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Dawkinism for the Clueless Dawkinites: Part 2 – The Meme

October 29, 2009

Dawkinism for the Clueless Dawkinites: Part 2

Q. What is a Meme? Pass it on.

  1. A self replicating idea. Pass it on to someone else.

The Dawkins Pseudo-Science

Few of Dawkins concepts stand out as much as his concept of the Meme. Whilst his endless attacks upon religion make headlines his own logical pronouncements are rarely challenged. There is often a smug brush off from his loyal fans (the Dawkinites) because he is a ‘scientist’ and therefore could not possibly be wrong. The argument in favor of Dawkinism is thus reduced down to who was voted the smartest kid in the class by all the students. Nice argument if you are impressed by such votes but it is a notion that Carl Sagan rejected when he drafted his ‘Baloney Detection Kit’. Item three on Sagan’s “Kit” list, ‘Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).‘ Since Dawkins quotes Carl Sagan from time to time I think it is relevant to see what he would think of the hero worship approach to science education. Rap songs praising a man’s intelligence are no exchange for raw data or hard science and pomposity is hollow comfort to a wrong concept or a discredited theory.

Crucial to Dawkinism is the concept of the Meme. This little word is attributed to Dawkins after it appeared in his bestselling book ‘The Selfish Gene’. Since then the word Meme has spawned a number websites and publications explaining and promoting the concept of the Meme. We even had a regular publication called the ‘Journal of Memetics’ (now ceased publication). Corporate education session mentions the Meme and advertizing campaigns are call Memes by some. You would think that such a small two syllable word would be commonly understood by everyone but is this the case?

The Virus of an Idea

Dawkins is an evolutionist and considers himself to be a genetic evolutionist where genetic evidence is used to support the theory of evolution. In that endeavor, I wish him well. However, he goes further and tries to explain sociological adaptations by adding a new mechanism called the Meme.

A Meme is a self-replicating idea according Dawkins. It is like a virus that spreads throughout a society and affects its culture. With the introduction of the Meme Dawkins was able to forward the notion of cultural evolution (A notion that is reminiscent of the progressive theory of society as proposed by many socialists.)

How does the Meme work?

We as people hear a tune or a poem and are thereby the carrier of this idea. When we pass this tune or poem onto another person we are replicating that idea. The Meme concept is modeled on that of a virus, where the host is infected by an idea and then infects others with that same idea and then those people infect others and so forth. The bottom line of this is that ideas are virus’ that are intricately wound up with evolution.

People enjoying Coke, dancing to music and even religion are all Memes in Dawkinism. Hence each one falls under the rules of evolution and thus subject to progression and eventual extinction.

It should also be noted that since the Meme is a concept that has spread over the years it is, by Dawkins definition, a Meme in itself.

By now you are either laughing at this view of the universe or have reached an epiphany where everything suddenly makes sense. If you are a Dawkinite you can now go about pointing out cultural Memes to your heart’s content. This is a Meme, Blogs are Meme, Advertising is a meme, Where’s Wally is a Meme and talking about Memes is a Meme. In fact, if you really try hard absolutely everything will fit the Meme mold. And that is problem. If you make any definition vague enough then it will fit every situation. Eventually, all human behavior and culture can be summarized as a result of Memes.

The Memes made me do it.

There are several objections to the meme hypothesis.

One is that hosts do not evolve to benefit a parasite. If we think about the Meme as an evolutionary conduit then we evolved large brains to carry Memes. This is extremely inefficient. Why not just evolve a bullshit filter and save millions of generations of trouble?

Another is that analogies should never be mistaken for evidence. Memes are based upon selected examples that are used to prove the analogy: ‘Just like a virus.‘ Analogies are used all the time to describe complex systems: Electricity is compared to water to explain Ohms law; computers are compared to human brains; Rats to humans; ants to Communism. Each can be made fit the model so long as we remain suitably vague, but once we delve deeper the analogy is meaningless. For example: electrons flow on the outside of wires but water flows inside pipes.

Another is that all human endeavor and achievement can be summarized as ‘the Memes made me do it‘. Problem solved. Mozart was just Meme carrier with long hair. Just like typhoid Annie.

Warning Science Content

If we apply Dawkins own methodology of testing to the validity of the Meme then it would not pass the test. What efforts has he made to prove the existence of the Meme Hypothesis? No proof of the existence of the Meme has been offered so therefore, we must aggressively assume that it does not exist.

But seriously, why should this folk law is treated as acceptable science? It is at best a social theory presented with only anecdotal and random evidence as support. It sits in competition with other social theories about the nature of knowledge, culture and human behavior such as the Id, Social Darwinism and Scientific Racism. All of which have as much proof of their validity as the Meme. No test has been devised to measure Meme activity or influence. You cannot count it; weigh it or even point to it because it is a concept with no physical properties. For a rationalist materialist like Dawkins this is a very big hole in his case and yet it is one that he continually ignores.

Here is an example:

“Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool… Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that `survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god which gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal”

(Wow he uses 5 memes here. Remind me never to play scrabble with him.)

