Re: memetics-digest V1 #1319

From: Dace (
Date: Sun 30 Mar 2003 - 22:28:05 GMT

  • Next message: Scott Chase: "Re: Other roots of memetics"

    > From: "Scott Chase" <>
    > > > > > Memes alive? Have we resurrected animism?
    > > > >
    > > > >If I attributed life to animals would you accuse me of animism?
    > > > >
    > > > >
    > > > >
    > > > No. Butam I wrong in thinking you are attributing life to memes in the
    > > > literal sense (not the marginally less absurd metaphoric sense)? I'd
    > > > that a palm tree or a porpoise are alive. An idea is not alive. A
    > > > strains ones views on what life is, and I'd probably lean towards no
    > > > too. A viral idea ("meme") if this exists, doesn't seem to be a good
    > > > candidate for being alive.
    > >
    > >At the very least, viruses participate in life processes. The same could
    > >be said of memes. After all, the mind/brain is as alive as any other
    > >A meme, i.e. a "selfish" idea, lives and evolves in relation to the
    > >environment in the same sense that an animal lives and evolves in
    > >to the natural environment.
    > >
    > >
    > But I thought a meme was akin to a gene, not an animal.
    > An animal is alive. Is a gene alive?

    This is really opening up a can of worms.

    As "systems" theorist Paul Weiss argued many years ago, there's no clear definition between life and nonlife. Any self-organized, dynamic system that perpetuates the conditions of its existence can be considered alive. In recent times biology has tended to arbitrarily divide things off between those systems that utilize genes and those that do not. For reductionistic biology, it's not simply that genes are alive but that they are life itself. It's the gene that makes you alive, and the point of your existence is to spread your genes. As Susan Blackmore reasons, if an animal is a gene machine, then a human is a meme machine. It's the particles, whether of bodies or cultures, that determine the higher levels of structure.

    I'm perfectly willing to grant agency to genes and memes. Not simply living aspects of larger systems, they help shape those systems and are thus doubly
    "alive." What's most intriguing about memetics is its vindication of the founding principles of modern psychology. We are driven by unconscious
    "forces" carrying their own momentum. But that doesn't mean we don't have our own agency as conscious beings. It's a complex interaction of different levels of determinacy, from meme to group.

    Memes in the domain of human consciousness are akin to animals in the wilds. This is essentially what Dawkins was saying, except that, as a reductionist, he thinks what evolves (and truly lives) is not the whole organism but merely its genes. For him the genome stands in for the whole animal. But we need not be bound by this predilection. Memes could just as easily be regarded as species of beliefs competing in the jungles of the mind with other such species.


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