25. Memes

What is an idea?  According to Peter A. Angeles’ Dictionary of Philosophy we have the following candidates:

Idea:  (Gk., idea, “concept,” “class,” “kind,” “idea,” “mode,” “sort,” “species,” “form,” “nature,” “from eidos, “visual appearance,” “form,” and idein, “to see,” “to grasp conceptually”).  1. Anything that is a content (object, item) of consciousness.  Any act of awareness.  2. A mental image or picture of something. 3. The real likeness, representation, or essence of a thing embodied in an object and grasped by intelligence. 4. Any general notion, thought, mental impression, or concept. 5. Anything fantasized, fictionalized, or imagined. 6. A belief, opinion, supposition, or doctrine held. 7. Something designed or intended to take place, such as a plan. 8. An archetype, ideal, or pattern to be followed.

These definitions are helpful, but it is even more helpful to have some philosophical foundation on which to place them.  In earlier posts, I considered the following metaphysical thesis that can be extracted from some of Plato’s works.  To put it in the jargon of modern philosophy:

  • Ideas are abstract entities: they are not in space, exist at all times, and exist independently of us.

In this essay, I would like to consider a more naturalistic interpretation of ideas that many think is consistent with evolution, namely, the view that ideas are memes. The notion of the meme has already produced a large body of results. To name a few books: Richerson’s and Boyd’s Not by Genes Alone, Shennan’s Genes, Memes, and Human History, Aunger’s The Electric Meme, Distin’s The Selfish Meme, Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme, and Blackmore’s The Meme Machine. However, I will focus on the initial formulation of the meme in the work of Richard Dawkins. I will then go on to raise some criticisms of it to generate inquiry.

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. The ideas presented therein have, over time, become the foundation for modern evolutionary biology. The majority of biologists and scientists see Darwin’s ideas as indispensable to any convincing explanation of how various species have, and continue to, evolve.  So let’s look at an account of the human mind that is consistent with this Darwinian model. The first thing we need to accept if we follow this path is that the mind can no longer be understood as an ethereal, spiritual substance of some sort that is different in nature from the body.  Rather, the term mind denotes a set of dynamic, attending, and selective functions of the brain—thinking, concentrating, imagining, feeling, and so on—that presumably have survival value.   One can put it tersely as follows:

  • Our mind is nothing but a set of brain functions.

This is a naturalistic account insofar as it assumes no supernatural powers of any kind and places our minds in the physical world of space and time. We can better understand this Darwinian-based view of the mind by looking at a Darwinian-based account of ideas.

In 1976 the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published a very influential and controversial book entitled The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976). The book argues for a gene-centered view of evolution and claims that bodies are essentially survival machines created by the genes in order to replicate themselves. Of course, to say that a gene is selfish is just a helpful personification: genes have no intentions.  But it is useful to think of genes as if they had such intentions.  By doing so, we can come to see that it is their replication that matters most, not the survival of the organism.  Usually what is good for the survival of the genes will be good for the organism or the group to which the organism belongs.  But there is no necessary connection between the two.

Now one of the criticisms of the book was that it reduced all Darwinian evolution to genetic mechanisms.  But in the book Dawkins introduced a new concept called a meme to avoid such a reduction.  In The God Delusion Dawkins wrote: “My original purpose in advocating memes, indeed, was to counter the impression that the gene was the only Darwinian game in town—an impression that The Selfish Gene was otherwise at risk of conveying” (2006, 197). I think memes will help us fill out our account of mind and, ultimately, approach an understanding of the global migration of ideas. Dawkins puts forth the following terse definition of meme:

  • A meme is a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.

He then goes on to give a very helpful definition by example with a comparison to genes:

“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 sperm 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.  If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students.  He mentions it in his articles and lectures.  If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.” (1976, 206)

Some have argued that the comparison between memes and genes can only go so far.  They argue that memes are abstract entities that defy scientific analysis and don’t follow the laws of natural selection. But meme evolution can be seen to obey the laws of natural selection exactly if these laws are given a more general formulation free of common biological associations.  Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Touchstone, 1995) formulates these laws as follows:

(1) variation: there is a continuing abundance of different elements

(2) heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies 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 (343).

These general conditions enable us to see, on the one hand, how meme theory is not reducible to genetics and, on the other hand, how meme theory can follow the laws of natural selection. To be sure, the DNA molecule is the replicating entity with which we are most familiar.  But that is no reason to reduce natural selection to the mechanism of DNA and RNA.  Dawkins asks: “But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replication and other, consequent, kinds of evolution?  I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet” (1976, 206).  And Dennett notes: “These new replicators are, roughly, ideas” (344).  So, on this account, we can say this:

  • Ideas are memes—self-replicating units of cultural transmission—that move from brain to brain.

But we must avoid thinking that memes are active and the brain passive. Consider Dennett again:

“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 habitat for memes.  The avenues for entry and departure are modified to suit local conditions, and strengthened by various artificial devices that enhance fidelity and prolixity of replication: native Chinese minds differ dramatically from native French minds, and literate minds differ greatly from illiterate minds.  What memes provide in return to the organisms in which they reside is an incalculable store of advantages—with some Trojan horses thrown in for good measure, no doubt…But if it is true that human minds are themselves to a very great degree the creations of memes, then we cannot sustain the polarity of vision we considered earlier; it cannot be “memes versus us,” because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are.” (365)

This passage helps fill out the above definition of mind as what the brain does.  We now see that brains and memes are involved in a creative, mutually affecting relationship.  Mind develops in large part because of memes; but memes will also be affected by the type of brain they inhabit.  In nature we are familiar with the process of genetic mutation.  Here we can have memetic mutations that give rise to interesting variations as well.  Think of the ways different cultures appropriate ideas from each other and, in doing so, create variations that can become more useful, dangerous, funny, profound, etc.  And, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, the mutation process of memes is not random as it is at the genetic level: “Memes such as the theory of relativity are not the cumulative product of millions of random (undirected) mutations of some original idea, but each brain in the chain of production added huge dollops of value to the product in a non-random way” (Dennett, 355). So we are not, in the end, totally passive hosts that are used to perpetuate memes. Unfortunately, we are that to a great extent: we are all too familiar with the experience of being taken prisoner by a terrible pop song hook that runs over and over in our head all day.  But we are also transformed in positive ways by memes and, in turn, intentionally develop them into new memes and complexes of memes called memeplexes.

