A Well-Disposed Memeticist’s Problems With the Meme Talk

It’s been some time since I finished reading Darwinizing Culture: the Status of Memetics as a Science edited by Robert Aunger and I’ve been thinking on a few major points that bother me, not in the specific claims of the contributors but in the way the issue of the validity of memetics is often discussed. So even if this may look like a book review, it is in fact the expression of my general discontent about the “meme talk” and my suggestions on how it might be turned into a more healthy discussion.

First of all, I have trouble understanding why nearly all the arguments in the book revolve around human social behaviour and how hard it is for memetics to account for it. My opinion is that this perspective misses the real power of memetics.

Social behaviour is also present in animal species (many of which do not exhibit signs of proto-culture) and yes, it can be explained without much need for memetic theories. So why, when it comes to human social behaviour and psychology, leave this all behind and expect memetics to account for everything on its own? Humans are animals too, and possible memetic explanations will be additions to the basic ethological/psychological explanations. It seems to me that the reactions of psychologists and anthropologists against memetics are based on a misunderstanding that memetics is here to sweep their theories on human nature away and start from scratch.

The point I want to stress here is this: I believe that the strength of the meme theory will unfold when it’s applied to account for the relatively new layer of things which have covered the surface of the Earth within the last 10.000 years: tools, signs, books, roads, cars, ships, airplanes, buildings, cities, factories, toys, songs, computers, cable networks, satellites… Everything “designed” by humans. This is where we differ from animals on a very observable level and this, I submit, is the domain where memetics as a research program can produce its first fruits without too much hassle with other disciplines – thus, the domain where arguments about the validity of memetics should move towards.

Of course, the issue of what Aunger calls Mental Darwinism becomes important here: is human creativity the product of the evolutionary algorithm running in human brains as Susan Blackmore argues, or does this view depicting humans as mere vectors arise from an “insufficient understanding of the autonomy of (memetic) agents” (my italics) as Rosaria Conte asserts in the book? I propose that two things should encourage us to operate under the assumption that Blackmore is right, and embark on the project of analyzing cultural designs within the memetic framework: (1) the stunning power of evolution in creating design, demonstrated in biology and in the digital evolutionary algorithms used today in many areas for creative design or optimization, and (2) the delusional nature of our introspections and intuitions about our precious conscious autonomous agency, as revealed by neuroscience and cognitive sciences (see Dan Dennett’s Consciousness Explained). The second point is echoed, strangely enough, in Conte’s chapter:

But a decision-based process is not necessarily explicit and reflected on: mental filters do not necessarily operate consciously, so agents may not be able to report on them.

Substitute “mental filters” with “mental memetic selection pressures”, and you get a sentence by Blackmore! This simply is the essence of the memetic account of human creativity.

But the project of explaining human design with memetics needs one big adjustment in the way people conceive of memes. This is the second point that disturbs me in the discussions in general: the misguided use of the term meme.

The critics of memetics often talk of things like “the God meme”, “the chair meme” or even “the general relativity meme” in their refutations. These concepts may be straw men created by the early proponents of memetics (like Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene), and no wonder they are easily burned down by critics speaking in sarcastic tones. (See Adam Kuper’s section titled ‘The Ecology of Ideas’ for a perfect example.) This simplistic language, still adopted by some memeticists today, is turned against the memetic theory to condemn it as an oversimplification too funny to be true. But although it is true that memeticists haven’t agreed yet upon a single definition for the term meme, it seems obvious to me that, whatever it will be, it won’t be that simple a definition to allow us to talk about “the chair meme”, let alone “the general relativity meme”, for the same reasons why we don’t talk about “the bird gene”, or even “the wing gene”, or even “the feather gene”, and so on – to the point where we realize that there isn’t a one-to-one mapping between the features as we distinguish at the phenotype level and the genes. The genes constitute a recipe, not a blueprint. What makes us think that memes are much simpler structures?

In fact, the original operational definition by Dawkins of the meme as the unit of cultural selection is sufficient to reveal the absurdity of the “the x meme” talk: even a simple chair design is way too big and complex to be a unit of selection. Just like the biological organisms, cultural objects (artefacts, theories, institutions, etc.) clearly are products of complex interactions between tiny bits of information acting as units of selection. In this perspective, the general relativity theory is a memetic construct, resulting from the interactions of maybe thousands of memes that we may not readily map one-to-one onto the properties that we perceive and talk about on a semantic level.

As Dennett reminds us on various occasions and topics, we must be prepared to, if not expect to, discover that accurate scientific theories are often counter-intuitive. Our intuitions are not a good basis for building or refuting claims about the nature of our minds and the memes, as they lead us to overrate our conscious teleological control over our creativity or to engage in a semantic mapping between whole designs, ideas or theories and single memes.

So it is my belief that memetics should – in the beginning, at least – shift its focus from human social behaviour towards human creativity and objects of culture, and do that with a more refined definition of meme to do justice to the complexity of the phenomena to be explained as well as to the memetic theory itself. Imagine how far population genetics could have gone if geneticists were talking about “the dog gene” and “the human gene”; that’s how far memetics can go if we don’t quit talking of “the chair meme”.

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