Sunday, 26 July 2009

Andrew Brown's "serious objections to memes"

In a recent article Andrew Brown published some supposedly "serious objections to memes".

He likened memes to phlogiston and said:
We're back to the invisible propagules. I don't believe they exist. I take a sky-fairyist view of their reality.
This is a simple misunderstanding. It is analogous to saying that information theory is wrong because it depends on mystical invisible propagules. There are no invisible propagules in information theory - or in memetics - except in Andrew Brown's imagination.

He writes:
What we know about the transmission of meaning, like that of memory, is that it involves continuous recreation rather than simple copying.
Since most cultural information has gone digital these days, it is indeed reproduced largely by simple copying - for example on peer-to-peer networks, or via "retweeting".

...but even back in the stone age, when that wasn't true, cultural evolution still took place. Evolution - by definition - doesn't depend on "simple copying". It involves the transmission of heritable information from one generation to the next. How that happens is an implementation detail, not a fundamental feature. So, this is not really a misunderstanding of memetics, it is a misunderstanding about the proper subject matter of evolutionary theory.

His other objection was that the term "meme" is redundant - since we already have the term "idea". The 213 million references to the term "meme" on Google give the lie to this critique. The term "meme" has different connotations to the term "idea". In particular "meme" invokes the concept of cultural evolution of shared information - whereas with the term "idea" there is no implication that it will ever make it out the head it arose in.

I wouldn't say Andrew's objections were "serious". "Vacuous" seems to be a more appropriate term.

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