Variations on the same meme

March 5, 1999

Whether memetics ("The forget meme not theory", THES, February 26) is a serious academic discipline or only an intellectual contagion can be debated. What is certain is that it was only the word "meme", and not the notion, that Richard Dawkins coined. Witness D. G. Ritchie, writing in Darwinism and Politics (1891): "The ideas which rise in the minds of men with the same tendency to variation that we find throughout nature, compete with one another for sustenance and strength."

Ritchie was not the inventor either. We have known at least since Socrates that all of us have many beliefs and intellectual habits not acquired, nor tested, by any argument. The art of infecting people with beliefs was once called rhetoric (an art of which Professor Dawkins is a master); the art of resisting such infection was philosophy.

Stephen R. L. Clark Professor of philosophyUniversity of Liverpool

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