Blackmore vs Midgley

Brief interview on BBC’s Today programme with Sue Blackmore asked to explain memes (pro), and Mary Midgley asked to respond (con). As usual the disagreement is really just the words “only” and “just”.

Of course conscious minds are not “just” copying machines, you do indeed have to understand the context of people’s experience and hearing in the ideas and information they acquire, ie which ideas they find attractive, but that doesn’t mean the meme model doesn’t provides a tool for understanding how the competing ideas resolve themselves. And … how easy ideas are to copy (understand and use) is at least as much a part of the process as other qualities of their content.

20 thoughts on “Blackmore vs Midgley”

  1. You didn’t put the link in – for the time being it’s at here but I think that won’t last.

    As you know my sympathies are entirely with Midgley on this; I’m just not convinced that the word ‘meme’ provides anything other than a more modish variant of the word ‘idea’. The real problem (and what was lying behind Midgley’s critique) is the ’embeddedness’ of an idea in a particular human context – what Wittgenstein calls the ‘lebensformen’, the form of life. If you accept Witt then memetics collapses into anthropology, and the Blackmores of this world are the direct equivalent of Franz Boas – surely not what a MoQer would buy into!!! Seems to me that lurking behind this pseudo-science of memetics is a raging hatred of the human – all those bits of ourselves which don’t fit neatly into rational boxes – which can trace its inheritance very easily back to the trajectory of Cartesian thought. (Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis is good on how)

    I note the rather deranged attack on religion at the end of Blackmore’s comments. Strange how those seemingly in favour of people not being abused by religions are articulating a perspective which emasculates all personal choice from the vast majority of the world’s population – the enlightened (who reject religion) are the only ones who think for themselves – clearly they have somehow managed to make their interior memetic ecology more efficient than the majority, who need to be ‘educated’ into thinking correctly – it’s a good example of what Thomas Sowell calls ‘the vision of the anointed’ – we know best and all that.

    One of the most frightening phrases you will hear on your doorstep ‘Hi, we’re from the government and we’re here to help you…’ (visions of Malcolm McDowell having his eyes propped open come into my mind – I wonder what provoked that meme then?)

    As I’m sure you’ll disagree with all this (grin) perhaps you’d like to do a post unpacking exactly how the meme model “provides a tool for understanding how the competing ideas resolve themselves”. I’d be interested to pursue the conversation further.


  2. Thanks Sam,

    I didn’t put in a link, cos I was bogging in real time 🙂 (And as you point out the current link is always temporary).

    I noticed her instantly turn the point “against” religion towards the end, rather oddly I thought – I suspected it was at least partly because she had been led to the interview on the back of Dawkins recent outpourings, and felt that was what was “required” – given they’d put up Midgely to counter her. (In other words I still give Sue the benefit of the doubt.)

    I think memetics is just anthroplogy – biology plus human psychology – what else is there ? Just a handly shorthand for evolving ideas (and the whole range of neo-Darwinian evolutionary competitive / cooperative mechanisms of genotypes, separate from the host phenotypes) – you’ll get no argument from me.

    I do in fact support the idea that “easy” ideas and easy to assimilate sets of ideas do form self-reinforcing memeplexes – and that some (many) people’s attraction to “received wisdom” (Of which religions are merely examples) are driven by this rather than any (sufficiently Socratic) thoughful rationalisation – but I do try not to tar everyone with the same brush. (That’s as true of the religion of Science as it is Christianity BTW.)

    In my blog post you’ll notice I stuck to the point though.

    Let ’em eat religion 🙂

  3. To add to the point …

    You need to separate issues – memetics from the arguments people make using memetics – in this case. (Of course the reasons why people make such arguments is contextual – depending on whether they feel threatened by the pre-emptive counter argument – again nothing to do with the means of argumentation. So much of this rabid anti-religious stuff is “reactionary” – against IDC, not to mention world politics and war.)

    You know my view of Dawkins – he is indeed a rabid rager against any hint of human subjectivity in science, to the detriment of science amongst other things, and the quality of truth generally. He is guilty of “hyper-rationalisation”. Dawkins bad, Memetics not bad because of that.

