RE: virus: Will the real meme please stand up.

Richard Brodie (
Sun, 10 Aug 1997 23:33:20 -0700

Ph.D. wrote:

> 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.

"Prove to me that you're divine: change my water into wine!" =)

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.

As far as you can tell? Have you ever READ anything on memetics? There is
not serious disagreement on the definition.

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.)

He means that "red" is genetic hardware, not memetic software.

[snip good advice about not killing people]

> 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.

At it's best, of course, it's BOTH: that's the whole point! Imagine if
probability and statistics sounded new and interesting! People might make
good decisions instead of spending their discretionary income on Lotto!

> 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.

Why not write your computer programs in English instead of C?

> 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
> to be easily wrapped.

"Has failed"? Thank you, Doctor. My father, an assistant professor at
Harvard Medical School, once told me the secret of academics was to know
half of your subject and be able to sound authoritative as you BSed your
way through the half you didn't know. Would you be good enough to forward
us a copy of your study?

> Tony's attitude is a case in point. The analogy has been carried too
> or at least in the wrong direction. Ideas are not viruses with humans
> as hosts.

You misunderstand the difference between memes and viruses of the mind.
It's the same as the difference between genes and viruses.

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...).

Can you expect more of them to take it up than if you exposed nobody to it?

> If the meme is not acceptable to your hosts, I think the word
> is appropriate, then you'll probably just end up with a lot of annoyed
> hosts.

Then you've certainly spread SOMETHING to them, right?

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.

Nonsense. It will be taken up by some percentage through initial exposure,
some larger percentage through repeated exposure, and virtually everyone if
enough repetitions occur. The self-replication mechanism, like in nuclear
fission, is ONE way that many repetitions can occur. Broadcast TV is
another, much more expensive way.

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.

No. CNN will work predictably based on demographics and repetition. The
second way will only work if the PACKAGING of the meme -- the viral shell
-- works.

> So, two thoughts occur:
> 1) The model is not the phenomenon, and vice versa.
> 2) The model is never complete.

Everyone here agrees with that.

> 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.

We all agree with this, too, except possibly David and Wade.

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.

Ooh! A danger meme! Wait a minute -- does he get it after all and is just
yanking our memetic chains?

Richard Brodie
Author, VIRUS OF THE MIND: The New Science of the Meme
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