Whatever happened to memes and memetics? Richard Dawkin's idea, and how it became a zombie idea: Part 1 - blog by Gurdur


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Whatever happened to memes and memetics? Richard Dawkin's idea, and how it became a zombie idea: Part 1
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Posted 19-Sep-2010 at 02:35 PM (14:35) by Gurdur
Updated 14-Oct-2010 at 08:00 AM (08:00) by Gurdur

The word and concept "meme" first entered the English language and major discussion almost 35 years ago, and today the meme concept is a zombie. It came into usage when the book "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins first came out in 1976. The book is very readable, very good - and also very dated; some parts are simply out of date, and as said one of the most famous ideas to emerge from that book - the meme - has become a zombie. A meme was defined loosely as any kind of discrete transmitted cognitive pattern, like a catchy tune, a certain specific idea, a symbol, a practice, or anything similar -- a unit of culture. Dawkins defined it as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation, though later new definitions came in. In the 1990's, a new field arose termed "memetics", which was originally was the mooted science of memes.

There are major criticisms to be made of the hard science of the evolutionary biology of the book "The Selfish Gene" - problems with Dawkins' views against or on kin selection, epigentics, the gene-centric view, stochiastic evolution rather than selection, and some others, as well as the idea that many people have that it was a good overview of evolutionary biology at the time. But I'll deal with those problems in a separate blog post. Let's look in this blog post at arguably the most famous idea in the book, the meme.

It's difficult to stress enough just how much of an intellectual ferment was caused and felt in the 1990's by exploring themes laid out in "The Selfish Gene" (USA edition, British edition, both the new revised and extended 30th anniversary edition). The book sparkled with explanation and new ideas, and it then in the 90's sparked off what became an almost-scientific field of its own, memetics. There was a great deal of scientific research and effort into the ideas of memes, and for 15 years into memetics, but with one exception (which I will describe in a new blog post later on), memetics basically upped and died a few years ago, and likewise any genuine scientific sense of the meme concept, after almost 35 years. These days, you only really hear the word "meme" being used in a very loose fashion to mean some kind of fashionable theme or idea, or as a speciously posited cause of something or other (like religion), whereby the person using the term in that second sense usually has no idea about the history and status of memetics at all. Certainly you do hear the term being used quite often by geeks, by those in the science fields, and by atheists, but nowadays the term is only a shadow of its former self.

Back ten years ago, there was still serious scientific research into memes. These days, practically nothing. It's proved itself futile, a blind alley, a non-productive theory that never really got off the ground despite quite intensive work by many. Today in almost all cases the word "meme" is merely a metaphor, or it is used in a pseudo-scientific way. It is a zombie, dead on its feet but still lurching around. Memetics, as in the original idea of a science of memes, is a zombie idea #1. There is another derived usage of the word memetics which is still used in a more alive and meaningful sense, but it has very little connection except the historical one to the original meaning, and I'll describe that in a blog post later.

Now in "The Selfish Gene" Dawkins mooted that perhaps cultures, religions and ideas were acting in an analogous way to genes, so he invented the term "meme", from the Greek word μιμητισμός (mɪmetɪsmos, meaning "something imitated"). The overall concept was not totally new or altogether Dawkins' invention. According to Wikipedia, the German Richard Semon had a work published in 1904 titled "Die Mnemischen Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalempfindungen", meaning loosely, "The Memory-Based Feelings In Their Relation To The Original Feelings (or Sensations)", wherein he had invented the term mneme. The word came into English with the translation in 1921 of Semon's book, "The Mneme".That term was picked up and used by Maurice Maeterlinck in a book, "The Life of the White Ant", which came out in 1926. Dawkins has stated he did not know of that earlier term, the mneme, or its usage.

More than that, and what Wikipedia doesn't mention (and for which information I am hugely indebted to fellow Hangout and Hub member Pyrogenesis), is that back in 1946 the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn wrote in a paper #2, that, "... there might be some enlightenment in comparing culture to a postulated but yet unseen virus ...". A paper was published ten years later in 1956, "Biological and cultural evolution: some analogies and explorations", by R. W. Gerard, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Anatol Rapoport. That paper laid out a supposition that is pretty damn close to Dawkins' meme mooting.

