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& How They Might Make
Sense as Replicators

Ronald Hünneman

First supervisor: Prof. dr. A.J.M. Peijnenburg

Second supervisor: Dr. F.A. Keijzer
Third Assessor: Dr. B.P. de Bruin

Approved: March 2010

Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Groningen


Almost three years ago Charles Wildevuur and Jeroen Bartels decided it was
time for me to graduate. Partly behind my back they set some wheels in
motion, which eventually led to this master thesis and the accompanying
graduation. Charles Wildevuur incorporated me in a discussion group. This
resulted in three papers forming the basis of this thesis. Jeroen Bartels coached
me throughout the final process of writing. He inspired and encouraged me,
promised me food whenever I turned in pages, and called or mailed me when
my productivity seemed to have come to a standstill.
They were not the only ones who contributed to the completion of my
graduation project. At the faculty Katherine Gardiner took the pains of sorting
out all the formalities. The scope of this task should not be underestimated. I
started studying philosophy back in 1987, so results had to be sorted out and
recalculated to comply with the changed norms for valuation. Apart from this
the computerized system of the University was not up to the task of
reincorporating a lost student. But happily Katherine unravelled these problems
as well.
Jeanne Peijnenburg supervised this thesis. Initially she read through my
casual style of writing and convinced me to put up signposts to help the reader.
Then she did everything a good supervisor should do, and moreover she
displayed a lot of patience. Fred Keijzer carefully took a second look. In
anticipation of his criticisms and as a consequence of his comments a lot of
changes were made. Many thanks also to Boudewijn de Bruin who read the
thesis in its final form.
I am very grateful to Gerda de Jong. She carefully corrected my English.
Her improvements and suggestions were indispensible. Of course, every
mistake you find is entirely my responsibility. But please bear in mind that all
the flawless parts are her merit.
Over the years I discussed the topic of memes with many of my
students. Some of them read and commented on earlier versions of this master
thesis. I want to thank all of them for their patient attention, their questions and
remarks and the inspiration they provided. Without them my source of
philosophical inspiration would have dried up long ago.

Teaching, reading and writing philosophy is my way of organizing life. Over the
years my sons and loved ones always supported that. Many thanks to them!

Ronald Hünneman
Haren, Groningen

Viruses of the mind................................................................................. 1
Virus of the Mind .................................................................................... 2
Memes: Internal and External .................................................................. 3
Memes Everywhere................................................................................. 5
One Example ......................................................................................... 9
Inside Out ........................................................................................... 10
A Final Warning .................................................................................... 11

Contagious Culture
Culture................................................................................................ 12
Cultural Transmission and Memes ........................................................... 14
Nut Cracking Chimps ............................................................................ 14
Forks .................................................................................................. 16
Mobile Phones ...................................................................................... 18
Light Bulb Jokes ................................................................................... 19

Mental Notions of Meme

Memetics ............................................................................................. 22
Selfish Genes ....................................................................................... 22
The Notion of a Gene ............................................................................ 25
Manners, Mobile Phones and Memes ....................................................... 29
Small Xeroxing Problems ....................................................................... 31

The Indeterminacy of Memes

Memes and Concepts ............................................................................ 37
Evolution Without DNA .......................................................................... 38
Interlude: Functionalism and Multiple Realizability .................................... 42
Undetermined and Detested .................................................................. 43
Underdeterminated Versus Indetermined ................................................ 45
Back to Light Bulbs ............................................................................... 55
Problematic Table Manners .................................................................... 56
Back to Behaviouristic Basics ................................................................. 58

Enacted Memes
On Board Computers ............................................................................ 59
Functionalism....................................................................................... 60
Informationalism .................................................................................. 63
The attractiveness of informationalism .................................................... 68
Externalism as a Logical Consequence of Informationalism ........................ 72
Artefacts, Memes and Mind .................................................................... 74
Strong Embodiment .............................................................................. 78
Memes matter...................................................................................... 83
Concluding remark ............................................................................... 86

The Baldwin Effect ................................................................................ 87
The Extended Phenotype ....................................................................... 91
The Extended Memotype ....................................................................... 94
Parasitic Memes ................................................................................... 96
Wooden Cutlery ................................................................................. 97
Mobile Phones ................................................................................... 98
Humor ............................................................................................. 99
A Final Joke ....................................................................................... 100

Literature and Internet Documents ................................................. 103

Summary ......................................................................................... 106


What is the reason why the notion of a meme has not become popular, at least
not in any scientific field of research? Richard Dawkins introduced the notion in
chapter 10 of his bestseller The Selfish Gene, and initially it attracted a lot of
interest. There were many books, articles, scientific papers, magazines, internet
forums, symposia and documentaries on memetics, the science of memes.
However, the interest in memes withered as quickly as it had arisen. These days
there are no real meme scholars left, certainly not within the field the notion
originated from, scientific evolutionary biology. Certainly, the term meme is
often used. But most of the times the term could easily be replaced by terms
like artefacts, behaviours, ideas, crazes, tools, or religion without any loss of
analytic or scientific force of argument. No doubt many of you will not even
consider spending any of your intellectual CPU time on memes.
So what went wrong? I think Dawkins‟ writings on genes are fine. They
may not be the ultimate truth on evolution; we might have to amend them with
epigenetics, spice them up with group dynamics or bring in other notions. But
as far as I am concerned, Dawkins was right about what is now sometimes
called universal Darwinism: Dawkins was right about the algorithms underlying
evolutionary processes.1However, as I will show in the course of this paper,
these algorithms are incompatible with Dawkins‟ definitions of a meme. In more
positive words, I will show that if Dawkins had defined the notion of a meme
differently, the notion might have had a better chance of becoming popular.
The mistake Dawkins made was that he joined in with the mainstream
philosophy of mind of the 1970‟s and 80‟s. He was taken in by the
computational metaphors of mind, and used them to couch his own ideas on
memes. In this paper, I will try to pinpoint and cut out these metaphors. While
doing so we will find that in the history of the idea of meme the mistakes of
three decades of computational philosophy of mind reverberate. When we take
these mistakes out, we can go on in trying to find ideas and concepts which
could make theories of memes more viable. The ideas and notions might be
found to be very close to Dawkins original interests: plain evolutionary theory,
the idea that organisms use their environment and other organisms to their own
Let us, however, begin by taking a look at the worst spin-off Dawkins‟
chapter on memes has produced, as far as I know.

See Dennett 1995, more on this topic in chapter 2.

While I was writing this Introduction Richard Brodie‟s book Virus of the Mind hit
the bookshelves. The title not so subtly refers to the widely spread and read
essay Viruses of the Mind by the other Richard, i.e. Dawkins. On the cover of
Brodie‟s book a warning is printed:

WARNING: This book contains a live mind virus. Do not read this
book unless you are willing to be infected. The infection may
affect the way you think in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, or even
turn your current world view inside out.2

To me this book exemplifies the worst that can be found on memes, yet the
warning is by no means superfluous. The book made me rewrite this
introduction. In a bullshitting3 sort of way Brodie‟s account of memes shows all
the mistakes surrounding memes. His book covers every conceivable topic, from
cults to advertising, from pets to the differences between men and women, and
from pyramid games and the Coca Cola logo to neuro-linguistic programming.
Did I mention the term bullshit yet?
The subtitle of the book reads: The Revolutionary New Science of the
Meme and How It Can Help You. Whatever memes turn out to be in the course
of this paper, memes are not new, there is no science of memes as yet, and so
there certainly is no ongoing scientific revolution of memes.
To be honest, I think Brodie has fallen into what I would like to call the
meme-trap. Every now and then a new word turns up. The word seems to
explain a lot of so far inexplicable phenomena. Thereupon the word is used as a
sort of panacea, resulting in intellectual quackery. The way Brodie uses the term
meme is a good example of the meme-trap. And as I think debugging the
meme-trap to be one of the tasks of a philosopher, I have written this extended
paper on memes. During the debugging we will encounter another example of
the meme-trap: information. Just as to Brodie everything is a meme, to many
others everything is information. To make matters worse, the intellectual
quackeries surrounding memes and information are strongly interconnected.
The definition Brodie gives of meme is certainly no coincidence:

A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence

influences events such that more copies of itself get created in
others minds.4

Without trying to impose some sort of ad hominem argumentation on Brodie, I

think it is telling he is the creator of Microsoft Word. Computers and memes
both originated in the 1980‟s, and a lot of thinking on memes is based on the
supposedly information- processing capacities of human brains or minds. No

Brodie 2009, back cover.
Cf. On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt (2005, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University
Brodie 2009, p. 11.

wonder Brodie conceives of our brain as being programmable by bits of
information floating around in the ether. I will show Brodie is wrong on almost
all accounts. (1) There is no scientific way in which memes can be defined by
reference to the human mind or brain. (2) Information processing is important,
but it is only one aspect of human brains. (3) The only biologically sound
understanding of memes places them firmly outside our brain, though their
effects may extend into our heads.
The following introductory pages serve as a kind of virus scanner. You
have probably been programmed to view memes just like Brodie does.
Hopefully by the end of the next few pages any traces of this programming will
have been erased and your mind will again be able to take up fresh, certified
virus free input.


In the foreword of the best known academic book on memes, Susan
Blackmore‟s Meme Machine, Richard Dawkins quotes the Oxford English

meme An element of a culture that may be considered to be

passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

As I will argue, this is the only definition of meme which makes any empirical
sense. To be more precise, I will argue that this is the only sensible definition on
the strict condition that we understand culture materially, as consisting solely in
artefacts and (perceptible) behaviour. Most writers on memes take it for
granted that culture, and therefore memes, ultimately resides in the minds or
brains of the people comprising that culture. But as I will show, the idea of
memetic evolution cannot be reconciled with the idea that memes reside
somewhere in the brain/mind of humans. My conclusion will be that a theory of
memes, a theory in which memes are in important ways described as being
analogous to genes, cannot contain references to the human mind/brain.
Therefore, after many pages of reasoning and argumentation, I will stipulate
meme as:

meme An (element of an) artefact or behaviour that may be

considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

As you might have guessed, my definition is not broadly accepted, nor does this
definition reflect a common denominator of the literature on memes. On the
contrary, this is definitely not the case. Most scientists writing about memes

Cited by Dawkins in Dawkins 1999, p. viii.
There is no universally accepted definition of the term culture. The website gives an overview of several
of the definitions of culture in circulation. My use of culture will be in agreement with:
“Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour […] including their
embodiments in artefacts”.

apply definitions which on the whole correspond with the definition from the
dictionary of Wikipedia, Wiktionary:

meme Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea,

that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind
to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices,
habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture,
and ethnicity.

The main difference between definitions grafted on this last definition and my
definition is that in my definition I will avoid any term related to the term mind.
Likewise I will distance myself from definitions in terms of brains, or neural
networks. (Beware though, this doesn‟t mean that the human mind or brain
doesn‟t play a role in the evolution of memes!) In other words, in my definition
of meme the inner life of humans plays no part, whether the inner life is
conceived as some sort of neural system or as a mindful system with ideas,
concepts, thoughts, information or meanings. Definitions which make use of the
inner hustling of people I will denote with the adjective internalist. Definitions
without internalist references I will call externalist.
There are important, though intricate links between my use of the terms
internalist and externalist and the recent debate in the philosophy of mind on
internalism and externalism. In this paper I do not want to enter directly into
that debate. On the other hand, my discussion of memes is of importance to
this debate. More specifically, I think my views on memes subscribe, or at least,
belong to an externalist view of the human mind. So let me just take a couple of
sentences to make my position clear. I will not give a rigorous analysis, though;
I will just indicate how these matters relate to my discussion on memes.
Let us define internalism intuitively as the idea that mind and brain are
indissolubly connected, for to enter the mind is to enter the brain. As an
internalist would have it, the processes that bring about and sustain the human
mind take place within the confines of the skull. Some internalists will allow that
processes in other places in the human body might also be of importance to the
mind. But every internalist will consider the skin to be the outermost boundary
of the physical processes that generate the mind.
Externalists8 do not want to draw such a boundary around the processes
comprising the mind. Processes in the brain, in the human body, its behaviour,

My focus here is on vehicle externalism (see Rowlands 2003, chapter 9). In other
words, to make things even more confusing, the way I describe the debate between
externalists and internalists, that is in terms of a debate on the physical processes that
underlie the human mind, is not the only type of debate between externalists and
internalists. There is also the debate on meaning externalism: is meaning fixed by what
goes on inside our head or isn‟t it? It is possible to be a meaning externalist and a
vehicle internalist. As far as my position is concerned, I think meaning internalism is
wrong because vehicle externalism is true. For that reason I here confine myself to
vehicle externalism.

as well as processes in and from the environment are all involved in the
constitution of the human mind. The place of the mind is not fixed within the
head, but it is spread out over brain, body and background.
Now, if you are an externalist, and believe that the mind is in some cases
constituted by elements of the environment, then you won‟t conceive of the skin
as a boundary which must be crossed by memes in order to enter or leave the
mind. This leads to the ironical conclusion that the definition I eventually
embark upon (memes are elements of behaviour or artefacts), doesn‟t exclude
the possibility that memes are part of the human mind to an externalist. Being
outside the head not automatically means being outside the mind. To an
internalist, however, the issue appears quite differently. If memes reside
outside our heads and never enter, they won‟t enter our minds either.
Consequently, to an internalist my definition excludes memes from entering the
human mind.
This opposition makes writing on these matters somewhat hazy. To
externalists and internalists alike I can say that memes do not enter the brain.
That is why I describe my definition as being externalistic. When I write that we
should not build notions like mind, thoughts or beliefs into our definitions of a
meme I mean something like: “Just as we should not build notions like mind,
thoughts, consciousness, meanings or beliefs into our definition of a neuron or a
neuronal structure, we should not build these notions into our definition of a
meme.” I am aware that to an internalist this means that memes will never
enter the mind. So be it. Since reasons can be given for not allowing memes to
be defined in brainy notions which are independent from this debate, as I will
show in chapter 3, I leave it to internalists to find ways to accommodate an
externalist notion of a meme.
I am also aware that most, if not all, meme scholars are internalists, that
is part of the reason for writing this paper. Their internalistic assumptions go
unnoticed to themselves, however. Therefore none of them takes pains to
defend these assumptions, and all write as if internalism is the only viable
option. That will make my discussion seem somewhat one-sided. In chapter 4 I
will discuss the intellectual causes for this attitude and review matters further.
First, let us return to the undoubtedly internalistic origins of the debate on

From Richard Dawkins‟ first tentative description of memes in The Selfish Gene,
until more recent definitions of, for example, Susan Blackmore and Liane
Gabora, scholars explored the use of internalist definitions. In 1976 Dawkins
wrote in The Selfish Gene:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes

fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes
propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to
body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the

meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in
the broad sense, can be called imitation.9

Blackmore, following Dawkins, describes memes in The Meme Machine as


I shall use the term „meme‟ indiscriminately to refer to memetic

information in any of its many forms; including ideas, the brain
structures that instantiate those ideas, the behaviours these brain
structures produce, and their versions in books, recipes, maps
and written music. As long as that information can be copied by a
process we may broadly call „imitation‟, then it counts as a

Daniel Dennett employs a definition which is explicitly centred round all sorts
and qualities of ideas:

These new replicators [i.e. memes] are, roughly, ideas. Not the
“simple ideas” of Locke and Hume (the idea of red, or the idea of
round or hot or cold), but the sort of complex ideas that form
themselves into distinct memorable units – such as the ideas of:
arch, wheel, wearing clothes, vendetta, right triangle, alphabet,
calendar, the Odyssey, calculus, chess, perspective drawing,
evolution by natural selection, impressionism, “Greensleeves”,

Liane Gabora manages to put forward a definition without any reference to

elements outside the human mind:

Might some kind of self-organized network of cultural entities

constitute […] a replicator of the primitive sort as in the case of
pre-RNA life? The answer is yes, so long as in the mind there
exists a set of ideas for which, for any one idea, there is an
associative pathway through which it can be remembered,
reconstrued, or re-described in terms of others. In other words,
although ideas do not constitute replicators, interconnected
networks of them -worldviews- do…12

The definition by Robert Aunger in his book The Electric Meme is also strictly
internalistic. But in contrast to Gabora who limits the use of memes to the
human mind, Aunger places memes exclusively within neural networks:

Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 192.
Blackmore 1999, p. 66.
Dennett 1995, p. 344. (In the original text the elements are listed in a column.)
Gabora 2004, see the internet based version:

A configuration in one node of a neuronal network that is able to
induce the replication of its state in other nodes.13

As I will show, all these internalist definitions suffer from the drawback that
they fail to do justice to the reasons Dawkins ventured in writings, books and
interviews for his introduction of the notion of a meme. Dawkins wanted a
notion of memes that was scientifically on a par with genes. Memes should not
be figments of a biologists‟ mind, they should be entities that can be used to do
three things.

(1) In the first place Dawkins wants to show that genes are not the only
replicators that can be described by means of evolutionary algorithms:

The word [meme] was introduced at the end of a book which

otherwise must have seemed entirely devoted to extolling the
selfish gene as the be-all and end-all of evolution […]. The real
unit of natural selection was any kind of replicator, any unit of
which copies are made, with some occasional errors, and with
some influence or power over their own probability of

(2) Next to that, Dawkins isn‟t satisfied with Darwinian descriptions and
explanations of culture:

As an enthusiastic Darwinian, I have been dissatisfied with

explanations that my fellow-enthusiasts have offered for human
behaviour. […] These ideas are plausible as far as they go, but I
find that they do not begin to square up to the formidable
challenge of explaining culture, cultural evolution, and the
immense differences between human cultures around the

(3) Finally Dawkins wants to be able to describe and condemn the development
of religions with the help of memes:

“[...] memetic natural selection of some kind seems to me to offer

a plausible account of the detailed evolution of particular

“Dawkins: […]In a way the whole message of the meme and

gene idea is that merit is defined as goodness at getting itself
spread around, goodness at self-replication. That's of course very
different from merit as we humans might judge it.

Aunger 2002, p. 197.
Dawkins 1999, p. xvi.
Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 191.
Dawkins 2006, p. 201.

McDonald: You've chosen an analogy there for religion which a
lot of them would find rather hurtful -- that it's like an AIDS virus,
like a rabies virus.
Dawkins: I think it's a very good analogy. I'm sorry if it's hurtful.
I'm trying to explain why these things spread…”17

Possibly in order to condense these three points, Dawkins writes that to

understand the evolution of modern day humans “we must begin by throwing
out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution.” 18 But to meet the
requirements set by (1), (2) and (3) the alternative for the gene, the meme,
must be described with techniques, algorithms and research strategies from the
biological sciences. If this isn‟t possible the introduction of meme adds nothing
to the already flourishing natural science of evolutionary biology. In this case
the sole function of the field of research on memes is to provide the history of
ideas, sociology and psychology with new terminological zest. However
sympathetic I am to (1), (2) and (3), the introduction of the notion of a meme
will only be successful if it inspires or rather induces new scientific analysis.
When an internalist definition of a meme is taken as the point of
departure this won‟t succeed. The reason is fairly simple. To give you an overall
idea of my line of argumentation I will use Dawkins‟ pointily formulated
definition from The Extended Phenotype:

A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a

brain […]. It has a definite structure, realized in whatever physical
medium the brain uses for storing information. […] I would want
to regard it as physically residing in the brain.19

To apply the techniques of an evolutionary description to physical structures

residing in the brain, it must be clear what structure in one brain is a copy of a
structure residing in another brain. However, to determine this we can never,
not even in principle, make use of a one-to-one mapping as in the case of
genetic materials. Different brains have different microstructures and cannot
easily be matched up. To evade this complication Dawkins himself and other
meme scholars in his footsteps have slowly faded the notion of a meme in order
to facilitate methods of determining whether one meme is a copy of another.
Eventually this fading turned memes into ideas (Dennett), worldviews (Gabora),
information (Dawkins) and all things associated with these (Blackmore).
This latter development makes my objection that internalistic definitions
cannot lend themselves to an evolutionary analysis only stronger. If memes
propagate from brains to paper and subsequently to computers and back to

Dawkins in an interview with Sheena McDonald (McDonald 1995). Here Dawkins states
in a very colourful and lucid way exactly what he means by his writings in Viruses of the
Mind (Dawkins 1991).
Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 191.
Dawkins 1982, p. 109.

brains again20, how can we determine unmistakably that we have encountered a
copy of another meme? And if this isn‟t quite clear, then how can memes play
their part in a theory that is a branch of the biological theory of evolution?
Exactly at this point meme scholars fail to give answers. This shouldn‟t surprise
us. As will become apparent on the ensuing pages, precisely the internalistic
notions of a meme obstruct the scientific employment of notions like copy,
descendant and meme line. So, to circumvent these internalist difficulties, I will
redefine the term meme without using internalist notions. In that way it will be
possible for Dawkins‟ initial scientific intention to resurface.

This might all sound rather abstract and detached from everyday life. It is not.
To understand why not and to get a feel for the thrust of my argument consider
the thoughts on pets of Richard Brodie (remember bullshit?). I think he gets it
almost right, but in the end takes a dramatically wrong turn. But he certainly
starts off on the right foot:

Take a look at pets.

Our beloved dogs, cats, iguanas, and so on, along with the
enormous industries that have arisen to support them, are all part
of a huge cultural virus known as pets.
What? Pets, a virus? No I‟m not joking. Granted, from our
egocentric point of view, pets are one of life‟s pleasures, delightful
companions and playmates, part of the richness of being human.
From their point of view, though, we‟re essentially their slaves. 21

As will become clear in chapter 5, I firmly agree with this last remark. 22 But this
is a matter of pet genes, and not memes, exploiting the bodies created by
human genes, much like the genes of a cuckoo exploiting other birds. The genes
of pets don‟t enter our minds. They don‟t have to. We aid the procreation of
pets as it is, and that is good enough for their genes. So, to us pets form a kind
of virus that consumes costly human energy. The effects of pet genes extend
into our mind or brain (choose whatever you like). But the pets remain outside.
And Brodie agrees!

A virus of the mind is something out in the world that, by its

existence, alters people‟s behavior so that more copies of the
thing get created.23 [My emphasis, RH.]

However, to the likes of Brodie there can be no alterations of behaviour without

alterations in the programming of the mind. So pets must enter our mind:

This paraphrase is Susan Blackmore‟s, in Blackmore 199, p. 66.
Brodie 2009, p. 168.
For those of you who can read Dutch, also see Hünneman 2006.
Brodie 2009, p. 168.

- Pets penetrate our minds by attracting our attention. [...]
- Pets actually program us to take care of them in several ways.

We can all agree that pets don‟t penetrate our minds, at least not like viruses
penetrate our bodies, or bookworms penetrate libraries. Pets don‟t enter our
heads. Pets alter their environment, and our heads are parts of their
environment. Evolution is about the success of genes on the basis of the effects
they exert on their environment. Genes get copied and drag the effects along.
As I see it, exactly the same holds for memes. Memes reside outside our
heads, in our behaviour and our material culture. Memes use us to reproduce
themselves, much like pets use us. And in the course of copying themselves
they drag the effects on our minds along.

After having given a general description of culture and the transfer of culture, in
chapter 2, I will show that the notion of a copy of a meme, and consequently
the application of evolutionary algorithms, cannot be fleshed out under an
internalist definition, in chapter 3. In chapter 4 I will argue that this internalist
line of thought on memes is strongly connected to the ideas of functionalism
and the doctrine that the human brain is a computer, an information processor.
Chapter 5 will demonstrate how an alternative conception of memes might be
developed out of Dawkins‟ own thoughts on the evolution of parasites in The
Extended Phenotype.
Why did Dawkins start out on the wrong foot? Why did he introduce the
term meme with an internalist definition? Where does Dawkins‟ own internalist
view stem from? Dawkins wanted to discuss culture and the transfer and
development of culture, yet he began his considerations with talk on structures
in the brain and ideas. This sounds like Charles Darwin (1809-1882) stating
something on the origin of species with an elaboration on the double helix25.
Darwin did not need the double helix; Dawkins could have done without brain
structures. Darwin‟s theory of evolution would have survived even if the stability
and inheritability of physiological characteristics would have had a totally
different substrate26.
Most probably Dawkins suffered from a mild form of cogitocentrism: the
idea that everything having to do with culture eventually arises from, or is
based upon, the human mind.27 The fact that his theory of memes has not

Brodie 2009, p. 168 and 169.
The double helix was first described in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson.
Darwin wasn‟t even familiar with the notion of a gene. This notion was developed
somewhere around 1900 by Hugo de Vries and Wilhelm Johannsen.
The cogitocentrism of Dawkins seems in part to be inspired by the popular comparison
in the 1970‟s and „80‟s between hardware/software and brain/mind. At several places
Dawkins describes the human mind as software. For example, in the chapter called „The

delivered any new and useful insights up till now, is a consequence of this
cogitocentrism, according to my view. As long as the human mind and human
thought are considered to be central, and as long as artefacts and behaviour are
considered to originate from the human mind, any useful interesting theory of
memes is out of the question.
As I will demonstrate in chapters 4 and 5, it is exactly the movement in
the opposite direction that gives us hope of fleshing out new descriptions of
cultural phenomena. Only if the human mind might arise from artefacts, without
any possibility of an influence the other way round, or better still, only if the
human mind in part consists of artefacts, will memetic evolution have an
explanatory power equal to that of biological genetic evolution.

In conclusion I feel obliged to give you the following warning. I certainly
don‟t want to argue or make plausible that the human mind doesn‟t exist or
doesn‟t matter. Nor do I want to contend that brains are uninteresting organs,
or that brains play no part in the propagation and spreading of memes. Quite to
the contrary, ideas, fantasies, considerations and utterly dodgy and lucid
thoughts all really exist and play an indispensible role in the rich and joyful life
of humans. What‟s more, I believe that the study of the human brain will bring
enticing and exiting new discoveries in the years to come. But, just like planet
Earth is by far the most interesting planet within our solar system, though she
isn‟t in the centre and everything on Earth owes its existence to the Sun,
likewise the human mind is more interesting than artefacts, though the
artefacts enable the human minds in all modes of its modern existence. In the
words of Dennett in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:

What we are is very much a matter of what culture has made


Balloon of the Mind‟, in Unweaving the Rainbow Dawkins puts forward his idea of a
„software-hardware co-evolution‟.
Dennett 1995, p. 340, his emphasis.




A human child is shaped by evolution to soak up the culture of her

Richard Dawkins in Viruses of the Mind

Remove every element of culture around me, and I will be sitting naked,
unwashed, bearded, and with wild hair in the riverbed of the Hunze. Of course it
remains an open question whether or not I would then have unfolded the same
profound philosophical thoughts to you as I will do now on the next pages. I
cannot see myself differently from a creature built out of an indissoluble knot of
strings of nature and culture. During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, amidst the
Greeks, Romans or people of the Middle Ages, or even during the first half of
the 20th century, I would have been a different person. 29 Who I am and how I
describe myself as a human being depends on the culture that shaped me.
Some essentialists may believe that beneath all these layers of culture
there is still a pure core, a soul that ultimately determines who I am. They
might even attach a normative claim stating it is the obligation of every human
to pursue that core in order to recapture a deeper self amidst the hustle and
bustle of modern daily life. For the present, however, there is no reason to
suppose that the genes that produced our body as a survival machine would
benefit from the installation of such an autonomous soul in it. From a biological
point of view the quest for our essence or our soul is rather a delicious cultural
phenomenon, without which the blessings of modern psychology wouldn‟t have
been poured out over our blood and bones.
If culture plays such a significant role in the way in which we live our
lives and describe ourselves as human beings, then what exactly is culture?
Where does nature stop and where does culture start, or the other way round?
And, perhaps the most important question, how has culture become so
contagious? How has culture been transmitted onto us and how do we infect
those near and dear to us with our culture?
Formal definitions of culture30 suffer under the fact that every formal
definition admits of exceptions that either cannot be subsumed under the

For a nice philosophical exploration of these and related themes see Mark Rowlands,
Everything I Know I Learned from TV.
See footnote 5 of the Introduction.

definition while we hope they would be, or that follow from the definition while
they obviously should not. The problem is that definitions of culture are often
used to delineate culture from nature. The wish for a criterion to demarcate
culture from nature goes hand in hand with a search for a sound definition of
culture. But if we, for example, choose the most obvious way, and would define
culture as learned behaviour and nature as behaviour fixed by genes, then
apparent natural behaviours such as child care and food preparation disarms the
demarcation. After all, chimpanzee mothers learn the caring for children from
their mothers. Parental care isn‟t anchored in their genes. And the animal
kingdom admits of many other examples of acquired behaviour.
In fact, we are one of the many natural born cultural animals. Nature
fades into culture, and in the same way the boundary between domesticated
and wild animals cannot be drawn sharply. This doesn‟t mean that domesticated
animals don‟t exist, or that they cannot be distinguished from wild animals. It
just means that it is unfeasible to concoct a formal, comprehensive definition
which separates „domesticated‟ from „wild‟. The same is true of formal
definitions of „culture‟. Of course, in general culture can be distinguished from
nature. But a formal definition which clearly demarcates culture from nature
seems out of the question. Darwin wouldn‟t have agreed more.
What‟s more, the use of a formal definition is discouraged by the fact
that there are a lot of phenomena we indicate with the tag „culture‟. With regard
to that, what goes for „game‟, goes for „culture‟ as well.

