Memes: Explaining Everything and Nothing all at Once!

Continuing on in Darwin’s Pious Idea, we come to “memes.” Susan Blackmore describes memes this way—a meme is a:

“unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation…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.”

It is amazing what is attributed to these “units” of transmission. That thing called the “self” no less. But hang on, it (the self), it turns out, is an illusion. As Blackmore tells us, “each illusory self is a construct of the memetic world…my beliefs and opinions are survival tricks used by memes for their representation…my creativity is really design by mimetic evolution.”

Daniel Dennett is also a big proponent of memes. These “units” depend upon the human mind and these “parasites” build us, form us, and trick us into thinking we actually exist. Wow, who knew? Free will, an acting agent, it’s all illusory.

So, the question immediately leaps to mind, just how do Dennett and Blackmore know this? Did they catch the scientism meme? Cunningham notes:

“There are so many problems with Dennett’s account of memes that one struggles to understand how someone actually published this morass of conceptual confusion. First, where do memes come from? Do they come from the mind? If they do, then they are dependant upon the mind and thus cannot make the mind…the most telling criticism against memes, however, is quite simple and obvious. Indeed, it is the elephant in the room; Memetics is self-defeating. For if there is such a thing as a meme, then there is only one meme. In other words, the only good candidate for a meme is the idea of a meme itself (closely followed by the selfish gene). But if it did succeed, then all ideas would be mere tokens, or instances, of this one meta-idea, namely, the MEME. It would truly be the selfish meme, absorbing all real difference. Thus is the concept evacuated of all meaningful content, as it becomes a mere tautology.”

Further, it is not as if one has seen a “meme” under a microscope or noted it being born out of a mathematical equation. A meme hasn’t been weighed, counted, poked, smelled, or heard. It hasn’t been picked up on a radar of sorts or detected by a “meme” spectrometer of some type. What is it, really? It is an abstract concept—a narrative—a way of talking about a phenomenon. Like natural selection, it is platonic.

Perhaps this is why Michael Ruse “argues that a Darwinian can indeed be a Christian…and also does ‘not see why a Darwinian should not hold to the Platonic vision as much as a Christian.’” Ruse is wise enough to see that the whole project depends upon it.

And what can one say about this concept of “memes?” Once we get past the almost immediate reaction of, “how silly” and “so what,” if we plumbed deeper, we might ask ourselves how someone could so confuse what they thought they were doing, which wasn’t science, but rather platonic day dreaming created by an absence or, better, the refusal of a first philosophy.

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1 Response to Memes: Explaining Everything and Nothing all at Once!

  1. Burk Braun says:

    “…a way of talking about a phenomenon.”

    What way do you have of talking about imitation and replication of ideas? Of earworms and fads, fashions, religions, rituals, and paradigms?

    Memes are one interesting way to do so, and never were proposed to be the end-all and be-all of whatever it is you and your author are ranting against. You may calm down now.


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