Pyrogenesis has written on the Hangout that:

".... So Dawkins's idea of memes is not novel, in fact it's something that was explored and then abandoned by anthropologists a long time ago. He postulates his memes as a radical new idea because of his ignorance of relevant research done more than two decades prior.

What's more, an idea similar to Kluckhohn's culture viruses, Dawkins's memes and Wilson's culturgens is something that almost inevitably pops up as a consequence of certain way of conceiving culture and human beings. The foundation for this is a belief in culture as something superorganic, of which people are carriers, an idea originating already with Franz Boas in early decades of the 20th century. If this is coupled with the idea that any effect is always caused by an actual physical particle, you will get "memetics" as an inevitable consequence. So Dawkins's idea of memes is not just a rehash of an old, abandoned idea, it's also derived from absurd premises. ..."
That covers a good deal already. But now, let's go and look at what everyone should have seen at the beginning in 1991, when memetics was but a loved baby. I should have seen it myself back then, at least by 1995, but though I got the main drift, the sheer irreparable vagueness of the meme concept, I never saw what I saw yesterday so clearly, when I looked back in researching for this post Richard Dawkins' seminal article, "Viruses Of The Mind" (1991).

Read that for yourself, then check what you see against what I see (and do please feel very free to disagree and argue in Comments below).

What I see now is: Dawkins first moots the idea of the meme, a mind-virus, self-replicating, subject to selection pressures. The mind as ecology, ideas as viruses, people as mere carriers of self-perpetuating viruses. In that article, instead of his original idea of the meme a bit like a biological virus, as mooted in "The Selfish Gene", Dawkins posits here a meme being much more like a computer virus instead -- and this has consequences; a computer virus is after all far more malicious (or to be accurate, maliciously designed) and bad for its host than a biological virus necessarily is.

Yet again and again in that article he hints at intentionality. He makes fairly explicit ethical judgments - "I have just discovered that without her father's consent this sweet, trusting, gullible six-year-old is being sent, for weekly instruction, to a Roman Catholic nun. What chance has she?" He speaks of, "... gullibility .... subverted by nuns, Moonies and their ilk".

He constantly tries to posit certain beliefs as mere viruses, like biological or computer viruses, preying upon the mind. This reduces humans to mere machines or host-organisms (and the psychologist Susan Blackmore would later publish a book explicitly carrying on in that direction, "The Meme Machine", of which I'll blog separately later).

Yet of course you cannot have both intentionality and together with that mere machine-like or host-organism-like carriers of viruses. You simply cannot have both together at the same time; this is illogical, this is free will at the same time as automatism, this is slamming religion on the one hand as a mere virus or collection of viruses, and at the same time slamming religion for its willing agents of intentional malice and active brainwashing. This is simply trying to have your cake and eat it too.

Then Dawkins does a whopper of special pleading; in section 4 of his article, "Is Science a Virus", he answers his own question by saying science is not a virus, it is instead a worthwhile program, in the sense here of computer viruses versus computer programs.

In other words, science is set up as something like a computer program that functions well, that benefits its host. Religion is however set up as something like a computer virus that infects its host, and harms its host.

This is rank special pleading. This is moral judgment in advance of the facts -- in the pure sense of the word, prejudice, judging before all the facts are in. You see, even if we take religion as a virus, it may be conferring benefits in some way upon its host (and I'll be blogging especially on that soon too). And if we treat religion that way, i.e. more like a biological virus than a computer virus, and posit possible benefits for the host organism, then we can treat science in exactly the same way. This is something we all should have seen, this is something that Dawkins should have seen himself .

This blog post is only the first of a series of blog posts I will be doing on this. I will edit in links to the future blog posts on this as I publish them.

This is part of an ongoing mini-series on memetics. I will be blogging again on how and why memetics failed, and how the idea of the meme became a zombie idea.