66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call „games‟. I

mean board-games, card-games, Olympic games, and so on.
What is common to them all? – Don‟t say: “There must be
something common, or they would not be called „games‟ ” – but
look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you
look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but
similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them and that. 31

Look at the houses we live in, look at the clothes we wear, the television series
we watch, the way we eat, sleep and make love, look at paintings and novels,
governments and the flow of money. Do you see anything that is common to all,
anything that makes all of them „culture‟?
Perhaps we could find an element common to all of them, if we resort to
a vague concept encompassing almost anything, or a disjunction of all the
known appearances of culture. 32 But what should we learn from that? Not much
more than that we cannot find an informative or interesting sound definition of
the term culture.
Because a satisfactory formal definition of culture is not possible, I will
only confine the notion somewhat in order to be able to describe some
phenomena. In what follows I will use culture to denote our mundane, everyday

Wittgenstein 1953, § 66.
See Wittgenstein 1953, § 67.

culture. I won‟t be talking about avant-garde art, scientific discoveries,
innovative technology, brilliant inventions or intricate economic constructs. I will
limit myself to everyday home and garden culture, the culture (object and use
of these objects) of kitchen knives, carrying bags, paperclips, mobile phones,
cars and highways. To delineate all this from high culture, and to clarify, I will
use the words everyday culture. Surely, the heart of every essentialist will ache
for a sharp delineation or definition, from which important philosophical
conclusions can be drawn. But what is true of definitions of games and culture is
true of definitions of everyday culture as well.


The description of meme in the Oxford English Dictionary, cited at the beginning
of the Introduction, shows spreading of culture by definition to be non-genetic:
“An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic
means, esp. imitation.” Cultural elements aren‟t just transmitted from one
generation to the next, like DNA, but are also transmitted sideways. Our culture
cannot only be adopted by our children or grandchildren, but also by our lovers,
friends, acquaintances, pupils, and even perfect strangers.
The notion of a meme was introduced by Dawkins as `a unit of cultural
transmission‟33. Our everyday culture, then, is a conglomerate of memes that
can be transferred from one person to another. The central question here is how
the spreading of everyday culture can be described. In other words: can we find
a description of cultural transmission that can be a genuine part of science
(biology)? Can we describe the worldwide spread of knives, bags, paperclips,
mobile phones, cars and highways in a non-trivial, scientifically convincing way?
To start thinking on cultural transmission I will resort to a so-called
ostensive definition. I will give some examples that are telling enough to me to
give some basic understanding of the subject I will be talking about. Below are
five examples of cultural transmission, from simple to baroque, from mundane
to technological and from artefacts to behaviour.


During the Christmas days in my parents‟ house, there was a bowl with nuts
and a nutcracker amidst the decorations. The nutcracker was a very
straightforward tool, a metal pair of pincers in between which you could put a
nut. You used manual power to crack the nuts open. Hazelnuts and walnuts
were easy to crack. But some nuts, particularly almonds and Brazil nuts, were
certainly not cracked open so easily. At the end of the Christmas days the nuts
that kept resisting were taken out to the paved part of the garden, where my
farther cracked them open with a hammer. The first few nuts were shattered as
they were hammered down with too much force. But after a couple of tries my
father had adjusted his force, and the kernels remained undamaged.

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192.

Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) around Bossou, in West African Guinea,
have comparable problems with the nuts of the oil palm (Elaeis oleifera). These
nuts are very tough and they cannot crack them open using their hands or
teeth. The chimpanzees use stones as hammer and anvil to crack the nuts open.
In order to crack a nut they look for a flat stone on which to place the nut and
another stone to hammer with. Then they pick up the hammer stone in one
hand, while they place the nut on the anvil with the other, and hit the nut with
one or more blows until it cracks. After this they pick out the edible parts, and
sometimes they even sweep the anvil before putting down the next nut.34
The nuts are rich in nutrients and so nut cracking is very rewarding. Can
this nut cracking behaviour be considered as a form of culture? Or would all
chimpanzees living in the same ecological circumstances show the same
behaviour? Do perhaps the oil palm and the type of stones around Bossou
induce the behaviour? Several observations show this not to be the case. No
chimpanzee in East Africa cracks nuts, while there are nuts and stones, too.35
On the other hand, in Bossou offspring master the ability while their parents are
not able to crack nuts. This seems to indicate that nut cracking behaviour isn‟t
transmitted genetically.
In fact, differences between chimpanzees in West Africa seem to suggest
that even the fine details of nut cracking belong to local culture. Only ten
kilometres from the group in Bossou a group of chimpanzees live on Mount
Nimba and they crack nuts of the Coula edulis tree. The chimpanzees from
Bossou don‟t know these nuts. When members of the Bossou group were
handed out these nuts, some picked up the nuts, sniffed them and bit them, but
none of them even tried to crack the nuts open. Others just ignored the nuts.
There was only one female, Yo, who immediately picked up the nuts and began
cracking them. During the next few days two younger chimpanzees who had
been watching Yo also began cracking the Coula nuts. No other chimpanzee
from Boussou imitated Yo‟s behaviour. 36 This suggests that even the type of
nut that is cracked is a locally restricted.
The transfer of the ability to crack nuts from one chimpanzee to the next
is a painstakingly slow process. Chimpanzees are lousy instructors. Children are
not actively taught by their mothers, and, as the introduction of Coula nuts into
the Bossou population showed, they are also bad imitators. Children discover
the technique by sitting next to their mothers, watching them, and by playing
with the stones she leaves behind. Little by little, during a trial and error

A description is always inferior to a video. I recommend to search on YouTube for
“Chimpanzee nut cracking” (for example:
Cf. Matsuzawa 1994, p. 351.
Cf. Matsuzawa 1994, p. 364. Matsuzawa writes: “These findings suggest the
hypothesis that the coula-eating female Yo was born in the neighbouring community and
travelled the 10 kilometres to join the community at Bossou. Perhaps she had already
learned to crack coula nuts at her community of origin, which had that cultural tradition.”
Ibid. p. 365.

process of many years, the actions become instances of nut cracking. If a
chimpanzee wants to have any chance of learning the nut cracking skills it must
grasp the basic elements before the age of five. During the years thereafter
their technique becomes further refined, until they gain the same agility as an
adult. But chimpanzees who cannot crack nuts open at the age of five will never
be able to learn the technique.
Although the way in which the nut cracking behaviour spreads from one
chimpanzee to the next differs enormously from the way we humans pick up
and transfer behaviour, the term culture does seem appropriate, because some
significant aspects still stand out. Nut cracking behaviour does certainly not
belong to the innate behaviour of the chimpanzees. Furthermore, the behaviour
is local, even concerning the details. What is more, chimpanzees get to master
the technique through the interaction with other chimpanzees, especially their
mothers. And last, but not least, nut cracking is but one of the many elements
of chimpanzee cultures.

Behavior varies somewhat in all animals, but in chimpanzees (Pan

troglodytes) and in bonobos (Pan paniscus) behavior is so variable
from population to population that, even when only one aspect
such as tool use is considered, every chimpanzee population
studied today has proved to have its own unique combination of
tools and techniques.37

Fortunately The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias shows our all-embracing,
refined and elaborate culture to exceed the culture of chimpanzees by far. In
this wonderful book Elias shows how table manners changed over the past
seven hundred years. This study contains, among other things, a lengthy
discussion of etiquette books and treatises. Elias‟ exposition of the civilizing
process induces a feeling of alienation. The distance between our everyday
customs at the dining table and the manners of our noble ancestors is huge. It
seems unthinkable that we could enjoy a tasty diner in the 13 th century in the
company of dinner guests of that time.
It is without doubt not the most well-known book of Erasmus, De
civilitate morum puerilium (On the good manners for boys), but it is probably
his best read book. It originally appeared in 1530 and for two centuries
thereafter it remained an immensely popular work. In 1678 a Dutch version was
released, Boeckje Aangaende de Beleeftheidt der Kinderlijcke Zeden. Elias
sketches the popularity and the maddening speed with which this treatise
spread over many different countries:

It immediately achieved an enormous circulation, going through

edition after edition. Even within Erasmus‟s lifetime – that is, in
the first six years after publication – it was reprinted more than

Wrangham, de Waal & McGrew 1994, p. 2.

thirty times. In all, more than 130 editions may be counted, 13 of
them as late as the eighteenth century. The multitude of
translations, imitations and sequels, is almost without limit. Two
years after the publication of the treatise the first English
translation appeared. In 1534 it was published in catechism form,
and at this time it was already being introduced as a schoolbook
for the education of boys. German and Czech translations
followed. In 1537, 1559, 1569 and 1613 it appeared in French,
newly translated each time.38

In his small treatise De civilitate morum puerilium Erasmus exposes the way in
which courteous young boys should behave. To illustrate the vast distance
between the 16th century and our contemporary customs a longer quotation
from Elias (I left out the parts in Latin):

As has been mentioned, plates too are uncommon. [...] The table
is sometimes covered with rich cloths, sometimes not, but always
there is a little on it: drinking vessels, salt-cellar, knives, spoons,
that is all. Sometimes we see the slices of bread, the quadrate,
that in French are called trainchoir or tailloir. Everyone, from the
king and queen to the peasant and his wife, eats with the hands.
[I]t is also necessary, and possible, for Erasmus to say: Do not
expose without necessity “the parts to which Nature has attached
modesty”. Some prescribe, he says, that boys should “retain the
wind by compressing the belly”. But you can contract an illness
that way. And in another place: [...] “Fools who value civility more
than health repress natural sounds”. Do not be afraid of vomiting
if you must; “for it is not vomiting but holding the vomit in your
throat that is foul”.39

It should be borne in mind that Erasmus found it worthwhile to give the

aforesaid advice. Most probably the customs were already changing, and he
stylishly adapted to this, but nevertheless there must have been a practice
which was not yet ‟civilized‟, a practice in which winds and vomit would have
spoiled my appetite anyway. To put it differently, our philosopher must have
expected that there were boys who would alter their demeanour upon reading
his booklet.
Elias describes how our contemporary etiquette is the result of a battle
between nobility and citizens. The nobility changed its table manners to set
itself apart from the lower class citizens. Whereupon the citizens copied the new
etiquette in order to become nobler. Table manners not only evolved for reasons
of contamination, but also to be distinguished from lower classes. The table
manners of the lower classes are felt as embarrassing. Elias brilliantly illustrates
this process with the introduction of the fork:

Elias 1982(2000), p. 47.
Elias 1982(2000), pp. 50-51.

So why does one really need a fork? Why is it “barbaric” and
“uncivilized” to put into one‟s mouth by hand from one‟s own
plate? Because it is distasteful to dirty one‟s fingers, or at least to
be seen in society with dirty fingers. The suppression of eating by
hand from one‟s own plate has very little to do with the danger of
illness, the so-called “rational” explanation.
In observing our feelings towards the fork ritual, we can see with
particular clarity that the first authority in our decision between
whether behaviour at table is “civilized” or “uncivilized” is our
feeling of distaste. The fork is nothing other than the embodiment
of a specific standard of emotions and a specific level of revulsion.
Behind the change in eating techniques between the Middle Ages
and modern times appears the same process that emerged in the
analysis of other incarnations of this kind: a change in the
economy of drives and emotions.40

You probably know them, though they are certainly not your neighbours, the
boors who devour chips in front of the fish ‘n chips booth with increasingly
greasy hands. Couldn‟t they at least ask for a plastic box and a plastic fork?
Hasn‟t anyone taught them any manners?

Once, not so long ago, there was a time in which there were no mobile phones,
a time in which you didn‟t have to admit you are no good at texting, a time in
which you could read a book during a long journey by train without being
disturbed by much too loud chatters. But times have drastically changed. On the
29thAugust 2007 the NRC Handelsblad reported that there were 18.4 million
mobile phones in The Netherlands. That is twelve percent more than the
number of inhabitants. Within a period of thirty odd years mobile phones have
developed from heavy, clumsy appliances nobody was really waiting for, to
lightweight, handy, ingenious and fashionable communication devices with
many useful extras. Phone booths are almost history, the number of telephone
lines decreases, and even the DigID system of the Dutch government demands
verification by mobile phone for some transactions.
Many people claim they would be lost without their mobile phone. And
they are probably right. How else could you stay in contact with your beloved
ones on vacation? How else could you contact the RAC41 on a remote road? How
else could your children travel to school safely? But mobile phones have a
downside as well. Many youngsters spend all their money, and even more, on
mobile phones and prepaid cards, because mobile phones are much more than
neat communication devices. A mobile phone expresses status, wealth and
youthfulness. Therefore, the unusable extras do not have to outweigh the extra
financial sacrifices of their owners.

Elias 1982(2000), p. 107.
Dutch: Wegenwacht.

Contemporary Dutch culture cannot adequately be depicted without
grandchildren teaching their grandparents how to use a mobile phone. Mobile
phones are dispersed to the farthest corners of the earth. Somewhere in
between two and three billion mobile phones inhabit the earth, and it won‟t take
long before they outnumber people. And with this dispersion comes unforeseen
variation. In a lecture in 2005 James Katz42 showed a woodcarved replica of a
mobile phone from Namibia43. And Jan Chipchase, a Nokia investigator
specialized in the interaction between people and technology, explains in a TED
lecture44 the way in which mobile phones transform the monetary transactions
in Africa45. To send an amount of money to, for example, your sister you act as
follows. Buy a pre-paid card for, say, € 50,-. Don‟t use the code on the card to
upgrade your own credits, but give the code to the owner of the telephone shop
in the village of your sister over the phone. The owner uses the code to upgrade
his own telephone credits (so people can pay him to use his phone), and he
gives your sister € 47.50. None of the Research and Development departments
of telephone companies ever anticipated this use of mobile phones.


In sharp contrast with the nut cracking behaviour of chimpanzees, jokes are a
cultural element that spreads with lightning speed in our culture of
communication technology. A good joke pops up at an early morning breakfast,
is told in the classroom a couple of hours later, occurs at a blog in the
afternoon, and is translated and told on at dinner with a mother in a country far
away. The multiplication and dispersal of jokes is exemplary to meme scholars.
The way a joke spreads over the earth is less trivial than the few lines
above suggest. To illustrate this I will tell you the story of a joke I encountered
on the internet in the morning and told on to my children later that evening.
The joke is told around in the United States and in written form cast around on
the internet:

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change.

The most subtle semantical element is the word „change‟ that means something
like replace as well as alter. But, to fully understand this joke more than an
understanding of American English is necessary. In order to appreciate the joke,
listeners have to know something about the authoritative status of psychiatrists
in West European cultures, especially in the United States of America. Perhaps

James Katz is professor of communication and director of the Rutgers University's
Center for Mobile Communications Studies. He was also an editor of Machines That
Become Us: The Social Context of Personal Communication Technology .
A summary of this lecture is on:
For information on TED and the events they organize, see:
This lecture can be watched on:

they also have to be confronted with the fact that people are only considered for
psychiatric treatment if they are motivated, sometimes much to the frustration
of others involved. And, finally, the joke becomes really funny, if it is known
that there is a whole collection of jokes on the changing-of-light-bulbs theme (in
which most of the times the ambiguity of the word „change‟ isn‟t used and which
are for that reason alone less funny):

How many zen masters does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: Two; one to change it, and one to unchange it. (Beware:
one to change it and another to unchange it, is in fact fake zen.
The true answer is: Four; one to change it.)

How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two.

One to hold the giraffe and the other to fill the bathtub with
brightly coloured machine tools.

You might be able to imagine that I translated these jokes about zen masters
and surrealists without any mentionable trouble from English into Dutch. But the
translation of the joke on psychiatrists to Dutch is a much more complicated
matter. The problem is that the Dutch language hasn‟t got a verb that captures
the double meaning of „change‟, as a straightforward translation shows:

Hoeveel psychologen zijn er nodig om een gloeilamp te

verwisselen? Antwoord: slechts een, maar de lamp moet dan wel
zelf verwisseld WILLEN worden!

To preserve the point of the joke in the Dutch translation we will have to use
the word „veranderen‟, and the difficulty is that light bulbs are being „verwisseld‟
(replaced, changed) and not „veranderd‟ (altered, changed). So we might try to
find something that, in contrast with a light bulb, can be altered:

Hoeveel psychologen zijn er nodig om een password te

veranderen? Antwoord: slechts een, maar het password moet dan
wel zelf WILLEN veranderen!
(How many psychiatrists does it take to change a password?
Answer: only one, but the password has to WANT to change.)

However, this last variant is no longer connected to the thousands of light bulb
jokes circling in the world and that is part of the point of the joke. Maybe the
next try is a reasonable alternative:

Hoeveel psychologen zijn er nodig om een gloeilamp te

verwisselen? Antwoord: slechts een, maar de gloeilamp moet er
dan wel voor OPENSTAAN!
(How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to be OPEN to change!)

Admittedly, the word „verwisselen‟ doesn‟t appear in the answer, but in all other
respects this Dutch version seems to consist out of all the elements of the

original. I told my children this last version. After this I lectured them lengthily
about the mental health in the United States and the impotence of psychiatrists
to put their much promising theories into deeds. Yet I fear that the spreading of
these particular memes will come to a full stop in my children.
The nice thing about jokes is that they spread so easily from mouth to
mouth, but faster and differently than the flu. The same is true of table manners
and mobile phones. Culture spreads more easily than the genetic material of
primates and sometimes even more easily than viruses or bacteria. As indicated
before, evidently if we want to strictly demarcate the spread of culture from the
spread of bacteria or viruses, we will end up in an essentialist swamp. Roughly
said, the spread of culture has got something to do with imitation, or, more
hazily still, social contamination, and offspring as well as social companions can
take on the cultural element. The speed with which this happens might be
telling, as in the case of mobile phones, but does not decide whether or not
something belongs to culture. The nut cracking behaviour of chimpanzees
spreads via a slow and difficult process, but in all other respects it complies with
what we call culture.
If we would want to give a definition at all, it would be an all-inclusive
definition like the one given by the Japanese primatologist Imanishi:
Culture is socially transmitted adjustable behavior.

Zie Wrangham, de Waal & McGrew 1994, p. 2. Note that Imanishi doesn‟t mention
artefacts. In the case of chimpanzees artefacts are not copied. In the case of humans
they are, as shows the wooden replica of the mobile phone.



Can the examples of the previous chapter be described better by using the
notion of memes? My answer will not be a simple “Yes” or “No”. It will not be a
simple “Yes, but...” or “No, but...” either. My answer will be along the following
lines: the way in which Dawkins describes biological evolution in terms of genes
is fine. His treatment of evolution unearths the algorithms underlying
evolutionary processes in a lucid way. Thanks to his writings every evolutionary
process can be conceived of as an instance of this universal Darwinistic
algorithm. Therefore, if we want an evolutionary science of memes, memetics,
we should define meme as to be compatible with this algorithm. So far, Dawkins
is right. But when he goes on to define memes he takes a wrong, though
understandable, turn. He defines memes in such a way that it can no longer be
clear when one meme is a copy of another meme. And since a clear
understanding of copying processes and copies is vital to Darwinistic algorithms,
memetics ran the risk of coming to an end from its onset.
I will begin this chapter by depicting what I think are the undeniably
strong points of Dawkins‟ angle on evolution. After this I will follow Dawkins‟
transition of the notion of a gene into that of a meme. I applaud Dawkins‟
efforts to conceive memes as closely as possible to genes, but I will also show
how his conception leads to small Xeroxing problems: under Dawkins‟ definition
it is not entirely clear when memes get copied. We might try to circumvent
these problems by giving a definition of meme on a more abstract level of
description. Though most writers on memes have done so, and though this also
alleviates the pains of Dawkins‟ initial definition, these more abstract definitions
inherit the Xeroxing problems of their precursors.

The most underrated aspect of The Selfish Gene47 is that Richard Dawkins
creates living space for all too human traits of character, such as empathy, and
foremost real altruism. By making genes the focal point of Darwinian evolution,
instead of individuals, humans need not be described as necessarily egoistic or

The Selfish Gene was first published in 1976. In the decades thereafter edition upon
edition saw the light, with corrections and addenda. I will use the 30th anniversary
edition because of its new introduction. See in the bibliography Dawkins 2006(1976) for

self-centred. Humans are the vehicles with which selfish48 genes propel
themselves into next generations, but from this it doesn‟t follow that the
vehicles are themselves egoistic. What is more, it could even be the case that
the best strategy for a gene to increase its portion in the gene pool of future
generations might be to create a sincere altruistic vehicle, down to its essential
By replacing “survival of the fittest” by “survival of the fittest gene”
Dawkins clears the way for survival and reproduction vehicles that are built on
the basis of genetic material, but that don‟t have to have the same
characteristics as the materials lying at their bases. That would be too
straightforward a fallacy of composition. The fear that because of Dawkins‟
emphasis on genes man will cease to be the centre of the biological universe is
to some extent legitimate. On the other hand, it also means that humans no
longer need to enter the arena of bloodthirsty, egoistic procreation. Only genes
strive to increase their relative frequency in the gene pool. It could even be the
case that individual vehicles created by genes don‟t procreate, but nevertheless
contribute to the success of their genes. This might be achieved by helping
vehicles containing copies of the same genes as the vehicles themselves, for
example. Dawkins‟ emphasis on gene selection, in contrast with the individual or
group selection, explains the existence of natural human qualities that lots of
people describe as being profoundly „unnatural‟, like homosexuality, deliberate
childlessness, or a passion for Bach.
Adopted children are a good illustration of this idea. A gene that
contributes to a vehicle that cares for its offspring, in the end cares for copies of
itself, because the chance that offspring possesses copies of this gene is big, at
least fifty percent.49 The biological mechanism that puts the vehicle to childcare
will, however, in some cases not be able to discern between own offspring and
that of others. The vehicles of primate genes, for example, have the innate urge
to look after children that reside in their direct surroundings. And once they
have taken up care for a child, they won‟t yield it to another vehicle. Since in
general primates can only take children in their possession that they carried and
gave birth to, the mechanism works just fine, and the gene will put a vehicle to
work on its own behalf. But because the chimpanzee vehicle cannot foolproof
discriminate vehicles with the gene from vehicles without it, an urge for
adoption is a possible consequence. A child that loses its mother is sometimes
adopted by other chimpanzees.50

With terms like „selfish‟, „egoistic‟ and the like in relation to genes and memes I will
follow the way in which Dawkins puts these terms to use. Genes and memes are not
selfish in the same manner as humans are selfish. That is, genes and memes are not
consciously aiming at their own success. Prosperous genes and memes can be described
as being selfish. See also Dawkins 2006(1976) p. 30.
Actually it is much higher, as the gene for childcare has undoubtedly spread over the
animal kingdom.
De Waal 2005, p. 28

In other words, an individual vehicle can have genuine feelings of
affection and care for the offspring of other vehicles. That may sound unnatural
from an evolutionary standpoint, but it isn‟t. As long as we keep in mind that
the traits of genes don‟t have to coincide with the traits of character of the
vehicle, traits that „go against nature‟ are a natural consequence of evolution.
Genes are selfishly poised for promoting their own survival, but this is not
necessarily true of the vehicles they give rise to (this would indeed be a fallacy
of composition). The most dramatic example Dawkins gives in this connection is
that of a calf that no longer tries to stay alive if that would be too costly for its
mother. It would be better for the mother to invest her energy in the siblings of
the calf:

As soon as a runt becomes so small and weak that his expectation

of life is reduced to the point where benefit to him due to parental
investment is less thn half the benefit that the same investment
could potentially confer on the other babies, the runt should die
gracefully and willingly. He can benefit his genes most by doing
so. […] There should be a point of no return in the career of a
runt. Before he reaches this point he should go on struggling. As
soon as he reaches it he should give up and preferably let himself
be eaten by his litter-mates or his parents.

Not all the terms that are applicable to genes are automatically applicable to us.
Our genes might be selfish, to the extremes aiming at survival, but we don‟t
have to behave or feel that way.
Concerning this, in The Extended Phenotype Dawkins writes:

[…] I have previously criticized Barash […] for suggesting that

sterile worker insects care for other workers because they share
genes with them. […] It would be more correct to say that
workers care for their reproductive siblings who carry germ-line
copies of the caring genes. If they care for other workers, it is
because those other workers are likely to work on behalf of the
same reproductives (to whom they also are kin), not because the
workers are kin to each other.52

Dawkins has no use for explanations couched in terms of fitness of individual

workers, individual survival vehicles. Workers still play an important part, to be
sure, but the emphasis in his theory is on the fitness of genes.
Daniel Dennett shows in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that this emphasis
in part explains the power of Dawkins‟ evolutionary approach. In his analyses
Dawkins isn‟t preoccupied with a specific unit of evolution (species, individuals
or organisms). He is just looking for a way to make an evolutionary analysis

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 130.
Dawkins 1982, p. 85.

applicable. That is, he is exploring how the process can be described with an
evolutionary algorithm53, as Dennett calls it. This is possible if:

The outlines of the theory of evolution by natural selection make

clear that evolution occurs whenever the following conditions
(1) variation: there is a continuing abundance of different
(2) heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to
create copies or replicas of themselves
(3) differential “fitness”: the number of copies of an element that
are created in a given time varies, depending on interactions
between the features of that element and features of the
environment in which it persists.
Notice that this definition, though drawn from biology, says
nothing specific about organic molecules, nutrition, or even life. 54

An analysis of a process on the basis of an evolutionary algorithm can take

place if the conditions of variation, replication and differential fitness are
fulfilled. And exactly because of this the individual organism is a bad choice as
the focal point of evolution. For one, individuals don‟t copy themselves! Perhaps
in the case of asexual reproduction or cloning55 some sense can be attached to
the notion of a copy of individuals, but when it comes to sexual reproduction it
is impossible to fulfil the demand of replication. Individual vehicles simply don‟t
copy themselves. My children are no copy of me, they are not even a half-
hearted attempt at such. Only a sample of half of my genes is copied to my
children. I am nothing more than a vehicle of survival and reproduction for this
sample. Therefore I am no elementary particle in an analysis of human
evolution. The genetic material in some nuclei in my testicles is.


As we have seen, a central element of Dawkins‟ evolutionary approach is the
notion of a gene. And because this notion is of importance for understanding the
notion of a meme, I will discuss his explanation in some detail. To Dawkins
genes and memes both belong to the broader class of replicators:

I define a replicator as anything in the universe of which copies

are made. Examples are a DNA molecule, and a sheet of paper
that is Xeroxed.56

Dennett 1995, chapter 2, paragraph 4: Natural Selection as an Algorithmic Process, p.
48 ff.
Dennett 1995, p. 343.
The best example would be a sort of copying machine used in Star Trek. “Copy me up,
Scottie!” See below.
Dawkins 1982, p. 83.

