In the course of repeating a game the other day, I mentioned that I don’t like
meme-talk, and pointed to an older post that, among other things, gives a short version of my reasons for saying that there are no such things as memes. Thing is, in that post I said I was giving the argument short shrift, and said I’d probably come back to it later—and then I never did. Since (1) I had cause to mention it lately, (2) a commentator recently prodded me on my abbreviated version of the argument, and (3) in memoriam of Rox’s last Random Ten—a fun weblog game unfortunately mislabeled a
meme—I’d like to make good on that at last. Consider this the Friday Anti-Meme, if you will. Rox may not be continuing to spread a fun idea for talking about music anymore, but by God you will get a cranky philosophical disquisition that spends too much time talking about how we talk about silly web games. (It’s not that I have anything against people who use the word
meme to describe the ideas for posts that they spread. At worst it’s a bit of an offense against my prose aesthetic. But I do have reasons for hoping that the word will meet a swift and ignominious demise; and if this contributes to it, well, so much the better.)
So what’s all the fuss about, anyway? Well, we’re not just talking about weblog posting games where you encourage others to join, of course. What is all is the notion of a
meme supposed to encompass? Here’s how Susan Blackmore, quoting and explicating from Richard Dawkins’ original discussion in The Selfish Gene (1976), puts it:
At the very end of the book he asked an obvious, if provocative, question. Are there any other replicators [besides DNA-based genes] on our planet? The answer, he claimed, isYes. Staring us in the face, though still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup of culture, is another replicator — a unit of imitation.
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.Mimemecomes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit likegene. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.
(I, for one, won’t forgive such a clunker of an attempt at cutesy neologism. But let’s move on.)
As examples he suggestedtunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.He mentioned scientific ideas that catch on and propagate themselves around the world by jumping from brain to brain. He wrote about religions as groups of memes with a high survival value, infecting whole societies with belief in a God or an afterlife. He talked about fashions in dress or diet, and about ceremonies, customs and technologies — all of which are spread by one person copying another. Memes are stored in human brains (or books or inventions) and passed on by imitation.
In a few pages he laid the foundations for understanding the evolution of memes. He discussed their propagation by jumping from brain to brain, likened them to parasites infecting a host, treated them as physically realised living structures, and showed how mutually assisting memes will gang together in groups just as genes do. Most important, he treated the meme as a replicator in its own right. He complained that many of his colleagues seemed unable to accept the idea that memes would spread for their own benefit, independently of any benefit to the genes.In the last analysis they wish always to go back toto answer questions about human behaviour. Yes, he agreed, we got our brains for biological (genetic) reasons but now we have them a new replicator has been unleashed.biological advantageOnce this new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old(Dawkins, 1976, 193-4). In other words, memetic evolution can now take off without regard to its effects on the genes.
Well, Dawkins and Blackmore are certainly right to knock their colleagues’ heads together if they insist on trying to find some way to tie every widespread cultural phenomenon to some sort of adaptation for genetic fitness (except in the very broad sense that human intelligence, as such, allows for such phenomena through its extreme versatility, and human intelligence is itself adaptive). Good for them. Unfortunately, the alternative they offer is on no better grounds. What they are claiming to do is to introduce a new technical term and a new theoretical framework that will give us interesting, useful, and accurate accounts of a huge array of cultural phenomena. Let’s keep in mind just how various the facts they’re claiming to explain are; they explicitly include:
- the popularity of tunes and catch-phrases
- fashions in dress
- the inculcation (and adaptation) of customs and etiquette
- styles of art and architecture
- the spread of ideas and beliefs
- religious belief, evangelism and conversion
- the rise and fall of scientific theories
- the adoption of technologies and useful inventions
- the preservation of key elements of (1)-(9) in the form of literature, story-telling, articles, blueprints, recipes, etc.
- the adaptation, modification, and sometimes disappearance of (1)-(10) over time
If you really could come up with a unified science to take all of these phenomena into account, then it truly would be a discovery of Newtonian (or Darwinian) proportions. Dawkins and Blackmore think they have got it: the concept of self-replicating information patterns, and a research programme based on investigating the selective pressures at work on the replicators. Just as research into the selective pressures on genes can do the heavy lifting to explain the vast biodiversity of our world, the idea goes, research into the selective pressures on bits of culture can offer the basis for a Grand Unified Theory of cultural development and human diversity.