If we think hard about what a Meme is, after it is stripped of it superlatives, we have little more than the rebirthing of the ancient superstitions of: magic words, evil spells and dangerous utterances. Human intelligence is reduced down to a mindless victim with no free will against the dreaded Meme. The only solution is to out evolve the evil Memes and move on to the good mantras and spells. Sorry, I mean ‘beneficial Memes’.

The Meme is at best another hypothesis that can neither be proved nor tested but like all ideological concepts, it can be applied. Dawkinism uses Memes to fill the gaps in its arguments just like any other popular pseudo-science: eg: Phrenology, life-force, and auras. So why is so little time dedicated to questioning Dawkins on this? Perhaps his noisy rhetoric is distracting everyone.

In Part 3: I will be looking at Genetic Robots.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2010 8:33 pm

    Your misdirected anger against “Dawkinites” have lead to make fundamentally wrong statements:

    – “hosts do not evolve to benefit a parasite.” You will in fact find many instances in nature where hosts are being made to act agains their own selfish interest for the better interest of another species. Additionally, it should be said that many memes will in fact increase the likelihood of survival of the “host” and his genes. For example, the idea that having babies makes you happy when research seems to point out the opposite.

    – “If we think about the Meme as an evolutionary conduit then we evolved large brains to carry Memes. This is extreme inefficient.” The development of the brain, and the frontal cortex to be able to imagine and conceptualize ideas (and memes) is obviously extremely efficient for mankind, since it has allowed us to become the dominant species.

    – There is no “dreaded meme” in the study of mimetics. There is no good and bad. The language we use, the words we know are all memes. Studying how those are created and what happens to them using the darwinian evolutionary thoery works. The same way the study of species validate his theory. No absolute proof, just an endless list of examples.

    Like

    • March 14, 2010 10:57 am

      Toxic Max

      Thanks for your comments.

      I did two things before relying to your comments. One was to read what I published back n November last to make sure that I still agree with it and the other was to watch the video that you linked to you comments.

      Firstly I will stick with the thrust of my argument, despite my occassional colourful metaphors.

      With regards to Dennett’s talk. It started off rather well with the ‘paracitic fluke’ but then he makes a huge lead from something that has a direct physical relationship to a bunch a sweeping generalizations about culture and religion. In my universe this is just the verbal equivalent of slight of hand. The direct physical and causal relationship can be proven in the infected ant but it is a huge leap to then project this where there is no physical influence. In other words he is using conjecture in place of evidence. And in someplaces he is using false analogies with the infected ant to make his point.

      The point of my essay is to look at the concept of the Meme from a rational viewpoint.
      “hosts do not evolve to benefit a parasite.”
      Hosts may be suseptable to pracites but it is the paracite that has evolved to attack the host. Not the host that has evolved to specifically help the paracite. (Some living things do have symbiotic relationship but that is of mutual benefit: ie: the opposite meaning.)

      “If we think about the Meme as an evolutionary conduit then we evolved large brains to carry Memes. This is extreme inefficient.”
      I am not arguing that the evolution of large brain is beneficial. Smarter animals may suvive better but there is nothing in Darwinism that explains the existance of complexed culture.

      “There is no “dreaded meme” in the study of mimetics.”
      Also there are no Memes in the study of mimetics. (That is a joke) Here I am taking a little poetic license with Dawkins. He calls religion a meme and later calls it the root of all evil. So I joined the two together and suggest that he himself believes that there are good meme (the ones he likes) and dreaed memes (the ones he does not like).

      Incidentally Meme is nothing more than a vague analogy that can be made fit any evidence you find. Hence my reponse is now a meme. Then again if I applied Dawkins own strick dogmas about evidence. He has not proven the case and therefore we are compelled to disbelieve in its existance.

      Like

      • March 14, 2010 9:11 pm

        I appreciate your argument, nothing healthier than scepticism. Personally, I don’t understand Dawkins’ obstination with the God thing – it’s one concept that lives on among so many others and the one for which he has gotten the most attention. Its a bit of a shame that he and other mimetists (myself included) have decided to go to war with some memes before the theory itself had gotten more validation. I guess we just can’t help it.

        On the other hand, you’ve got to agree with this statement: ideas have a life of their own. And with that, the meme concept is validated.

        Like

  2. March 15, 2010 4:22 pm

    Toxic Max

    I do appreciate your patience.

    My object to Mimetics (the Meme) is that it is more representative of a belief system than a science. You cannot write an imperical set of messures in order to test it. Like the old ‘lifeforce’ theory of the 19th century it can neither be proved or disproved. People do have the right to believe in it but that does not make it more valid than the belief systems that Dawkins attacks.

    “ideas have a life of their own”
    Interesting analogy. However if we take it literally then I could check the pulse rate. People accept and reject ideas all the time. What matters is whether it is sound and makes sense.

    Like

  3. ionzone permalink
    March 18, 2010 8:20 am

    Memes have been pretty badly beaten, if not done away with, in my opinion.

    http://beastrabban.wordpress.com/category/memes/

    Like

    • March 18, 2010 3:59 pm

      ionzone

      Thanks for your comments.

      The article that you linked was excellent.

      As for the “Meme”
      They offer Dawkinites ‘a God of gaps’ and become like plaster holding a bunch disconnected opinions together. Without the Meme plaster many of his cases could not be made.

      Like

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