This definition is clear enough. Please note that the definition does not state
that replicators must be self-copying, or that replicators must be biological,
based on hydrocarbons. A replicator is simply something that gets copied. This
is true of genes, and to the same extent of memes.
What must still be analysed, however, are the exact contents of the
notion of a copy. For now we will settle for an intuitive understanding. So, once
more, if a child originates from the genetic materials of two parents, its own
genetic material is for one half a duplicate of that of one of the parents. Maybe
even the features of the child are for one half an exact duplicate of the features
of one of the parents. But the ensuing organism, the whole child, is not a copy
of one of the parents. A Xerox machine produces a photocopy of the original. A
joke teller copies a joke if he tells it on in exactly the same words. No copying
process is flawless, but a mistake or error which occurs during the process of
copying is something else than a built-in adjustment or merging. Below I will
consider the notion of a copy again.
If replicators are to be part of an evolutionary process they have to fulfil
three conditions:
(1) Fecundity: A replicator has to exist long enough to get copied. These copies
are by definition the descendants of the replicator. The copies of the
descendants are also descendants of the original replicator, et cetera. The
generation of a descendant is the number of times a process of copying has had
to occur to get to the descendant. Notice that two replicators can be a copy of
one another, without being descendants, in the same way as two books can be
copies of one another without being descendants.
(2) Fidelity: The copies have to retain the structure of the original.
(3) Longevity: The structure of a replicator has to stay intact for at least a
couple of generations, so that a large number of copies can be made. 57

[n]o copying process is infallible. It is no part of the definition of a

replicator that its copies must all be perfect. It is fundamental to
the idea of a replicator that when a mistake or „mutation‟ does
occur it is passed on to future copies: the mutation brings into
existence a new kind of replicator which „breeds true‟ until there is
a further mutation.58

The fallibility of the copying process produces variations. A process of evolution

can occur when there is a selection in these variations which is decisive for the
number of copies that are to be made of each variety. This is, of course,
Darwin‟s central message of the origin of species.
To Dawkins a gene denotes the replicator within the biological evolution.
While a replicator, at least in principle, could also be a sheet of paper that was

“I have […] summed up the qualities of a successful replicator in a slogan reminiscent
of the French Revolution: Longevity, Fecundity, Fidelity.” Dawkins 1982, p. 84.
Dawkins 1982, p. 85.

xeroxed, a gene is the focal point of Dawkins‟ biological analysis. The naive
notion of a gene is a piece of DNA, the location where a protein is produced. The
technical term for such a piece of DNA is cistron:

If we wish, we can define a single gene as a sequence of

nucleotide letters lying between a START and an END symbol, and
coding for one protein chain. The word cistron has been used for a
unit defined in this way, and some people use the word gene
interchangeably with cistron.59

Dawkins argues that cistrons are a rather arbitrary choice for the unit of
evolutionary selection, as if cistrons are a kind of atoms that jump from one
generation to the next. But even a cistron can be cut in half as a result of a
cross-over during the meiosis. The reason why cistrons are in general not a bad
choice is that the longevity of cistrons is on average good enough to ensure
natural selection between varieties. However, if longevity is the main reason to
consider cistrons as a basis, then any random piece of DNA that stays together
long enough for natural selection to do its job, can be considered a gene. That
tallies with the definition of a replicator and with the fact that the features of
organisms which Mother Nature selects are most commonly the effect of the
interaction of multiple proteins and therefore multiple cistrons.

In the title of this book [The Selfish Gene] the word gene means
not a single cistron but something more subtle. My definition will
not be to everyone‟s taste, but there is no universally agreed
definition of a gene. Even if there were, there is nothing sacred
about definitions. We can define a word how we like for our own
purposes, provided we do so clearly and unambiguously. […] A
gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that
potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of
natural selection. [In other words,] a gene is a replicator with high
copying-fidelity. Copying-fidelity is another way of saying
longevity-in-the-form-of-copies and I shall abbreviate this simply
to longevity.60

Gene is not defined in terms of a cistron, but in terms of a unit of natural

selection. Suppose humans could clone themselves in some kind of Star Trek
scenario with a converted teleporter. And then suppose that the clones enter a
battle in which only a small number of victors gets to procreate (by means of
the duplicating teleporter). In short, suppose the conditions for an evolutionary
process are met. In that case genes can be equated with individuals. However,
since in our earthly evolution meiosis is the copying process underlying
evolution, genes have to be defined in units with regard to meiosis.
Another aspect that we will encounter with memes later on is that
exactly what we depict as a gene is also dependent on selection. If Mother

Dawkins 2006 (1976), p. 28.
Dawkins 2006 (1976), pp. 28-29.

Nature selects predators by the sharpness of their cutting-teeth, then it makes
sense to speak of a gene for sharp cutting-teeth, even though sharp cutting-
teeth are most probably the consequence of more than one cistron 61. What is
needed to speak of a gene for X (in which X is some sort of characteristic) is
that the characteristic X might also be absent. A gene for sharp cutting-teeth
makes sense if there are organisms with less sharp cutting-teeth. Therefore
Dawkins sees no difficulty in a gene for reading:

Reading is a learned skill of prodigious complexity, but this

provides no reason in itself for scepticism about the possible
existence of a gene for reading. All we would need in order to
establish the existence of a gene for reading is to discover a gene
for not reading, say a gene which induced a brain lesion causing
specific dyslexia.
[I]t follows from the ordinary conventions of genetic terminology
that the wild-type gene at the same locus, the gene that the rest
of the population has in double dose, would properly be called a
gene „for reading‟.62

What is remarkable about this definition of a gene is that the genetic materials
no longer matter. If the mechanism underlying the copying and installing of
characteristic X remains intact long enough for a selection to take place, it
makes sense to speak of a replicator, a gene for X. So if the mechanisms that
give rise to X are dispersed in several chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA and
other structures of the cell talking of a gene for X could still make sense. Even if
a feature of the environment is a necessary condition for X to arise, a gene for X
could make perfect sense.63

In a prehistoric environment [a gene „for‟ dyslexia] might have

had no detectable effect, or it might have had some different
effect and have been known to cave-dwelling geneticists as, say,
a gene for inability to read animal footprints. In our educated
environment it would properly be called a gene „for‟ dyslexia,
since dyslexia would be its most salient consequence. 64

As long as trait X is copied to next generations with fidelity and longevity there
is a gene for X. Due to this the notion a gene for X becomes a theoretical term.
But this shouldn‟t surprise us. Darwin drew up his theory of natural selection on

Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 39.
Dawkins 1972, p. 23. Please note that the gene must be copied with fidelity and
fecundity to the next generations. For that reason a gene for reading is a viable option,
whereas a gene for writing a master thesis isn‟t.
Cf. 1995, p. 116: “The presence or absence of an instruction in a recipe can make a
typical and important difference, and whatever difference it makes may be correctly
described as what the instruction –the gene- is „for‟.” Thereupon Dennett discusses
Dawkins‟ example of dyslexia.
Dawkins 1972, p. 23.

the basis of the variation in features of organisms. He knew nothing of the
underlying biochemistry.65 Likewise, to Dawkins evolution is a universal
principle, independent of the particular physical realization on planet Earth:

What after all, is so special about genes? The answer is that they
are replicators. […] Is there anything that must be true of all life,
wherever it is found, and whatever the basis of its chemistry? […]
Obviously I do not know but, if I had to bet, I would put my
money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life
evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The
gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that
prevails on our own planet. There may be others.66

And maybe these others are memes...


Nut cracking behaviour, table manners, the use of mobile phones and light bulb
jokes are transferred from one person to the next in a not quite genetic way.
Although we can or cannot possess a gene for reading, the fine details of the art
of reading are transferred to us by our cultural environment. This is also true of
the use of forks or phones and the cracking of nuts. Because they are not reliant
on the slow and sluggish process of biological reproduction, table manners and
mobile phones spread with a rate that far outspeeds that of genes. And by the
same token jokes, whether translated or not, might travel the earth within
In the chapter Memes the New Replicators, which was initially the last
chapter of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins writes:

Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one

word: „culture‟. […] Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic
transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can give
rise to a form of evolution.67

Table manners, mobile phones and jokes are part of our culture and spread via
cultural transmission. During that process mutations arise. The mobile phones
of today are the so-called third generation. Jokes change gradually because
they are translated, interpreted and told on incompletely. Norbert Elias
describes the evolution of table manners in a way that strongly reminds us of
the way predators and preys co-evolve. If predators gain speed, preys will
automatically gain speed as well. This process will continue until one of both will

Dennett writes that Darwin discovered an algorithm, that is, a method of the
description that is not dependent upon the specifics of the physical realization: “We can
now reformulate [Darwin‟s] fundamental idea as follows: Life on Earth has been
generated over billions of years in a single branching tree – the Tree of Life – by one
algorithmic process or another.” Dennett 1995, p. 51.
Dawkins 2006(1976), pp. 191-192.
Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 189.

outrun the other, which in turn will perish, or until an equilibrium is reached
with both species at their maximum speed. The bones of an antelope cannot
become any lighter, for then they would break when muscles are tensioned. In
exactly the same way the table manners of our upper-class have reached a level
of sophistication so that a further refinement would even baffle the members of
the upper-class themselves.
Dawkins seeks a description of culture that is analogous to genetic
evolution. The nuclei of organisms contain the biological materials, the DNA, in
the genes of an organism. What the organism, the survival vehicle, will
eventually look like depends on a combination of DNA and environment. The
totality of genes insofar they are part of the physically inheritable materials
(mostly DNA), are called the genotype of an organism. The final traits of a
survival and reproduction vehicle that comes into being by the interaction
between DNA and environment, is called the phenotype. As has been outlined
above, evolution is all about genes, according to Dawkins. Successful genes are
the ones that contribute to a phenotype procreating more frequently than its
rivals. Dawkins wants to use the same model for the evolution of the elements
of culture. As the counterpart of a gene he chooses the meme:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes

fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes
propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to
body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the
meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in
the broad sense, can be called imitation.68

A couple of sentences later, Dawkins approvingly quotes the comments given by

Nicolas Humphrey on a draft version of the chapter:

…memes should be regarded as living structures, not just

metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in
my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle
for the meme‟s propagation in just the way that a virus may
parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn‟t just
a way of talking – the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is
actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure
in the nervous systems of individual men the world over. 69

In other words, memes in the brain are like genes in the nuclei or the human
body. Memes propagate to other brains via the behaviour they induce upon the
vehicle they happen to reside in. The relation between memes and behaviour is
analogous to the relation between genotype and phenotype. Our manners at the
dinner table are a consequence of memes in our brains. And as our friends,
children and members of the lower classes peep at our behaviour these memes

Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 192.
Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 192.

are copied to their brains. Likewise a light bulb joke resides in our brain, and
every time we tell the joke, or mail it, within the brains of the listeners or
readers a copy of this meme pops up.
In The Extended Phenotype Dawkins further refines the definition of a

A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a

brain […]. It has a definite structure, realized in whatever physical
medium the brain uses for storing information. If the brain stores
information as a pattern of synaptic connections, a meme should
in principle be visible under a microscope as a definite pattern of
synaptic structure. If the brain stores information in „distributed‟
form […], the meme would not be localizable on a microscope
slide, but still I would want to regard it as physically residing in
the brain. This is to distinguish it from its phenotypic effects,
which are its consequences in the outside world…70

This image is easiest to understand if we look at the example of nut cracking

chimpanzees. In the brain of the chimpanzees nut cracking memes are stored.
These memes typically cause the nut cracking behaviour of West African
chimpanzees. Other chimpanzees take on this behaviour as they watch the
cracking of nuts. As has been described in chapter one, it takes a while for the
nut cracking behaviour to completely sink in, but once they master the art, the
brains of the copycat contain a duplicate of the original nut cracking memes.
Exactly the same goes for table manner memes, mobile phone using memes
and light bulb joke telling memes.
If this description is justifiable, it could be of great importance to cultural
studies. After all, it would mean that algorithms that are used in the science of
biology could be applied to cultural phenomena. Memes could be just like
genetic replicators, spreading from brain to brain. And with the dispersal of
memes the evolution of culturally determined behaviour comes. That is, if this
definition is justifiable.


The most important mechanism by which memes spread is imitation, as
Dawkins states, “in the broad sense”.71 The example of the cracking of nuts of
the oil palm shows chimpanzees to be fairly good imitators. And there are lots of
other examples of imitation by chimpanzees. But all these examples turn pale in
the face of the extent, speed and perfection with which humans imitate each
other. Humans are natural born imitators. We are better at aping than any other
ape. The copying and imitation of others is part of our deepest nature. What is
more, during our childhood we have all been warned not to stretch our copying
behaviour too far. There must have been a moment when your parents told

Dawkins 1982, p. 109.
Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 194.

you: “Yes, and what if Mary jumps into a canal? Will you blindly follow her then
as well?!” Evidently we copy others without thinking about it.72 That might be
wholesome for our memes, although every now and then not so much for us.
If this doesn‟t convince you, look again at the example just given. And
ask yourself why all parents in The Netherlands say to their children at least
once during their lifetime: “Yes, and what if Mary jumps into a canal? Will you
blindly follow her then as well?!” Why do parents say this? Because it is such a
sensible, wise, intelligent remark? Because they are afraid of having to drag for
their prodigy on the bottom of a canal? A clever adolescent would remark, “Dear
parents, all my life I am busy copying you, my brothers and sisters, my friends
and teachers, and who knows who. I am a walking and talking Xerox. And
suddenly you start complaining about the fact that I copy Mary. What complete
nonsense. What is more, there are circumstances in which jumping into the
canal after Mary might save my life.” This adolescent would be absolutely right.
The cry “Yes, and what if Mary jumps into a canal? Will you blindly follow her
then as well?!” is just a very successful meme that propagates from one
generation to the next and from one parent to the other.
In the essay Viruses of the Mind73, already mentioned in the
Introduction, Dawkins likens the propagation of memes to the way in which
biological and computer viruses swarm about. In the copying process of memes
rational considerations don‟t have to play a part. The only thing that matters is
that behaviour, and consequently the meme for that behaviour, spread among

[T]he “craze” is a striking example of behavior that owes more to

epidemiology than to rational choice. Yo-yos, hula hoops and pogo
sticks, with their associated behavioral fixed actions, sweep
through schools, and more sporadically leap from school to
school, in patterns that differ from a measles epidemic in no
serious particular. Ten years ago, you could have traveled
thousands of miles through the United States and never seen a
baseball cap turned back to front. Today, the reverse baseball cap
is ubiquitous. I do not know what the pattern of geographical
spread of the reverse baseball cap precisely was, but
epidemiology is certainly among the professions primarily
qualified to study it.74

The spreading of memes for a craze is comparable to the way memes for jokes
disperse. Let us take a closer look at the process of spreading. Joke memes
spread because people tell each other jokes. Because the telling of jokes is
rewarded with laughter and approval, the possession of joke memes amplifies

This is also the upshot of the recently discovered mirror neurons. Copying behaviour is
standard behaviour. In some circumstances we should even consciously suppress our
copying behaviour.
Dawkins 1991.
Dawkins 1991.

our urge to pass the joke on. And if we do so, joke memes are copied to the
brains of the audience. But exactly what is copied? Take the light bulb joke on
psychiatrists as an example. “One, but the light bulb would have to WANT to
change!” Suppose I tell this joke to a colleague who often has to deal with
psychiatrists, and she bursts out laughing. One and a half hours later, while I
am nipping my hot tea, another colleague wants to tell me a really good joke on
psychiatrists. But much to his regret he cannot remember the point of the joke.
“Doesn‟t matter,” I answer, “I already knew this one.” What exactly has been
copied during the one and a half hours in which the joke travelled from my
brains to the brains of my colleague?
With genetic reproduction matters look simpler, because our DNA can be
spelled out in a four-letter alphabet, A, C, T and G. As I pointed out before, my
children received an exact copy of half of my DNA. A number of times there will
be flaws in the copying process, or mutations, but the chance of this happening
is very, very small compared to the overall fidelity of the process with which
genetic material is prepared during meiosis.
But passing on jokes is quite a different matter. Are neurological patterns
copied with high fidelity from one brain to another? In this process there is
nothing that comes even close to the four-letter copying process of DNA. At the
microscopic level the dissimilarities between brains of different humans are
enormous. We possess a different number of neurons, the way in which neurons
are mutually connected is incomparable, and even the strength of the
connections varies a great deal. So a one-to-one comparison of brains is out of
the question. You have got a neural pattern, whatever that is, in your brain as a
consequence of reading the light bulb joke on psychiatrists. But it is in all
probability not an exact copy of the neural pattern in my brain. If a meme,
described at a micro level, is a neural pattern, then you will have endlessly
more exact copies of my genes in your body than exact copies of my memes in
your brain (even after reading these pages).
In order to use memes as the pivotal point of an evolutionary description
of culture it is of the utmost importance that we are able to tell when some
meme is a copy or a descendant of another meme. We must also be able to tell
whether a meme is the same as or differs from another meme. Such are the
consequences of Dennett‟s condition of replication, which is further
strengthened by Dawkins‟ demand for the fidelity of successful replicators. If the
neural patterns in my brain aren‟t copies of the patterns in your brain, a
description in terms of an evolutionary process is out of the question. And an
evolutionary description was exactly what Dawkins (and Dennett, and many
others) wanted in the first place.
The fact that the neural patterns supporting light bulb jokes in your brain
are a consequence of the neural patterns on light bulb jokes in my brain isn‟t
enough. Lava is a consequence of volcanic eruptions; lava spreads and has
many consequences. That process is interesting and in some circumstances it is
a matter of life and death. However, such a volcanic analysis will not be

conducted in terms of an evolutionary process. Neither can memetic processes
be described in such terms if memes are defined as neural patterns.
Is it necessary to have a neuron-for-neuron similarity in order to speak
of the copy of a meme? Can‟t we define memes in some other way? Can‟t we
take a different look at memes? Just as with the definition of a gene, the
definition of a meme is dependent upon the process of copying. And what is
copied when we pass a joke on isn‟t the neural pattern of the one who told the
joke. Why don‟t we step back and look at the brain on some higher level? This is
approximately the proposal by Douglas Hofstadter in his I Am a Strange Loop:

Saying that studying the brain is limited to the study of physical

entities […] would be like saying that literary criticism must focus
on paper and bookbinding, ink and its chemistry, page sizes and
margin widths, typefaces and paragraphs lengths, and so forth.
But what about the high abstractions that are the heart of
literature – plot and character, style and point of view, irony and
humor, allusion and metaphor, empathy and distance, and so on?
My point is simple: abstractions are central, whether in the study
of literature or in the study of the brain.75

To elucidate Hofstadter‟s proposal I will tell you about recent events in my own
neighbourhood. When the houses were built the contractor decorated every
garden with ten odd buxus shrubs (buxus sempervirens). He evidently wanted
to enrich the sight of the neighbourhood. These shrubs had grown to a height of
about two meters, when many residents decided to take away one or two
shrubs a year. This process continued until two years ago, when a gardener
trimmed and sheared the buxus shrubs of my opposite neighbours into
geometrical shapes, rectangles and pyramids. The effect was stunning. Precisely
the strictly geometrical shapes accentuated the wild, luxurious parts of the
garden. My neighbours loved it, and so did the rest of the residents. Of course
nobody dared to admit that they just copied them, but nowadays every garden
contains sheared buxus shrubs. Let us assume that the shearing and copying
was done in exactly the same way. The copies have exactly the same
dimensions as the original ones. Then the question is: are the pyramids in other
gardens copies of the pyramids opposite my house?
If we were to answer this question by sticking our heads deeply into the
shrubs and by comparing them leaf-by-leaf and branch-by-branch, we would
only find differences. The branching of buxus shrubs is random, and because
the shrubs were differently sheared in the past, there will be hardly any
similarities. It could even be the case that on closer examination a buxus shrub
of one of my neighbours appears to consist of two intertwined trees. Then there
is also no point in going down a further level to compare the pyramid buxus
cell-by-cell or atom-by-atom. The differences will increase exponentially. And on

Hofstadter 2007, p. 26.

a quantum mechanical level we will no longer be able to see the wood for the
To compare the shrubs we have to take one step back and concentrate
on their shapes and dimensions. If the overall shapes and dimensions of the
shrubs match, one is a copy of the other one, however different the underlying
structures may actually be. (Compare this to the following dialogue: “You did
forge this Picasso!” “Well, Your Honour, I don‟t think so. If you compare these
paintings on a quantum mechanical level, you will see that the differences are
According to Hofstadter this line of thought should also be applied to the
human mind or brain. To understand the processes of thought we should
abstain from descending to such a level that we hit quanta and quarks. This is
the mistake made by reductionists. To understand thought we will have to zoom
out until symbols and concepts start to appear. Like the branching of a buxus
shrub is a necessary precondition for the eventual shearing of a pyramid, the
neurons, synapses, membranes, protons and quarks are of the utmost
importance in building a brain. But to compare buxus shrubs or brains of
different people we have to take an appropriate distance. Garden architects and
cognitive scientists like Hofstadter have no use for quantum mechanical
descriptions in these cases, and neither have I or has any non-reductionist.
An interesting analysis of the human mind and a comparison between
people must be written in a vocabulary some levels above the level of
neurological structures. Hofstadter introduces the term symbol, in his opinion
corresponding with the term concept:

The idea I want to convey by the phrase “a symbol in the brain” is

that some specific structure inside your cranium […] gets
activated whenever you think of, say, the Eiffel Tower. That brain
structure, whatever it might be, is what I would call your “Eiffel
Tower symbol”.
You also have […] a “penguin” symbol, […] being some kind of
structure inside your brain that gets triggered when you perceive
one or more penguins, or even when you are just thinking about
penguins without perceiving any. […] In this book, then, symbols
in a brain are the neurological entities that correspond to
concepts, just as genes are the chemical entities that correspond
to hereditary traits.76

Hofstadter uses the concept of a “counter in a supermarket” as an example.

Whatever the neurological details of this concept may be, for all of us “counter
in a supermarket” is connected to the concepts

Hofstadter 2007, p. 76.

“grocery cart”, “line”, “customers”, “to wait”, “candy rack”, “candy
bar”, “tabloid newspaper”, “movie starts”, “trashy headlines”,
“sordid scandals”, “weekly TV schedule [...].”77

The list of connected concepts goes on for ten lines.

Most probably this is the view many scholars have on memes. With it we
leave Dawkins‟ initial definition behind us in terms of patterns in the synaptic
structure, and move up a few levels until symbols and concepts start to appear.
Memes become conglomerates of concepts and symbols that cause behaviour,
and spread to other brains by imitative behaviour. In order to be able to speak
of a copy the exact neurological realization no longer matters. It suffices that
the copying process transfers a conceptual structure from one brain to another.
The neurological details of the concepts “psychiatrist”, “light bulb” and
“WANT” in your brain won‟t play any part in an evolutionary analysis of the
spread of memes. As soon as you pass on the light bulb joke at a birthday
party, the memes are transferred from your brain to the brains of the listeners.
I agree with Hofstadter that we have to step back from the neurological details
in order to view memes. The point of difference between us, however, is that
while Hofstadter still peeps into heads and supposedly encounters concepts and
symbols, I would take one step further back. To me, memes appear on the
outside of our bodies. Memes are to brains, as pyramids are to buxus shrubs.
The inside may vary, though the memes remain the same. This will suffice for

Hofstadter 2007, p. 84.




We have seen that some cultural phenomena, such as nut cracking among
chimpanzees, table manners, mobile phones and jokes, can be described in
terms of memes, and we have also seen that there are many similarities
between memes and genes. This suggests that techniques, algorithms and
types of analyses which are commonly used in genetical evolution can also be
applied to the description of cultural phenomena. However, evolutionary
algorithms and analytical strategies can only be applied if a definite content can
be given to the notion of a copy of a replicator, be it a gene or a meme. With
genes these matters seem pretty clear, owing to the neat ATCG-vocabulary.
With memes matters are more complicated. Dawkins‟ initial strict definition, in
terms of neural patterns, makes it virtually impossible to talk of actual, one-on-
one copies of memes. At the microscopic level of neurons people happen to be
quite different. Any hope of finding a sensible criterion for a copy at this level is
ruled out. Therefore it is inevitable that we compare memes in the brains of
humans in the same way as we compare the shapes of, say, buxus shrubs. We
should not compare brains neuron-by-neuron, but, as the suggestion inspired
by Douglas Hofstadter is, concept-by-concept, or symbol-by-symbol. I will call
this proposal memes as concepts. For now I will skip the question as to what
concepts exactly are. All that matters is that somewhere in between neurons
and outward behaviour a straightforward level of description of memes exists.
At this level memes appear as concepts.
Hofstadter is partly right. To describe memes we should zoom out. But as
indicated, we should zoom out more than Hofstadter allows for. My aim is to
make the idea plausible that memes had best be defined in terms of behaviour
(or artefacts). In this chapter I will demonstrate that by seeing memes as
concepts a sensible notion of a meme is not and cannot be produced. Mark, I
will not argue that in the process of copying memes, no part is played by neural
structures, symbols, or concepts. What is of importance is that in the copying of
behaviour or artefacts it isn‟t necessarily the case that concepts are being
copied. My point of departure is that we possess an intuitively satisfactory idea
of when some kind of behaviour is the copy of some other kind of behaviour, or
when some artefact is the copy of some other artefact. Surely, it is possible to
undermine even this basic notion of a copy. However, if copying behaviour or
artefacts is already incomprehensible, on what grounds could we ever have

assumed a correspondence of concepts? So, why is it meaningless to define
memes in terms of concepts, with an intuitively clear notion of a copy of
behaviour or artefacts?
To begin with, I will make obvious that in order to be able to describe a
process of evolution, the physical realization of the elements of the process does
not have to be clear-cut (although the elements must have a physical basis, of
course). This was true to Darwin, who described evolution without worrying
about genetics. And it is also true of memes. This isn‟t an epistemological point,
but an ontological one. It is possible to give a description of an evolutionary
process the elements of which are not physically realized in the same way. As it
comes to memes this means that a supposed instance of a copy of some
behaviour does not have to be adjoined by a description of the way the
behaviour is bodily or neurologically realized.
This line of thought will gain some weight within the well-known
philosophical doctrine of functionalism and the accompanying idea of the
multiple realizability of mind. If a meme is physically differently realized in
different carriers of the meme, on what ground can we evoke an underlying
similarity in non-ephemeral concepts? Certainly we can just assume that
carriers of the same meme possess the same concepts, but then concepts cease
to be an explanation of memes, like DNA is an explanation for genes.
So, what if someone passes on a joke in exactly the same way in which
she heard it? What if she uses the same words with the same intonation and the
same body language, and she gives precisely the same answers to the endless
succession of follow-up questions the listeners pose to her? Surely in that case
the underlying concepts must be the same?! Willard Quine‟s answer to this
question was a definite “No!” His justification for this answer consisted in his
Indeterminacy of Translation. I shall recount his arguments and show how they
apply to memes.
Does this mean that memes cannot exist, or that a meme is a senseless
notion? No. It just shows that neither neurological tissue nor concepts can play
a meaningful part in an evolutionary process of memes. No more, no less. But
let us begin with the evolution as seen through the eyes of Darwin.


