LogoGatherer, D. (1999). A Plea for Methodological Darwinism.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

A Plea for Methodological Darwinism
- a commentary on Rose's paper: Controversies in Meme Theory

Derek Gatherer
School of Biomolecular Sciences
Liverpool John Moores University
Byrom St.
Liverpool L3 3AF

Free will and intentionality have bedevilled philosphers for centuries. "We have free will and there's an end on't", declared Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. Others, from Johnson's contemporary the Marquis de Laplace to B.F. Skinner in the 20th century, have, for a range of different reasons, been less certain. A middle road is often taken, which allows for strong exogenous influences on human behaviour while retaining a fundamental bedrock of human autonomy. The trick, apparently, is to learn to exercise that autonomy. Thus for Herbert Marcuse and his fellow Frankfurt School Marxists, the workers labour not merely under physical and economic repression, but under the hypnotic sway of a cultural hegemony that convinces them that they are not really repressed. For Freud's heterodox disciple Wilhelm Reich, repression is not so much economic as sexual, and indoctrination of inhibitions takes place at an early age. Either way, the solution is to recognise the source of the cultural `programming' and the reward for casting it off is freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre by contrast, in his early philosophy, leans towards the Johnsonian end of the spectrum. For the early Sartre, the Marxist and Freudian accounts of human behaviour sound more like excuses than explanations. We are always free to choose, whether we like it or not, and to fail to recognise that is to commit the only cardinal sin recognised by the existentialist, that of mauvaise foi (Sartre 1969 [1943]).

Recognition that genes may have phenotypic effects that are not always to the benefit of the individual organisms that contain them, presaged by J.B.S. Haldane but beginning rigorously with the work of W.D. Hamilton in the 1960s, led to the body of evidence summarised by Dawkins (1978 [1976]) in The Selfish Gene. Dawkins, of course, added the meme as a second, non-genetic, replicator. Just as some genes are beneficial to their hosts, while others are more concerned with propagating themselves at their hosts' expense, so too are memes arranged on a spectrum from the unreservedly wonderful (eg. science in Dawkins' estimation) to the truly parasitic. Dawkins' intellectual heritage owes more to Dr Johnson than to Marx, but his picture of religious memes as the ultimate `mutually compatible gang of viruses' (Dawkins 1993) has distinct affinities with Louis Althusser's `false consciousness' working in favour of a sinister status quo (Althusser 1977). Darwinian algorithms have replaced dialectic, but the call to arms is the same: it's time to rebel against the selfish replicators.

Dennett (1987, 1991) takes the meme theory a stage further. Now the meme is not seen merely as a replicator within consciousness, but as the essence of consciousness itself. Of course, Dennett does not intend that memes should be units of phenomenology - qualia are disqualified in his theory - but that the illusion of consciousness is produced through the combined action of myriads of behavioural and abstract memes. The higher functions of consciousness, the ability to choose, the ability to exercise our freedom, the ability to design intentionally, thus no longer require a homuncular agent in the brain, no longer require a Sartrean pour-soi or a Johnsonian free will. We are after all automata, but of an infinitely more sophisticated kind than the Marquis de Laplace could ever have envisaged. Our consciousnesses are so machiavellian that they can even fool us into believing that we have qualia, that we have intentionality, that we have freedom. Clearly, in this view rebellion against the selfish replicators is impossible. We are made of selfish replicators, they do not merely colonise our otherwise healthy minds. They are our minds, healthy or otherwise.

Against this, Anthony O'Hear (1997) maintains that there is nevertheless still a problem with our free will (illusion or not, it's still a factor in which memes get selected). O'Hear would accept Nick Rose's proposition that attribution of variation and selection of memes to conscious foresight does undermine the claim of memetics to be an evolutionary project. In reply to Rose's question - why do we need an evolutionary theory of culture at all? - O'Hear might reply that we don't need one and furthermore we should not concern ourselves with attempting to find one.

So we have Dennett in one corner, updating Laplace and Skinner to produce a non-homuncular, non-Cartesian theory of consciousness as grand illusion, and in the opposite corner we have Dr Johnson, Sartre and O'Hear, maintaining that we really are free come what may and that there is no way any Darwinian algorithm is going to straighten out that one. Somewhere in the middle we have Dawkins, the Freudians and the Marxists, acknowledging our capacity for freedom but pessimistic concerning its ability to resist the exogenous forces that dictate to it. Rose stands over on the Dennettian side, and naturally sees the others as fudging the task of explaining the mind in a mechanistic evolutionary manner. Rose is right, if Universal Darwinism is the game, they have given up on it.

I cannot claim to contribute anything novel to the debate concerning free will or intentionality, but I suggest that part of the problem lies in the tendency to see memetics as a theory of the mind. Dennett, of course, is primarily interested in the mind, and much of the recent resurgence of memetics is owing to his sponsorship. But memetics, both in Dawkins' original version (Dawkins 1978 [1976]) and in its treatment by Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981), was originally a theory of culture couched in fairly materialist terms. If we adopt a population-level approach to culture, if we proceed from meme as behaviour, artefact or other materially identifiable unit straight up to whole culture as meme pool, skipping the grey and murky intervening level of individual human consciousnesses, then the problem, if not exactly solved, becomes less serious. I concede that those who believe in intentionality as a real thing, and not merely an illusion, may still protest that the origins of memetic novelty are therefore not random, that we have a spanner in the works of the Darwinian algorithm. Darwinism would seem to require that variation be randomly generated and not in some way directed towards some goal, otherwise the ghost of Lamarck intervenes. However, to this I would reply that we can only really address this possibility by empirical observation. Analysis of novel behaviours in the context of the cultural systems in which they appear is the only way to determine if the non-randomising effect of intentionality in individuals will be sufficient to destabilise the Darwinian algorithm as applied to the `big picture' of culture.

I thus plead for a methodological Darwinism in cultural evolution rather than a theoretical one, just as I plead for a methodological behaviourism rather than a Skinnerian one. O'Hear may be right, perhaps intentionality does rig the jury where cultural novelty is concerned. However, the big picture may still nevertheless be amenable to Darwinian analysis. Only empirical studies can answer this question. So do we need an evolutionary theory of culture? Perhaps not, but I'm going to continue on the assumption that we do.


Althusser, L. (1978). Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. trans. Brewster, B., New Left Books: London.

Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and Feldman. M.W. (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Princeton University Press: Princeton.

Dawkins, R. (1978 [1976]). The Selfish Gene. Granada Paladin: Oxford.

Dawkins, R. (1993). Viruses of the Mind. In: Dennett and his Critics. Dahlbom, B. (Ed.) Blackwell: Oxford. pp.13-27.

Dennett, D.C. (1987). The Intentional Stance. MIT Press: Cambridge.

Dennett, D.C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Allen Lane The Penguin Press: London.

O'Hear, A. (1997). Beyond Evolution: Human Nature and the Limits of Evolutionary Explanation. Clarendon: Oxford.

Sartre, J.-P. (1969 [1943]). Being and Nothingness: an Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. trans. Barnes H.E., Methuen: London.

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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