knowing
if this route is any more or less effective than CNN, but both will work
if the meme is right.

So, two thoughts occur:

1) The model is not the phenomenon, and vice versa.
2) The model is never complete.

The idea is to study the phenomenon, to do this we use models. The
particular model here is natural selection under the neato-keen word
"memetics". This still needs considerable work and no model is ever
anything more than an approximation to the reality. I wouldn't make any life
decisions based solely on this particular model, if I were you, no matter
how little time you have left.



Timothy M. C. Abbott, Ph.D.     
Resident Astronomer                          
Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope                         Tel: +1 808 885 7944
Box 1597, Kamuela, HI 96743                            Fax: +1 808 885 7288