Right from Dawkins‟ very first definition it was clear that memes “propagate
themselves ... via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called
imitation.”78 But exactly what is copied when one primate copies another one?
“Behaviour is,” as I would answer, “and certainly not neurological structures or
concepts.” What is more, there are situations in which behaviour is clearly
copied without the accompanying concepts, or even with opposite concepts. A
fine example of this is the so-called Tegenpartij (Opposing Party) of the Dutch
satirical comedians Kees van Kooten and Wim de Bie. In their roles as Jacobse
and Van Es these comedians established the Tegenpartij. This caricature of

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192.

extreme right wing parties was a definite hit on Dutch television. Jacobse and
Van Es even developed a real election program, Rug op ’81 (Screw U ‟81). It
was obvious how the Tegenpartij was to be interpreted. Van Kooten and De Bie
belonged to the VPRO broadcasting company, which is unquestionably left-wing.
So, the Tegenpartij was satire, meant to exhibit the absurdity of right-wing
extremists. Still, the interpretation at that time was not as straightforward as it
seems right now. Van Kooten and De Bie stopped their sketches on the
Tegenpartij when it turned out that many viewers failed to grasp the false
bottom. Hans Janmaat, a true right-wing politician, copied slogans of the
Tegenpartij into his own, very real, election program. And he complimented Van
Kooten and De Bie on the front page of his party tabloid. The behaviour of Van
Kooten and De Bie was copied, but the concepts were turned upside down.
My main objection to internalist definitions of memes, i.e. definitions in
terms of brain or mind, is that the notion copy of a meme is stripped from every
clear, empirical meaning. Copying DNA is a physical process, just like the
Xeroxing of a letter. Within these processes a clear causal chain leads from
original to copy in which morphology is preserved as much as possible. But it is
not clear how a neural pattern can be copied to another brain, or how a concept
of one mind can be copied to another mind.
The easy answer to this objection is that we shouldn‟t worry about these
particulars. It just happens. The moment we imitate others, we copy their
memes. We have no knowledge of the exact workings of this process, just as
Darwin lacked an adequate understanding of the process via which traits pass
on from parents to their offspring.
Blackmore wholeheartedly admits:

We do not know the mechanism for copying and storing memes

No we do not.79

And she continues to sigh that Darwin likewise didn‟t know anything of the way
in which the inheritance of traits is physically realized, but that despite this fact,
our knowledge of evolution has grown immensely for more than a century.

In the first century of Darwinism an enormous amount was

achieved in the understanding of evolution without anyone having
any idea about chemical replication, the control of protein
synthesis or what on earth DNA was doing.80

This, for sure, cannot be denied. However, what goes for Darwinian evolution,
doesn‟t automatically go for memetical evolution. It still remains questionable
whether we will ever unearth a meme copying mechanism comparable to
meiosis. And if we want to compare the study of memes to the work of Darwin,
why don‟t we stress the fact that Darwin formulated his theory in terms of

Blackmore 1999, p. 56.
Blackmore 1999, p. 56.

traits, and draw the conclusion that a theory of memes might get well under
way without references to underlying mechanisms?
Suppose the situation would have been different. Suppose the physical
traits of an organism are not anchored within DNA or whatever straightforward
describable structure. Suppose an image of our traits were stored away in every
cell in a so-called monad81. A monad literally contains an image of the outward
appearance of an adult organism, comparable to the image of the finches on the
Galapagos Isles in Darwin‟s eyes. In the case of sexual reproduction two
monads are merged into an image that looks like both. On the basis of this
newly merged monad an organism is put together with whatever materials are
at hand. Monadic children on the outside would then resemble their parents just
as we do, but on the inside they might be totally different.
Could Darwin have developed his theory of natural selection if he had
studied monadic organisms instead of DNA-based finches? The answer would be
“Yes” if the rate of reproduction of the monadic creatures were dependent on its
traits. How traits are brought into the next generation is of no concern to the
general theory of evolution. Certainly, in some cases the details do matter, but
Darwin could do and did without these details, since his theory of evolution
could be formulated without them.
However far-fetched monads may sound, the situation with memes is
comparable. As is already clear in the definition of meme in the Oxford English
Dictionary, and as is acknowledged by almost all meme scholars, imitation is the
foremost copying mechanism in the case of memes. Dawkins describes a meme
as “a unit of imitation”82 and Dennett quotes this with approval. Blackmore
similarly writes:

When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This

„something‟ can then be passed on again, and again, so to take on
a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a
behaviour, a piece of information… but if we are going to study it
we shall need to give it a name.
Fortunately, there is a name. It is the „meme‟. 83
Everything you have learned by imitation from someone else is a

But whereas the copying process of cells is directed at the DNA, the copying
process of imitation is not directed at the underlying mechanisms. Imitation is
directed at copying behaviour or outward appearances. How this copy is realized
doesn‟t matter in case of an evolutionary description, as long as there is a good

Any relation between these monads and the monads as described by Leibniz is purely
Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192.
Blackmore 1999, p. 4.
Blackmore 1999, p. 6.

enough similarity in outward appearance, just as there is in the case of monads
or Darwin‟s finches. 85
As long as imitation is considered to be the first and foremost mechanism
of the reproduction and multiplication of memes, then two questions suggest
themselves concerning an internalist definition of meme. First, when memes are
described in terms of neurons the question is whether imitation of behaviour
would bring about a neuronal structure which is so exact that it could in
principle be possible to delineate a part of a person‟s brain as a copy of a part of
the brain of another person. Secondly, when memes are defined in terms of
concepts, ideas or meanings it is the question whether copying behaviour leads
to copies of the concepts, symbols, ideas or meanings accompanying this
In the previous chapter I simply swept aside the suggestion that
imitation leads to exact copies of neuronal structures. What underlies this
sweeping gesture is the thesis that the same behaviour can be erected on
different neurological structures. In the process of programming computers a
comparable disregard for microstructures holds. A programme might repeatedly
make use of the function f(y)=√x. Now there are different numerical algorithms
for solving this function, and consequently there are different ways of
programming it. Exactly according to which algorithm f(y)=√x is programmed
doesn‟t matter. As long as the algorithm behaves like the square root function,
programmers will be indifferent as to whether it is solved via algorithm A or via
algorithm B. In the case of copied behaviour the indifference is the same. As
long as the imitation looks enough like the original behaviour, the precise details
of the neurological realization don‟t matter.
Maybe because of this there is not one meme scholar who defends the
idea that imitation of behaviour leads to exact copies of neural structures.
Already in 1960 Quine wrote that “[i]n speculative neurology there is the
circumstance that different neural hookups can account for identical verbal
behavior.”86 Up till now no one has recounted this. And in the meantime what
Quine calls “speculative neurology” is supported by the theory and practice of
neural networks. It is possible to show that any function can be realized in an
unlimited number of different ways in a network with three layers. 87 One-to-one
copies of neural structures can therefore play no part in a theory of memes.
Dawkins‟ definition in The Extended Phenotype is indefensible. As could be
expected, he has never repeated this definition.
Will the same be true of concepts, symbols, ideas and meanings?

This situation is common to every copying process. Beyond a certain level we just stop
asking the question of why a copy resembles the original. Should DNA molecules be
equal to the original quantum by quantum, or string by string? Does it matter?
Quine 1960, p. 79.
In the technique of measuring and control (and in logic) something similar goes on. An
exclusive-or port can be built using a combination of not- and and-ports, or a
combination of not- and or-ports. The choice is a matter of economics, or practical
considerations, not one of logic.

All of the above also follows from the philosophical doctrine of functionalism and
the associated notion of multiple realizability. I will go into these doctrines in
considerable detail in the next chapter, but for now I will use them as a means
to get you in the right mind. So, in some sense this is just a digression, a way
to make out once more that its physical realization can never be a part of the
definition of a meme.
Multiple realizability means that mental states (like pain, pleasure,
excitement, love, as well as concepts) can be realized, or built, in different
materials in different ways without the loss of features. So, apart from neuronal
tissue underlying mental states that we find in the animals dwelling on the
surface of our planet, other tissues in creatures on other planets and even non-
organic tissue might, give rise to mental states, when organized properly.
Daniel Dennett writes:

One of the fundamental assumptions shared by many modern

theories of mind is known as functionalism. […] What makes
something a mind (or a belief, or a pain, or a fear) is not what it
is made of, but what it can do.88

As Dennett suggests at several places, functionalism and multiple realizability

are generally accepted in modern theories of the mind. They are even important
principles in all of the sciences. However, if this were true, it would make
neuronal definitions of memes even more improbable. If even the materials
which constitute mental states may vary without loss of features, then materials
can never be definitive of memes, exactly because anything but the material
realization is copied. This adds another reason for discarding neuronal
The question remains whether the imitation of behaviour may lead to the
copying of concepts, ideas or meanings. I will call this concept-imitation. Can
concept-imitation be given a firm place in natural history? The answer I will
defend in this chapter is “No!”. At least, that is the shortest possible summary.
In fact my answer has a slightly more complex structure. The long version is:
“Concept-imitation could in principle be defended. But if a theory of memes is
erected on the basis of concept-imitation, any description of the evolution of
culture in terms of memes will not be a natural science, but literary criticism. In
other words, concept-imitation strips memes of their causal, biological powers.”
A parrot is arguably the most intuitive counterexample of concept-
imitation. A parrot parroting its master produces the same sounds, but I
wouldn‟t like to defend the idea that the bird possesses the same concepts or
symbols as his master. However, the parrot gives ample possibility for a nice
thought-experiment. Suppose a capo speaks the following words over the phone
while his parrot listens in: “Vito committed the murder.” When later that day the

Dennett 1996, p. 68.

detective enters, the brightly coloured betrayer screams, “Vito committed the
murder!” Thereupon the detective turns his head to the capo and says, “Ah, I
just heard that Vito committed the murder!” Are any memes copied from the
capo to the detective?
If we assent to this question, then the new question is whether or not
the memes went through the head of the parrot. If not, the memes have
apparently skipped a brain, the brain of the parrot. But then, where were they
in the meantime? Suppose the detective entered the room three days later.
Have the memes been hiding, just to perform a wondrous resurrection after
three days? I have no difficulties with parrots imitating behaviour. The only
thing I find worrying is that parrots copy something extra, which consists of
concepts, thoughts and ideas.
A first objection might be that the parrot just passes on the literal
sentence, and not the underlying concepts or ideas, and that the detective
subsequently and independently reconstructs the concepts and ideas on the
basis of this literal sentence. What the detective has at his disposal is some sort
of manual of translation, with the help of which he unearths the initial meanings
of the sentence.
According to another objection the parrot doesn‟t copy concepts, ideas,
and meanings because the bird only screeches one and the same sentence over
and over again under all circumstances. It would be a different matter when the
parrot would mimic all possible linguistic behavioural dispositions of his keeper.
If the parrot could accomplish that, surely it would have copied the concepts
and symbols of the unlucky capo. Quine‟s thesis of the indeterminacy of
translation argues against these last two objections.
Let us once more return to the practice of passing on light bulb jokes
(see chapter 1). Jokes can be passed on in a parrotlike manner. So, let us
suppose that you and I grew up in the same linguistic environment, under the
same linguistic circumstances. We speak the same dialect and matured in the
same social class. We could even suppose that our dispositions for verbal
behaviour coincide. One fine day in your company I utter:

“How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change.”

At the next birthday party you literally repeat these sentences, with exactly the
same intonation. Have my memes been copied to your mind, to your brain, to
your body? In other words, does sameness of behaviour guarantee sameness of
meaning, sameness of concepts or symbols? (Below, after I have elucidated
Quine‟s position on these matters, I will unravel the differences between
concepts, meanings and symbols.)


Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson seriously doubt that beliefs can be replicators.
They don‟t do so on formal Quinean grounds, but on the basis of the intuition

that the same behaviour in different people may be caused by different

We doubt that beliefs [...] are replicators, at least in the same

sense that genes are. [...] [I]deas are not transmitted intact from
one brain to another. Instead, the cultural variant in one brain
generates some behaviour, somebody else observes this
behaviour, and then (somehow) creates a cultural variant that
generates more or less similar behaviour. The problem is that the
cultural variant in the second brain is quite likely to be different
from that in the first. For any phenotypic performance there is a
potentially infinite number of rules that could generate that

These thoughts are well in line with the thoughts unfolded in this chapter.
However, Boyd and Richarson still believe something can be saved by the use of

Language no doubt helps get many ideas from one person to

another accurately, but words are subject to multiple
interpretations. As teachers, we struggle mightily to be correctly
understood by our students, but in many cases we fail. To the
extent that these differences shape future cultural change, the
replicator model captures only part of cultural evolution.90

So, while Boyd and Peterson have doubts about beliefs as replicators, they still
think language might save some of the day. Quine is best understood as having
doubts about beliefs in all types of behaviour, including verbal behaviour. Boyd
and Richarson seem to hold that they are somehow able to discern sameness of
meaning between themselves and their students. But Willard Quine outright
denies the possibility of scientifically establishing sameness of meaning. In his
Word & Object he formulates the Thesis of the Undeterminacy of Translation:

[T]wo men could be just alike in all their dispositions to verbal

behaviour under all possible sensory stimulations, and yet the
meanings or ideas expressed in their identically triggered and
identically sounded utterances could diverge radically for the two
men, in a wide range of cases.91

Although Quine initially formulates 92 his thesis by using two persons speaking
the same language, he explains the thesis with the help of an example in which

Boyd and Richarson 2004, p. 82.
Boyd and Richarson 2004, p. 82.
Quine 1960, p. 26.
The clearest formulation Quine has ever given of this thesis is: “[T]he infinite totality
of sentences of any given speaker‟s language can be so permuted, or mapped onto itself,
that (a) the totality of the speaker‟s dispositions to verbal behavior remains invariant,
and yet (b) the mapping is no mere correlation of sentences with equivalent sentences. ”
This formulation brings to the fore that indeterminacy has no ontological import, since

a language has to be translated for which no translator exists. This process is
aptly named radical translation. And exactly this didactical tool caused much
confusion. Radical translation is a process based on observations which results
in a manual of translation. This manual will also be underdetermined because it
is ultimately based on observations. For any set of observations it will, in
principle, always be possible to formulate infinitely many theories which cover
the observations.93 However, the fact that manuals of translations are
underdetermined is not important to Quine. With his thesis of indetermination
Quine wants to express that even if radical translators were not hindered by
underdetermination, they could still produce diverging and at some point
contradicting manuals of translation for one and the same language.
If Quine is right, and if internalistically defined memes fall under the
scope of the thesis of indeterminacy, memes lose their causal powers, and
consequently can be no part of a scientific, biological theory of culture. It would,
for example, mean that two meme scholars, independently studying the flow of
memes in the process of civilization, could come up with two different and
irresolvable contradictory accounts while no increase in the knowledge of facts
could ever help us decide which one was true. Below I will further develop these
two steps. I will start out by carving out the demarcation between
indeterminacy and underdetermination. Next I will make plausible that the
thesis of indetermination is relevant to internalist definitions of meme. If this is
the case, memes can happily be part of literary criticism, but not of biology.


Suppose some day in the 21st century scientists of the University of Groningen
embark upon a theory explaining everything.94 They call it GUT, Groningen
Unifying Theory. Natural phenomena, from the Big Bang and black holes all the
way down to quarks and strings, can be described and explained with GUT.
Their article involving the outline of GUT is sent to Nature soon afterwards, and
before this the researchers even obtain a confirmation stating that it will be
published in the next issue. Their noble dreams are severely disturbed,
however, when they receive a copy of the awaited magazine. That month‟s
Nature is not devoted solely to their glorious announcement, but also brings the
tidings of LUT, the Leiden Unifying Theory. What makes things worse is that it
looks as if a compulsory combined Dutch-Canadian trip to Sweden will be out of
the question, because GUT and LUT are logically incompatible. Portions of GUT

the mapping is not between two domains (one ontological and one theoretical, for
example), but within one domain (sentences mapped onto themselves).
These theories map observations onto an ontological domain, instead of mapping
observational sentences on observational sentences, or ontologies on ontologies.
Therefore underdetermination differs from undetermination.
Together with Jeanne Peijnenburg I have written quite extensively on the difference
between underdetermination of theories and the indeterminacy of translation. See
Hünneman and Peijnenburg 1992, 1996 and 2001. Here I will present our argumentation
in a form that fits in with the discussion on memes.

do not admit of a counterpart in LUT, and the other way round. This incites a
world-wide search for a crucial experiment, the result of which could give an
unbiased answer to the question whether GUT or LUT is correct. Ten years of
passionate study are dedicated to this subject, but nevertheless nothing of the
kind can be found. In the next decade little by little everybody is persuaded to
believe that no such experiment can possibly be devised. Every experimental
result that would verify GUT would also verify LUT, and the same applies to
result that would falsify the unifying theories.95 The two theories are empirically
equivalent. So, just before the turn of another century, a Swedish bag of honour
is awarded to delegations of the GUT and LUT research teams as both appear to
be equally accurate. In her speech the leader of the Groningen delegations
speaks of the world being explained and in some sense understood, but of no
one being able to know the truth.
In a more formal mode the underdetermination of theories would read as
follows: Two theories, Th. 1 and Th. 2, can be empirically equivalent and yet
logically incompatible. An experimental result would support Th. 1 if and only if
it would support Th. 2, and yet there would be no way of reducing Th. 1 to Th.
2 or reducing Th. 2 to Th. 1. In Quine‟s own words:

Physical theories can be at odds with each other and yet

compatible with all possible data even in the broadest sense. In a
word, they can be logically incompatible and empirically

The phrasing of indeterminacy of translation looks rather like the formulation of

the underdetermination thesis. According to this doctrine two manuals of
translation can be logically incompatible and yet equally compatible with the
observable, linguistic, behaviour of those involved. In other words, two manuals
can differ very much from one another while both fit the data equally well. The
typical languages used to bring the thesis alive are Jungle, spoken by an
isolated group of aborigines, and English, spoken by a group of islanders and
their descendants. A Jungle/English manual of translation would consist of a
number of rules combined with a lexicon for describing sentences of one
language in sentences of the other. The thesis now says that there can be two
Jungle/English manuals of translation which produce different English results for
the same Jungle sentence, while there is no way of telling which is the right
Imagine for example that you, a descendent of the above-mentioned
islanders, are planning a trip into the last jungle on earth in order to find the
last group of aborigines. Before you leave you pay a short visit to the university
library, and much to your surprise you find a pair of manuals for translating

Such is the case when the two theories are stated with the use of irreconcilable
theoretical terms while both theories describe or predict that these terms escape
observation at the same time.
Quine 1970, p. 179.

Jungle into English and vice versa. The manuals are independently created by
John O‟Groningen and Joan Lead. But the latter‟s manual is so beautifully
printed and embellished with photographs of black naked hunters, that the size
is hopelessly unpractical. The other manual is a true to the Dutch printing
tradition, a neatly formatted, ready-at-hand pocket-book with an elegant type-
face. Out of pure curiosity you take Joan‟s handbook with you as well as John‟s,
perhaps to refer to the photographs. It is needless to say, that once planes and
canoes have deposited you among the aborigines, your study of Jungle is
guided by the easily portable manual. A few weeks later, you actually speak
Jungle like a native without any incidents worth mentioning. Almost anything
you could have wanted to talk about in your mother tongue, you are able to
communicate in Jungle. Almost, that is. When one fine day a hunter is enjoying
a nice cup of tea in your cabin while chit-chatting about rabbits, you are startled
by phrases parts of which you have never heard before. You instantaneously
reach for your manual which, as you notice with dismay, is at the chief‟s palace.
No reason for panic, though. Out of a suitcase under the bed you carefully pull
Joan’s Illustrated Jungle Grammar Book and Dictionary, and look up the phrases
you did not understand. However, trying to construe the meaning of the whole
sentence on the basis of what you already know and what Joan’s Illustrated tells
you, you observe that there‟s something wrong in the state of translation. You
are not able to combine the English translation of the phrases you have
mastered up till now with the phrases you gather from Joan’s Illustrated. The
obvious conclusion is that the rules for translation, squeezed between the
photographs, must be wrong. But as you subsequently try to forget John‟s
manual and master Jungle once again solely with the help of Joan’s Illustrated,
you are forced to draw a different conclusion: communicating with the
aborigines exclusively by means of Joan‟s manual progresses as smoothly as
communication by means of John‟s. So the valid conclusion to draw is that,
notwithstanding the undeniably good results they give when used separately,
the two manuals apparently cannot be used interchangeably, because they yield
dissimilar English translations. And since both serve communication just as well,
why call either of them false?
This is what indeterminacy of translation would look like in practice.
When we replace the names of the anthropologists and the languages by
abstract names, we can come up with a more formal description of the thesis,
as we did in the case of the underdetermination of theory: suppose we have two
manuals of translation, Man. 1 and Man. 2, used for converting sentences of
Language X into sentences of Language Y and vice versa. Suppose further that
communication between persons speaking Language X and persons speaking
Language Y passes off satisfactorily regardless of the manual employed. Now,
according to the indeterminacy thesis it is possible that Man. 1 and Man. 2 may
come up with two equal sentences in Language Y as a result of a translation of
one and the same sentence in Language X. Quine has given formulations of this
thesis on numerous occasions. In conclusion I will quote the earliest, from Word
& Object, and the latest, from Pursuit of Truth:

The thesis is this: manuals for translating one language into
another can be set up in divergent ways, all compatible with the
totality of speech dispositions, yet incompatible with one another.
In countless places they will diverge in giving, as their respective
translations of a sentence of the one language, sentences of the
other language which stand to each other in no plausible sort of
equivalence however loose.97

These reflections leave us little reason to expect that two radical

translators, [i.e. translators who have no clues but the verbal
behaviour of the persons whose language they are devising a
manual for, cf. John and Joan, RH] working independently on
Jungle, would come out with interchangeable manuals. Their
manuals might be indistinguishable in terms of any native
behavior that they give reason to expect, and yet each manual
might prescribe some translations that the other would reject.
Such is the thesis of indeterminacy of translation.98

Let us pause for a moment to consider what this would amount to in the case of
memes. Suppose memes were defined as meanings99. Then, if the thesis of
indeterminacy holds, two meme scholars could come up with two incompatible
interpretations of the customs, stories and behaviour of the natives. And what is
more important, there would be no way of deciding which one is true. Boyd and
Richarson give a real life example of how this might come about:

The generativist model of phonological change illustrates the

problem. According to the generativist school of linguistics,
individual pronunciation is governed by a complex set of rules that
take as input the desired sequence of words and produce as
output the sequence of sounds that will be produced (Bynon, T.
1977. Historical Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press). Generativists also believe that as adult people can modify
their pronunciation only by adding new rules that act at the end of
the chain of existing rules. Children, on the other hand, are not
constrained by the rules used to generate adult speech. Instead
they induce the simplest set of grammatical rules that will account
for the performances they hear, and these may be quite different
than the rules used by adult speakers. Although the new rules
produce the same performance, they can have a different
structure, and therefore, allow further changes by rule addition
that would not have been possible under the old rules. 100

So although communication between parents and offspring runs smoothly,

children may use different grammatical rules. Boyd and Richarson dispel the

Quine 1960, p. 27.
Quine 1990, p. 48.
I will leave symbols for now and return to them at the end of this chapter.
Boyd and Richarson 2000, p. 155.

notion of a meme, because “even though there is no difference in the
phenotypic performance among parents and children, children do not acquire
the same memes as their parents.”
Something similar holds for definitions of memes in terms of concepts,
since meanings and concepts are closely linked. Of course in the end this will
depend on how the term concept is exactly defined. I will take for granted that
in order to formulate what someone believes, we will have to understand the
concepts she employs and how her words express these concepts. As Davidson
says, “[...] if we can understand what a person says, we can understand what
he believes.”101 Two scholars might describe the flow of memes through the
heads and customs of the natives in incompatible ways, and yet there would be
no way of telling which one was true. Or, take our example of the dining
etiquette as described by Norbert Elias. If the indeterminacy thesis holds, Elias
might be quite right as far as the empirical facts are concerned. He might have
described the table manners, customs, texts, houses, furnishing of the homes
and everything else in an indubitable way. Yet, someone might come up with
quite a different story about the concepts that shaped the behaviour and
artefacts during these ages, and there would be no way of telling which one was
Davidson actually considers the predicament of the meme scholars to be
worse than that of linguists:

A theory for interpreting the utterances of a single speaker, based

on nothing but his attitudes towards sentences, would, we may be
sure, have many equally eligible rivals, for differences in
interpretation could be offset by appropriate differences in the
beliefs attributed. Given a community of speakers with apparently
the same linguistic repertoire, however, the theorist will strive for
a single theory of interpretation: this will greatly narrow his
practical choice of preliminary theories for each individual

Linguists shape their analyses so as to fit all the native speakers of a language.
But for a meme theorist no such thing could be the case. A meme theorist
wants to develop an evolutionary description of culture and therefore has to
know when memes are copied and when they are not. How else could our
theorist claim that memes shape brains? This means that she must somehow be
able to settle for the differences between individuals.
But is there a difference between the predicament of linguists and
sociologists on the one hand and physicists on the other? During a calculation
on some natural phenomenon a physicist cannot switch between GUT and LUT,
or the other way round. The description of phenomena and predictions should
always be based on either GUT or LUT, and never for some part on the one and

Davidson 1984, p. 153.
Davidson 1984, p. 153.

for another part on the other.103 What, then, is the exact difference between
underdetermination and indetermination? If a memetic theory is indetermined,
and if indeterminacy is a phenomenon common to all natural sciences, why
should we worry about that?
Ever since Word & Object, the indeterminacy of translation has appeared
simultaneously with Quine‟s insistence upon its relative independence from the
underdetermination of theory. More specifically, Quine asserted that
indeterminacy of translations is not an indissoluble segment of the
underdetermination of theory. Leaving the reasons for this aside for a moment,
this claim is inclined to become confusing when it is added that translations
form a branch of the respected scientific tree of knowledge:

Though linguistics is of course a part of the theory of nature, the

indeterminacy of translation is not just inherited as a special case
of the underdetermination of our theory of nature.104

The difference between indeterminacy and underdetermination hinges on their

respective ontological status. According to Quine assertions of natural scientists
state what there is and how the things in the world hang together causally.
Linguists and meme scholars, on the other hand, take the more mathematical
course of action of mapping one domain onto another. Like the thesis of Fermat
can by proven by mapping parts of the proof onto other branches of
mathematics, communication between speakers can be energized by mapping
the array of linguistic behaviour (of the speakers of language X) onto a second
array of linguistic behaviour (of the speakers of language Y). Of course, such
mappings take place within most natural sciences. Much of the knowledge of
neural networks has been gathered by mapping these networks onto the science
of magnetism. But such a mapping is no ontological theory! There is no causal
connection between magnetic fields and neural networks.105
To differentiate these two Quine makes a distinction between genuine
hypotheses (with ontological import) and analytical hypotheses (mappings).
Genuine hypotheses constitute the natural sciences and are products of the
more or less rational guesswork done by trained scientists. Their counterpart in
translation consists of the analytical hypotheses. These are educated guesses as
well, and these also form the basis for a manual of translation. To understand
how genuine hypotheses diverge from analytical hypotheses, consider the next

This situation differs from the time when there were competitive theories concerning
the character of light. Particle theories and wave theories could exist next to each other.
The difference with GUT and LUT is that these latter theories explain everything, while
the theories of light were strictly linked to separate sets of phenomena.
Quine in Davidson 1969, p. 303.
One of the most common fallacies in the philosophy of mind has to do with the
process of mapping, and the ontological status of it. Once, when I explained to a group
of scientists that some phenomena of consciousness could be mapped onto quantum
logic, they immediately drew the conclusion that consciousness is a quantum mechanical

example. If after several experiments we find all investigated pieces of metal to
expand when heated, we can, using a not too speculative, inductive logic from a
genuine hypothesis saying “every piece of metal expands when heated.” Of
course there are some uncertainties involved in this process, but these are only
of the normal inductive kind. Likewise we can investigate the behaviour of the
natives and find that on all the encountered occasions when they assent to the
utterance of ‟Nkukomsuy‟, there are five cows within their visual field. In more
Quinean terms, we could make a genuine hypothesis saying that ‟Nkukomsuy‟
has the same stimulus meaning to the aborigines as ‟There are five cows‟ has to
Britons, maintaining it unless we find a counterexample. Translating
„Nkukomsuy‟ with „There are five cows‟ would therefore present us with no
indeterminate complexities.
However, if we want to produce a Jungle/English manual of translation
such a pairing off will not do, for there are infinite possible utterances in either
language, and consequently pairing each of them with its correlate in the
opposite language would take an infinity of time, ink and paper. In order to
obtain a usable manual we will have to split the utterances into parts, „words‟,
and give rules for combining them so as to get understandable translations of
wholes, „sentences‟. These splitting and combining rules form the analytical
hypotheses. So in addition to the genuine hypotheses about the natives, we
could posit analytical hypotheses such as “ „Nku‟ means five”, “ „Suy‟ means
cattle”, and “ „Kom‟ in combination with a mass term does the individualizing job
that is performed in English by „sticks of‟ as applied to the mass term „wood‟, or
„head of‟ as applied to „cattle‟ ”. These analytical hypotheses applied to the
utterance “Nkukomsuy” yield the undetermined translation “Five heads of cow”.
Analytical hypotheses form a mathematical apparatus with which
observable facts of the behaviour of the Natives can be mapped onto observable
facts of the behaviour of Britons. Analytical hypotheses don‟t make any
assumption and don‟t state anything about the ontology. As Quine states in
Word & Object, analytical hypotheses, and also the manuals of translation they
make up, are hypotheses in an incomplete sense.