  4. So many different points … free-will.

    Sue does indeed seem to conclude memes emasculate free-will (even her own). You know also that I reject that – as does Dennett. I’m trying to get to the bottom of Sue’s metaphor there.

  5. And another one …

    I have nothing against religion (science just happens to be the one I subscribe to). I’m as interested to understand how memetics explains the spread of scientific ideas as any other religion. But, without some serious clarification of literal use of the religious metaphor (such as you and I have been through) I am an atheist, rejecting the idea of a teleological supernatural god.

    Anyway, obviously much to say sparked by this exchange :
    see the longer post More on Memes next.

  6. I don’t believe I’ve missed the point, I wouldn’t would I 🙂 but my own thoughts are definitely “evolving”.

    Clearly memes and memeplexes are not “equivalent” to ideas and cultures, but they are not un-related in the human domain. I see the parallel with genes in the encoded information being replicated, with varying degrees of fidelity, fecundity, etc, and with the mix of competitive and cooperative game-theoretic strategies evolved at the host level.

    My agenda is based on what information really is – particularly, but not exclusively in the human domain. To cut a long story short – it’s encoded on many levels in human psychology (as well as lower levels of physics) – you can parrot the exact same words in a different tone and mean the opposite, or you can invent your own lingustic metaphors to convey exactly someone else’s expressed idea. Information, like ideas, is spread across many levels of interpretation. (Hofstadter has a lot behind my thinking.)

    The gist of my complaints, are that certain scientists (Dawkins is the archetype) seem to dismiss the very idea of knowledge on many levels. I’m a big defender of keeping religion out of scientific curricula, I’m a total atheist, but I think if science wants to be the last word on the whole of reality, it needs to recognise (adopt) other values too. (I’m fascinated by your mix of Zen and objective science, after publicly leaving behind your earlier interest in the paranormal.)

    I find myself defending memes against those who dismiss them, scientifically or religiously, but also find them much more valuable and subtle, than scientific mis-use for religion-bashing rhetoric alone. 😉

    Anyway – long stories need narratives and dialogues – which neither of us seems to have time for at the moment Thanks for the opportunity to correspond.

    Take care,

  7. Susan Blackmore further responded …

    No – so sorry! I didn’t mean you missed the point – the other chap did. [That’s you Sam 🙂 ]

    Sorry I’m too informal in style too! Forgive me – too much to do at the mo. but glad to hear about your arguments.
    best wishes,

  8. How can I turn down more tea?

    Sue says: “Memes are whatever is copied from person to person or person to book, computer etc. They behave like a replicator with all that that entails.”

    This is what needs to be unpacked – and it is what I think ends up being unhelpful when it IS unpacked! Let me explain.

    With the gene, there is ‘nothing else’. The genes reproduce in ways that are (I believe) extremely well understood; it’s a more-or-less mechanical process.

    Once you get a higher level involved, then that mechanical reproduction gets interrupted – just think of contraception for the most obvious example. In other words, the account of a particular situation requires more than physics and genetics for a full understanding to be given – you need to give an account of human technology and desire etc.

    If ‘memes’ are ‘like a replicator with all that that entails’, what I am interested in is where the account breaks down. I’m quite happy to run with the idea that we ‘inherit’ certain cultural patterns, which go a long way to form what we call our ‘personalities’. However, my view is that there is something in our personalities which is emergent, and which then becomes the point of reference for distinguishing memes. This is the ‘higher level’.

    An example might make that clearer. A child will believe what it is taught if told something with sufficient seriousness by a trusted adult (Wittgenstein’s point in On Certainty). Yet there comes a point when an understanding crosses a threshold and become enquiring; when, if you like, the agglomeration of memes passes a threshold, hits critical mass, becomes self-organising (choose your metaphor of preference) – and the mind becomes aware.

    More to the point, for our discussion here, there comes a point when the replication of memes is interrupted by human preference. The argument might be made – those preferences are simply other memes, and the memes ‘compete’ within the medium of the human brain. Which reduces human choice to an illusion – there is no stopping of the chain of explanation at the human personality, but a cascade which goes behind the human personality into the history of the memes.

