RE: virus: Meme, the Underlying Cause

Robin Faichney (
Thu, 2 Oct 1997 12:01:22 +0100

> From: Tadeusz Niwinski[]
> Wade wrote:
> >Robin wrote:
> >>Memes are not mysterious forces controlling anything, just a useful
> >theoretical construct
> >>that allows the analysis of culture on an evolutionary model. And
> the
> >observable aspect of
> >>culture, the one that's amenable to a scientific approach, unlike
> thoughts,
> >is behaviour.
> >>Memes are behavioural abstractions.
> >
> >That is as close as I can get as well. (I tend to call memes cultural
> >quanta.)
> Genes are also abstractions, patterns which replicate. Can they be
> the
> "underlying cause" when memes are not?
As I already said, I used that phrase, not for what I
believe, but for what I believe some folks believe. The
concept of the underlying cause can be useful in
certain circumstances, but has severe limitations. I
agree very happily that genes are also abstractions.
But then I also said that they are not really an
underlying cause either.

Which is not to say that abstractions cannot be used
in causal explanations. In fact, we could not get by
without them. Memes *can* be viewed as causally
effective -- in fact, memetics requires that -- but my
main point (well, one of several, really) was that they
do not *underlay* behaviour, because they *are*

A major hurdle that has to be overcome
is to realise that there is no single truth about the real
cause of any particular phenomenon. In particular,
there is no conflict between giving a memetic, and
(say) a folk-psychological explanation of any given
piece of behaviour. These are just different takes
on the same thing. All phenomena have multiple
causes, even on any one level, and we usually
have a choice of levels too. The "correct"
explanation is the one that helps us do whatever we
want to do with it (and ideally doesn't compromise
future actions, or those of other people, either).

(And if that seems to veer towards subjectivism, it's
only to counteract a tendency in the opposite