“[T]he analytical hypotheses, and the grand synthetic one that

they add up to, are only in an incomplete sense hypotheses.
Contrast the case of translation of the occasion sentence [i.e. a
sentence of which the disposition to assent or dissent depends on
the circumstances in which it is uttered, like “Nkukomsuy” in the
paragraph above, RH] „Gavagai‟ by similarity of stimulus meaning.
This is a genuine hypothesis from sample observations, though
possibly wrong. „Gavagai‟ and „There‟s a rabbit‟ have stimulus
meanings for the two speakers, and these are roughly the same
or significantly different, whether we guess right or not. On the
other hand no such sense is made of the typical analytical
hypothesis. The point is not that we cannot be sure whether the
analytical hypothesis is right, but that there is not even, as there

was in the case of „Gavagai‟, an objective matter to be right or
wrong about.”106

Allow me to place this short lecture on manuals of translation within the

framework of the discussion on the definition of memes. My thesis is that
memes defined in terms of concepts or symbols obtain the status of analytical
hypotheses. In this way memes lose their ontological import, and consequently
whatever causal powers they are supposed to have. Certainly memes so defined
cannot be used in ways comparable to the way we use genes to explain the
characteristics of organism. Therefore they are worthless as part of a biological
description of the development of culture.
I think Quine ultimately wants to give a logico-mathematical description
of the difference between Verstehen (understand) and Erklären (explain). In
order to just understand a phenomenon it suffices to couch it in terms we
understood before the encountered phenomenon. We might, for example, map
the current economic crisis on a story of Tom Poes, written by the Dutch writer
and illustrator Marten Toonder.107 At one time Tom Poes visits the isle of the
Trottles, froglike creatures. The Trottles are terrified of a Big Monster which
visits their village every now and then, only to destroy it completely. In the end
the Big Monster turns out to be nothing else but the sum total of the fears of
the Trottles. The story of the Trottles may make us understand aspects of the
current crisis, but does it also give us a causal explanation? The answer to this
last question is a definite “No!”. Trottles may make us understand (Verstehen)
but they won‟t give us the means to explain (Erklären).
Likewise a definition of memes in terms of concepts or symbols (as
conceived by Hofstadter) may help us understand phenomena within a certain
domain. A manual of translation is certainly not useless, as any tourist knows.
However, a manual of translation does not explain the behaviour of Natives.
Manuals of translation and meme theories in terms of concepts provide us with
an appealing way to look at facts, but they don‟t give anything that comes close
to a causal explanation:

If translators disagree on the translation of a Jungle sentence but

no behavior on the part of the Jungle people could bear on the
disagreement, then there is simply no fact of the matter. In the
case of natural science, on the other hand, there is a fact of the
matter, even if all possible observations are insufficient to reveal
it uniquely.108

Then why is there not a fact of the matter in translation? The first important
point to be realized when this question is answered is that manuals of
translation are not meant to predict people‟s linguistic behaviour on any precise

Quine 1960, p. 73.
I owe this example to the Dutch physicist Vincent Icke. See:, and search for ‟Icke & Tom Poes‟.
Quine 1990, p. 101.

scale. No English/German manual of translation, however detailed, sophisticated
or broadly accepted, could have eased Carnap‟s discomfort when he saw that
this sequence of Heideggerian utterances:

Erforscht werden soll nur das Seiende und sonst – nichts; das
Seiende allein und weiter – nichts; das Seiende einzig und
darüber hinaus – nichts.

was followed by:

Wie steht es um dieses Nichts?

Manuals of translation simply are not intended for predicting ensuing utterances
on the basis of given ones. A smooth communication between representatives of
two languages is the only guarantee they give. The closest they get to supplying
prophesies is when utterances evoke straight assent or dissent, yet such
provoked behaviour is not expected on the basis of translation but rather on
psychological or sociological grounds. Think for example of some Africans who
will assent to almost anything just to please the European speaker. Here an
English/Swahili manual of translation will even lack this most rudimentary form
of translation, while no one will question its status as a manual of translation109.
Manuals of translation make us understand by mapping linguistic behaviour
from one group onto that of another. This is similar to us understanding the
current economical crisis by mapping the behaviour of the stock exchange onto
the Big Monster‟s behaviour.
All that matters in translation is the behaviour of those involved. In the
case of a Jungle/English manual of translation this means the linguistic conduct
of Britons and Natives. And all a Jungle/English manual does is describing a
relation between linguistic behaviour of Natives on the one side and linguistic
behaviour of Britons on the other side. No things enter into this picture. What is
there is exclusively a function, mapping linguistic behaviour of one sort onto
that of another. „Nkukomsuy‟ is paired off with „There are five cows‟ by means of
such a function. So if you hear a Native utter “Nkukomsuy”, then formulate a
sentence you would have uttered had you heard “There are five cows”, translate
this back into Jungle, and try to utter your translation without too much accent.
Of course you will have to take the cultural differences into account as well. But
when this is done properly it leaves you with a smoothly running conversation
about cattle. The job of a translator is not to devise hypotheses about dark

Well, there is actually one complication in this case. A translator could, in principle,
embed this ever assenting behaviour into her manual of translation for Swahili. She
could, for example, state that the meaning of Ndio is dependent upon the circumstances
in which it is uttered. Most of the times Ndio just means Yes, but it might also mean
nothing at all, or just a form of politeness. I am not sure whether such an addition
would make a clearer manual of translation. Probably the remark of a cultural
anthropologist that Africans sometimes don‟t answer questions of Europeans (say, “Has
the bridge been washed away by the flooding?”) with a report of facts, but rather with
something they think the European would like to hear.

entities like meanings, but to define a translation relation, coupling the
behaviour of two language groups in order to enable them to communicate.
Observable behaviour is the alpha and omega of any translation task, without
an intermediary. In Quine‟s own words:

Translation is not the recapturing of some determinate entity, a

meaning […]110

A manual of Jungle-to-English translation constitutes a recursive,

or inductive, definition of a translation relation together with a
claim that it correlates sentences compatible with the behavior of
all concerned.111

By now it will be clear why there are no theoretical facts of the matter in
translations. Rather than changing, or adding to our ontology like new scientific
theories do, translations merely combine distinct parts of our already
established ontology. Therefore two diverging manuals of translation do not
constitute two different ontologies, on the contrary, they can be devised to lock
onto one and the same ontology. If we want to make a statement about the
facts that make up the world, we will have to do so from within some physical
theory. However, even with such an ontology we are not yet in a position to tell
which of two alternative translations is more true to the facts, because by
assumption both cover all the relevant facts equally well. So selecting one
translation over another does not involve taking into account any question of
facts, any question of truth.112
I essentially agree with Quine. Manuals of translation have no value as
instruments of prediction, and for that reason they haven‟t been given the
status of being part of natural science. I also think Hofstadter is right when he
claims that “saying that studying the brain is limited to the study of physical
entities […] would be like saying that literary criticism must focus on paper and
bookbinding, ink and its chemistry, page sizes and margin widths, typefaces and
paragraphs lengths, and so forth.” So it becomes the question whether we want
the study of the mind/brain to be on an ontological par with literary criticism. To
be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with literary criticism. The only
problem is that it doesn‟t provide us with an explanation or an outline of the
causal connections between events in the world. If meme theory is like literary
criticism, it would help us understand cultures. But I think this wouldn‟t be
enough for Dawkins. A theory of memes should have a scientific status and
explain how cultural phenomena come about. If we define memes in terms of
concepts, close to meanings, memetic theories stop short of explaining

Quine 1975, p. 322.
Quine 1990, p. 48.
Cf. Gibson, 1986, p. 153.

In the preceding paragraphs I argued that it is impossible to flesh out the
notion of a copy of a meme on the level of single neurons. Detailed copies of
neuronal structures are not consequences of imitating behaviour, linguistic or
otherwise. Hofstadter tries to save the idea of copies by taking a somewhat
distanced stance as regards the brain. He proposes a description in terms of
concepts and symbols. Quine‟s thesis, however, says that two men could be just
alike in all their dispositions to verbal behaviour under all possible sensory
stimulations, and yet the meanings or ideas expressed in their identically
triggered and identically sounding utterances could diverge radically for the two
men, in a wide range of cases. If this is true, it is possible that two meme
scholars having knowledge of all relevant neurological facts might come up with
diverging descriptions of one and the same brain. Both descriptions could fit all
the facts, and the question which one was right would have no substance. If this
is true, theories of memes in terms of concepts, ideas or thoughts would be just
as indetermined as a good manual of translation. This would rid memes of their
causal, biological powers and though they could help make us understand
cultural phenomena, we still could not explain them. Could this have been
Dawkins‟ intention?


In chapter 2, in the end I translated

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change.
Hoeveel psychologen zijn er nodig om een gloeilamp te
verwisselen? Antwoord: slechts een, maar de gloeilamp moet er
dan wel voor OPENSTAAN!

My translation involved a lot of considerations. In the first place there was the
meaning of words as given by my dictionaries and particularly the ambiguity of
the English word „change‟. But there were also the considerations on the culture
of psychiatrists, my idea concerning the intentions of the original joke teller, my
thought on the pun of the joke, the hype on light bulb jokes, and my meekness
concerning the impossibility of giving an all encompassing translation. Quine‟s
thesis is that these considerations enable the process of translation, and further
states that all these considerations hang together to some extent. My
knowledge of the English language, American culture, light bulb jokes, et cetera,
together make a web of analytical hypotheses. Different choices in one place of
the web may be compensated by choices in another place. Choices concerning
the intentions may be compensated by choices concerning meaning. For
example, to me the most important thought behind the joke is that psychiatrists
will get nowhere as long as patients don‟t cooperate. But according to my
backdoor neighbour the joke is about the fact that if psychiatrists can change

anything at all, it takes them lots of time and costs you loads of money. Her
translation was:

Kan een psycholoog in twaalf seconden een burn-out verhelpen?

Antwoord: ja, maar dan moet het wel om een kapotte gloeilamp

Who is right and who is wrong? Who has best captured the memes of the
American originator? According to Quine this is a senseless question, without
Probably the consequence of Quine‟s thesis that is most difficult to grasp
is that what is true of speakers of different languages is also true of speakers of
the same language. Whether or not jokers possess identical memes depends on
the manual on the basis of which we compare two speakers. The neurological
patterns in the brain of one joker have to be interpreted and mapped onto the
pattern in the brain of the other one (because, once again, we lack a neat four-
letter alphabet). And since the mapping we use has no other basis than the
observed behaviour, there are no independent criteria for the truth of the
manual. The question of whether two brains contain the same memes remains
This certainly seems strange. It would mean that an evolutionary
description of memes is dependent upon manuals of interpretation for which we
have no criteria of truth. What amounts to an evolving meme under one manual
might be a succession of different memes in another. In ts way memes lose
their physical reality and become evolutionary counterparts of literary criticism.


Ten years after the introduction of memes in The Selfish Gene Dawkins gave a
new and enlarged description in The Blind Watchmaker:

Brains evolved the capacity to communicate with other brains by

means of language and cultural traditions. But the new milieu of
cultural tradition opens up new possibilities for self-replicating
entities. These new replicators are not DNA and they are not clay
crystals. They are patterns of information that can thrive only in
brains or the artificially manufactured products of brains – books,
computers, and so on. But, given that brains, books and
computers exist, these new replicators, which I called memes to
distinguish them from genes, can propagate themselves from
brain to brain, from brain to book, from book to brain, from brain
to computer, from computer to computer. 114

Can a psychiatrist fix a burn-out in twelve seconds? Answer: yes, but only if it
concerns a broken light bulb.
Dawkins 1986(2006), p. 158.

Notice that strangely enough the first sentence states that brains communicate
with other brains. In Quine‟s analysis people communicate with people. And
although brains certainly support this process of communication, it cannot be
reduced to a process between brains. I think Dawkins‟ preoccupation with brains
is a consequence of his informationalist view, as I will describe in the next
chapter. But it is important to realize that because Quine focuses on outward
behaviour, the description of the web of internal process in terms of memes
becomes indetermined.
Be that as it may, how could we ever watch memes jump from brain to
book to laptop without a manual of translation? There is not even a hint of
sameness in internal structure here. Compare Susan Blackmore‟s description in
The Meme Machine, which takes this thought one step further:

The conclusion I have come to from all of this, is to keep things as

simple as possible. I shall use the term „meme‟ indiscriminately to
refer to memetic information in any of its many forms; including
ideas, the brain structures that instantiate those ideas, the
behaviours these brain structures produce, and their versions in
books recipes, maps and written music. As long as that
information can be copied by a process we may broadly call
„imitation‟, then it counts as a meme.115

I dare question whether this description keeps things as simple as possible. To

Dawkins‟ long list Blackmore adds „ideas‟, which is understandable in the light of
their further writings. And the process she broadly calls „imitation‟, comes very
close to the discussed process of translation. In fact I think imitation and
translation have come to coincide. How else could we speak of memes
transgressing from books to brains to maps to DVD‟s to computers and then
back to maps again? The memes of table manners propagated from brains via
etiquette books to table settings to paintings to children‟s verses to the ideas of
Amy Groskamp-ten Have116 and finally to internet sites to contaminate brains all
over the world.
Under these definitions memetic theories become a branch of literary
criticism. But then memes will lack any causal power. This would be fine, if it
were not true that Blackmore claims memes drive our brains to an ever
increasing size:

Memes changed the environment in which genes were selected,

and the direction of change was determined by the outcome of
memetic selection. So the selection pressures which produced the
massive increase in brain size were initiated and driven by

Blackmore 1999, p. 66.
The undisputed Dutch champion of etiquette.
Blackmore 1999, pp. 74-75.

With their enrichment of the notion of the meme Dawkins and Blackmore
undermined their positions as natural scientists. Both want memes to be a part
of scientific, biological explanation, but both are left behind in desperate need of
an objectively true manual of translation. If Quine is right, as I think he is, then
Dawkins and Blackmore have called the notion of a meme into being as well as
killed it. They are left with literary criticism or the history of ideas, whereas
what they really wanted was enriched biology.


Can we salvage memes? Or, better still, are there good reasons to continue
using the notion of a meme? I think there are, as I will argue in chapter 5. I will
leave the details of argumentation till then, and for now settle for a Quinean
definition of memes. If Quine is right, we should limit our analysis to observable
behaviour, and leave the rest to literary criticism. Let us give a down-to-earth
answer to the question of what is copied and what is imitated. We copy
artefacts. We imitate behaviour. Our bodies and brains enable us to do so. But
in order to enable us, our bodies and brains don‟t have to contain memes

meme An (element of) an artefact or behaviour that may be

considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.



As part of their equipment bodies evolved on board computers – brains.

Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker

No doubt Richard Dawkins thought and wrote under the influence of the
philosophy of mind which dominated the 1980‟s. These were the heydays of the
computer metaphor for the description of the brain and mind in which, to use
the then popular catch-phrase, mind is to brain as software is to hardware. And
when software becomes associated with mind, it is but a short intellectual stroll
to the idea that viruses of the mind are like software viruses. So it is quite
understandable that Dawkins modelled his idea of memes after the idea of
software. Memes are the software that makes up the human mind. I think,
however, that Dawkins made a serious mistake of judgement here. I think he
should not have committed himself to this computer metaphor. But as Dawkins
himself states, he experienced little choice:

For those, like me, who are not mathematicians, the computer
can be a powerful friend to the imagination. Like mathematics, it
doesn‟t only stretch the imagination. It also disciplines and
controls it.118

As I will explain in the first paragraphs of this chapter, once one is controlled
and disciplined by the computer metaphor at least two aspects of the human
brain and mind seem obvious. The first is that the human brain is an
information processor, or, to use a euphemism, processes information. The
other is that the mind/brain is composed of modules, much like computers are
composed of parts and computer programmes are composed of routines and
subroutines. The combination of these two aspects of the computer metaphor
makes a description of memes as mind modules seem very likely. Memes enter
and alter the mind much like the weekly software updates on my Microsoft
computer replace faulty modules of the Windows programme.
Though many contemporary philosophers write as though they shrug off
the computer metaphor, most are still unconsciously disciplined and controlled
by the ideas of brains processing information in an array of modules. I must

Dawkins 1986(2006), p. 74.

admit that I am, like they are and like Dawkins is, very much controlled and
disciplined by the computer metaphor, and I would not dare to state that the
brain doesn‟t process information or that there isn‟t some abstract level of
description on which modularity is discerned. On the other hand, as I will
explain throughout this chapter, I doubt whether information processing is the
only thing our brains do. And I also doubt whether processes of the human
brain/mind can always be neatly divided into modules. Most importantly, when
it comes to memes I think we had better do without information processing and
Therefore, alongside my description and analysis of functionalism and
modularity I will also explain how we can describe memes without the metaphor
of the mind as a computer. I will show that once we turn our attention to other,
more biological aspects of the human organism, memes might meaningfully
resurface. Not as modules inside the brain, but as modules outside the brain.
These outside modules do influence our brains but they do so without entering
them. I deliberately speak of brain here. Whether or not modules outside our
brains are also outside our minds depends on our views about where the minds
stop and the rest of the world begins. But before we turn to these intricate
issues, let us first look at the aspects and still dominant influences of the mind
as a computer metaphor.

Ever since I have driven an old Volkswagen, the following dialogue between my
mechanic and me is bound to occur at least once a year. Please, bear in mind
that my mechanic knows that I try to spend as little money as possible on my

Mechanic: “Look here, Ronald, part X is out of order and must be replaced.”
Ronald: “If you say so…”
Mechanic: “The cheapest solution is to replace X with an identical part of a
generic brand.”
Ronald: “That brand wouldn‟t be Volkswagen, would it?”
Mechanic: “No, as I said it is a generic brand, but it functions just the same. I
have used it on numerous occasions, and there haven‟t been any complaints.”
Ronald: “But it wouldn‟t be an original Volkswagen part?”
Mechanic: “No, that would cost you at least twice as much.”
Ronald: “But then my car would be all Volkswagen again…”
Mechanic: “Yes. But it would function in exactly the same way, while you would
be a poorer guy.”
Ronald: “I think it‟s better to use part X of Volkswagen.”
Mechanic: “For heaven‟s sake, why?”
Ronald: “Because this car is a Volkswagen, and once you start replacing parts
with non-Volkswagen parts, it stops being a Volkswagen. If I would succumb to
that, I might just as well have bought a Skoda right away.”
Mechanic: “The client is king.”

In the jargon of professional philosophers the mechanic defends a typical
functionalist position. He holds that the replacement of a car part with a spare
part which functions in exactly the same way doesn‟t alter the character of the
car. Of course his arguments only hold when the spare part really functions in
exactly the same way. I will dub this philosophical mechanical position physical
functionalism. So, in formal terms physical functionalism states that parts may
be considered indistinguishable if and only if they perform the same mechanical
or physical function. In other words, A and B are indistinguishable in all relevant
aspects if and only if the replacement of part A by part B in no way alters the
functioning of the whole.
This last formulation has a tautological taste. What it all comes down to
is the phrase ‟in all relevant aspects‟. If my mechanic replaces the Volkswagen
dynamo with a Skoda dynamo, his right to claiming that by doing so the overall
functioning of the Volkswagen is preserved wouldn‟t be diminished if the
Volkswagen dynamo were black and the Skoda dynamo white. In this case the
colour of the dynamo is irrelevant to the causal relations between the dynamo
and the rest of the car. Dennett formulates this kind of functionalism as follows:

What makes something a spark plug is that it can be plugged into

a particular situation and deliver a spark when called upon. That‟s
all that matters; its color or material or internal complexity can
vary ad lib, and so can its shape, as long as its shape permits it to
meet the specific dimensions of its functional role.119
[Emphasis in original]

Notice that this formulation is almost trivial as well. The first part gives nothing
more than the analytical definition of a spark plug (“A spark plug is a plug that
delivers a spark when called upon”). It is the second sentence that does the job
of explaining functionalism since it states which features don‟t matter. The
situation is actually more complex than Dennett envisages. Spark plugs must
have more traits than the ability to deliver sparks at the right moment. They
must also be stainless, incombustible, easy to remove and place, long-lasting
and they must possess numerous other qualities, my mechanic would add. But
this doesn‟t impede the message Dennett communicates. Anything that also has
these additional features counts as a spark plug.
As Dennett himself once and again remarks, functionalism stands at the
heart of modern science:

Functionalism is the idea enshrined in the old proverb: handsome

is as handsome does. Matter matters only because of what matter
can do. Functionalism in this broadest sense is so ubiquitous in
science that it is tantamount to a reigning presumption of all of

Dennett 1996, p. 68.
Dennett 2005, p. 153

What this comes down to is what E.J. Dijksterhuis called The Mechanization of
the World Picture. In modern science the world is analyzed in mechanical terms
"with the aid of a concept of mechanics". Different parts of the world are
connected by cause and effect. The task of science, and certainly of the more
respectable natural sciences, is to disentangle the push and pull relationships
between different parts of the world. This attitude sets off scientific and
technological insights ranging from the heart as a pump to the combustion
It would be expected of a methodological principle so ubiquitous that at
least one attempt at a more or less formal description, followed by a lengthy
wordy debate without a satisfactory conclusion, can be found. But “handsome is
as handsome does” is as close as one will get to a definition of mechanical
functionalism. The difficulty is that what counts as functional and what doesn‟t
has to be explicitly specified. But what counts as functional is at the same time
dependent on our interests and fascinations. So, in a very broad sense,
something like this might cover the reigning preoccupations in modern science:

Definition: A description is functional iff it is couched solely in notions of

primary qualities, mathematics and cause and effect.

So a functional description of the left front door of my Volkswagen should only

contain notions about its shape, weight and the way it mechanically relates to
the rest of my car. But, as my mechanic knows very well, to me secondary
qualities do matter. Something I call feel is most important. There are many,
many doors that could in principle replace the left front door of my Volkswagen
with the preservation of even the most minute functional details, but to which I
would still exclaim: “The primary qualities are acceptable, but the secondary
qualities are rather off”.121
Regarding my own body I am more of a functionalist than regarding my
own Volkswagen. If my heart fails I have no objection whatsoever to having it
replaced by a distinctively non-human, non-organic pump and pacemaker. The
same goes for my teeth, my hip or knee joint, in fact the same goes for all my
body parts. As long as the substitute part maintains the worthwhile functions of
the original, I really don‟t care what it is made of.
I would even go one step further. The replacement may in all respects
differ from the original, except for its function. If my lungs fail I would humbly
accept being attached to a lung machine, taking the loss of feel and secondary

Martha Nussbaum writes in an obituary (Tragedy and Justice: Bernard Williams
remembered) on her teacher, the philosopher Bernard Williams: “And if I recall with
pleasure some things he sometimes said about my work, I also recall, and perhaps with
more verbal exactitude, the time I ran past his King‟s College provostial window in
orange running shorts with a pink top, only to be told later that the primary qualities
were acceptable, but the secondary qualities rather off. (This was the furthest he would
ever go, as a man very much in love with his wife, and it was characteristic of his
somewhat self-delighted style.)”

qualities for granted. This brings to the fore the pragmatic, or even
opportunistic contents of functions. The lung machine counts as a functionally
equivalent replacement because it brings oxygen into my blood and removes
carbon dioxide. Obviously other functions are not preserved. My running
abilities, my capacity to climb mountains and my sexiness, to name but a few,
are severely diminished. Here an ambiguity in the term function can be seen.
Functionalism can be directed either at the modern scientific mechanistic
attitude, or it can point to a restricted set of functions the object under
investigation can perform.
Dennett‟s example of the spark plug already shows this narrowband
functionalism. Narrowband functionalism typically states the aspects and
properties that don‟t matter and therefore are disregarded.

[S]ince science is always looking for simplifications, looking for

the greatest generality it can muster, functionalism in practice has
a bias in favor of minimalism […]. [W]ings don‟t have to have
feathers on them in order to power flight, and eyes don‟t have to
be blue or brown in order to see.122

Wings have to have feathers to ensure insulation, and the wings of a peacock
have to have feathers to ensure sex appeal, which might also be a function of
the colour of the eyes, but since we are not interested in these functions, we
narrow our examination to powering flight.
So, there is functionalism which tries to explain as much as possible in
mechanistic terms. And then there is narrowband functionalism that zooms in
on just one or two aspects of an object under investigation. These tastes of
functionalism are not contradictory. The difference is just that narrowband
functionalism narrows down the number of possible functions under
investigation. Now, narrowband functionalism is fine, it delivers strong sparks to
scientific research and it should go on. But when the narrowband functions are
supposed to be the only relevant functions, something might be pushed out of
sight, or even quite literally get lost. This is the case when it comes to

Informationalism is a specific type of narrowband functionalism which today is
very popular within the philosophy of mind123. Its sole focus is the information-
processing capacity of systems. During the 1970‟s informationalism originated
from the remains of psychological behaviourism and developments in neurology,
computer science and technology. 124 The notion that the human mind could

Dennett 2005, p. 153
And even within neurology and the popular media on these topics.
I will not go into the historical details of the origin of informationalism, but
concentrate on the typical and widespread narrowing of scope informationalism brought

best be described in terms of mathematical functions coupling stimulus and
response, input and output, was made intelligible by behaviourism. Computer
science refined the possibilities to do so, enabling scientists to use top-down
analysis and programming languages, and bottom-up simulation to study the
Arguably, the single most compelling rationale in favour of
informationalism is a thought experiment concocted by the philosopher Zeno
Pylyshyn in 1980. He astutely invites us to regard a single neuron as a simple
adding device. All a neuron actually does, according to this image, is adding up
the incoming signals from other neurons and delivering a signal itself whenever
a certain threshold is reached. Even in 1980 an ordinary computer chip could
perform exactly the same function. It could even be programmed so as to mimic
the flexible learning capabilities of a neuron. Now suppose we would replace one
neuron of a human‟s brain by a computer chip carrying out its precise function.
We would place such a chip in the brain and appropriately attach the incoming
axons and the signal receiving dendrites from other neurons. Would this human
experience the difference between the periods before and after the replacement
of the neuron by the chip? Would she report something like: “I feel a very slight
but definite loss in my information- processing capacities…”?
Probably not, though the reason for this lack of awareness might be
mundane. It might be due to the fact that humans in general need a major
difference in stimulus to notice changes. The replacement of one neuron might
have effects that remain undetectable for the experimental subject. So, what
would happen if we replaced two neurons, or ten, or ten percent of the total
number of neurons of our subject? Would she notice it? Would she notice it,
given that the chips performed exactly the same input-output function as the
original neurons? Would her mind perish more and more by every neuron-chip
replacement we performed? Would she, for example, keep saying the right
words, but would these words gradually become devoid of meaning?
According to Pylyshyn this would be a “rather astonishing view”:

If more and more of the cells in your brain were to be replaced by

integrated circuit chips, programmed in such a way as to keep the
input-output function of each unit identical to that of the unit
being replaced, you would in all likelihood just keep right on
speaking exactly as you are doing now except that you would
eventually stop meaning anything by it.125
[Emphasis in original]

To be honest, we don‟t know what would happen, because this thought

experiment is beyond the capacities of our imagination. But as Dennett
explained, thought experiments are pumps to boost our intuition, rather than
logical steps in a justification.

