Replies to some critics of “Memetics as a pseudo-science” (Part 4 of 4: Lanier 1996)

How do you solve a problem like Memetics..? Read on…

So, since Memetics began in 1976 (The Selfish Gene, Dawkins), as the idea of Memetics has evolved, there have been a number of articles that have previously criticized Memetics for being: a pseudo-science.

And – rightly so…

That is because: previously, it was. (i.e. Memetics was previously a pseudo-science. Prior to 2013, nobody had yet identified the meme, the unit of culture.)

See this book chapter:

Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

However – now that (in 2013, and again in 2016) we have (1) identified the meme, and (2) provided a true scientific paradigm for Memetics – it feels as if – we should revisit some of the key articles that have previously criticized Memetics, and see if there are still any `holes’ in it that need fixing / which `problems’ in Memetics now need solving.

(In short, there now don’t seem to be any… We seem to have solved all the problems at once, in 2013, and 2016, by identifying the meme.)

Some of the prior `key articles’ critical of Memetics appear to be:

(1) Memetics: a Darwinian pseudo-science. C. R. Hallpike (2004): http://hallpike.com/Memetics.%20A%20Darwinian%20pseudo-science.pdf

(2) “Memes as pseudoscience.” The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience (2002): 664 – Polichak, James W. http://books.google.com.au/books?id=Gr4snwg7iaEC&pg=PA664&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

(3) “Memetics: A dangerous idea.” Interciencia 26.1 (2001): 29-31. Benítez-Bribiesca, Luis  http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=33905206

I have already gone over these 3 articles above with a fine-toothed-chainsaw here, in the previous 3 posts.

Also – there is:

(4) “Spare Me Your Memes” (1996) Jaron Lanier debates Charles Simonyi and Mike Godwin on the concept and value of Memes http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge1.html

(which this post deals with, below…)

So I’ll aim to address these criticisms.

And – note that, below, I am quoting the author of the critical article below, in bold.

(4) “Spare Me Your Memes” (1996) Jaron Lanier debates Charles Simonyi and Mike Godwin on the concept and value of Memes http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge1.html

And for anyone reading the following refutation of these criticisms, what I recommend is that, if you first read these two posts:

  1. StoryAlity #100 – The Holonic Structure of the Meme – the unit of culture
  2. StoryAlity #101 – A Science of Memetic Culturology

And then – read the following refutation, and then – go and read the actual `critical paper’ itself.

That way – as you finally do read the paper you will already know, as you read it, why he is (now, in 2013) wrong – about each point that I make (i.e. – each criticism Lanier makes in 1996, that  in 2013 we can now refute) below.

(By the way – many of his identifications of flaws in Memetics, back in 1996 at the time – were  correct! Nobody, back then had explained Memetics – as Velikovsky has now done in 2013.)

So – to be fair, I only published the above two papers on `The Holonic Structure of the Meme‘ and `A Science of Memetic Culturology‘ in 2013 – and so – in context – Lanier is referring to the problems with Memetics that existed – back in 1996.

This refutation below, shows why – all those prior criticisms from 1996 about `Memetics is currently a pseudoscience’ no longer apply (as of: 2013) to the Domain of Memetics; Why and How all of these problems Lanier notes below – are actually solved by my own synthesis of various theories, in Memetics.

So – let us begin the detailed refutation of these (now out-dated) criticisms of Memetics…

First of all –

Lanier (1996) says:

Spare me your memes – Biological evolution is a theory that explains the remarkable, creative long term effects of massive numbers of untimely (pre-reproductive) deaths, but it is somewhat immune to variations in the sources of genetic variation from which death culls. The current controversies between scientists studying evolution underline this point. Variation might take place without boundaries or favor, as Dawkins seems to suggest, or might be subject to mathematically predetermined paths, as biologists like Kaufman and Goodwin have proposed. In either case, evolution proceeds, through the mechanism of violence. That the theory of evolution can survive these unresolved controversies shows that it is really the culling and not the sowing that is the key mechanism.

The relative indifference of evolution to the source of variation makes it a poor metaphor for understanding creativity that takes place under the protection of civilization.

No – both genes and memes operate under selection, variation and transmission-with-heredity.

Also you are forgetting that with sexual selection, two organisms get to select each other – and they do it consciously (at least in part).

This is the same as a writer selecting two ideas and combining them (e.g. the idea of a sci-fi film and a western film – e.g. Star Wars 1977).

Then Lanier (1996) says:

That is one reason why the idea of the “meme” is misleading. The meme concept, first proposed by Richard Dawkins, is sometimes used to explain how ideas change, but also sometimes as an ideal for how ideas should change.

