I need to get this topic at the right level, following the Blackmore vs Midgley outing of yesterday.
Before memes, let’s get the garbage out of the way ….
It was set up as Blackmore vs Midgley, a combative argument – I have (on this very blog) agreed with both Midgley and Blackmore – I expressed disappointment that Midgley was so “dismissive” of memes, thought she was missing the point, missing a trick, despite 99% common sense elsewhere. I’ve expressed disappointment that Blackmore took her “mind is nothing but memes” metaphor so far as to preclude free-will in any common sense view we might have, despite the fact that Sue is a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and a staunch advocate of open-mindedness towards the mystical and spiritual. They can both be right, if we focus on what they’re actually saying rather than “let’s see who’s right and who’s wrong”. First mistake – the middle is excluded before we start (that’s the most problematic meme here, by the way, and the core of Psybertron’s agenda.) Garbage.
Secondly, given the brief slot, and the fact that it was organised to publicise Sue’s speaking at The Darwin Day event, both of them used their rhetorical skills to stoke the argument. Sue slipped in the pejorative concept of “infection” in connection with the spread of religions, and linked that to the undeniable plethora of highly-charged religious concerns in current global politics. Mary pooh-poohed memes with the idea that “Darwin would never have made the meme mistake” throwaway, as if Darwin were the last word on evolution anyway, totally ignored Sue’s refutation in Darwin’s own ideas on the spread of languages, and further pooh-poohed Sue as a scientist. All good knockabout fun – each dissing the other – in exactly the way the “debate meme” has infected us all. Apparently the idea is to win, and be seen to win at the expense of the other. Garbage.
Thirdly, given the last couple of years debacle over raising such ideas as Intelligent Design Creationism as serious scientific alternatives to neo-Darwinism, there is no doubt that the scientific and philosophical meme camp (in which I include Dawkins and Dennett as well as Blackmore) have seen themselves as fighting a battle “against” misguided religious ideas. This becomes all the more highly charged when so many current world problems do undeniably have a religious source, however misunderstood. Attack being the best form of defence, when the objective is to win, and defeat an opponent, apparently. Garbage again.
Fourthly, “copying of memes” is not about dumb parroting of words, repeating and spreading messages verbatim, or even approximately. That’s the reactionary simplistic rhetoric meme-detractors use to ridicule them. It’s about understanding, believing and using the ideas they contain – and lets not forget Derrida (and Wittgenstein, and Quine, and Foucault no doubt), if we’re going to try and making any metaphysical distinction between the signifier and siginified / word and object / container and information – because there aren’t any.
So where’s the problem with memes. There isn’t one. Like everything else in life (and I mean everything) it’s only a metaphor, just like genes are a metaphor, they’re not really “selfish” in any intentional sense. The metaphor simply uses a causal model of behaviour that treats them as purposeful entities. Secondly the fact that memes may have practical uses in modelling behaviour in which ideas are believed and used, doesn’t mean human behaviour (anthropology and psychology) isn’t the actual issue. That’s exactly what it is; there isn’t anything else in this metaphorical world. How good such metaphors are lies in how useful they turn out to be in predictive and explanatory use – tested by real experience – there is no other test, logical or rhetorical.
Midgley’s worst genuine criticism is “they’re a distraction” from the human behaviour issues. Well that’s her choice. Some of us choose the meme metaphor precisely for human behaviour issues, all of them, including the cultural history up to any given decision point. The real distraction is both pro- and anti-meme debators demonising their opponents (in order to win arguments – that’s the real garbage.)
Let’s focus on the real problem – the real garbage – the hugely popular idea (a meme in my model) that some things are fundamentally right and others wrong, and that they can be resolved by simple logical syllogisms, and operators like “only”.
Life’s just complicated enough.