Are memes scientifically valid?

I don’t think there’s a lot (maybe anything) meme theory explains that modern psychology can’t already. That is its biggest flaw, I believe.

Can you give an example of something the meme people claim memes alone explain that is already explained by non-meme-related psychology? I’m not sure what you’re getting at here.

See, I disagree with the notion that ideas “actively seek” to do anything. It’s the people who espouse those ideas that are actively seeking to get others to agree with said ideas. It has little to do with the idea itself and everything to do with the entity holding the idea.

As for why urban legends (such as the Gere-gerbil bit) persist, I’d say it’s largely because most people don’t want to be bothered with fact-checking (and, realistically, until fairly recently with the advent of the internet, there wasn’t really a good means to do the fact checking anyway). Say the same thing often enough, and people will believe it (isn’t that the fundamental “tip” in most self-help books, as well?).

A reason an idea might take root in an individual likely has nothing to do with an ideas ability to replicate, per se. Take your gerbil and Richard Gere.

We use mental heuristics for classifying people and define ourselves in terms of labels and groups. The idea that Richard Gere stuffs gerbils plays easily into two distinct identified psychological roots: fear of outgroups and cognitive miserliness. In addition, there is recent research that people have trouble remembering negation tags. For instance, over time, “there were no WMDs” morphs into “there were WMDs.” further reading on the persistence of myths.

Absolutely. People are the fertile grounds where ideas take root. I don’t think information can truly actively do anything, but you can certainly say one idea has characteristics of it which promote hostility towards competing ideas.

So while ideas certainly aren’t sentient, you can say that they do compete with each other in a sense that there is limited space in the human brain and some ideas will be retained while others are dismissed.

Where I think Dawkins reached where he shouldn’t have is where he suggested that memes can influence our behavior–this is silly, to me. Memes can’t possibly influence us but they can reflect on us.

Actually, the Journal stopped publishing two years ago, and their last issue contains several articles on why memetics is failing.

I admit I don’t know a hell of a lot about meme theory as far as its main proponents describe it. I certainly can’t get on board with Dawkins’ idea of a meme being an active agent in and of itself.

I first heard of memes about ten years ago during a radio interview, and my reading today suggests it must have been related to the release of The Meme Machine or one of the other books that appeared around that time. My first reaction was repulsion at the very word “meme”. No good connotations can be associated in my mind with such a flimsy, anemic-sounding term, and I think I’m not alone there. I haven’t had such a negative reaction to the very sound of a term since “Usenet Newsgroups”.

However, I’ve absorbed a little since then about the basic idea of memes, and I still think there’s merit in the notion of transmittable units of cultural learning. Maybe someone will take up this banner again one day, hopefully losing the terrible name.

Isn’t the point of the game of telephone to see how distorted the message becomes? My point here is to see which memes spread the most. I could also make more specific hypothesis, say “memes that involve the color red spread better than memes that involve the color grey”, and then tell the same thing to many groups, with just the color replaced, and see how well they spread. It seems to me that by this test we have gained some real knowledge about the world. So how is it not science?

I feel there is value in choosing one parter over another. Do the genes play no role in this process? And if they don’t, why is this invalidating of memetics?

About the world? Maybe. I’m skeptical about what that would really demonstrate, though. About memes? Not much. Especially, not much that couldn’t be explained without them. The problem, of course, is that you are assuming the existince of what you are trying to test for; if memes don’t really exist in any meaningful sense (i.e., they are functionally no different than the existing terms “idea” or “concept”), then you demonstrate nothing about whether memes actually exist. If they do exist as valid entities as Dawkins claims (or claimed, anyway), then you can’t really say that anything you want to call a meme is a meme. Remember, Dawkins claims they are self-replicating, parasitic thoughts. Simply telling someone that “meme A spreads better than meme B” doesn’t make any part of that statement a meme.