Well – read this, there is nothing misleading about it:

StoryAlity #100 – The Holonic Structure of the Meme – the unit of culture

Then Lanier (1996) says:

Dennett, in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” speaks of wishing to extinguish a meme that had infected the physicist Roger Penrose as if it were a freakish individual that should be subject to a eugenics campaign. If it weren’t for the romance of evolution, “Memes” would just be a fancy way of pointing out that non-rigorous ideas are often subject to a popularity contest. One danger, however, in the meme idea is an equation of creativity with mental eugenics.

You’re confused. Read this:

StoryAlity #100 – The Holonic Structure of the Meme – the unit of culture

Then Lanier (1996) says:

There are so many other things wrong with memes that it’s hard to list them succinctly. Equating ideas and genes revives all the worst old wrong ideas about genetics. Ideas do everything genes can’t. They can change and effect each other without any concern for species boundaries. They can pass along traits acquired during their “lifespans”- they don’t have to wait for some sub-strata of genetic material to be selected for. The long-resolved struggle against these mistaken ideas about genes has been irritated into existence again by a stupid metaphor. It is as if Darwin had never existed.


Darwin gave us the evolutionary algorithm – and that is: selection, variation (e.g. combine 2 strands of DNA – as in sex) and transmission-with-heredity. That is also how Cultural Evolution works, but with memes instead of genes. See the DIFi (Domain, Individual, Field interaction) systems model of Creativity (Csikszentmihalyi 1988-onwards).

Then Lanier (1996) says:

The notion of memes is an affront to the idea that some ideas can be better than others. Ideas can be rigorous, so the notion of improvement has meaning.

There is no affront going on. Stop it.

This is all exactly why – when a new (and: improved) Scientific Theory (meme) comes along – that is better than the old one – it gets `selected’ by the Field (of that Domain of Science). And the old one (the idea/theory/memeplex) gets thrown out.

Then Lanier (1996) says:

Genes, on the other hand, don’t improve; they just adapt to local circumstance. And that adaptation is entirely non-intentional and so slow that we learn about it largely from fossils.

You are forgetting that `intentional’ – `methodical’ – or `artificial’ selection (like farmers, breeding sheep, cows or even pigeons for `better’ qualities) means they are `better’ adapted – in the way humanity wants them to be. Even Darwin spoke about all that, in the first chapter of `Origin’ (1859). Also you are forgetting all about genetic engineering. Are you seriously suggesting the organism, when genetic engineering improves it, is not: an improvement? That’s clearly nonsense.

And no – I am not suggesting any kind of eugenics, or `Social Darwinism’ or even Nazism here. If you assume that – then you assume wrongly. Cut it out.

Then Lanier (1996) says:

Many kinds of ideas, on the other hand, can be definitively improved, and this can be done methodically and cumulatively, leading to exponential rates of change.

Exactly, and this is exactly how memes are at the centre of the systems model of Creativity (1988) and is exactly how Cultural Evolution works! EXACTLY!

ie – Lanier is confused. He needs to read this:

StoryAlity #100 – The Holonic Structure of the Meme – the unit of culture

Ok so then – then Lanier (1996) says:

People used to believe God thought the world into existence in just this way, in six days.

That is because before Modern Science, cavepersons used to think up whatever random explanation they could (e.g. thunder means: God coughing – or is `being angry’ – or whatever) and if it seemed to give an answer/explanation, then: that was enough. The idea of God is a memeplex. It is: an idea.

Then Lanier (1996) says:

Darwin’s central insight was that genes are not like ideas.


He (Darwin) even said that words evolve in natural selection, in The Descent of Man (1871)…! He said that genes are exactly like ideas! How can you get this so wrong-?

Memes are ideas! And they work the same way as genes do: selection, variation and transmission-with-heredity! Sheesh!

Then Lanier (1996) says:

Within civilization, nonetheless, are found pseudo-evolutionary processes, like business and the academic career track, in which competition is harnessed to produce excellence. These should not be understood to be true examples of evolution, though, because the genes of the losers are still passed on without diminution.

Stop being so confused, you’re conflating so many things here. Cut it out. You just switched from talking to memes (ideas, business, the academic career track, etc) to talking about: genes. You have totally conflated the two things.

Also – what do you mean `genes of the losers’? The only way a loser can `lose’ in natural selection – is if they die without passing on their genes.

You have just switched from talking about biological survival – to: something else entirely. i.e. Biological Evolution and Cultural Evolution are overlapping systems, to be sure, but just because bad/wrong ideas (memes) hang around in Culture sometimes (e.g.: Creationism as opposed to Evolution) doesn’t mean anyone is about to die. You can pass an idea (meme) along to someone without having to pass your genes along to them at the same time. – Is that not totally obvious?

Then Lanier (1996) says:

Even their “memes’ are passed on, for those who insist on subscribing to the concept. That is what defines a civilization.

This is nonsense. I would like you to sit down and clearly write a definition of “What defines a civilization”. What are you even calling/defining as `a civilization’? e.g.: Ancient Roman civilization? Ancient Greek civilization? Ancient Egyptian civilization? Modern American civilization?

