The controversial meta-meme that memes are controversial, seems to have spread … like a meme.
This post is partly in response to this article in Andrew Brown’s Guardian Blog, and partly as a result of a comment thread that became attached to an earlier (unrelated) post here, comments in several threads over at Sam’s Elizaphanian blog, and a couple of e-mail exchanges with Sam. This post is in two parts – initially my own summary of the “state of play” with memes, followed by a very simple alternative formulation of the original “mimetic” idea.
Memes – The State of the Union
Some see red mist at the mention of the word, associating it with the archetypal “scientific fundamentalists” hell bent on their (apparent) reductive dehumanising crusade against the evils of religion and against the virtues, vices and vagueries of human nature. Others seem equally hell bent on destroying or trivializing the word meme by abusing it to mean various “tag you’re it” exchanges of lists, surveys and quizzes in the blogosphere, ironically exploiting the power of memes in general in the process of propagating the low quality and the trivial. Yet others simply refuse to see that the word meme says anything more useful than the word idea.
I’m happy to claim the “physicalist” tag for myself, and to use the word meme as originally intended, yet still equally happy to brand the scientific fundamentalists as religious zealots in their own right. But I’m not in the business of flogging dead horses. If the word meme is lost on the battlefield, distinguishing the concept of meme from the concept of idea remains crucial to promoting quality thinking and our decision-making as individuals within democracies. Defending us all from an evolutionary slide into lowest common denominator mediocrity … and worse.
Enough of the pre-amble, what am I proposing ? We need to establish if the essence of the original concept is valuable and, if so, propose an alternative name and context for use in future discourse.
Meme is itself a meme. The origins of the word in mimesis was cleverly coined into meme (by Dawkins) precisely because of the allusion to the word gene as a “unit of reproduction” in the processes of evolution. The parallel is actually a very good one; in both cases it concerns the copying of information. In both cases it concerns the processes by which copies are generated and the mechanisms by which the information copied affects future processes. In both cases we need to be concerned with syntactical aspects of how the information is symbolically represented and with semantic aspects of what it means to the future processes. In both cases we need to be concerned with fecundity; the rate at which the propogation of copies can occur, and with fidelity; the rate at which copies are identical or mutated from the original – both syntactically and semantically. And so on …
Meme being a meme however, the idea has circulated into use with mixed levels of understanding. It has also circulated in an environment where its use has had very marked and divergent rhetorical intent by those engaged in highly emotive evolution and science vs religion and faith debates. But the same is (or was) true of genes.
What is it about memes that the gain-sayers so …. despise.
Firstly there is the reductive and deterministic impression, of reducing thinking and ideas to atomic units. But the same is true of genes, seemingly reducing biology and life itself to similar atomic units, bouncing off each other with gay Netwonian abandon. All but the die hards seem to have got over this delusion when it comes to the role of genes in physical and biological evolution, and can accept that life’s more complicated than that, however simplistic their understanding of genes. And make no mistake, genes are in no way as well bounded as units, or as well defined in their functions as pop-understanding would believe.
Both memes and genes suffer from fears associated with their “life of their own” that somehow leave the human species and individual brains as mere hosts in the process. Anyone attaching such significance to the “selfish gene / meme” metaphors would do well to ponder on where there own free (selfish) will actualy resides.
Memes are of course different to genes in what seems a fundamental way. It’s the old mind vs body distinction. We can just about live with scientists subjecting the biology of life to scientific description, but not the vital spark of humanity, oh no, that would be a step too far. But this is pure prejudice. This is not the place to attempt to explain too-greedy reductionism, the flip-side of determinism or the emergence of purpose from complexity …. nor the whole mind / body / free-will debate … but anyone believing that these haven’t been or can’t be explained properly are …. prejudiced. Anyone seriously wishing to understand evolutionary explanations of mind and consciousness should read Dennett – without prejudice. (References to Dennett dotted throughout this blog.)
As we will see prejudice in the strict sense is fundamental to understanding memes, but in order to spare those of a nervous disposition, that’s the last time I will use the word meme in this piece.
A mimetic idea is an idea which has mimetic qualities. What are these qualities and why is it useful to understand them ?
A mimetic idea is an idea that is easy to recall, communicate and spread through many minds (and blogs and published media of any kind – creating many “copies”). That ease has two distinct but related aspects.
Syntactically – an idea with catchy symbolism – a word / phrase / image that is easy to recognize and attractive to a recipient and easy to communicate physically. Easy is a matter of degree, but in the extreme this communication could even happen unintentionally or absent mindedly.
Semantically – an idea that seems easy to understand . An idea that fits with existing understanding, without too much additional judgement or rational thought being applied to the inherent quality and import of its content. The initial understanding is “prejudiced“. That initial understanding may also be incomplete, or even partly misunderstood, but this does not actually get in the way of that initial acceptance nor the onward communication.
Notice that a key feature of both the syntactical and semantic communication aspects is that in both cases the “ease” is tending to by-pass more considered thought. This is not to say the everyone who communicates such an idea does so thoughtlessly, but the tendency is clear. We could at this point debate the relative values of immediate and considered understanding, but it seems non-controversial to suggest a tendency to bypass more thoughtful consideration is more problematic the more significant the subject of the idea.
Such a tendency is also more significant given the explosion in on-line electronic communication and the rise in more automated feeds and readers.
There are important corollaries to this point. These are not news, they are as old as thought itself, simply of greater significance given this explosion in communications, as noted earlier by the likes of McLuhan. The main quality of ideas that spread is that they are easy – ie simple and prejudiced – not that they are inherently good or useful in any other sense. The ease of communication and the simplification aspect of any prior misunderstanding is reinforced in the process [autocatalytic – Rayner]. Ideas that require any complexity of explanation and understanding, or that may be “game-changing” in any sense that jars with current received wisdom are disadvantaged and even drowned-out, whether they are inherently any good or not.
The evolution of ideas continues apace. Good ideas are ever more disadvantaged and ideas that fit simply with received wisdom are ever more advantaged. This needs to be understood, and the environment for cultivation of good ideas improved using that understanding. Evolution involves nurture as well as nature.
Understanding the mimetic nature of ideas is itself a useful idea in the quest for the answer to “how should we live?”