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April 9 2012 2 09 /04 /April /2012 05:00

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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richard 10/19/2012 03:54

I hear what you say about the word "idea" being sufficient, I am not anti-pathetic to that.

Possibly one could replace the phrase "memes of our indoctrination" with "ideas of our indoctrination".

For me the key point about the "memes/ideas of our indoctrination" is that they enter into our minds without our being conscious that it is happening. And in some sense they are in charge of us,
since they provide rails along which our lives run. Some of these ideas have well known names, for example, the world's religions. But I think the process applies to anyone who grows up in a
cultural environment i.e. everyone. The unconscious cultural transmission of ideas is a fact of all our lives. It is not because we cannot give a well-known name/label to a world-view that we have
not imbibed one. I think there is a kind of symbiosis between genes and the memes/ideas of our indoctrination. Each aids the propagation of the other, just as an elephant's trunk aids the
propagation of elephant genes. The human mind is, amongst other things, a device for receiving culturally transmitted ideas. Cultural transmission allows a much faster adapatation to one's
environment than genetic evolution. It is a part of our 'phenotype'.

I await the book.

makingsenseofus 10/19/2012 20:46

Richard, I'm going to delay responding at greater length until you've had a chance to read the book. In the meantime though, you might want to read Dawkins' own A Devil's Chaplain, which
both pursues the meme idea further, and also engaged (pre-The God Delusion) with the indoctrination issue you raise. There is also a brief explanatory article by Susan Blackmore, who has
capitalized on the meme idea almost as extensively as has Daniel Dennett.

Since your own concerns seem to group primarily around the indoctrination issue, you will, I suspect, be most interested in Dawkins' open letter to his daughter. It is headed "A Prayer for my
Daughter", and was written to her on her tenth birthday. For the purposes of its inclusion in A Devil's Chaplain, it has been subtitled as "Good and Bad Reasons for Believing". It goes
some way towards explaining why Dawkins finds the meme idea so attractive.

In the meantime, too, you might find it useful to read some of the other posts on my blog. particularly those dealing with the use of metaphors . . .

With respect to the idea of genes being selfish, you may be unfamiliar with some recent research findings on the issue––for example, as discussed at


I think you'll enjoy MSOU, and it should raise many more questions . . .

All good wishes, John.

richard 10/16/2012 01:09

I accept a view of what I am which comes from The Selfish Gene:

"We are survival machines, robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes."

But it is worse than that: not only are we blindly programmed robot vehicles, our thinking is stuffed with the "memes of our indoctrination."

The memes of our indoctrination provide us with a world view which results in .... our own replication.

Dawkins says "We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination."

I do not think this is possible: even if I defy my genes and memes to the point of not replicating, I simply leave behind a gene and meme pool which is better at replicating, since non-replicating
genes and memes are removed.

I will read your book. I will look to see if you do anything more than shore up memes which contribute to our replication.

makingsenseofus 10/19/2012 02:59

Thanks for the comment, Richard. The purpose of the post upon which you commented was primarily to reject, or at the very least to discourage an acceptance of the word "meme" itself as a valuable
concept. It carries for me much of the baggage with which Dawkins freighted the "selfish gene" itself. In my view we already have adequate concepts available for discussing the manner in which
ideas affect our understanding, and therefore our behaviour. "Ideas" itself is a sufficiently powerful concept, I think, and it avoids any implication that they might be in charge of us, as the
word "meme" and the significance that Dawkins accords it clearly does. I'm not sure how much further to go into this more deeply here, since I don't know if you have read any of the later posts
which refer to the issues you raise, and you may in any case feel better placed to comment further after exporing the content of the book itself. I'm glad you are planning to buy it (or at least
to read it!). If you have time, too, you might find it very useful to read Mary Midgley's The Solitary Self, upon which I commented, rather too briefly, perhaps, in one of the earlier
postings. In the meantime, all good wishes . . . John.


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