If the parallel between selfish genes and bits of culture can be drawn, that is. But that’s easier said than done. For that parallel to hold, and for memetic accounts to do any explanatory work from it, we’ll need to say something about what it means for tunes, catch-phrases, superstitions, religious beliefs, scientific theories, poems, weblog games, customs, and more to be
fit, and what the
selective pressures on them in a given
environment are. In order to draw a good parallel, we need to cash out fitness like we do in evolutionary biology—in terms of reproductive success, i.e., the replicator’s shot at making copies of itself. The whole research programme, then, depends on an account of what it means for tunes, catch-phrases, superstitions, religious beliefs, scientific theories, poems, weblog games, customs, and more to replicate themselves. So what is the account? Well, Dawkins says, it’s
jumping from brain to brain; memes
replicate when they spread to another person. Or, to be more precise, when one person spreads them to another.
And that’s the problem. To talk about how bits of culture
replicate, you need to talk about the reasons people have for spreading, or for taking up, an idea, belief, device, etc.
memetics can’t get us one step closer to understanding these reasons. The whole point of memetics, as a science of culture, is supposed to be that it can give us accurate and interesting explanations of cultural phenomena from the standpoint of selection of the
fittest. But there’s an important disanalogy here between evolutionary biology and the study of culture: organisms can, and the astronomically large majority of organisms do, replicate their genes blindly. That is to say, they can replicate their genes without intending or desiring to do so; since of all the species in the known Universe only one understands how babies are made (let alone population genetics), most genes are replicated this way. There is usually a causal link between an organism’s interests or desires or choices and the replication of the genes that may determine or influence them, but there’s no conceptual link; you can spell out what makes for the
replication of a gene, and what makes a gene
fit, without any essential reference to the interests or desires or choices of its
vehicle. Not so for
memes; the link between the
fitness of a idea, belief, device, game, etc. and the reasons a person does or doesn’t have for passing it on or taking it up is not just causal, but logical. Those reasons may be very simple: you hum a song you heard on the radio because the melody is nice; you tell your child not to bite you because it hurts. Or they may be very complex: scientists begin to adopt the Alvarez theory of the K-T extinction because several complex geological findings tend to support it over other plausible candidates; Dada Anti-Art flourishes in the world of visual art and art criticism because of an intricate knot of political, aesthetic, and philosophical influences including the devastation of the Great War, a perception that the possibilities for modern painting had been exhausted, and the modernist ethic of rebellion against stale convention. But whatever the reasons are, it is essential that there are some reasons; otherwise what we are discussing is not a part of culture, but rather some kind of acquired tic or reflex.
That leaves memetics in a nasty bind. Since there is no way to give an account of the
fitness of spreading bits of culture independent of facts about their
hosts’ reasons for spreading them, memetic explanations of cultural diversity don’t have the explanatory ground to stand on that genetic explanations of biodiversity do, and must fall into one of two degenerate patterns:
They could fall back on some understanding of people and their reasons for accepting and spreading ideas—making the account accurate but completely vacuous. The explanation here depends on the selection of
unfitideas, but the criteria for determining whether an idea is
fitor not depends on entirely on understanding acts such as giving evidence, drawing conclusions or committing fallacies, weighing alternatives, informing or deceiving, manipulating, explicating, misdirecting, ignoring, revealing, confusing, and all the other things that people do when they talk with one another. But that just means that the
memeticexplanation is entirely parasitic on explanations drawn from other disciplines—logic, for example, or rhetoric, or psychology. If those other explanations are good ones, then you may really get an explanation of why an idea has spread so well; but in that explanation
memeticswill be contributing nothing more than argot. The notions of
selective fitnessand the rest will just be along for the ride, as terminological placeholders for the non-memetic analytical categories that are doing the real explanatory work.
If, on the other hand, they try to offer an explanation that doesn’t refer, either overtly or covertly, to people’s reasons for accepting and spreading ideas, then the meme-terminology will indeed do some special explanatory work of its own; the problem is that it must issue in conclusions that are obviously false. In order to do real explanatory work a memetic account would have to spell out some factor that makes an idea, belief, etc.
fitin terms that are independent of facts about
hosts(that is, us) and the reasons that we have for adopting or rejecting it. But you can’t do it, and if you tried to, the degree to which your explanation invoked terms that have nothing to do with the person’s reasons would be the degree to which you were treating the object of your study as something other than a cultural product. (If your explanation for a person falling to her knees five times a day has nothing to do with her reasons for accepting and acting on the idea that she ought to, then you’re not explaining a ritual; you’re explaining a repeated fit.) Any non-vacuous memetic account has to be false, because it attempts to explain by irrelevancies.