What are you using to determine the relative values of your potential mates? If it’s things like income or the type of car they drive, then no. If it’s physical characteristics, then maybe…how much plastic surgery / botox injections have they had?

As for what that has to do with memes…nothing. Memes are not genes. They do not replicate like genes. They do not, in fact, behave in any way like genes. They are, at best, loosely analogous to genes, if one presumes that genes are the unit of selection in biological evolution (which I do not). Memes can thus be considered a unit of cultural evolution, but that’s really as far as the analogy takes us.

I disagree that there is any competition amongst ideas outside of a mind which must weigh their relative merits based on previous experiences and preconceptions. Any perceived hostility between ideas is, in reality, a hostility between individuals and those other ideas.

Further, I do not believe that there is a finite amount of storage space for thoughts. One may be limited in terms of what can comprehend, and one may only be able to think one thought at a time, but the number fo thoughts one may have is probably only limited by ones experiences and lifespan.

I think this is probaby true. By contrast, one can envision a situation where two healthy people marry and have a child with sickle cell anemia. Using the theory of genes, one can predict that the probability is about 25% that the next child will have sickle cell anemia.

Ok, I had to register just for this thread, since I just read The Meme Machine, and it’s a very interesting topic (to me, anyways). For the record, I think it’s at the least an informative theory, and probably valid, so read with that in mind.

To begin with, the whole concept of competition is described in The Meme Machine as more a competition for people’s time than for space in their brains. That is, a meme that gets people to talk about it is more likely to replicate (and thus survive) than a meme that doesn’t.

An example in the book is the meme for not having kids. Suppose that people who have children spend more time raising their kids, and less time socializing. Therefore, all things being equal, any third party should be able to spend more time talking to, and absorbing memes from, people without children. This would explain the drop in birth rates in more industrialized societies - as memes become easier to spread, the meme for not having children can overcome the genetic desire to have children.

I think the main value of memetics is that it proposes a mechanism for why some ideas thrive and some don’t. The naming is, admittedly, a bit strange, since ‘idea’ is pretty much equivilent to ‘meme’. But memetics is much easier to pronounce than ideatics.

The meme meme is a particularly popular meme.

There are still too many variables we can not isolate or identify to say that telephone is a scientifically valid study.

If an individual responds hostilly to an idea, it isn’t simply because the individual doesn’t like it, but likely because that individual has his or her own conflicting idea. This is what I mean by competition.

Competition between ideas isn’t an active thing, the way two dogs compete for a piece of meat. It’s more of a post-hoc analysis of which ideas are around. We can’t see ideas themselves competing, but we can look at prevalent memes and say “it has out-competed similar memes.”

That’s simply not true. We forget almost all of everything we take in. Do you remember the ambient temperature of the room you were in twelve years ago this second? Do you remember the buzzing of the radiator in the doctor’s office?

Of course not. We simply can’t take in all the information the world has to present to us, it’s not evolutionarily stable to leave the world unfiltered. It has to be broken down into a manageable size, and the ideas which survive that filter would be said to be advantageous.

This is stretching it. There are plenty of other reasons for drops in population as wealth of a society increases–increased education and advances in birth control being only the first two to spring to mind.

Not to mention you bring up the point of memes competing against genetics, as if they were two forces of influence trying to bend us to their will. Memes are nothing without humans, and humans are only here because of genes. The only way an idea can succeed is by existing within the framework created by genes.

Genes win, always. But sometimes, memes get to piggyback on them.

What a completely ideatic thing to say. :wink:

Another big problem with meme theory: it presupposes that memes survive or fail completely on their own merits. But we know that’s false–an idea gets spread not only on how the receptors of the idea find it but how the person spreading it can push the message. I probably couldn’t sell you a car, but another person could get you to buy the car and the warranty. It seems silly then to say that the idea succeeded, when it’s really the person who succeeded.

