Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I hope it is still the case that not all readers of this blog will yet have succumbed to the temptation of using the word "meme" to characterize every possible kind of symbolically transmitted information between human beings. For you happy few who are as yet unfamliar wth the term, I do, unfortunately, need to give a short history of its growing use in order to explain why I think it is likely to be dangerous to our ability to think clearly about our human situation. Its very sound, I'm afraid, contains an association that promotes its use as another of those potentially attractive but dangerous metaphors that give the illusion of a superior understanding, and yet contain the seeds of even greater closed-mindedness.
The original coining of the term is significant, for it was a spin-off of Richard Dawkins' thinking about genes. Dawkins not only coined the word in The Selfish Gene, but shared in detail there how he arrived at the decision to choose a word that was significantly similar to the one that referred to the transmission of genetic information from one generation to the next. The major theme in The Selfish Gene was of course the assertion of the immutability of that "selfish" motive.
Why did Dawkins feel the need for this new term? Well, he was quite aware that the transmission of symbolically formulated information between human beings was a powerful means of speeding up the spread of adaptive and creative ability in our case, and thus now needed to be taken into account when considering the future evolution of our species. Symbolic communication of experience and ideas was already enabling our species to evolve far more quickly than the relatively sluggish natural selection processes identified by Wallace and Darwin. Even more importantly, since the "selfish gene" idea emphasized the "arms race" characteristic that Dawkins saw as the essential feature of Darwinian evolutionary processes, Dawkins wanted a term that would promote greater awareness of the presence of a countervailing force in evolution, namely, the possibility of cooperation.
Unfortunately, however––as Dawkins has shown himself aware, and as I argue in my own book––the simple availability of information transmitted symbolically is not an indicator of its validity, nor of its value. Ideas themselves can be dangerous. They may not enhance cooperation. They can endanger it.
I've referred elsewhere to Mary Midgley's telling criticism of Dawkins' "selfish gene" metaphor, and Mary's book The Solitary Self is, I think, is a powerfully effective antidote to its message. There is, however, a larger can of worms to be dealt with when coming to grips with the implications of the new term.
Those implications become more apparent in the works of Susan Blackmore, and, indeed, Daniel Dennett, who both use the term as if what it represents is an entity of some kind that has all the attributes of an actor. The lazy acceptance of such an attribution can be traced back to Dawkins' choice of the word "replicator" to characterized genes themselves. The very form of that word is derived from the Latin forms that specifically designate actors. The result is that we now have a surge of literature in which the word "meme," by its association with the word "gene," is used to denote ideas themselves as agents––that is, "doers.". So, we apparently now have "selfish" memes, too ! (Indeed, Dawkins does so designate them in the 1989 edition of his book.)
Since my previous post was a bit of a rant about our tendency to see ourselves as helpless in the face of the circumstances that we ourselves have produced, I trust you will understand why it is that I want to draw our attention to this additional seductive usage.
There's a quite substantial irony here, too. Dawkins is indeed acutely aware of the need for us to emphasize the possibilities for cooperation, adaptation and creativity that are enabled by the horizontal transmission of information within generations, and, indeed, beyond them. The biologist Carl Woese has even suggested that the transmission of symbolized information requires our defining a new biological era that can be termed "post Darwinian," because it carries the promise of widespread cooperative rather than competitive interaction. Ever since he and Lynn Margulis and others have alerted us to the universality of cooperative processes in evolution, there has been awakened the possibility of a fundamental change in our attitudes towards one another. It is timely, although perhaps long overdue. Hopefully, too. it is not too late! It's up to us to make sure that it isn't . . . However, much depends on whether we accept or reject the assumptions in Dawkins' view that "We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth, and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination." At least in 1989, Dawkins seemed unaware that his dominant metaphor remained an adversarial one. . . But again, as I frequentlly point out in MSOU, it's more complicated than that!
Comments are welcomed. This needs discussion!!
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