– What is your definition of the word `civilization’ anyway?

Note that – in each of those `Ancient (or even Modern) civilizations’ there is an insanely-large amount of nested Domains (including Art and Science and Religion) in their culture. Sometimes there are competing theories, art practises, religions, etc.

And note – not everyone (not every single person) shares every single bit of knowledge/practises/culture/behaviours/religions within those civilizations.

So – whenever anyone generalizes wildly and says `Ancient Greek civilization’ they really should be made to sit down and list out every single meme and memeplex (idea, process and product) they include in that specific civilization, and also should specify which exact dates they are referring to. (As cultural evolution happens over time.) The memes (ideas, processes, products) that are `passed on’ does not always define a civilization. Some of the ideas are only partly passed on, and all of the ideas (memes) evolve. Some memes (ideas, processes, products) appear to go extinct – and then make a comeback in certain civilizations. So please stop being confused, and generalizing wildly and conflating things.

Then Lanier (1996) says:

If civilization worked like evolution, it would be perfectly ordinary to burn library books that had not been read for a long time. In the real world, when libraries burn, civilizations crumble.

What a ridiculous generalization.

Many libraries have burned, and nobody `crumbled’ – those books were in plenty of other libraries. And – if the library at Alexandria burned – then that civilization was already being destroyed anyway, by the invaders. Stop being so confused. Stop making such sweeping statements – which are false.

Then Lanier (1996) says:

Marxism provides a recent example. Ideas are only like memes at the moment when they are extinguished, as happened in the library at Alexandria, or, as might have happened if had he been successful, in Hitler’s bonfires.

These are all lousy ideas. – Sorry. You are deeply confused about all of this.

And your examples are wrong. Marxism is a meme. It is an idea, a process and a product. A holon. And it is there in books, like Capital. And in various forms, it still exists. And still evolves. Note the various kinds of Marxism in different parts of the world.

And – if some books got burned, by some evil idiot like Hitler, the ideas (the memes) are still in peoples’ heads – and usually, they can write the books again… Also, even when books are burned, they rarely if ever manage to find, and burn every single copy of that book.

Seriously – just read this:

StoryAlity #100 – The Holonic Structure of the Meme – the unit of culture

So, just use this Velikovsky 2013 definition as a basis and you can’t go wrong, seriously.

Oh, and I nearly forgot… read: Koestler 1964. The Act of Creation. 

– Comments always welcome.

PS – So, Dear Reader, now you can go read:

(4) “Spare Me Your Memes” (1996) Jaron Lanier debates Charles Simonyi and Mike Godwin on the concept and value of Memes http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge1.html

And – you can clearly see why he (Lanier) is now (in 2013) wrong, about everything to do with Memetics.

Solving “the unit of culture” was a hard problem.

But now it’s solved.

And – for more detail on the evolutionary systems (or, complexity) view of narrative and bioculture in general, see, this book chapter:

StoryAlity #132The holon/parton structure of the Meme, the unit of culture – and the narreme, or unit of story – book chapter (Velikovsky 2016)

And for a great consilience & creativity & evolution reading list, see:

StoryAlity #71On Consilience in the Arts / Humanities / Communication

Comments, always welcome.


JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/



Velikovsky, J. T. (2016). `The Holon/Parton Theory of the Unit of Culture (or the Meme, and Narreme): In Science, Media, Entertainment and the Arts.‘ In A. Connor & S. Marks (Eds.), Creative Technologies for Multidisciplinary Applications. New York: IGI Global.

And – Lanier (1996), and those other schmucks.


5 thoughts on “StoryAlity #105 – Reply to 4 critics of “Memetics as a pseudo-science” (Part 4 of 4) – Lanier 1996

  1. Pingback: StoryAlity #104 – Reply to 4 critics of “Memetics as a pseudo-science” (Part 3 of 4) – Benitez-Bribiesca 2001 | StoryAlity

  2. It will take a while to land. One third of Americans don’t believe in evolution and a decade after the human genome project people who should know better still refer to “Apache blood” or some such thing.

    • Thanks so much for the comment Chris. You are completely correct, of course…
      Great point… This is exactly what we’re up against…(!)

      Then again – perhaps – (?) a viral meme, containing this idea, might be the answer.
      e.g. a novel, a film, etc…
      ie – a Trojan Horse, basically.
      People who don’t believe in Evolution (in Biology) might perhaps understand it, in Culture… if it’s explained right (ie – in simple enough terms)
      Then, once they get their head around that idea (ie – that meme) applied to Culture, maybe it can be applied to Biology – in the memeplexes inside their mind…

      I’m writing a novel, as an experiment, that aims to do exactly this…
      (whether – or how well – it succeeds, remains to be seen, of course.)

      Cheers & thanks again,

  3. Pingback: StoryAlity #109 – Memetics and Film | StoryAlity

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