X-Message-Number: 11952
Date: Sun, 13 Jun 1999 10:00:54 -0700
From: Peter Merel <>
Subject: Why I am not a Memeticist

Memetics predicts nothing, reveals nothing, constructs nothing, but reduces 
everything - just as does any dogmatic religion. If there is any value at all 
in memetics, I don't know what it is. I regard it as an academic tar-baby that 
can neither be falsified nor tested - as a grandiloquent kind of horological 

Why such distaste? Because the notion that minds are mere replicators for 

expressions denies the basic process of mind - the flow, growth, and continuity
of experience. We understand experiences by constructing maps for them, 
certainly, but nothing suggests these maps are replications of some platonic 
ideal. We commonly discard and digest our maps whenever this is convenient - 
something a replicator can not do. We don't simply accept and copy passing 

expressions - we test and construct and modify and harmonize and symmetrify our
ideas. Each human mind is as unique and dynamic as a garden - where memetics 
teaches that minds are only machine-like containers for replicating ideals. 

Minds are more like ecosystems than they are like organisms. So genetic 
replication is a flawed metaphor to begin with; ideas engage in cycles of 
growth, predation and decay, they are symbiotic, parasitic, antagonistic and 
interdependent in the manner of zygotes, not statistically competitive in the 
manner of gametes. To understand mind we must map the ecology of mind, not 
bucketsort its spoors and signs. 

Memetics draws its sole claim to scientific validity on an analogy with 
the science of genetics. Genetics relies on the digital propagation of 
alleles; when we empirically identify a gene, we can both taxonomically 
compare its form with other genes and make reproducible predictions about 
its effect on biological intercourse. We can't do either of those 
things with memes. 

Taxonomic classification of memes can't be done because to identify two
expressions as related is to make value judgements about what is and what 
is not significant in their relation. For example, I think Judaism and 
Islam are similar but many jews and moslems don't; I think Taoism and 
Buddhism are different but many chinese folk don't. And I think Memetics
and Astrology are much the same but most memeticists don't. Mental 
taxonomies are based on the observer's value system where biological 
taxonomies are based on reproducible empiricism.

Even given some well-defined taxonomy, the effects of memes can't be 
predicted because we don't know anything about the way an expression will 
be received by an arbitrary person. Memetics explains this by suggesting 
that a person may already be "infected" with other memes that affect 
their reception of a meme. This logic is not only circular, but analogically
flawed; it is the immune systems of organisms, not the genes in their
genome, that defend them against infection.

Now I don't have any problem with memeticists classifying experiences as
"memes" and deconstructing their worldview that way. Neither do I have a
problem with scientologists classifying experiences as "thetans" and
deconstructing their worldview this way. But neither can I find either 
approach constructive, especially as a scientific or dialectic method. 

What's scientifically and dialectrically predictive in human affairs is 
the relationship between physical possibility and human theory. The history 
of architecture provides plentiful examples of this. The relationship between
the christian cathedral and the moslem mosque, for example, is not explained 
by the interrelationship of their various dogmas, but by the relationship
between watershed politics and the purely physical limitations of the 
building materials employed. 

Human power structures hoard wealth in order to construct fetishes, the 
bigger the better. Lots of compressile strength but no tensile strength 
makes for arches, domes, and buttresses. Arches, domes and buttresses 
make cathedrals and mosques look alike. There was simply no other way 
for medieval engineers to build their big fetishes. It was not transmission
of memes but physical restriction that created this convenient similarity.

In fact the discipline of architecture has recently evolved a taxonomic 
method that recognizes convenient similarities without recourse to the 
mumbo-jumbo of memetics. This method has generalized well within the 
software engineering community. Originating in the work of Christopher
Alexander, this is the study of "patterns".

What's a pattern? Well, it's not some genetic atom of ideation. It is a 
well-tried, explicit solution to a particular problem in a particular 
context. Patterns are not transmitted; they are applied. Their recorded 
form is not digital; there are often many different descriptions of the
same pattern, all equally effective. Patterns fit together in languages or
systems, not in hierarchies. The applicability and success of a particular
pattern depends not on its vectors, but on its harmony with the other 
patterns in its language. And patterns can't be cut and paste - they don't 
work by replication - because they all depend explicitly on mapping the
contexts of problems. 

Best of all, patterns are not invested with any mysticism. They explain
nothing. They predict and enable particular results. Folk desiring a 
science of Memetics might profitably examine Alexander's "A Timeless Way Of
Building" and "A Pattern Language", or Gamma, Helm, Vlissides & Johnson's 
best-selling "Design Patterns" for a more constructive alternative. Folk
infected by the cult of Memetics may be surprised to find that these 
patterns, peculiarly, work well without recourse to any such construct as 
a meme.

Peter Merel.

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