Blog posts of mine in this mini-series:

Whatever happened to memes and memetics? Richard Dawkin's idea, and how it became a zombie idea: Part 1 --- this blog post.

Is memetics dead? Tim Tyler's attempted refutation. How the meme became a zombie, Part 2

Behavioral Science
, Volume 1, Issue 1, pages 6–34, 1956
DOI: 10.1002/bs.3830010103
"Biological and cultural evolution: some analogies and explorations"
R. W. Gerard, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Anatol Rapoport

#1 : I thought I had invented the phrase "zombie idea", wanting to mean an idea proven wrong but still in usage in uninformed ways, but I checked on the web, and it's a phrase already invented by others. Paul Krugman is quoted as using the phrase back in 2009, where he says that, "A zombie idea is an idea that you keep on killing, because it’s a bad idea, but it just keeps on coming back". His definition fits here in this all rather well too.

#2 : I believe in either of the following; I am not sure yet which particular one, but I will find out:

Clyde Kluckhohn's review of : Configurations of Culture Growth. by A. L. Kroeber
The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Jan., 1946), pp. 336-341

Clyde Kluckhohn's review of: Human Nature. The Marxian View by Vernon Venable
The Kenyon Review, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1946), pp. 149-154

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  1. Old Comment
    lifelinking's Avatar
    To me, meme theory was always deficient, offering no explanatory mechanism for looking at issues such as inequality and power. Good piece Gurdur.
    Posted 19-Sep-2010 at 09:01 PM (21:01) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Originally Posted by lifelinking View Comment
    To me, meme theory was always deficient, offering no explanatory mechanism for looking at issues such as inequality and power. Good piece Gurdur.
    Many thanks indeed, Lifelinking; still a long long ways to go though on this for me. More coming soon on this.
    Posted 19-Sep-2010 at 09:31 PM (21:31) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Makbawehuh's Avatar
    Well, and it's a zombie idea in that it eats brainz. :P

    More seriously, I will say this: I've never read any of Dawson's books. I have The God Delusion laying around somewhere and just haven't cracked it open... But I -have- seen him on a documentary, and given that he had to have known he was giving an interview to a theist who would do everything he could to make Dawson look like an idiot, I would have though the man would keep his mouth shut on his more crackpot theories.

    Did he? Nope. Not at all. The other guy didn't have to work very hard to make him look like an idiot, because Dawson did a great job of it on his own.

    Color me jaded, but I wasn't terribly impressed.
    Posted 19-Sep-2010 at 10:42 PM (22:42) by Makbawehuh Makbawehuh is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Tim's Avatar
    This is fascinating, Gurdur. Thank you.
    Posted 19-Sep-2010 at 11:23 PM (23:23) by Tim Tim is offline
  5. Old Comment
    You know, in reading your post here it strikes me that a notion of memetics at least simply as a model in which to understand the motion of memes through culture can be very useful, and that as a scientific concept must not necessarily be ruled out simply due to the obvious presence of freewill since, it seems to me, freewill, while necessary for a non-inert (above time) universe, is not in a constant process of acting on the brain, which much of the time works in an automatic fashion based on habits that have dug grooves into neurons which make someone do what they would normally do when they aren't specifically trying to work their freewill. And that wide area of non-freewill inspired brain time can be very susceptible to memes (if its structure [the person's past] is built up to be receptive to the presence of that meme). We don't actively think about and reject or accept every meme that washes past our experience.
    Posted 20-Sep-2010 at 09:58 PM (21:58) by Unregistered
  6. Old Comment
    Gurdur's Avatar
    Just a note, all, since I am in London, I can only get to a computer and approve Comments from guests, so there will be delays, sometimes very long delays, and I cannot really write you all the replies I should.

    I will be flying back home on Wednesday, so service will improve here from Wednesday evening, on my blog.
    Posted 20-Sep-2010 at 10:05 PM (22:05) by Gurdur Gurdur is offline
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d a series on Richard Dawkins and his idea of ‘memes’; you’ll find the first post here. If you’ve read Dawkins and pondered his ‘meme’ idea, you’ll want to read w

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