From: Dace (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Fri 14 Mar 2003 - 19:12:39 GMT
From a review of Dennett's book, *Freedom Evolves*, by Mary Midgley:
[Dennett] uses a much more conciliatory tone than he did in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. There is no more fighting talk here of Darwinism being a
"universal acid", eating through all other thought-systems and radically transforming them. There is not much rhetoric about sky-hooks, and there is absolutely nothing about the fashionable doctrine now known as "evolutionary psychology". Only one relic of extreme neo-Darwinism remains, namely, the doctrine of memes.
Memes are supposed to be a kind of parasitical quasi-organism that function
as genes (or possibly as units) of culture, producing behaviour patterns by
infesting people's minds just as biological parasites infest their bodies.
These mythical entities were invented, somewhat casually, by Richard Dawkins
in The Selfish Gene as a supplement to his story of the causal supremacy of
genes, and the current huge popularity of evolutionary thinking has caused
the idea to catch on despite its wildness. It supplies people outside the
physical sciences with something that looks to them like a scientific
explanation of culture - "scientific" because it looks vaguely like
genetics, and because it does not mention human thought and feeling.
In Darwin's Dangerous Idea Dennett ardently embraced this story, offering
memetics as the only truly scientific way of explaining culture. But in
Freedom Evolves he does not really need this device any longer. The need for
it has vanished because he is now endorsing human thought and feeling as
real parts of nature - genuine activities, not supernatural extras - part of
normal causality and therefore capable of explaining what happens in
culture. Yet, quite gratuitously, alongside this admirably realistic
approach, Dennett still insists that memes - he explains them as comparable
to liver-flukes, genuinely external to humans and having their own interests
to promote - are its true scientific explanation.
Occam, however, was surely wise in suggesting that we should not multiply
entities beyond necessity. Might we not reasonably ask: how does memetics
apply to Dennett's own case? On memetic principles, the only reason why he
and others campaign so ardently for neo-Darwinism must be that a
neo-Darwinist meme (or fluke) has infested their brains, forcing them to act
in this way. That is, of course, a less welcome notion than the similar
explanation of the idea of God which is their favourite example. (As Dawkins
put it, God is perhaps a computer virus.) But if you propose the method
seriously you must apply it consistently.
And if you do that, you should surely see that it is pure fatalism. This
quaint remnant is perhaps the only serious flaw in an otherwise really
admirable and helpful book.
Midgley's got it exactly wrong. Dennett's recognition that memetics can
only succeed insofar as it accomodates conscious, human agency (rather than
replacing it) is the one redeeming quality of this otherwise awful book.
Dennett in no way succeeds at squaring free consciousness with determinism.
His success at convincing himself, as well as Midgley and other reviewers,
that he's come up with a coherent argument (much less a convincing one) only
goes to show the power of the "determinism" meme.
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
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