Pylyshyn 1980.

A popular strategy in philosophy is to construct a certain sort of
thought experiment I call an intuition pump [...]. Intuition pumps
are cunningly designed to focus the reader's attention on „the
important‟ features, and to deflect the reader from bogging down
in hard-to-follow details.126
[Emphasis in original]

Pylyshyn does indeed deflect our attention from the wet and messy details of
neurons. He bypasses aspects like neurotransmitters, cell chemistry and
hormones. The sole „important‟ feature Pylyshyn draws our attention to is the
information-processing capacity of neurons. And if a single neuron is understood
as an information-processing unit, then a group of neurons straightforwardly
linked up can be understood as an information-processing unit as well.127 And so
on until the whole brain is understood as one big information-processing unit
dividable into interconnected subunits and can be studied as such.
This picture provides philosophers and empirical scientists of mind with a
way to open Skinner‟s black box.128 The top-down method to develop complex
computer programs and a strategy called reversed engineering coincide. If
software engineers have to write a complicated program, they begin by
specifying the overall functionality or task of the program in most general terms
(top). After this they divide this task into subroutines, smaller tasks that, when
executed successively, accomplish the top task. These subroutines are then
further divided into subsubroutines, until a sub…subroutine is small enough to
be written down in computer language.
Similarly when you are confronted with a human brain performing a
certain task, you may ask yourself via what intermediate steps this task was
accomplished by the brain. You divide the task into smaller subtasks, and look
for empirical evidence confirming your division. So, for example, if you are
analyzing a visual task you make some educated guesses as to the subtasks or
subroutines the brain of the subject performs. These guesses can, for instance,
be made on the basis of neurological knowledge, fMRI-scans or known
performance of subjects in other visual tasks. Out of this analysis you devise a
smart task which addresses one subroutine differently from the other one. A
subsequent experiment should then show the accuracy of your initial analysis,
say, by way of reaction times. Then you proceed to the next level of analysis, to
deeper and deeper subsubroutines. And so on, until you eventually reach the
level of neurons.
According to Hilary Putnam (as early as 1960, 1967129) every creature
with a mind can be described and investigated along these functionalist lines.

Dennett, 1984, p. 12.
That is, if axons and dendrites just non-magically remit a signal from one neuron to
the other, any group of joint neurons is also an information processing device.
John Heil 1998, p. 92.
Remember, it is at the same time that Quine formulated his Thesis of Inderterminacy.
By the end of the 1980‟s Putnam had changed his views, and indeed came very close to
Quine‟s. At that time Shagrir (2005, p. 233) characterizes Putnam as follows: “Putnam

He likens the functional description of the brain/mind to the functional
description of a computing device. Such a description of a computing device
consists of a list of instructions describing how the machine reacts to certain
inputs. The machine receives an input while it is in a certain state, and then
goes into another state and produces a certain output. This is called a state
transition. In formal terms:

If the machine is in state Si, and receives input Ij, it will go into state Sk and
produce output Ol.130

This formulation clearly betrays the behaviourist roots of functionalism. Most of

the state transitions will not be visible from the „outside‟, though. And the
output of state transitions will often be used for the storage of intermediate
results.131 In this way the output of a state transition may be fed to the next
state. So, if the machine is in a certain state when it receives an input, a
sequence of state transitions may follow, of which a number will be purely
internal state transitions, invisible to the outside observer. Et voilà, Skinner‟s
black box is opened.
Alternatively the mind/brain can be described as a network of computing
devices.132 Each device has its own list of state transitions, and the output of
these transitions can either be externally or internally fed to other internal
devices. Logically speaking, if certain requirements regarding timing are met,
such a network can be rewritten as one serial computing device. But for
purposes of intelligibility and realism describing the brain as a bunch of
interconnected computing devices will in most contexts be preferred. 133

argues [...] that the same thought can be realized in different computational structures.
The argument is simple: functionalism is a holistic theory on which a mental state is
defined by its causal relations to other mental states. But it is quite possible that two
individuals, John and Mary, though somewhat different in functional organization [...],
both believe that water is wet.” For Putnam informational organization remains
important. Quine goes one step further. Even if John and Mary have exactly the same
functional organization, we can still attribute different beliefs to them (see Chapter 3).
Since Quines criticism is more devastating for internalism, I will stick to Quine‟s, and
leave Putnam‟s aside.
The number of states, inputs and outputs is finite. In Putnam 1967 he describes a
probabilistic automaton. In such an automaton state transitions occur with a certain
probability. This refinement doesn‟t concern us here.
This is due to the fact that Putnam models his description on the Turing Machine
which has no separate internal memory and external output.
See, for example, Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind. Simon and Schuster, New
York. Daniel Dennett, Seymour Papert and Allan Newell have given argumentations to
the same extent. And there are many others.
Pylyshyn hints at this possibility in LePore and Pylyshyn 1999, p. 8 ff. Herbert A.
Simon on the other hand, when writing about the human information-processing system,
remarks that “[a]part from its sensory organs, the system operates almost entirely
serially, one process at a time, rather than in parallel fashion. This seriality is reflected in
the narrowness of its momentary focus of attention.” [Simon 1979, p. 255]

So, in the 1970‟s and 1980‟s Skinner‟s box was pried open134 with an
informationalist tin-opener. David Marr in his Vision: The Philosophy and the
Approach (Marr 1982) writes:

What does it mean, to see? The plain man‟s answer (and

Aristotle‟s, too) would be, to know what is where by looking. In
other words, vision is the process of discovering from images
what is present in the world, and where it is.
Vision is therefore, first and foremost, an information-processing
task […].135
[Emphasis in original]

Notice how easily Marr reasons from a process to an information-processing

task. For Marr informationalism is not narrowband functionalism at all. On the
contrary, Marr envisages informationalism as the alpha and omega of many
aspects of the world:

The need to understand information-processing tasks and

machines has arisen only quite recently. Until people began to
dream of and then to build such machines, there was no pressing
need to think deep about them. Once people did begin to
speculate about such tasks and machines, however, it soon
became clear that many aspects of the world around us … are
primarily phenomena of information processing, and if we are
ever to understand them fully, our thinking must include this

And in 1987 Ray Jackendoff declares informationalism to be a great success:

The computational theory of mind grows out of the conception of

the brain as an information-processing device, analogous to a
computer. In comparison with earlier analogies – brain as
hydraulic mechanism, as steam engine, as telephone switchboard
– the computer analogy has been remarkably successful in
capturing the general public‟s imagination […] as well as in
generating fruitful programs of research.137

During the 1980‟s informationalism all in all became the central creed of
cognitive psychology. And with it the apparent narrowness of informationalism
fell into oblivion. Informationalism was identified with an all-encompassing
functionalism. It is this step from researching very specific (viz., information-
processing) aspects of the human brain and mind to equalling it to a computer

I have borrowed this phrase from Lauren Slater. Her book Opening Skinner’s Box
(2004) gives a lively description of psychological experiments after Skinner. Though she
does not explicitly write about informationalism, these experiments suggest a modularity
of the brain.
Marr 1982, p. 103.
Marr 1982, p. 103.
Jackendoff 1987, p. 14.

that obscures other possible qualities. I do not want to deny the merits of this
narrow vision. Even in general, focussing on only one or two aspects of the
object under investigation pays off many times. But, as attractive as
informationalism is, and as beautiful as some of its results are, we should
always be aware of its narrowness. As I will describe in the next paragraph, the
main appeals of informationalism might also impede progress in other subjects,
such as memes.


Informationalism has two main appeals: multiple realizability, briefly mentioned

in the previous chapter, and modularity. Jackendoff gives a concise description
of both, starting with multiple realizability:

Two properties of computers recommend the analogy. First, the

information content of data and programs (especially those
written in high-level languages) can be stated independently of
physical instantiation in any particular computer. […] Thus there is
a sense in which, like the mind, the information in the computer is
autonomous – inhabits a separate domain – from the mere
hardware that supports computation.138

Please note the almost ironical logic with which Jackendoff compares the
information in the computer with the mind, instead of the other way round!
Information in computers inhabits a domain separate from the mere hardware,
just like the mind.139 For this reason we can write computer programs without
worrying too much about the machine running the program. In exactly the same
manner we can study the computational processes of the brain without worrying
about the neurological details. In the words of respectively Marr, Fodor and

There must exist an additional level of understanding at which the

character of the information-processing tasks carried out during
perception are analyzed and understood in a way that is
independent of the particular mechanisms and structures that
implement them in our heads.140

Let's leave it at this: the standard reason for stressing the

distinction between virtual and physical architecture is to exhibit
the actual organization of the mind as just one of the possibilities
that could have been realized had the environment dictated an
alternative arrangement of the computational elements. 141

Jackendoff 1987, p. 15.
In doing so Jackendoff returns to a sort of dualism. My point of departure will be that
the mind is physical. In lyrical words, to create a mind a spark plug is needed.
Marr 1982, p. 110.
Fodor 1983, p. 36.

[J]ust as we need not deal with the actual wiring of the computer
when writing our programs, so we can investigate the information
processed by the brain and the computational processes the brain
performs on this information, independent of questions of
neurological implementation.142

Strictly speaking, Jackendoff is absolutely right. If we concentrate on the

processing of information in the brain, we can describe and analyze this without
the troublesome details of neurons or other brain structures. Jackendoff,
however, turns this restricted statement into an unconditional principle, as he

This approach is often called functionalism; the idea behind this

term is that the function rather than the physical substance of the
brain is significant in studying the mind.143
[Emphasis in original]

With this statement Jackendoff presumes that information processing is the only
(important) function of the brain as far as the mind is concerned. 144 But, the
physical substance of a spark plug matters. It wouldn‟t be enough to have a
device that delivers a “1” when a spark is needed and a “0” otherwise. The
physical substance of a car door matters. The materials should shut out noise,
wind and cold and reduce the impact of reckless fellow road users. If the
function is physical, materials matter. So only when we concentrate solely on
non-physical, information-processing functions does substance not matter.145
In other words, multiple realizability is the correct idea that information-
processing tasks146 can in principle147 be realized in radically different media.148

Jackendoff 1987, p. 15.
Jackendoff 1987, p. 15.
John Heil, in an overview, characterizes functionalism in exactly the same way: “A
mind is a device capable of performing certain sorts of operation. States of mind
resemble computational states, at least to the extent that they are shareable, in principle
by any number of material (and perhaps immaterial) systems. To talk of minds and
mental operations is to abstract from whatever realizes them; it is to talk at a higher
level.” [Heil 1998, p. 91]
Fodor, like Jackendoff, simply states that computation is all that matters: “I shall
assume without argument that mental processes are computational insofar as they are
cognitive…”[Fodor 1983, p. 13]. If one is willing to grant Fodor this, multiple realizability
follows by sheer logic.
And as far as the human mind is concerned, only information-processing tasks
matter. John Searle‟s Chinese Room thought experiment brings this aspect to the fore.
Even if „the room‟ is processing linguistic information in exactly the same way a native
speaker would, it would still not be clear if every functional aspect of the brain of the
native speaker was captured. (I will develop this theme in more detail in the next
Insofar as the information processing is not dependent on some physical process, like,
for example, real randomness is dependent on quantum mechanical processes.

We should, however, strongly resist the urge to broaden this idea to all
processes taking place in the human brain or mind.
The second appeal of informationalism is modularity. To quote Jackendoff

Second, the ways in which programs are organized – in terms of

goals and subgoals […] – resonate with commonsense intuitions
about the organization of problem solving, learning, and other
cognitive tasks.149

This is a fairly strong claim, of which I wouldn‟t quite know how to defend it.
Let‟s begin by looking at the way computer programs are organized. In the early
days of computer science programming languages were not sophisticated150 and
computer memories were very small. To write a program the number of lines
comprising a program had to be strictly limited, and at the same time only a
tiny programming vocabulary was available. Thus programmers made all kinds
of shortcuts and clever loops in the code so as to reduce the use of memory and
the number of calculation steps. As a result these programs were very small
indeed and moreover almost impenetrable for anyone but the programmer.
Reading a program was like unravelling a huge plate of spaghetti with
indefinitely long branching streamers.
As computers started to have more memory and became faster, newly
refined programming languages were developed. These languages made it
possible to write readable computer programs. Readable, that is, to other
humans (computers didn‟t mind these improvements). Computer programs
were sliced into pieces, modules, that could be written and tested apart from
the rest of the program. But apart from ease of development and readability
this meant that the programs got bigger, that some of the same lines of code
were repeated in different modules, and that the execution of a program
comprised many more steps. If at some point speed or memory became a point
of concern, the simple solution was to wait for six months to have the hardware
developers solve the problem.151
The style of writing computer programs has altered from hodgepodge to
top-down. Start with the whole job (for example, calculate the percentage of
employees at risk of heart attack). Next, break up this task into smaller
subtasks (read the total number of employees, establish for each employee the
chance of getting a heart attack, and calculate the percentage). Now slice these

In the science of Artificial Intelligence multiple realizability is not problematic. That is,
as long as this science just aims at writing „smart‟ computer programs. Cf. Dennett 1981,
p. 82
Jackendoff 1987, p. 15
Assembly, or the most basic editions of BASIC, based on the maddening GOTO
We all trusted the law of Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, according to which
every two years computing hardware doubles in speed and memory capacity.

subtasks into even smaller tasks or modules, and so on until a machine 152
understands what you are talking about.
But what is the relation between these neatly written top-down programs
and the human brain or mind? How is the human brain actually organized? Like
a plate of spaghetti, or like a neatly written top-down computer program? My
common sense says that it is somewhere in between, but definitely closer to a
plate of spaghetti.153 How do we organize problem solving, learning, and other
cognitive tasks? Well, sometimes we do take them on step by step, substep by
substep. But at other times we jump right to conclusions and deliver the
justifications afterwards.
However, the modularity of computer programming resonates beautifully
with the idea of the compartmentalization of the human brain. Of course,
compartmentalization “traces back to Franz Joseph Gall, the founding father of
phrenology and a man who appears to have had an unfairly rotten press.”154 In
his Modularity of Mind Fodor states that “[…] the best research strategy would
seem to be divide and conquer: first study the intrinsic characteristics of each of
the presumed faculties, then study the ways in which they interact.” 155
Modularity isn‟t just a way of writing clear and comprehensible computer
programs, it is also the best research strategy for the human mind.
From here it is just a small step to the thesis that the human mind/brain
is modular.156 The smart point of modularity is that different modules can
operate independently and, true to the architecture of the brain, in parallel. Who
can resist modularity if it coincides with the dominant approach in software
engineering, the best research strategy and the parallelism of the brain?
“Modules are mandatory.”157 Though I agree that modularity has its blessings, I
think that the claim that it is necessary betrays a scientific mind that is too
disciplined and controlled by the computer metaphor. Modularity, like multiple
realizability, has led to many new insights, as I will show in the ensuing
paragraphs. But we should always be prepared to look back over our disciplined
shoulders and ask what the results would have looked like if we had been
controlled by different metaphors.
To conclude these remarks on functionalism and informationalism,
multiple realizability and modularity I would like to say a few words on
information and cognition. From the 1980‟s onward the fields of cognitive

Actually it is not the machine but the compiler. But this is just computer science
macho bla-bla.
Marco Iacoboni (2008) is of the opinion that the idea of a strictly modular mind
initially prevented the scientists at the Parma University to discover what are now known
as mirror neurons. These neurons perform multiple, intertwined functions, none of which
can neatly be separated from the others (Iacoboni 2008, pp. 8-10).
Fodor 1983, p. 15.
Fodor 1983, p. 9.
Fodor shows some reservations: “When I speak of a cognitive system as modular, I
shall there-fore always mean "to some interesting extent."” Fodor 1983, p. 37. But the
rest of his book is one long exposition on the modularity of mind.
Jackendoff 1987, p. 261.

psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience have come to bloom. These
fields revolve around the notions of information and cognition. As is so often the
case, these notions are rarely if ever clearly defined. In a general sense it might
be said that cognitive sciences study the flow and processing of information
within brains and between brains and their environment. I concede that this
doesn‟t elucidate these notions one bit (!), and I will return to this topic in
chapter 5. For now I will just take information as an unproblematic notion, and
write as if it is clear that cognition and the processing of information are
indissolubly connected.


Sometimes it seems as if the philosophy of mind in the first decade of the 21st
century has left all the tricky assumptions of informationalism behind. And
indeed, no one will submit any longer to the claim that minds are to brains as
software is to hardware. This formula has even become something of a Janus
face. But while everybody solemnly turns away from the computer metaphor,
traits of this paradigm still discipline and control much of the work. The creed is
renounced but the logical structures remain. This isn‟t necessarily a bad thing.
Embodied cognition, for example, has come about precisely because some main
traits of the computer metaphor have been preserved. Admittedly, in embodied
cognition mind is no longer ephemeral software; it is built out of down-to-earth
physical components. However, as I will show, multiply realizability and
modularity still play an indispensible role. Though this lets memes enter the
scene nicely as outside components of a cognitive process, further analysis of
the role played by informationalist assumptions is required. But let us first turn
to cognitive externalism.
Cognitive externalism is the idea that if it is the computational functions
that matter, and not the way in which these are physically realized, and if to a
reasonable extent the brain can be sliced into modules, then why should
location matter? Why should information-processing modules reside within the
physical boundaries of the brain? Or, put the other way round, why should a
process that occurs outside the brain principally be withheld the status of
cognitive process? Such is the upshot of the Parity Principle formulated by Clark
and Chalmers:

Parity Principle. If, as we confront some task, a part of the world

functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head, we
would have no hesitation in accepting as part of the cognitive
process, then that part of the world is (for that time) part of the
cognitive process.158

In this Parity Principle the presence of multiple realizability is obvious. How else
could we speak of a part of the world if it were to go on in the head, if it were

Originally in Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 8, this is a slightly better worded version
from Clark 2008, p. 77.

not only for the functionality of that part of the world? Inga‟s memory versus
Otto‟s notebook has become the classical example for externalists to drive this
point home. Inga‟s memory is in working order. Otto suffers from Alzheimer‟s
disease. When Inga wants to go to the Museum of Modern Art she uses her
memory to find out it is on 53rd Street. When Otto wants to go the Museum of
Modern Art he uses his notebook to find out it is on 53 rd Street. So, whereas the
process of locating MoMA in the case of Inga is realized solely in neurological
tissue, the very same process in Otto comprises a mixture of neurological
tissue, the movement of muscles, the use of eyes and, last but not least, his
notebook. As Clark and Chalmers write:

Otto is constantly using his notebook as a matter of course. It is

central to his actions in all sorts of contexts, in the way that an
ordinary memory is central in an ordinary life.159
[My emphasis]

In the way, that is, in the functional, information-processing way. When we look
at Inga and Otto from a distance we will see them both going to the MoMA, both
saying to the cabdriver, “MoMA, 53rd Street, please.” Both will exit the car in
front of the museum and both will walk to the exhibition which attracted them
there in the first place. Only when we zoom in on the details of both will we find
that Otto‟s notebook is part of Otto‟s memory process, whereas in Inga‟s case it
is not. So, why not consider the notebook a part of Otto‟s cognitive mind?
In both cases the information is reliably there when needed, available to
consciousness and available to guide action, in just the way we expect a belief
to be.

Certainly, insofar as beliefs and desires are characterized by their

explanatory roles, Otto‟s and Inga‟s cases seem to be on a par:
the essential causal dynamics of the two cases mirror each other

This brings Clark and Chalmers to the following conclusion.

The moral is that when it comes to belief, there is nothing sacred

about skull and skin. What makes some information count as a
belief is the role it plays, and there is no reason why the relevant
role can be played only from inside the body.161

From an informationalistic point of view Clark and Chalmers are absolutely

justified in drawing this conclusion. If we disregard everything else, and just
focus on the information processing that goes on, then certainly “there is
nothing sacred about skull and skin.” In embracing this conclusion we should
suppress the urge to hastily enlarge this narrow band functionalism to an all-

Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 9.
Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 227.
Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 228.

encompassing functionalism. Therefore I would not endorse the universal “…
when it comes to belief…”, but rather hold that insofar as a belief plays an
informational role there is nothing sacred about skull and skin in so far as that
informational role is concerned.
Even this more careful conclusion allows memes to re-enter the mind, as
we will see after we have rephrased the parity principle to do away with the
intuitively false assumptions of modularity.


In a subtle way the parity principle connects to the idea of the modularity of
brains and cognitive processes. The parity between Inga and Otto is associated
with Inga‟s brain on the one side and Otto‟s notebook (and his muscles and
eyes) on the other. But by no means is it clear that we could, even in principle,
slice out a portion of Inga‟s cognitive processes that would play the same, and
only the same role as Otto‟s notebook process. Can, for example, Inga‟s process
be sliced into a portion that contains the information about the MoMA and a
portion that performs the looking up of that information? I seriously doubt that
this could be the case162, and at this point I would certainly not want to be
committed to this view. So it is not clear what should be compared with what
qua role. We can circumvent this difficulty by rephrasing the parity principle:

Holistic Parity Principle. If two organisms solve some cognitive task, and one
of them uses a part of the world that the other doesn‟t, and if we have no
hesitation in accepting that the latter is completing its cognitive task, then that
part of the world is (for that time) part of the cognitive process of the other.

So, although the modularity of the mind has certainly played an important role
in the historical development of externalism, I think externalism can be phrased
and developed without it. This relieves us from the responsibility to underwrite
the modularity thesis and to state exactly what cognitive processes can replace
a particular part of the world. Some organisms function in the same cognitive
way as other organisms in combination with a part of the world. Otto plus
notebook is functionally equivalent to Inga.
Actually the only part that stands on itself throughout the story about
Otto and Inga, is the notebook. Otto could give his notebook to Inga, and she
could then add the notebook to her cognitive processes. As she learns to use
and trust the notebook, she might begin to put addresses out of her mind, like
we forget about telephone numbers stored in the memory of our mobile phone.
After a while she might become very similar to Otto in that she would be lost to
a certain extent if she lost the notebook. Although she would be able to relearn

Jackendoff argues that understanding language requires a modular description of the
language faculty. If this were the case we could in principle slice the brain up into
functional modules. These modules could be used as hook-ups for the determination of
meaning. If this were true, Quine‟s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation wouldn‟t

the addresses by heart, whereas Otto would not, Inga could become as
dependent on Otto‟s notebook as Otto himself. The notebook is a module that
can be transferred from Otto‟s mind to Inga‟s mind.
On that note, let us return to the definition of meme. I have shown that
the early definitions of meme by Dawkins, Blackmore and Dennett work out
badly when it comes to giving flesh to the notion of a copy of a meme.
Therefore I altered the definition to:

meme An (element of) an artefact or behaviour that may be

considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

This definition seems to preclude the possibility that memes enter into the
human mind. But Inga and particularly Otto show this is not the case. That is,
memes do not so much enter the mind, as that the human cognitive mind
comes to encompass certain memes. This is a special case of what Clark dubbed
the 007 principle:

The 007 principle. In general, evolved creatures will neither store

nor process information in costly ways, when they can use the
structure of the environment and their operations upon it as a
convenient stand-in for the information-processing operations
concerned. That is, know only as much as you need to know to
get the job done.163

In Clark‟s Supersizing the Mind the same principle is labelled intelligent

offloading.164 This idea of intelligent offloading is itself a special case of a
general tendency in organisms to try to move the information-processing
burden from the brain to the body and from there on to the background. Let us
call this the B3 principle.

B3 Principle. Organisms will try to move the information-

processing165 burden from brain to body and from there on to the
background as much as possible, if they can.

Evolutionarily speaking this makes perfect sense. Brain tissue consumes more
energy than bodily tissues, which in turn consume more energy than the
background environment. Offloading information saves energy which can then
be put to use in other activities, such as procreation. From now on the term
intelligent offloading will be reserved to indicate the offloading from body to

Clark 1989, p. 64.
Clark does not give a clear cut definition of intelligent offloading. But the index seems
to suggest that he is talking about the same phenomenon. Clark 2008.
I intentionally use the words information processing. The B3 principle only holds in
the narrow band functional domain. There might be other causes that would prevent
intelligent offloading.

The offloading from body to background is a topic in itself in animal
behaviour. Animals will try to save energy if their environment can accomplish
some task for them. Vultures silently wait till lions have brought down their
prey. Crows use the traffic lights and cars on crossroads to quickly crack open
nuts166. Predators make use of the occasional bushfire to have a feast. And
high-ranked baboons simply steal the food their low-ranked congeners have
painstakingly gathered. Intelligent offloading, the offloading to accomplish a
cognitive task, is a special case of this overall tendency of bodies to offload. I
will return to this topic at length in the next chapter.
So, memes are kinds of behaviour or artefacts, or parts of either, that
can be copied. According to the 007 principle and the B3 principle humans will
extensively make use of memes if these will relieve the brain off some of its
information-processing burden. With this some memes become an integral part
of the human mind. So, in the end I partially agree with Dawkins, Blackmore
and Dennett. Memes can be part of the human mind, but only the memes that
are artefacts or kinds of behaviour that are part of information-processing tasks.
To clarify this, let us take a look at two examples of chapter one, nut cracking
chimpanzees and table manners.
In the course of eight to ten years West African chimpanzees learn how
to crack the nuts of the oil palm tree open. Young chimpanzees observe the
behaviour of their mothers and through a massive amount of trials they slowly
shape their behaviour until they are able to independently crack the nuts open.
In line with the above definition of a meme the nut cracking behaviour of the
chimpanzees makes up a meme, or a complex of memes. These memes are
copied from chimpanzee to chimpanzee. But, is there any intelligent offloading
involved? Is the knowledge of nut cracking stored somewhere in the
Compare the hammer and anvil chimpanzees use to my Stanley
hammer. When I hit the first nails with my Stanley, which my brother had
offered me as a birthday present, I thought it was worthless. But, as my brother
told me, I had to get used to the Stanley, and the Stanley had to shape to my
behaviour as a carpenter. Slowly the dents in the head, the result of hitting
thousands of nails, made the hammer more suitable to my style of hitting nails
(compare this with the wear and tear of a fountain pen). There is a lot I don‟t
know about my hammer. I don‟t know its length or weight, the exact materials
used, the shape or the reason why I have got a lifelong guarantee on the
handle. Yet all these features matter to my hammering capabilities. The
features are not the result of my intelligence but the result of the hammering
experiences of numerous generations of carpenters preceding my efforts. My
Stanley contains intelligence about the average strength of a man, his arm
length, nails and wood.

