virus: Memetics debates

KMO prime (
Sun, 27 Oct 1996 01:21:59 EST

--------- Begin forwarded message ----------
To: (KMO prime)
Subject: Memetics debates
Date: Sat, 26 Oct 1996 09:26:56 -0700 (PDT)
Message-ID: <>


Thanks for the forward on memetics, and your
response. I will forward this to some people.
My co-author Hansen seems open-minded about
everything. We seem to get along well, he is
more complimentary than Preston, which can be useful
but can also hurt. Hansen is a worker - he has translated
ancient Greek books (first time in English), and seems
to come up with references, which is needed for chain
letters. Before we talked of co-authoring he sent me
over 30 chain letters going back to 1967. They were much
better documented as to dates than most of the packets
I got. The German literature will show a continuity of
tradition so to do this right I needed Hansen and his
reading knowledge of many languages (esp. Latin, German
and French).

As for memes, I like your approach in your response to Barbrook.
It is rather fanciful to accuse memetics of being a form
of demonology or such. I see it in ways as an application of
Occam's razor. In explaining the content of chain letters (and
I am sure many other social phenomena) certainly the first level
of explanation should be a replicative analysis. That is, can
we explain what is present, through time, by showing it has
replicative advantage over other variants. To go one further and
require that every item of culture must bestow some advantage on
the vectors involved in the copying and transmission of the item
is to introduce what may be an unnecessary new level of explanation.
Some will say that each act of replication served some human need,
like say to allay the fear engendered by the bad luck threats. But
any parasite plays upon susceptibilities of the host. One thing I
can do is to show that chain letters have accumulated many tricks for
getting replicated. These play upon different sectors of the host
population (e.g. gamblers, Catholics, Latinos, youth, pranksters,
etc.) No one person could have assembled all these replicative
strategies, and even comprehending them is difficult. Now as you pointed
out, you can see a phenomenon in different ways, and the memetic approach
shifts from human control view to the mind as a vector of propagative
patterns. One can still argue that chain letters are purely human
creations that are molded by human desires and fears. But I see this
as a form of anthropocentrism. A similar example would be languages.
Before written language and grammatical analysis, native speakers are
not even able to list the phonemes they are using, much less the
rules of their grammar (which can be extremely complex for some
"primitive" languages). The order in language has been created by
human speakers, but then no speaker may be aware of it, nor were any
of the innovations (and transformations of some prior language) that
such order the
conscious choice of a speaker. Some chain letter variants only
become highly replicative after they migrate to another language via
translation. They are a composite entity, with pieces and replicative
strategies going back over a hundred years, and with no one in control
even understanding them until recently. To regard them as a human
serving human needs seems to me more of a psychological and philosophical
bias rather than a useful description of the phenomenon.

Wrote this as I went along, but it helps to read what you have to say,
and to share like this, since for one there is definitely an antagonism
against the memetic paradigm. The overthrow of geo-centrism, the
of the great age of life on earth, evolution, all have attacked man's
notion of self-importance in the universe. Now to say we are not even
masters of our own mind is yet another such blow, and understandably
engenders hostility.

I don't know who Aaron Lynch is, but want to catch up and keep up with
memetics, so will order his book. I have learned that I may have turned
off some folklorists (such as Anna Guigne, Newfoundland grad student that
wrote the thesis on the Craig Shergold charity chain) by using the word
"meme." Preston does not like it either. It is not necessary to use for
what I want to do with chain letters, but I think I will stick to my
guns. Also I would like to sell books (without any intellectual
Obviously if I can get Dawkins to write a preface we will sell more

Keep me informed of what you are doing, and I will do the same for you.

--------- End forwarded message ----------