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Meme Update #18

In this issue:
    Dawkins Speaks
    Subliminal Seduction Update
    Memetics Symposium

Dawkins Speaks

On general principles, I never pass up a chance to listen to the inventor of the word "meme" give a talk. So when I ventured on a Wednesday evening from my apartment in Seattle's toney Belltown neighborhood all the way across town, I was understandably eager to hear the latest thoughts from Richard Dawkins, the Charles Simonyi Professor of Popular Understanding of Science at Oxford University.

Radiant, natty and oh-so-British in his elegant gray suit and colorful necktie, Dawkins spoke March 4 to a packed University of Washington audience on the topic of "Science and Sensibility." In fact, the several-hundred-seat Kane Hall was so packed that I was lucky to run into Charles Simonyi himself, my old friend and mentor, who was kind enough to let me sit next to him in his reserved section in the front row. I sat listening raptly.

Introduced as perhaps the only man ever both to have debated the Archbishop of Canterbury and to have appeared on the cover of Wired magazine, Dawkins has built up quite a following for an academician. His best-selling books, from the classic and groundbreaking The Selfish Gene in which he coined the word "meme" to his latest Climbing Mount Improbable, are published in dozens of languages and are on uncounted recommended-reading lists, including my own For over two decades his ideas have been steadily attacked, both by the Fundamentalist Right and more recently by the New Academic Left.

You know he must be doing something right.

Dawkins began his lecture by lamenting alarming trend of dumbing down science in order to popularize it. Perhaps not realizing he was in the land of the beloved Bill Nye the Science Guy, Dawkins pooh-poohed shopping-mall demonstrations where people blow things up and call it "science." His point was that while performing neat explosions may attract attention, it's not science, and calling it that may end up attracting the wrong kind of people to the field. A true connoisseur of the beauty and poetry inherent in pure science, Dawkins wants to draw similar minds into the vocation -- minds who so love the beauty of the truth of the universe that they will endure the labors and hardships, the failures and endless trials of the true scientist.

Ironically, the very thing Dawkins decried is what makes him so popular. He is at his best when he packages his ideas in the memetic Trojan horse of "neat explosions." He is well known not so much for his lucid thinking as for his explosive rhetoric: his use of terms like "selfish gene" and "virus of the mind." These confrontational terms cause attention and controversy and thus get people talking about him, good or bad. And of course, to the Dawkins meme, like all memes, there's no such thing as bad publicity. As Oscar Wilde noted, "There's only one thing worse than being talked about, and that's NOT being talked about."

Although the bulk of his presentation was about the digital nature of genetic information, a straightforward topic well covered in his two most recent books, there were several questions asked about cultural evolution and memes. Dawkins, as he has done each time I've heard him speak, modestly indicated that while he coined the word "meme", he certainly didn't invent the idea of Darwinian evolution applying to culture, and he really wasn't qualified to go much further into the topic than simply suggesting that there may be a replicator similar to the gene at work in culture or in the mind. That being said, he went on to speculate that interesting findings in memetics may center around the way sets of memes cooperate with each other. How well does the meme for, say, male circumcision replicate in a culture with memes for strong religious tradition versus one with memes for innovation? And what sets of memes form a "viral shell" that allows the rapid spread of the memes attached to that shell? These are themes explored in my own book Virus of the Mind, themes which could benefit from disciplined scientific research.

The speech finished, I thanked Charles for allowing me to occupy the Simonyi Chair for the evening. I stood and observed the long line of autograph seekers, copies of Climbing Mount Improbable and The Selfish Gene in hand, waiting to meet memetics' reluctant guru. That's another meme that works well in conjunction with others, I thought: the "celebrity" meme. Dawkins has a unique status, pressing the most primitive buttons in us that make us want to revere the tribal leaders and listen to their instructions.

Guide us, o Dawkins, I thought impatiently. Tell us how to package real science in a glittering memetic shell so that it can outcompete astrology. That's the real secret to the Public Understanding of Science, isn't it? I wished he would stop dog-paddling and come up with a practical plan to steer the battleship of public understanding toward scientific truth. I sighed and breathed slowly, trying to relax. I have little patience for pussyfooting around when there are battles to be fought. But I suppose that's to be expected: after all, I am a Scorpio.

Subliminal Seduction Update

There is an article on Speed Seduction king Ross Jeffries in the current issue of Rolling Stone (Kate Winslett on the cover), and a feature due soon on the television show Hard Copy, although it's not known what day it will be on. Jeffries teaches men to seduce women using sophisticated neurolinguistic-programming techniques.

Memetics Symposium
NAMUR (Belgium) August 24-28, 1998

The Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, in collaboration with the Principia Cybernetica Project, has decided to organize a first symposium on memetics. The aim of the journal is to integrate the different approaches inspired by memetics, and thus try to establish memetics as a recognized scientific field. The symposium similarly wishes to bring together all researchers working on memetics, in order to allow them to meet face to face, thus stimulating discussions and possible collaborations.

Prospective contributors are invited to submit a 1-page (about 2K) abstract (preferably including references), along with the author's name, postal and email address and affiliations. The submission should be sent by email to the symposium chair, Mario Vaneechoutte: The deadline for receiving submissions is March 10, 1998.

For more information, see

For the Journal of memetics, see

All the best memes,

Richard Brodie