Sunday, 27 November 2011

Meme etymology

Most of the criticisms of memetics come from people who don't have a clue what they are talking about.

However, some criticisms have been voiced by those who actually do know what they are talking about.

One example is L. L. Cavalii-Sforza. He is certainly an expert - though I don't mean to imply that his criticism here is any good. Here he is with his co-authors, writing in "Genes, culture, and human evolution: a synthesis":

The term cultural “idea” as used here is similar to what many others, following Richard Dawkins, call a “meme.” We prefer to avoid that term, however, because, as Dawkins originally defined it and as many others continue to use it, a meme is a unit of imitation only, which excludes transmission through teaching.
What did Dawkins actually say? He said this:
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. `Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like `gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to `memory', or to the French word même.
What he says is: "cultural transmission" OR "imitation".

For me that sounds rather like saying the "metre" is a unit of mesuring distances or circumferences - and Cavalii-Sforza's objection is like claiming that a unit of measuring circumferences is no use for measuring human height.

Since 1976, the implications of "imitation" have dropped out of the term "meme" almost everywhere. Most dictionary definitions of the term no longer mention imitation. The main proponent of the idea is Susan Blackmore, and - as far as I can tell, she has not been very influential in this respect.

An imitation-based definition of memes would be possible, but it seems unlikely that it was ever what Dawkins intended. It doesn't make all that much sense - because then we would still need a theory of non-imitative social learning - and that theory would be very, very similar to rge theory that covers imitation. Although much the same argument suggests that we should expand the theory to include all environmental inheritance - cultural or not - that twists the traditional meaning of the word considerably, while only gaining a little.

However, the fact that the traditional "Dawkins" definition of "meme" says "imitation" rather than something like "social learning" is a llittle bit of an embarassment for memetics. It is little consolation that Boyd and Richerson (1985) made the same mistake.

I remember when I first read The Selfish Gene, when I encountered the word "meme" - I though "neat: memory-genes". When I went on to read how Dawkins thought that the term came from the Greek word for "imitation", I was horrified and disappointed - and then somewhat appeased when I read about his "consolation" - that:

it could alternatively be thought of as being related to `memory'
There is a problem with Dawkins' "consolation", though. It is true that there is some historical support for promoting the idea of memes being "memory-genes": Semon's original "mneme" - from 1904 was a general unit of inheritance - and Semon was a expert on human memory. He christened the mneme after the Greek goddess, Mneme, the muse of memory.

Semon's "mnemes" represented an excellent and important concept - but it was quickly eclipsed by the now-dominant term "gene", which - alas - gradually came to lack the connotations associated with 'memory' and 'learning'. Alas, "mnemes" is practically a dead term today.

The term "mnemes" covered social learning, individual learning and genetic "learning". The term "meme" - by long convention - only covers social learning. If we expand its meaning to refer to the unit of inheritance in universal Darwinism, we will be fighting against the dictionary and decades of common usage. Also, the term "gene" has a better claim on that role. At least it has firmer etymological foundations. The etymological foundations of the term "meme" have crumbled.

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