Memetic forms that can replicate themselves over the long run will survive as other memes pass away.  And the more a meme replicates the more it has the potential to be global.  Humans have populated the world and we promise to continue to cover even more ground in the future.  Memes can do the same.  They move about in the infosphere and find their way—through email, fax, TV, radio, books, signs, etc.—into the neural networks of human brains.  Some of these memes won’t replicate much at all.  Some will replicate for a while and die out suddenly or slowly.  And some may persist and even spread across the globe. For example, the meme democracy has proved attractive and continues to spread as communism, fascism, and tyranny seem less attractive to many. Certain classics of music—say the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—are known the world over. And there are certain religious memes that have global appeal.  Consider these possible candidates that Dawkins gives in his book The God Delusion (2006):

  • You will survive your own death
  • If you die as a martyr then you will be rewarded in the next life
  • Heretics and blasphemers should be killed or punished
  • Belief in God is a supreme virtue
  • Faith, or belief without evidence, is a virtue
  • Everybody must respect religious belief with a higher and automatic respect than that given to other kinds of belief
  • There are things in the universe that we will never to understand.  And this lack of understanding is a good thing since in mystery there is fulfillment (199)

But what makes some memes migrate through more brains than others? Well, we have seen that one condition for natural selection is “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” (Dennett, 343).  This condition can be used for specific analyses. Let’s say the element is the meme “you will survive the death of your body.”  Now let’s say that the environment in which the meme exists is a fearful environment of humans in touch with death on a regular basis.  We might then expect that the meme will have appeal due to widespread fear.  We could then make a daring generalization and argue, with psychologist Ernest Becker, that almost all humans deny death (see Becker’s The Denial of Death, 1973).  This claim, if true, could help us give an account of the universal appeal of the afterlife meme.  Of course, we need not stop at psychology. We could easily incorporate sociology here as well as anthropology.  If we know the meme mores of a culture we could infer whether or not new memes will survive.  Memes that are consistent with these mores can link with them into memeplexes that will be selected to replicate and vice versa.  So, in effect, we can use anything we know about humans to better understand why certain memes have more global appeal than others. In each case, it would be a question of delineating the memetic element and then charting its environment, both biological and cultural, to see if replication in brains is more or less likely. Keep in mind that meme replication, as mentioned earlier, will not necessarily be of use to the material base that hosts the meme.  A meme like racism may end up injuring a racist individual who lives in an enlightened society.  One need only think of how certain high-profile people show their racist colors and suffer dire consequences. Nonetheless, the meme may spread via media controversy and replicate precisely because someone was punished for being racist.  And one can imagine certain religious memes of intolerance spreading and leading to the destruction of many brains while the meme lives on in brains marked by hate and vengeance. That said, in many cases there will be a symbiotic relationship between an organism and its memes.  For example, the meme “tolerance of others is good”—a meme consistent to a large extent with a democratic society—can end up creating less war and thereby replicate both the meme and the genes of its host.

Now this account of memes is certainly impressive and has broken new ground on the age-old issue of ideas and their ontological status.  Yet a few problems arise which are worth considering:

  • If ideas are memes how can we understand what memes are?  Wouldn’t an idea of a meme be a meme?  And if so, wouldn’t we be presupposing in our explanation of memes precisely the very memes that need to be explained?   To do so is to commit the fallacy of begging the question.
  • We might also ask more questions about how exactly memes get into the brain.  Of course, we have some ideas (memes?) of how this process occurs.  But we are far from grasping how information moves through the channels of the nervous system to end up “represented” in the brain somewhere.
  • If means are units of transmission then it seems they are particular things in the physical world.  But if this is the case then how can they be universal like many ideas are?  How can there be any general memes? If there are none, how can we adequately discern general laws of nature? And without universal ideas can we really think and communicate at all?
  • We can argue that the mind is not something we can quantify and reduce to a system of mechanics, whether genetic or memetic.  In other words, we can agree that the mind is essentially a set of functions in the brain but argue that these functions, unlike the potassium pump for example, in principle defy scientific analysis.  Mind would be an emergent phenomenon like the quality of wetness emerging from hydrogen and oxygen: no matter how much you look for wetness in the atoms you will never find it.  But wetness and mind would still be natural phenomenon.
  • We need to ask whether memes, as changing natural things in the brain, can be true: how can they be true if they are changing?  Doesn’t the truth remain the same?  And if it does, don’t we need to postulate ideas that never change in order to ground knowledge?
  • And, as Edward Feser has argued (see his book The Last Superstition, pp. 239-240), it seems like we need to presuppose a type of mind inconsistent with natural selection. Memes, as we have seen, are supposed to constitute mind to a great degree. But a meme is not a physical gene; it is a unit of imitation, a cultural transmission; and such cultural imitations and transmissions are surely not reducible to meaningless, purposeless matter in the brain. Rather, they would themselves be results of our interpretations of physical stimuli. Memes become the linguistic, musical, or visual symbols they are because they are interpreted by a mind that takes them as intentional objects with a purpose. But in natural selection there are no purposes or intentional minds. So the theory of memes is incoherent.

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