Dennett & memes

From: Dace (
Date: Fri 14 Mar 2003 - 19:12:39 GMT

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    From a review of Dennett's book, *Freedom Evolves*, by Mary Midgley:,12084,904441,00.html

    [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.


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