Re: virus: memes, genes and empiricism

Eric Boyd (
Tue, 29 Jun 1999 11:19:02 -0400

Richard Brodie <> asks: <<
Can anyone point out where Joe's error is in this post?


Here is Joe's post:
The root metaphors for memes are viruses and genes, both of which undergo evolution. In fact, without the theory of evolution from which Dawkins could have extrapolated, it is unlikely that memetics would have emerged. The theory of evolution, as well as its mechanism (natural selection) was formulated as a result of Darwin's empirical study of species diversity within nature. Memetics is employed by testing and modifying differing memes and memeplexes to ascertain which variants of them work best in one's life. Utility and truth, while not identical, are not unrelated. To categorize a scientist's developments of an empirically derived theory as anti- or non-empiricist is to misunderstand memetics itself.

I would say that Joe's biggest error is that he assumes an inductionist view of the development of science (& scientific theories). Science is only 'empirical' when it tests theories -- theory formation, on the other hand, can only be explained by harking back to some theory about our creativity (and freewill). I think the memetics is on the right track in explaining *that* via an evolutationary theory of knowledge creation.

BTW, I'm currently reading _Objective Knowledge: an evolutationary approach_ (1972) by Karl Popper; and this type of issue is exactly what he addresses. Popper's section on the evolutation of knowledge in the third world (his term for a modified 'Platonic Realm') was strong, but lacked the precision that memetics inhereted from recent biological theories, especially a concept of a selfish replicator. On the other hand, he has very pleasing things to say about different forms of selection in the meme pool, and the results they can achieve.

Of course, before Joe explodes and says "that was my point!", I have to say -- yes! I agree that our knowledge of memetics has been helped immensly by our knowledge of biology. I just disagree that Darwin's theory emerged *because* of an 'empirical' study, or via some kind of 'induction' from the natural world: science just doesn't work that way, and memetics is only the latest example.