See the video on

Tool use is a two-way sign of intelligence: not only does it require
intelligence to recognize and maintain a tool (let alone fabricate
one) but a tool confers intelligence on those lucky enough to be
given one.167

I am like a vulture preying on the effort and knowledge of previous generations

of carpenters. Consequently, the noble art of hammering is transferred from
human to human partly by hammers. It is a lot like Inga using Otto‟s notebook.
Once she gets used to the book, she preys on the information gathered by Otto.
Chimpanzees do not transfer the art of nut cracking via hammer and
anvil. To be sure, they know what to look for. They intentionally seek stones
that fit the job, and occasionally resort to wooden alternatives. But when tools
are broken when used, the chimpanzees often continue using stones. 168 So,
only in a very small sense can the stones be considered as offloaded knowledge.
They fit in with the behaviour of the chimpanzees, without significantly making
the behaviour of the chimpanzees fit in with them. Therefore the hammers and
anvils of chimps cannot be counted in as memes, while their behaviour can.
Chimpanzees don‟t offload their knowledge into the background, so there is no
possibility of picking it up for other chimpanzees.
With court etiquette and table manners intelligent offloading is abundant.
Etiquette books are to the nobility and especially to the middle classes what the
notebook is to Otto. They enable them to find their way in the intricate
landscape of behavioural obligations. As Inga picks up Otto‟s notebook and
starts using it as navigational support, she inherits Otto‟s knowledge. Not in her
head, but quite literally in the notebook. Inga could also replace Otto‟s
notebook. Giving Otto a notebook with different addresses would change his
knowledge. Similarly, etiquette books embody knowledge. They are knowledge
modules. We could replace an etiquette book, just as we could replace a spark
plug. We could even replace the book on 16th century court etiquette with a
manuscript on the court manners of an Egyptian Pharaoh, or the table manners
of 21th century vegetarians. As long as the human using the book would
uncritically follow the rules in the book, her manners wouldn‟t be bad.
But there are other types of offloading in etiquette as well. The way
tables are laid in classy restaurants, for example. For every course there are
specific pieces of cutlery. At the beginning of the dinner all these pieces are laid
on the table, in such a way that you can easily determine which cutlery to use.
Just pick up the knife, fork and spoon that are most distant from your plate.
After the course the waiter will remove the pieces, and it is clear what cutlery
should be used for the next course. Of course you can still mix up the use of
knives, forks and spoons, but there is at least some support.
Further examples of offloading are the placement of chairs in a room, the
use of servants to guide you or stripes and stars on uniforms. All these contain
knowledge offloaded into the background. This knowledge is heavily modular

Dennett 1996, pp. 99-100.
Matsuzawa 1994, p. 360.

and can be replaced by plug-and-play. In this way memes can become part of
the cognitive information- processing mind of humans. This re-entry of memes
into the human mind might seem rather bleak, though. Memes understood in
this way certainly don‟t play a constitutive role in the conscious human mind. It
could still be held that there are human minds on the one side, and helpful
artefacts on the other. The notebook doesn‟t alter Otto‟s conscious mind. It
functions like unconscious modules or processes in our brain. Otto cannot
consciously experience the information in his notebook, like Inga can experience
the information in her head. Memes thus understood are mind tools, not the
building blocks of human experience.
Can we do better? In their original proposals Dawkins and Blackmore saw
memes as constitutive of the human mind. But in their view to be constitutive of
the mind, memes had to enter the head as software. Can we do better than just
cognitive functionalism? Can memes be constitutive of our consciousness
without entering our head?

Is there a difference between Otto and Inga? According to the holistic parity
principle there isn‟t. This principle, however, is only concerned with the
narrowband functionality of the processes Inga and Otto plus notebook.169 But
what if we shift gear and change to a broader type of functionalism? In other
words, are there non-information processing aspects that matter to Inga an
Otto, but that tend to be overlooked when the focus is narrowed by
informationalism? Let‟s rephrase the question a little. Who would you rather be,
given that they are holistically indistinguishable on all narrowband functionalist
accounts, Inga or Otto plus?
I will approach this question indirectly by way of Alva Noë‟s account of
perception. There is something strange about Noë‟s book Action in Perception.
He doesn‟t use the words information or information processing. An odd thing,
for sure, in an age obsessed with information. To Noë talk about the perceptual
aspects of the mind cannot be separated from talk about the way perceptual
functions are embodied. Perhaps a description of the information processing
done by brain and body could indeed be given, but taken on its own this would
not explain our perceptions. Informational processes might be multiple
realizable, but human perceptions are not, they are tissue dependent to some
important extent.
It is instructive to contrast Noë‟s treatment of vision with James Gibson‟s
ecological approach. Gibson, as well as Noë, stresses the importance of the
environment. Both are, in this sense, externalists. To both bodily movements

To be more precise, the modularity of the mind must also hold in a very strong sense
for there to be no cognitive difference between Otto and Inga. I will assume this to be
the case. The philosophical view of Noë on enactment is independent of views on

play a central role in perception. But whereas Gibson expresses his approach
entirely in terms of information, Noë uses enactment to couch his ideas.
Let us begin with Gibson. In his ecological account of perception, Gibson
starts off with broadening the notion of information to cover almost everything
that is around us and to which our perceptual apparatus can in principle
respond. This broadening is by no means trivial, but it dovetails with
narrowband functionalism in that it transforms, or better still narrows, a
physical phenomenon to its informational content.

Let us try to distinguish light as physical energy, light as a

stimulus for vision, and light as information for perception.
What I call ecological optics is concerned with the available
information for perception and differs from physical optics, from
geometrical optics, and also from physiological optics.170

So ecological optics makes the environment available for informationalist

approaches. From the primary qualities of the light surrounding us he distils the
information this so-called ambient light might convey:

There is a vast literature nowadays of speculation about the

media of communication. Much of it is undisciplined and vague.
The concept of information most of us have comes from that
literature. But this is not the concept that will be adopted in this
book. For we cannot explain perception in terms of
communication; it is quite the other way around. We cannot
convey information about the world to others unless we have
perceived the world. And the available information for our
perception is radically different from the information we convey.171
[My emphasis to highlight his obsession with information]

Granted, Gibson does add a fine externalist point, but only to externalist
accounts that are already committed to narrowband functionalism. Gibson‟s is
not a fundamental critique on informationalism. It just widens the scope of
informationalism to accommodate the background. What we thought to go on in
the brain, that is, the processing of visual information, takes place at the
boundary where our eyes and the ambient light meet. The notion ‟optical array
is in this respect telling. It transforms the sea of light we bathe in, into discrete
portions, neatly arranged into an array 172. Once we think of ambient light as an
array, the movements of our eye can do the processing, instead of our brain.
Mark Rowlands gives a concise summary of Gibson‟s fifth chapter:

Gibson 1979, p. 47.
Gibson 1979, p. 63.
An array is also a much used object in computer programming. Information is often
structured into an array to allow multiple and iterated processing. The physical eye in
Gibson‟s account almost regains the properties of the Cartesian mind‟s eye, or the
read/write head of the Turing Machine, as the computational centre of vision.

Light carries information because the structure of the optical array
is determined by the nature and position of the surfaces from
which it has been reflected. The optic array is, as Gibson puts it,
specific to the environment. Because of this, an organism whose
perceptual system detects optical structure in the array is thereby
aware of what this structure specifies. Thus, the perceiving
organism is aware of the environment and not the array and,
more importantly, is in a position to utilize the information about
the environment embodied in the array.
The more information available to the organism in its optic array,
the less internal processing the organism needs to perform.
Understanding of the internal processes involved in visual
perception is logically and methodologically secondary to
understanding the information that is available to the perceiving
organism in its environment.173

I think Gibson is right as to the computational properties of ambient light and

moving eyes. For one thing, Gibson shows that perception is situated, strongly
dependent on our bodily movements, especially our eyes, our position in space,
and the specifics of the ambient light we are in. But, his account is narrow in
that it focuses solely on information extraction. Our body and eyes have become
part of the information extracting process that, according to others, goes on
solely in the brain. In principle the physical details still don‟t matter. If we were
to feed the optical array into a computer, it could, like our eyes, scan the array
and extract the same amount of information.
Noë, though acknowledging the externalist merits of Gibson 174, considers
his treatment too detached from the specifics of the human body. This is, of
course, a consequence of the underlying thesis of multiple realizability in
Gibson‟s ideas.175 According to this thesis “the algorithmic level of description of
cognitive phenomena is autonomous with respect to the implementation
level.”176 But,

[t]he enactive view applies pressure to [this] thesis. If perception

is in part constituted by our possession and exercise of bodily
skills – as I argue in this book – then it may also depend on our
possession of the sort of bodies that can encompass those skills,
for only a creature with such a body could have those skills. To
perceive like us, it follows, you must have a body like ours.177

Rowlands 2003, p. 171. [Emphasis in original]
Noë 2004, p. 21-22.
Noë doesn‟t argue against the thesis of multiple realizability per se, but against the
informationalist version I present here. That is, the idea that when we know the
information- processing properties of physical processes, these can be implemented on
various devices.
Noë 2004, p. 24.
Noë 2004, p. 25.

Notice that Noë does not deny the information extracting properties of our body
and senses. His view of enactment is that information extraction is indissolubly
connected to the physical specifics of our bodies. It is reliant on the exact
specifications of our body parts. Noë simply brings too hastily drawn
informationalist conclusions to a halt. The way in which we perceive is
connected to the way our body is composed. 178
More specific:

Perceptual experience acquires content thanks to our possession

of bodily skills. What we perceive is determined by what we do (or
what we know how to do); it is determined by what we are ready
to do. … [W]e enact our perceptual experience; we act it out.179

Now please reconsider Inga, Otto and his notebook. As I have said Inga and
Otto plus notebook are, by stipulation, informationally equivalent. They are
behaviourally indistinguishable. But, do Inga and Otto perceive the world in the
same way? Does the world look to Inga as it does to Otto? Let us make a very
bold assumption180 and state that Otto is so much used to his notebook that
most of the time he doesn‟t even notice the notebook. Otto‟s notebook is, to use
Clark‟s term, transparent. Otto uses his notebook like we use our watch.
Carelessly, without even noticing it, we glance at our watch and adjust our
behaviour to the time. When someone asks us the time, we thoughtlessly turn
our wrist and lift our left arm. 181 Quite the same goes for Otto. His notebook is
Our memory is also transparent. Most of the time we don‟t even notice
we are making memory calls. Still, transparency does not yield equivalence.
This comes out best when we experience a memory breakdown, when a name
or an address is on the tip of our tongues, so to speak. The best advice for what
to do in those circumstances is to relax and not think about it for a while.
Probably the address will pop up in your memory when you least think about it.
But what about Otto? What should he do if an address is not on the page he
opens? He should probably develop some smart strategy for flipping over the
pages until he encounters the address.
So the way in which Inga enacts her memory is pretty different from the
way Otto enacts his notebook. Both systems (Inga versus Otto plus notebook)
process information in exactly the same way. But whereas Otto‟s memory
recalls are dependent on brain, muscles and eyes, Inga‟s memory recalls are
only dependent on her brain (and perhaps her body). Though Inga and Otto

Noë acknowledges the fact that this comes close to Gibson‟s account of affordances.
But Gibson used affordances only to supplement his theory of perception. To Noë “all
objects of sight (indeed all objects of perception) are affordances.” Noë 2004, pp. 105-
Noë 2004, p. 1
It is probably too bold, according to Erik Myin, for example, who in a lecture
demonstrated the sheer implausibility of someone like Otto actually existing.
Clark 2003, pp. 40-41.

plus notebook are informationally equivalent, according to Noë, Inga perceives
address retrieval in a different way from Otto. This difference cannot be reduced
to a difference in information processing. There is a functional difference
between Inga and Otto after all, a difference in enactment.
This brings us to the difficult question of when a function is duplicated.
Some definite answer may be given as to the informational properties, although
this is by no means clear (see Chapter 3). But it is certainly the merit of
narrowband functionalism that it allows us to centre on some aspects of
organisms while keeping a blind eye to others. However, as Noë has it,
perception might be reliant on the physical details of implementation. You
might actually have to mention hands and eyes.182 Therefore broad
functionalism will always be subordinate to scientific discoveries. When
biologists uncover new details about the human body, or about bodily tissues,
the algorithm describing cognition might have to be couched in quite different
terms. And it might show that all the time we might have been wrong about our
My mechanic may be wrong. Maybe there is a physical property that
matters. A physical property that Volkswagen parts possess and generic parts
don‟t, a property that determines the way in which I perceive spare parts. Or,
consider an even more mundane example. What is the difference between
watching a movie on my laptop computer and watching it at the cinema?
Especially, when you bear in mind that the part of our retina with which we
actually see covers no more than a thumbnail on the distance of an arm length?
I think there is no notable difference as far as the information processed is
concerned. But there is a difference in enactment. In the cinema we have to
turn our heads more, slightly but significantly. And, the sound comes from
further away and surrounds us, so movement of our head and ears brings about
a different flow of sound waves on our eardrums. This difference in the
consequences of bodily movements and the anticipation thereof cause a
variation in experience. Bodily matter and movement matter to mind.
As a final example, this might not be to the taste of everyone, consider
the remarkable difference in sales figures between the Playstation 3 and the
Nintendo Wii. Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox write:

Compared to the Sony Playstation 3 [...] the Nintendo‟s Wii‟s

graphics are primitive, and most of the games that have been
made for it (so far) are consistently childish in content. Yet
demand for the Wii was so great that as late as August 2007
(over eight months after its initial release) used consoles were
being purchased on for $ 150 over the retail price.
By this date the Wii had outsold the Playstation 3 by three to one

Cf. Noë p. 2004, p. 25.
Cogburn and Silcox 2009, p. 17.

Why? Cogburn and Silcox seek the solution to this puzzle in enactivism, which
they describe as follows:

Enactivist theories of perception hold that humans do directly

perceive the world. According to enactivism, this direct perception
is a function of the way we physically manipulate ourselves and
our environments. [...] [E]nactivism provides a compelling
explanation of why Wii game-play is more realistic.184

The Wii is more realistic because of the Wii‟s controller. I will not explain the ins
and outs of Wii gaming, and if you are not familiar with it I invite you to have a
talk to a teenager and ask her all about it. The short version is something like
this. In order to direct the video game on a Wii, movements have to be made
resembling gestures in the real situation much more closely than a keyboard or
the controller of a Playstation. When using the latter device only the fingers
have to be budged. When playing on a Wii the arm and body have to be moved
as well. The graphics of the Wii is childish, but because the interface forces us to
enact the real life movements, playing on the Wii feels more realistic. Cogburn
and Silcox conclude:

[W]hy does Wii play seem more realistic to players, even though
the visual interface is so much worse? Answer: enactivism is true.
Perception is not an isolated mental phenomenon, [...] but rather
a function of one‟s overall sensorimotor profile.185

We should not jump to hasty conclusions. In the years to come, empirical

science will show whether enactivism is true. However, enactivism gives a
compelling explanation as to why people prefer Wii memes over Playstation
memes. And these reasons have nothing to do with the processing of
information. We prefer the Wii memes because of the sensorimotor profile they
provide us with. This idea gives us a new way of looking at memes. Might
memes be more than passive, unconscious scaffolds of our cognitive mind?
Might memes actually enrich our mental life, the way in which we experience
the world?


Otto‟s notebook makes a difference for the way in which he enacts memory
tasks, and consequently for the way in which his memory feels to him. So, a
meme can not only enter into our (cognitive) mind, but at the same time it can
alter the way in which we experience a cognitive task. Informationalists tend to
overlook this, probably because the overall input-output function of the
organism plus background is considered instead of the particular ways of
enactment. Manipulation of the environment helps the organism to solve a

Cogburn and Silcox, p. 21.
ogburn and Silcox 2009, p. 48.

cognitive task it would otherwise have to perform in its brain. 186 Hence
offloading. But when we view the use and manipulation of the environment as
enactment, memes, whether understood as artefacts or as behaviour, also get a
certain feel, to use the forbidden four-letter f-word. This has three
consequences that are important for a viable evolutionary account of memes.
In the first place, because of the feel we prefer some memes to others.
We prefer biological memory to notebooks in a lot of cases. This is because we
enact biological memory differently from notebook memory. The passage about
a dangerous mountain walk in our diary can be helpful in recalling the walk, but
it could never replace the memorable experience! We externally store telephone
numbers, dates, addresses and codes, or else we use all sorts of mnemonic
reminders. The enactment of memory recall in these cases comes close to
brainy memory recalls of otherwise meaningless figures. But with more
meaningful episodes enactment matters, and it matters because it provides
memories with feelings. Therefore we preferably use our biological memory, or
else alternatives like photographs or video, although somehow the latter will
always fall short.
Memes evolve because we select and duplicate some memes over others.
The B3principle says that we prefer memes for reasons of saving energy. The
theory of enactment suggests a slight revision. We might actually prefer some
memes to others because we prefer some form of enactment to another, even
though it consumes more energy.
Secondly, in some sense boundaries do matter. This follows from the fact
that we enact the memes we attach ourselves to. Different artefacts and
different ways of behaviour fit differently in with our boundaries. This fit itself
can influence the way in which we experience the meme.
The third consequence is more important. Memes might give us genuine
new ways of experiencing. To some extent this is trivial. Microscopes and
telescopes unveil things never seen before. But this is not quite what is meant
here. Microscopes and telescopes may simply reveal new information, but they
also add content to existing ways of perceiving. However, some artefacts might
also add to the number of types of experiences we have. Consider texting187 on
your mobile phone as an example of experience enrichment. The texting
technique was originally introduced without far-reaching pretentions. The
amount of data sent by way of texting is minute in comparison to the amount of
data transferred during an ordinary phone call. Nevertheless, texting took on,
and today telephone companies obtain a substantial part of their income from
texting services. How could this happen?
The main reason, or so I argue, is because texting is not about
information at all. It is not about the information contained in the text message
itself, nor about colateral information, such as “I am thinking of you”, “We are
friends” or “Don‟t hesitate to call.” No, texting literally alters the way in which

See, for example, Clark 1977, p. 64.
In Dutch: sms„en.

we experience others. In that respect it had best be compared with tactile visual
sensory substitution (TVSS) experiments, as described by Clark 188 and Noë189.
TVSS is a mode of quasi-seeing without any involvement of eyes or visual

[…] The subject is outfitted with a head-mounted camera that is

wired up to electrodes (say, on the tongue) in such a way that
visual information presented to the camera produces patterns of
activation on the tongue.190

After a short training period the subjects begin to report visual experiences,
they are able to grab and throw objects into a basket. Subjects even experience
certain well-known visual illusions such as the waterfall illusion.191 On Clark‟s
account “[t]he human eye provides one […] complex of information, the TVSS
grid another…”192 So, “[t]he lesson, once again, is that our brains are amazingly
adept at learning to exploit new types and channels of input.” 193 But this doesn‟t
even begin to describe the experiences subjects report. Subjects enthusiastically
testify that they regain a lost way of experiencing the world, sight. Within the
theory of enactment this means, according to Noë, that “the laws of
sensorimotor contingency governing the quasi-vision of TVSS are like those of
normal vision, at least to some substantial degree […].” 194
Would TVSS provide subjects with visual experiences even if they were
born blind? Would TVSS provide subjects with visual experiences even if they
were born blind and had no visual cortex? Yes, it would. Because the visual
experiences occur in the cortex connected to the tongue, “[w]hat makes a locus
of brain activity a locus of visual activity is, precisely, the fact that this activity
is deployed in the services of this larger sensorimotor task […].”195When
subjects are connected to a TVSS device they perceive the world in a way they
could not do without it.
When people are connected to mobile phones with texting they
experience social relationships in a way they couldn‟t experience without it.
Texting is not just a fast alternative or substitute for letters, postcards or e-
mails. Texting takes place within an array of different kinds of behaviour that
makes the subjects experience the presence of others in new and incomparable
ways. Texting lets us enact others in a way that old-fashioned presence and
distance would not. That is why youngsters tell their parents and grandparents

Clark 2003, pp. 124-126.
Noë 2004, p. 110 ff.
Noë 2004, p. 111, see also Clark 2003, p. 125.
Noë 2004, p. 111 and there is a very convincing video to be seen on: Meanwhile the
American corporation Wicab has developed a commercial version of a TVSS device, called
Clark 2003, p. 126.
Clark ibid.
Noë 2004, p. 112.
Noë 2004, p. 112.

to experience a community of mutually texting individuals before judging. In his
latest book Noë writes about texting:

My mother thousands of miles away is present, for she is just one

phone call away. The funds in my U.S. bank account are available
to me here in Germany in this age of electronic banking, and so
they are, in that sense present – that is to say, they feel present
to me.
The use of instant messaging provides a striking example of this
kind of extended presence. Studies have shown that the use of
messaging amongst teenagers in Japan has transformed the
dynamics of social relations. Kids text back and forth throughout
the day. They rarely send informative or detailed messages; the
informational content of their sendings tends to be minimal. In
effect, they are “pinging” each other: letting each other know that
they are online, or in reach, or “there”. [...] In this way, the
practice of texting [...] creates a new modality of social


Narrowband functionalism combined with externalism shows how memes can

enter the mind. Nevertheless, it falls short of explaining the lure of some
memes over others, because it fails to observe functionality beyond information
and the processing of it. When we move from this rather bleak perspective to an
enriched paradigm of enactment, memes gain in evolutionary power. They do
not just function as offloading devices, but alter the way in which humans
experience the world. In the next chapter I will show this to be a very viable
possibility, and with it I hope to sanction Noë‟s account from an evolutionary

Noë 2009, pp. 83-84. My emphasis



"Man the cow parasite" is probably how

non-man defines man in his zoology books.
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Why should we use the term meme? Why not just stick to terms like artefacts,
behaviour, or, if you insist, information and ideas? I will contend that the
introduction of a new term, like meme, into evolutionary biology is only feasible
when memes have empirical effects and are themselves part of the ontology of
biology. Biology is not a science like elementary particle physics. Biology is
about species, organisms, cells and DNA. Theories on evolution are causal
descriptions about how organisms changed under the influence of changing
environments. As was shown in chapter 3, information and meaning should be
precluded from biology as long as two different researchers can come up with
contradictory descriptions and there is no way, not even in principle, to decide
who is right or who is wrong. Therefore, biology should limit the use of
theoretical terms to an absolute minimum. Preferably, in evolutionary biology it
should in principle always be possible to eliminate a theoretical term and ground
it in entities having an obvious causal impact.
Do memes play a causal role, then? Remember I defined memes in
terms of artefacts and behaviour. So the question becomes: do behaviour and
artefacts play a causal role in evolutionary biology? Can it sometimes be the
case that, where artefacts and behavioural changes lead, inherited changes
follow?197 Or, to put the question into a catchphrase: do memes push genes, at
least some of the times? For if it is always the other way round, we could just as
well describe the happenings of memes as a phenotypical effect of genes. So,
do behaviour and artefacts sometimes have effects on genes?
One of the possible effects of behaviour pushing genes is called the
Baldwin effect, after the American psychologist James Mark Baldwin, who wrote
a paper in 1896 called A New Factor in Evolution.198 Baldwin described the way
in which learned behaviour can become part of the inherited behavioural

Cf. Jablonka and Lamb 2005, p. 289.
See Baldwin 1896.

repertoire of a species of organisms. To describe the Baldwin principle Avital and
Jablonka use the imaginary species tarbutnik199 (after the Hebrew word for
culture, tarbut). Since the use of this species has become somewhat of a
tradition, like Quine’s Gavagai!, I will submit to the explanatory use of the
So, suppose that at some point in biological history the environment of
the tarbutnik undergoes a considerable change. Suppose further that only the
individuals capable of learning novel behaviour are able to survive and
procreate. This then would lead to new generations of tarbutniks all of which are
also adept at learning the new behaviour. So far, the new behaviour isn‟t part
of the genetic behavioural repertoire of the tarbutniks, though the learning
behaviour is. But things might start to change due to the following. It was
arguably Darwin‟s greatest merit, that he showed all traits of a species to
display a considerable variation from one individual to another. Tarbutniks are
all capable of learning the new behaviour, but some will do so more quickly and
easily than others. The tarbutniks which are apter at learning the new
behaviour, and which spend less energy in learning, have more energy left for
procreation. Consequently, following generations will show an increased
frequency in the traits enabling individual tarbutniks to grasp the novel
behaviour more quickly.
Some of these traits might not be learning skills at all, but traits leading
directly to the desired behaviour, thus saving the energy normally consumed by
learning. So, as this process repeats itself over many generations, eventually a
generation will develop of which the individuals won‟t have to learn the
behaviour at all. They simply develop it as an innate trait.
Though it is not difficult to imagine something like the Baldwin effect
going on, the question how often in natural history the Baldwin effect has
actually taken place is far more complicated to answer. Dennett discusses this
question200, and concludes that:

“[...] the Baldwin effect is not at all an alternative to natural

selection, but it is nonetheless an important extrapolation from, or
extension of, orthodox theory that potentially can explain the
origins of many of the most challenging adaptations.201

Dawkins accepts that the effect may have played a role in evolution, with the
explicit provision that it should not in any way be understood to be
Lamarckian.202 And Terrence Deacon considers the Baldwin effect to be of
importance in the evolution of human language.203

Avital and Jablonka, p. 3, and ff.
Dennett 2003, p. 70.
Dennett 2003, p. 72.
Dawkins 1982, p. 170.
Deacon 1997, p. 322, and ff.

Godfrey-Smith shows that the Baldwin principle has to be supplemented
with what is called niche-construction to yield a genuine force in evolution. 204
Organisms can construct their own niche by altering the environment in which
they live. To return to the tarbutniks, suppose some of them have acquired the
skills of predicting the behaviour of other tarbutniks. These „mind-reading‟
tarbutniks use their capacity to outwit the others and in this way food and mate
resources become more accessible to them. Over the generations tarbutniks will
generally become better mind-readers. But then the social environment will
have changed. Just mind-reading will not suffice anymore, and more elaborate
mind-reading skills will develop. And so on. Within this new environment
tarbutniks without mind-reading skills will have a hard time breeding.205
A combination of niche-construction and the Balwin effect is understood
to be at the heart of many human traits.
Some humans are better at digesting lactose than others, and in many
cultures almost none of the adults are able to digest it at all206. When at some
prehistoric point milking behaviour began, the amount of nutrients that could be
pulled out from an animal vastly increased, as compared to just consuming its
meat. Therefore the capacity to drink milk and digest lactose gave some
individuals an edge over others. Consequently the ability to milk, drink milk and
the capacity to digest milk spread over some populations. This led to a change
in environment in tribes drinking milk. Within these tribes individuals with
lactose intolerance became maladapted. So, once farming and milk drinking
behaviour catch on, some genes are pushed out.207
Might artefacts have had the same effects? Obviously some kinds of
human behaviour are heavily dependent on artefacts. In some sense, even
domesticated cows are artefacts, natural findings shaped to the needs of
humans. Hunting, to name a more evident example, is dependent on the
existence of arrows and bows, since humans are too slow and clumsy to catch a
prey with their bare hands like chimpanzees do. Or, if prehistoric humans could
perhaps still catch prey empty-handed, bows and arrows would have given
some hunters a definite edge over others. But as soon as bow and arrow caught

The Baldwin Effect supplemented with niche-construction is already implicitly present
in Deacon 1997, Godfrey-Smith accentuates its importance. For example, Godfrey-Smith
2003, p. 56.
Allison Jolly, Andrew Whithen, Robert Byrne and many others have suggested that
some such process lies at the origin of human mind-reading capabilities.
98% of Southeast Asians, 90% of Asian Americans and 80% of Alaskan Inuit are
lactose intolerant, according to the NCMHD Centre for Nutritional Genomics (webpage:
Conversely, because of the fact that our ancestors began consuming meat some
formerly maladaptive genes might have been allowed in. “Tool-use no doubt helped early
humans in butchering their dinners. But there is evidence that the advance to cooking
and using knives and forks is leading to crooked teeth and facial dwarfing in humans.”
(Source: National Geographic News, Another spicy
detail is the fact that vegetarianism is only possible within a culture where food is
cooked. The length of our intestines betrays a meat eating history, since they aren‟t long
enough to sufficiently digest raw vegetables.

on, the environment changed and individuals without the skill to use these
artefacts would have seen the number of potential prey dwindle. Hunting
equipment might have boosted the tool using agility of early humans.
Perhaps the most telling trait originating from some sort of niche-
creation in combination with the Baldwin effect is the fact that we are natural-
born cyborgs.