True, true. I’m not saying that it’s a closed case, just that that could (potentially) be a reason. I actually haven’t looked into memetics enough to have seen studies - I’m just saying it’s presented as a possible situation where natural selection of ideas could be infuential.

It’s interesting that you bring up education - how exactly do you see education affecting the birth rate?

Hrm. I’m not sure ‘winning’ is really a well-defined term here. But I think that ideas can trump genetics, at least in certain cases. For instance, it doesn’t do ones genes a whole lot of good to take a vow of celibacy, but people still do it. Or, to go back to the virus analogy, the meme is just infecting you, similar to a cold. A meme that gets you to ‘sneeze’ - in this case, to espouse your opinions - will do better than one that doesn’t. The propagation of the cold virus certainly works within the framework of genetics, but it can compete with your genes to influence your physical state.

I don’t think meme theory is saying that at all. The context is very important - what meme theory is saying is that the meme has influence AT ALL.

The idea is only “conflicting” to the person holding it. There is nothing inherently conflicting about any two given ideas you care to name (aside from logical inconsistencies which might prevent both from being true simultaneously, but there is nothing that prevents both ideas from existing simultaneously).

Or, we can simply say that some ideas persist because they have more proponents. To say one “out competed” another is to assume processes not in evidence.

There is, obviously, a difference between not taking in all available sensory information and having to forget a bit of information because you learned a new one (which is what you are implying by stating that thought-storage-space is finite). We are best able to recall that which we use frequently. I learned a bunch of physics, but I don’t recall a good deal of it because I don’t use it. I recall a good deal of what I know about eovlution because I argue about it on these boards a lot. I did not forget my physics because I learned other stuff.

Having accurate information on how babies are made and how to use proper birth control. The number of people in America who believe you can’t get pregnant your first time/standing up/in a tub is astounding in itself.

There are other conditions in the human mind created by evolution which, when hit in the proper order, could allow a person to adopt that stance. The need to fulfill social expectations, difficulties in attachment development from childhood, a need to appear consistent and maintain a stable self-image (I’m a Christian, and Christians abstain until marriage, therefore…). Not every action has a 100% direct benefit of raising the reproductive success of an individual–sometimes it’s a combination of other mechanisms which traditionally do cause reproductive success that backfire and lead to things like celibacy.

Fair enough. I feel like there’s a communication difficulty, as if we’re speaking different dialects of the same language. I understand your point, and agree with it, but my proposition is that certain ideas contain within them a “disagree with those who hold opposing viewpoints” value.

To further elucidate my point, I feel the idea “planes can take off from a treadmill” and “anyone who believes planes can not take off from a treadmill should be ridiculed” are distinctly different ideas, not just different attitudes in approaching the same idea.

You seem to be saying there is a functional difference between not being able to recall something and forgetting it. I don’t see the distinction. If you can’t recall something, you might as well have never even learned it.

Sorry to keep spamming the thread, but where I said

I take it back. I don’t believe this is true.

I agree that it doesnt prove that memes actually exist as a physical entity. I’m just saying that we learned something about the world, namely that a certain attribute of a bit of information causes it to spread faster.

Lets say we make a study that shows that people in cold countries like memes that involve fat food, better than people in warm countries. Now let me make an analogy of one point with genetics, without saying that they are fully analogous. Assume that we dont know that genes exist. We could still make a hypothesis that alleles for fatty insulating layers are more succesful in animal populations in cold countries, and test it. And this would still be “science”, right? In conclusion, even though the memetics and genetics aren’t equivalent, they are analogous at all the relevant points that make genetics a science.

As I understood it, you said that “All that would really demonstrate is the fact that more people felt there was value in passing on one story over the other. The stories themselves play no part in the process.”, with the intend for this to be a blow to memetics. But I don’t see why it is, since pretty much the same thing can be said of (some) genes “People feel there is some kind of value in choosing one partner over another. The genes themselves play no part in the process.”

Im not trying to draw a full analogy between the two, just saying that they both share this characteristic.