    My view is that it is inherently possible for the ‘chain of explanation’ to stop at the human personality; that the human personality is emergent and is capable of exercising discernment (value judgement) with regard to whether memes are any good. Which I imagine Sue disagrees with – but I’m most interested in exploring why.

    And whilst I’m here, what does it mean to say that a meme ‘behaves’ – anthropomorphic metaphor? With DNA we can at least form a reasonable understanding of what stands in the role of selector – it’s the exigencies of survival in the various ecologies and biological environments that the genes find themselves in. But what is it that stands in the role of selector at the level of the meme? I would say that it is the human personality, whether individually or exercised through the group. But once that happens, then the analogy breaks down, and I am left wondering what is added to our understanding if we use the word ‘meme’ rather than the word ‘idea’.

  9. On the one point – I’ll give you my view …

    The process at higher levels after the “mechanical unpacking” ? The reason I can still see this as memetic, is that the unpacking on many levels is also about memes and memeplexes) acting on memes … ie the cultural content of any existing human consciousness is one way or another an accumulation of previous memes. Above the genetic / biological level, consciousness can be reasonably modelled entirely as memes – a key aspect of Sue’s (and Dennett’s) model I do find credible. (The bit I don’t accept is “and therefore there is no free will”, which Sue acknowledged above would benefit from more clarification. I see this meme model as an explanation of what this thing we call free will is – which is closer to my take on Dennett.)

    I’ll make sure Sue sees your comment.

    What does meme add to “idea” ? Clarifying the separation of meme and host (analogous to genes) and the replication / modification / evolution metaphors that go with that.

  10. lots of stuff there that needs unpacking for me, I’m afraid – tho’ I’m very interested. in what way do you distinguish ‘gene’ from ‘host’ – a remarkable thought, from where I stand. Is ‘host’ non-genetic????

  11. That’s an easy one Sam.

    The gene is the information encoded in the DNA, the host is the biological individual constructed to compete and/or collaborate in the gene’s “interest”. (And the construction of the individual is according to a recipe encoded in the DNA’s gene collection.)

    Cyclicly linked gene and host, but quite distinct, no ?

  12. Yes Sam, kind of pheno-TYPE if we’re talking about the class, the type, species …. Strictly I was actually referring to an individual of the species.

  13. In which case – i humbly and respectfully suggest 😉 – “host” is just a little misleading, as there are connotations of control which – so far as I understand dawkins et al – don’t apply with phenotype. in other words it is the genotype which is “hosting” the phenotype, not the other way around. although that is also still a bit confusing – it’s another of those places where metaphors start to mislead a little. i’m pretty sure we agree on the underlying system though, which is nice 🙂

  14. Yeah, OK, but host is a shorter word 🙂

    Actually the “control” and “causation” aspect (as opposed to the physical housing) is the crux of our problem. I’d say Dawkins was wrong in ignoring the cyclical dependencies (or over emphasising the gene in control, same as Sue is with memes) – causation works both ways at different stages in the lifecycle.

    It is only a lingusitic problem though, because the host (as in vehicle, container) is “built from” the genes & memes anyway.

    That’s why I love Hofstadter – he maintains the “strange loops” – he doesn’t flatten the problem with illusory simplicity, which most people want to speak and lap up.

  15. Sam responded in an e-mail

    “agree with those final comments about host btw. must read my hofstadter.”

  16. SUBJECT:
    Irony and memes

    Sorry but Blackmore is a snozzzzefest

    Hi there, my IRONY OF THE UNIVERSE book length manuscript is online. After a prolonged bout with one publisher that expressed interest but no action, I have self published the beast via . So you can order a hard or soft bound book ($28 or $18 ), here for the hardback

    and here for the paperback

    Alternatively, you can download it for $10 which is five pounds sterling, the price of a London pint. It has a wrong aol email on the inside page currently, which I will change eventually, and there are undoubtedly typos, misspelling and inaccuracies in the text, but the main gist of my thoughts and arguments and evidence is all there. So all the best, and keep the meme flag flying high.


  17. Hi Jack, thanks for the comment and links. I’ll take a look.

    What specifically do you have against Sue Blackmore ?


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