A would-be memeticist might try to avoid the dilemma by claiming that my second horn depends on an overly rosy view of the average human being’s rationality. Is it really wrong to say that a lot of customs, slogans, etc. aren’t the products of reason? But that would just be a cheat: there’s a difference between explaining a cultural product by reference to bad reasons people have for adopting it, and explaining it without reference to any reasons people have for adopting it. Among the things I said you have to understand in order to understand how some beliefs and ideas spread are things like deceiving and confusing and misdirecting. It’s certainly true that there are some beliefs—superstitions, for example—that persist because people adopt them for bad reasons. But a memetic account that refers only to the bad reasons that a person might have for adopting a belief is no less vacuous than a memetic account that refers to all the reasons they might have had; it’s still entirely parasitic on our understanding of people’s reasons for spreading certain beliefs. The only difference is that it is also less charitable, and so more likely to be false. In fact, this precise confusion seems to be at the root of many if not most
memetic accounts: since you can’t intelligibly give an account of cultural practices under option (2), but the memeticist wants to avoid explanations that are obviously entirely parasitic on an understanding of logic and psychology, they try to cheat their way into (2) by restricting the range of reasons that they’ll consider to the bad ones. I think this goes a long way toward explaining, for example, the common
memetic explanation for widespread norms for altruism by appeal to the likelihood that people who get the meal will listen to the sermon, or that mutual back-scratching will benefit the scratchers. It’s certainly true that these may be part of the reason why people exhort others to be nice, and listen to others who so exhort them. But why not also explain the widespread norms by reference to, say, the notion that humans can see it’s true that they have a duty to be generous and not cruel? The past century of psychoanalysis and secularism notwithstanding, the fact that an explanation of human behavior is ennobling isn’t always a good reason to regard it as false.
This may also help to explain why
memetics talk rarely progresses beyond some appeals to elementary folk psychology concealed under cutesy pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo. Smuggling in the folk psychology keeps the account from being false or simply unintelligible—as in (2)—and imposing the flashy argot in between the real (logical, rhetorical, psychological) explanations and the audience directs their attention away from the degree to which—as in (1)—the account is, where it gets something right, entirely parasitic on some non-memetic explanation of human behavior.
I don’t know if I follow you here. Physics can theoretically explain the whole of biology. Even if we could do this in practice, it wouldn’t destroy the usefulness of biology as shorthand.
Actually, I’m not at all sure that it’s true that biology is reducible to a complete physics. But if it is, that certainly doesn’t mean that biology is useless. Fair enough, but that doesn’t help memetics. If memetics is entirely reducible to the other human sciences, then it is failed at what it set out to do. It’s not at all clear to me that memetics could do what it is supposed to for the other human sciences (that is, provide an over-arching theoretical framework that will do what evolutionary biology has done for the study of paleontology and ecology) if it is merely a
shorthand for them, but even if it could, why bother? If biology is merely shorthand for a complete chemistry and physics, it is still useful because the chemical and physical processes involved in a single organism are orders of magnitude more complex than anything a human being could comprehend in one survey. But are facts such as
People often pick up catchy tunes they hear on the street or
Scientists tend to pick up on scientific theories that elegantly explain recent findings and solve outstanding problems in the field or
Sometimes human beings believe things without enough evidence if it makes them feel better about the future complex facts that need a shorthand? If not, then why bother making up a distracting
shorthand—much less a
shorthand based on a systematic attempt to turn attention away from the very facts about people and their reasons for doing what they do that you ultimately need to refer to to make sense of the account?
It seems, in all cases, that memetics is nothing more than pseudoscientific mummery; the notions of
memetic fitness, and any
research based on these notions, depend on a conceptual misdirection. We are told that we’re going to find out something about how ideas or beliefs spread, but the memetic terminology is supposed to turn your intellectual attention away from the very facts about
meme hosts (viz., us) that actually explain why we do or do not accept ideas, and why we do or do not pass them to other people. But that’s nothing more than a conjuring trick, and a pernicious one at that. The reasons that we have for picking up or putting down ideas, beliefs, theories, bits of culture, etc. are what make us who we are: rational animals who relate to one another in an intelligent community. Memetic explanations are so often uncharitable because they insist on trying to explain facts about human actions, human ideas, and human communities in a literally dehumanized way. The sooner we stop that, the better.
As far as the weblog games go: if the word
meme deserves to die, then what should they be called? Well, what about the good old word
idea? As in:
Here’s an idea that I got from Rox Populi. I’m passing it on here because [I think it’s fun / I’m hard up for material / I want to start a discussion / I want to rant about memetics / etc. etc. etc.]
Take responsibility for the contents of your own mind! Écrasez la niaserie!