[W]hat is special about human brains, and what best explains the
distinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely to enter into
deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs,
props and aids.208

Even granting that the biological innovations that got this ball
rolling may have consisted only in some small tweaks to an
ancestral repertoire, the upshot of this subtle alteration is now a
sudden, massive leap in the space of mind design. Our cognitive
machinery is now intrinsically geared to [...] artefact-based
expansion [...]209

Such a distinctive human feature might only have come about when the early
use of tools created a new niche in which humans without the ability to use
tools became maladapted and extinguished. Today the inability to use tools
and/or to perform complex sequences of behaviour is called dyspraxia and is
described in the DSM-IV+210. Our ancestors learned to use tools, their
successors slowly acquired the genes for this aptitude, thus enabling them to
use even more complex tools. And we, the successors of the successors of these
successors, are diagnosed with dyspraxia if we are not able to connect to our
culture based on artefact.
Whether or not Baldwin effects and niche-creation are robust
evolutionary forces, it remains questionable if they supply us with a satisfactory
justification for the use of the term meme, for three reasons. First, though they
explain the way in which some artefacts and kinds of behaviour drive genes,
they do not necessarily imply that artefacts are themselves part of an
evolutionary process. Suppose the tarbutniks by accident stumble upon a huge
pile of neolithic tools, huge enough to supply every tarbutnik with the necessary
tools. Then why should the tarbutniks copy and select those tools? They
carefully preserve the tools they find, perhaps they even repair them, but they
don‟t copy them, because there is simply no need to do so. Baldwin effects and
niche-creation treat behaviour and artefacts on a par with natural resources.
But what is more, secondly, Baldwin effects and niche-creation take place
on an evolutionary timescale. How could these processes explain the rapid

Clark 2003, p. 5.
Clark 2003, p. 8.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Published by the
American Psychiatric Association.

multiplication of mobile phones, from one to billions within one generation 211?
Baldwin effects and niche- creation might explain our cyborgian nature, but they
do not clarify the nature of successful memes, nor do they provide reasons for
adopting memes as an interesting biological category.
And thirdly, Baldwin effects and niche-creation take organisms as their
focal point. Behaviour and artefacts are of assistance in the evolutionary
success of organisms like tarbutniks, and for that reason they are able to drive
genes, or still better, the relative quantity of alleles of some genes. Genes
remain the fundamental force in evolution. This is, however, in clear
contradistinction to the purport Dawkins originally attached to memes:

As an enthusiastic Darwinian, I have been dissatisfied with

explanations that my fellow-enthusiasts have offered for human
behaviour. They have tried to look for „biological advantages‟ in
various attributes of human civilization. [...] The argument I shall
advance [...] is that, for an understanding of the evolution of
modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole
basis of our ideas on evolution.212

Can we get forceful memes that are not dependent on effects advantageous to
genes? Or, that may be even damaging to an organism and its genes? It is here
that I will return to Richard Dawkins‟ own writings on evolution. Dawkins‟ idea
of an extended phenotype fits well in with regular evolutionary theory and
provides us with a possible mechanism of the way in which memes copy
themselves, and in the process of doing so change our minds.


The impact of a gene may reach far beyond the boundaries of the organism it
resides in. A spider‟s web is probably the easiest illustration of this thought. A
spider‟s genes not only influence the specific appearance of a spider, but they
also control the structure of the web it builds. Because of this they form an
important factor in the amount of prey a spider will catch during its lifetime.
Better webs contain more prey at the end of the day, and better webs are the
result of genetic differences which will fare better under evolutionary pressure.
Since the web is no part of the spider‟s body, and therefore no part of what is
ordinarily considered to be the phenotype, Dawkins tags the web as part of the
extended phenotype of a spider‟s genes.
Beaver dams and termite mounts are other examples of extended
phenotypes. A flooding lake surrounded by gnawed down trees behind a beaver
dam is part of the extended phenotype of beaver genes. The bodily features and
behavioural specifics of beavers are geared to dams and lakes. The one couldn‟t
exist without the other, just as the body and the web of a spider are dovetailed

Because the procreation of some artefacts takes place within one generation,
switching to epigenetics will not give memes a genuine place in evolution either.
Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 191.

to entail maximal efficient fly catching. Niche-creation is nothing more than the
notion of the phenotype extended to encompass the entire environment. In
creating a dam and consequently a flooded lake beavers create a niche for
themselves to fish in.
The genius of Dawkins‟ The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype
was that he diverted the point of application of natural selection from the bodies
of organisms to the genes, or more specifically, to the genes in the germ cells.
Genes will try to get into the next generation in as big an amount as possible.213

Any gene that behaves in such a way as to increase its own

survival chances in the gene pool [...] will, by definition,
tautologously, tend to survive. The gene is the basic unit for

Moreover, they will literally go to some considerable length to achieve this. The
human body and the human brain are not the holy grail of evolution. They make
up the machine by means of which the genes of our gametes propel themselves
into the next generation. But this machine, important though it is, is certainly
not the boundary of the power of a gene. A gene may influence the
environment, and may even influence other machines to their own advantage.
From the gene‟s point of view, environmental structures as well as other
organisms are possible means of increasing its quotum in the gene pool.
Dawkins describes the adverse effects of viruses as an example of the
long reach of the gene:

When we have a cold or a cough, we normally think of the

symptoms as annoying byproducts of the viruses‟ activities. But in
some cases it seems more probable that they are deliberately
engineered by the virus to help it travel from one host to another.
Not content with simply being breathed into the atmosphere, the
virus makes us sneeze or cough explosively.215

But the long reach of the mechanism becomes most obvious in the case of a
truly devilish, devious parasite, the Nematomorph hairworm (Spinochordodes
tellinii). During the early phase of its life this hairworm lives and develops inside
a grasshopper, until the time comes for the worm to transform into an aquatic
adult. By then they measure already several times the length of the
grasshopper‟s body.216 The hairworm secretes a protein which influences the

I will not defend the use of intentional terms when speaking about genes. For a
reduction of such terms to a biochemical vocabulary see Dawkins (sic!) 1976(2006) pp.
Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 36.
Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 246.
If your stomach is strong enough, watch the video Alien Parasites on YouTube, and be
impressed by the unthinkable length of the parasite.
( or search for ‟alien parasites‟).

nervous system of its host and induces a bizarre desire to swim in this strictly
non-aquatic creature.

[O]n the border of a forest near Avène les Bains in southern

France. Hordes of infected grasshoppers – more than 100 a night
– arrive at the pool during summer nights at the behest of the

Once the grasshopper hits the water the hairworm emerges, leaving its host
behind dead or dying. So much for gratitude.
The truly devious point is that the hairworm influences the mind of the
grasshopper. The infected grasshopper searches a pond to hop into and
subsequently goes for a swim. It doesn‟t just wriggle and squirm, it seeks for
and deliberately jumps into water. The behaviour of the grasshopper belongs to
the extended phenotype of the hairworms genes. Put the other way round, the
genes of the hairworm hook into the mind, brain and behaviour of the
grasshopper. Dawkins:

Any nervous system is vulnerable to manipulation by a clever-

enough pharmacologist.218

This leads to what I have called the Central Theorem of the

Extended Phenotype: An animal‟s behaviour tends to maximize
the survival of the genes „for‟ that behaviour, whether or not
those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal
performing it. … [T]he theorem could apply, of course, to colour,
size, shape – anything.219

As it is, the tactic of the genes of a hairworm has a disadvantage. The hairworm
has to physically enter the grasshopper in order to drop off the behaviour
pushing proteins into its brain. Can we come up with even more subtle and
devious examples of organisms which just deliver the proteins?
In The Extended Phenotype Dawkins‟ favourite illustration is the cuckoo
nestling luring its host, and even birds occupying other nests which happen to
fly by (!), into nourishing it.

I think that the cuckoo nestling must be doing rather more than
just „fooling‟ their hosts, more than just pretending to be
something that they aren‟t. They seem to act on the host‟s
nervous system in rather the same way as an addictive drug. [...]

Nicolas Wade ‟Parasitic Hairworm Charms Grasshopper into Taking a Swim‟ in the
New York Times, September 6, 2005.
Dawkins 1982, p. 71.
Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 253, his emphasis.

So enticing is the red gape of a cuckoo nestling that it is not
uncommon for ornithologists to see a bird dropping food into the
mouth of a baby cuckoo sitting in some other bird‟s nest! 220

The genes for the red gape of nestlings manipulates the mind of other birds,
and seduces them to drop food at the expense of their „own‟ genes.
Let us pause to think about pigs. From the perspective of humans, pigs
serve our needs. We may treat them inhumanely or cruelly, and we may feel
sorry about that, but at the end of the day bio-industry delivers us proteins and
fats in quantities our hunting ancestors never dreamed of. But now, change
your perspective to that of the genes of pigs221. Pork is to humans what the red
gape is to parenting birds. Humans spend huge amounts of their financial and
energetic resources on the multiplication of pig genes, even at the expense of
their own genes. We grow fatter, become unhealthier, and die more often
through heart attacks and high blood pressure because the genes of pigs entice
our minds and thereby transform us into huge pork feeders.
The Cannabis plant uses a comparable, but even more subtle strategy.
The plant produces THC222. For no rational reason, humans seem to like the
effects THC has on their brains and minds. They like it so much that they go to
some considerable length to grow, harvest, dry, process and refine Cannabis
plants. They will even risk their freedom or life for it in some circumstances. To
the good of whom? Well, just as the genes for a red gape use a flaw in the
brains of parenting birds, so the genes for THC use a flaw in the brains of
humans. The genes for the THC production in the plant even recruited
Californians to improve their share in the Cannabis gene pool. Nowadays
Nederwiet (derived from Californian Cannabis) contains up to at least four times
as much THC as it did in the 1970‟s.223
Human bodies and brains were not selected for the excessive
consumption of pork or the smoking of weed. The survival machines of our
genes are imperfect, and therefore susceptible to the machinations of alien


Memes will have earned their place in the ontology of natural history, once it
can be shown that they outwit genes and propagate with the help of and
preferably even at the expense of genes. Otherwise they could just as well be
regarded as part of the extended phenotype of organisms within ordinary
evolutionary theory. I think, though, Dawkins was right when he wrote that the

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 249.
And not to the perspective of pigs! They are probably very unhappy with the tactics
their genes opted for.
Tetrahydrocannabinol is the main psychoactive substance found in the Cannabis
The level of THC in Nederwiet has risen from 5% in 2000 to 20%, or even 28% in

meme “… is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval
soup…”224 In other words, I would be surprised to find that memes have already
developed strategies in deviousness comparable to the strategies of genes for
the red gape in cuckoos or genes for THC in Cannabis. So if we want to find
memes we will have to look even harder than in the case of parasitic genes. We
will consciously have to change our perspective, and adopt the stance of the
meme, looking at humans as the sole possibility for survival and procreation.
Such a change of view is hampered by the attractions of
informationalism. Consider the THC inducing genes of Cannabis again. What
does THC do? Or better, what does THC do with regard to the information
processing of humans? My answer would be “Nothing at all” or even “The intake
of THC diminishes the information-processing capacities of a human brain.”
Being stoned is not a state that can be explained in terms of information
processing. The state has a certain feel, has certain attractions, but to rewrite
this into a flux of information would be preposterous, and would make us miss
the point of gene selection. Certainly, if people want to grow weed they use
knowledge, and process information to do so. Just like the grasshopper on its
way to water. But as soon as the THC kicks in, the enactment of the world is
intoxicated, at the expense of information processing.
Dawkins introduced memes to elucidate cultural phenomena just when
informationalism reached a climax. As a consequence memes have always been
considered as the carriers of information. Even as late as 2004 Sterelny still

Cultural inheritance is important, but only if we think of it as an

information flow between biological individuals.225

I think Sterelny is seriously mistaken. If informationalism is true, human minds

will contain information that will maximize the utility of their environment. In
the end every meme will be of some sort of service to some gene or complex of
genes. In other words, the recounting of memes could always be reduced to the
fitness of genes. Maladaptive behaviour will be explained as bugs in the
information processor. THC makes the brainy processor collapse, nothing else.
But then again, why would we pursue a chemical that just makes our capacities
collapse if it were not for the feel of that collapse? Informationalism is not
completely mistaken. Informationalists are mistaken in thinking that information
processing is the only thing going on in the human brain.
To memes the human mind is a tool for propagation and reproduction. It
is their extended phenotype. A meme doesn‟t have to enter the human mind to
recruit it. Or, as Dennett writes:

A scholar is just a library‟s way of making another library.226

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192.
Sterelny 2004, p. 253. My emphasis.

Strictly speaking Dennett is wrong. Libraries don‟t qualify as memes, and
libraries don‟t recruit humans to make copies of themselves. Books sometimes
do, and books sometimes use scholars, but libraries are never literally copied
and the number of libraries is far too small to demand selection. However,
Dennett is right in depicting the scholar as the extended phenotype if a library
were to qualify as a meme. But if the library were a meme, in what sense does
it have to enter the mind of a scholar in order to make a copy of itself? The
hairworm enters the grasshopper quite literally, but we would be out of our
head to suppose that a library uses the same trick. So Dennett, like many
others, comes up with an ephemeral type of meme:

Memes are […] invisible, and are carried by meme vehicles –

pictures, books, sayings […]. Tools and buildings and other
inventions are also meme vehicles.227

These invisible entities jump from book to brain to body to artefact and back to
brain again. And they even have the power to reshape the human brain on

The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but
a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes
restructure a human brain in order to make it a better artifact for

Try and supplant meme with information in this last citation. Nothing will
change and the senselessness of memes within informationalism will come to
the fore. Dennett, as an apprentice of Quine‟s, should have known better. To
have an impact on the course of biological evolution, memes must have physical
So, let us pause and return to the material (empirically verifiable)
definition and explanation of memes. I would prefer Inga‟s memory to Otto‟s
notebook because of the feel of the enactment. I also prefer some notebooks to
others, though their informational content is exactly the same. I prefer them for
some „red gape‟ reason. Some notebooks simply look and feel better, just like
Volkswagen parts feel better than generic parts. Memes not only convey
information, although they do this as well, but they also produce effects in our
minds that are not describable within informationalism. Memes may sometimes
exploit the flaws in our brains. They may even make us jump into canals for no
apparent reason.

The challenge for meme theorists is to come up with at least a few examples of
parasitic memes. Without such examples the meme paradigm, or meme

Dennett 1991, p. 202.
Dennett 1991, pp. 203-204.
Dennett 1991, p. 207.

vocabulary, would lack the force needed to play a role in biology. To bring this
paper to a close I will discuss three possible examples of parasitic memes. I am
not sure whether these considerations will stand up to empirical scrutiny. The
point of these examples is rather didactic than scientific. They give you an idea
of what a science of memes would have to show in order to become just that, a

Let us return to the example of the introduction of forks, as described in chapter
2. If Norbert Elias is right, if the members of the bourgeois copied forks (and all
the other table manners) in order to become the equals of the noblemen, and if
climbing the social ladder contributes to fitness (more surviving children), then
forks won‟t qualify as memes. In that case the fork copying behaviour of
humans might be explained as the extended phenotype of their genes. The
noble behaviour of the human vehicle gives the inhabitant genes an
evolutionary edge over genes resident in boors. If this is true, table manners
and abundant cutlery don‟t qualify as memes.
But in a slightly different story, forks might perhaps qualify as memes. I
don‟t know whether the following tale is true, but if it is it would show the force
of wooden cutlery to shape human behaviour, without any pay-off for the
inhabitant genes. I was told the story by Jeanne Peijnenburg in a personal
conversation. Unfortunately I have been unable to find other sources. The story
is like this.
In the 12th or 13th century Franciscan monks decided to use wooden
cutlery in order to live true to their vow of poverty. Wooden cutlery was the
cheapest cutlery available at that time. Today, however, wooden cutlery is very
expensive and the monks have to import it from Norway. So, it could be said,
that it would be rational to switch to cheap, sustainable metal cutlery. In fact, it
would be surprising if some monasteries would still be using wooden cutlery.
But, as you will have guessed, in some monasteries there is an ongoing debate
about these matters. Some hold that they should live according to the vow of
poverty. Others cling to the tradition presumably set by the saint himself.
Notice that there is a strong parallel between my preference for
Volkswagen parts and the preference for wooden cutlery. Both seem to be
submitted to red gape reasoning. Wood has a poor look, a feel of poverty. What
causes Franciscans to order copies of the wooden cutlery has less to do with
rationality and poverty than with ineffable feelings. The enactment of wooden
spoons and wooden knives differs from the enactment of the metal substitutes.
The feel of the very enactment , and not the rationalizations of it, drives the
meme preserving efforts of Franciscans.
Advertising companies have long known that rationality only supplies
justifications and no incentive to buy. That is why commercials seldom just
provide reasons for buying products.

If I had to choose one candidate meme which has truly begun to crawl out of
the primeval soup, I would definitely choose the mobile phone. In the previous
chapter I already praised the abilities of mobile phones to change the way in
which people enact others. We are now in a position to rephrase this ability.
Mobile phones make use of certain flaws in the human brain. They are on a par
with genes for THC and genes for fat and proteins. Or perhaps mobile phones
are even better, since they make use of several flaws at once: they make use of
our poor information storage and processing capacities as well as of our
desperate longing to keep „in touch‟.
Leslie Chang‟s documentary novel Factory Girls gives a grim description
of the lives of Chinese factory girls. One of them, Min, at some point decides to
leave her job to move to a factory of a former colleague who invites her to

[Min] spent the night in a hotel near her factory; while she slept,
someone broke the lock on her door. The thief took nine hundred
yuan and Min‟s mobile phone, the only place where she had
stored the numbers of everyone she new in the city: the ex-
colleague who was her only link to her new job, the friends she
had made since going out, and the boyfriend who had gone

The status of Min‟s mobile phone comes very close to that of Otto‟s
notebook. Human memory is awful at storing meaningless data, and it is
especially bad at storing strings of digits. Min, like other migrants, is in
desperate need of a mobile phone:

The mobile phone was the first big purchase of most migrants.
Without a phone, it was virtually impossible to keep up with
friends or find a new job. [...] In a universe of perpetual motion,
the mobile phone was magnetic north, the thing that fixed a
person in place.230

But is it only memory tasks a mobile phone performs? Chang writes about the
abundant roles mobile phones fulfil.

People referred to themselves in the terminology of mobile

phones: I need to recharge. I am upgrading myself.
A girl might signal her interest in a young man by offering to pay
his mobile-phone bill. Couples announced their allegiance with a
shared phone, though relationships sometimes broke up when one
person secretly read text messages intended for the other.

Chang 2008, p. 95.
Chang 2008, p. 95.

The quality of Chinese pop music had deteriorated in recent years,
I was also told, because migrants chose the least sophisticated
songs for the ring tones of their phones.
Manufactured, sold, stolen, repackaged, and resold, the mobile
phone was like an endlessly renewable resource at the heart of
the Dongguan economy.231

And most dramatically:

With the theft of her phone, the friendships of a year and a half
vanished as if they had never been. [Min] was alone again.232

If psychology has shown anything at all, it is that humans have a craving

for close contact with other humans. It is much like the consumption of
carbohydrates. In the wild a gene for behaviour that would maximize the intake
of food rich with sugar would be a very good gene indeed. But in industrialized
western societies the supply of carbohydrates is so immense that this same
strategy will have detrimental consequences. The same goes for close contact.
Monkeys and apes spend a lot of their time grooming other individuals. As De
Waal and others have shown233, the rationale behind this behaviour has nothing
to do with hygiene or removing vermin or salt crystals. Primates groom in order
to strengthen social bonds. Like sex, social bonding is essential for their fitness.
So while the rationale may be the strengthening of social bonds the proximate
cause will be a near sexual feeling. That is what the job of a masseuse in some
primate species is all about.
Mobile phones jump at these feelings. They make grooming possible
everywhere, anytime. A session of texting is much like grooming, as is a quick
call just before arriving home. Don‟t make the mistake of thinking that
telephones are all about transfer of information. They are not. Surely some part
of telephone traffic is transfer of information, but most of it is nonsensical, it
doesn‟t remove vermin or crystals. Mobile phones are very much like the red
gape of a cuckoo‟s nestling, an irresistible opportunity to drop a line.

Why do we laugh? When I started to look into this matter, I soon found out that
a scientific treatment of laughter requires at least another chapter, and probably
another paper. So I will brutally brush aside everything that has ever been
written about laughter, and begin at the meme‟s end.
THC makes us stoned. But, being stoned is not something the human
brain was ever selected for. Susceptibility to drugs and alcohol is of no survival
Chang 2008, pp. 96-97.
Chang 2008, p. 97. This sentence is followed by an equally dramatic opening
sentence of chapter 10: “After Min‟s mobile phone was stolen in the summer of 2004,
she built a new life from scratch.” (p. 270)
See for example De Waal 1982, pp. 20-23, and ff. De Waal speaks about “social

value, and has no informational advantages. It is simply a fluke, a consequence
of the specifications of our wetware, as is our obtuse craving for carbohydrates
or social contact. Suppose, just suppose, laughter likewise has no survival value
whatsoever. We laugh for just the same reason as we get stoned or drunk, and
it is no coincidence that alcohol and THC induce laughter. Laughter doesn‟t
increase fitness. On the contrary, too much laughter may seriously hinder
Look at it from the other way , from the traditional way, the „right‟ way,
the human way. Suppose you hear or read the next light bulb joke:

How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change.

By now this certainly is an old joke. You might even be somewhat annoyed
because you have to read it for the umpteenth time. Now ask yourself the
following question: Has the informational content of the joke changed during
the pages of this paper? If so, look again at the joke as it is printed in chapter
1. Has its informational content changed? Of course it hasn‟t. You have
changed, and therefore the joke is no longer funny (if it ever was). To an
informationalist this means that the way in which your brain processes the
information contained within the joke has changed. Where formerly the
processing of the joke caused lungs contractions and jerky movements of your
midriff, there now remains just the silent humming of neurons. So the same
joke produces different streams of information in us at different times. Why do
you prefer one stream of information to the other? I think it is because you
prefer jokes that make you laugh, for whatever reason.
Jokes, then, use this odd preference of humans to procreate, multiply
and evolve. That is why jokes are all around us. That is why we value stand-up
comedians. That is why we value humorous people. Surely, jokes may also
convey information, even important information. But we tell jokes because the
enactment of jokes makes us laugh. And jokes have chosen our brains, because
by some strange, though fortunate, accident, they are prone to laughter.
Whatever the neural mechanism behind laughter may be, from the perspective
of jokes it will be no more than an incredible stroke of luck.

The Dutch philosopher Bas Haring has written a popular little book on
evolution. On page 50 he writes:

What about artificial pets? They talk – or rather babble –, feel

when you caress them and beg for attention. They are real pets,
but plastic pets, with a built-in computer and a polyester fur.
Wouldn‟t evolution be also applicable to them in the future?
This will be the case when these animals are able to procreate. To
me this doesn‟t seem a too complicated task for the
manufacturers of toys. All they have to do is produce a toy pet

that is able to copy itself with materials it gathers from its
environment. Who knows what might happen? Maybe even an
infestation of pet toys might occur! 234

Haring is right. The very moment pet toys start to procreate in considerable
numbers, evolutionary description will be applicable to their species. But Haring
is wrong if he thinks pet toys will have to take care of their own procreation in
order to enter the battlefield of evolution. As I have shown in the preceding
pages, pet toys might take on a different tactic. They might take the meme
route. They might use humans, us. They might drain our procreational
resources to their own advantage. Parasites, but parasites we pet.
Do memes exist? Have the previous paragraphs indisputably shown
memes exist in some sort of empirical solid sense? With the exception of mobile
phones, I think there are probably no artefacts or kinds of behaviour that might
qualify as a non-biological selfish replicator, a meme. And although many books
have been written on the subject, memetics hasn‟t exactly developed into a
branch of the natural sciences. According to the diagnosis I present in this
paper, this is mainly due to the fact that internalist definitions cannot provide
the basis for an empirical theory. If we want to liken memes to viruses we will
have to take this into account. Memes are viruses that don‟t enter brains or
What then about the human mind? Well, if you are an internalist you can
simply state that the human mind is part of the extended phenotype of memes.
But this amounts to nothing more than saying that our minds are shaped by the
culture we live in. As I have shown in the last two chapters, externalists have
another, more interesting option. They can view memes as constitutive of
certain processes of the mind. Clark and Chalmers would view them as
constitutive of cognitive processes. Noë would consider them to be a part of new
feelings and modalities as well. If Clark and Chalmers are right, we would only
lose some information or information-processing capacities, if we were to lose
our memes. If Noë is right we will feel estranged at the very moment some of
our memes are lost.
The first lesson to be drawn from the history of the meme concept is that
the view of the human mind as the centre of the universe is nearing its end.
Although human minds are shaped by memes, memes do not enter into human
minds. If memes are viruses, the human mind must be like a fever. Viruses are
not a part of a fever, though they might be causing it. The phenotype of memes
reaches far beyond the boundaries of artefacts and behaviour. If memes leave
the old gene panting far behind, as Dawkins suggests 235, in the longer run
memes will grow and cultivate human brains more than our genome. But isn‟t
such the inevitable fate of a species which at some point has developed into
natural-born cyborgs?

Haring 2001, p. 50. My translation.
Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192.

But these are just speculations about the future. There is also a currently
important lesson to be learned from the history of memes. It is time for a quick
wrap-up of the strands of indeterminacy and informationalism, time to return to
Quine. Cognitive science has teamed up with state of the art scanning
techniques to present us with a picture of the flow of information through our
heads. They quench our thirst for self- knowledge with pictures of brains, with
bright dots and arrows depicting the flow of information. But if Quine is right,
and I think he is, these pictures are undetermined. Surely, activation patterns
are solid empirical facts. No doubt about that. But the flow of information is
quite another thing, because information only appears through a manual of
translation. The flow of information is parallel, but additional to the patterns of

Question: How many bits of information does a light bulb contain?

Answer: None, you can‟t eat light bulbs, nor smash nuts with
them (chimpanzee).
Answer: One bit, a light bulb is either on or off (ICT specialist).
Answer: One bit, a light bulb is either broken or it isn‟t
Answer: Two bits, a light bulb is off, a short time on, or a long
time on (boy scout).
Answer: A couple of bytes (manufacturer).
Answer: A couple of kilobytes (linguist).
Answer: A couple of megabytes (memeticist).
Answer: A couple of gigabytes (cultural sociologist).
Answer: A couple of terabytes (Spinozist).
Answer: All of the answers above might work out fine, all might
even work out fine simultaneously, and there is no way of telling
which one is right or wrong (Quinean).

Do you see the light?



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In 1976 Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a meme in The Selfish Gene.
A meme is the cultural counterpart of what a gene is in biology. Memes are the
units of cultural transmission, just like genes are the units of biological
transmission: both kinds of transmission can give rise to a form of evolution.
The expectations surrounding the new concept were high. Many books,
articles, scientific papers, magazines, internet forums, symposia and
documentaries were devoted to memetics, the science of memes. However, the
interest in memes withered as quickly as it had blossomed. In this thesis I
examine why memes never gained a genuine scientific status, despite the great
amount of energy that was put into memetics. Today no real meme scholars are
left, certainly not within the field the notion originated from, scientific
evolutionary biology.
Dawkins wanted to introduce a replicator that could compete with genes.
According to his own criteria it should always be possible to tell whether a
meme is a copy of another meme. But very soon after the introduction memes
came to be considered as mental entities. As a result it became impossible to
give an unambiguous description of memes, and thus an unambiguous notion of
a copy of a meme. Moreover, if memes are defined in terms of ideas, thoughts
and the like, Quine‟s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation applies. Two
meme scholars can both give an adequate explanation of a cultural
phenomenon, whereas their descriptions of the memes involved would
irreconcilably diverge. In this case memetic analysis comes to rely on a manual
of translation and therefore cannot be a proper part of a natural science like
evolutionary biology.
Most probably the definition of memes in mental terms was driven by the
fascination with software and computer viruses of the 1980‟s. Memes were
likened to software modules. Without this preoccupation Dawkins and others
might have settled for a more Quinean definition of memes in terms of
behaviour and/or artefacts:

meme An (element of an) artefact or behaviour that may be

considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

Had Dawkins been satisfied with a definition such as this one, he could have
employed a method of analysis that he uses repeatedly in The Extended
Phenotype (1982). He could have described memes as (parts of) parasites that
compete with genes and their survival vehicles, organisms. Most probably this
would have been the only way to give memes a scientific ontological status,

because as long as memes are not capable of influencing and exploiting genes,
they can be put aside as nothing more than figments of the mind, with at most
a literary status.

First supervisor: Prof. dr. A.J.M. Peijnenburg

Second supervisor: Dr. F.A. Keijzer
Third assessor: Dr. B.P. de Bruin

Discussion of the thesis: Friday, May 7, from 15.00 till 16.00 hours in the
Omegazaal, Oude Boteringestraat 52.
Graduation: Friday, May 7, at 16.30 hours in the Faculteitskamer Rechten,
Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen.


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