JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

Robin Faichney (robin@faichney.demon.co.uk)
Thu, 20 May 1999 20:25:33 +0100

Date: Thu, 20 May 1999 20:25:33 +0100
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: Robin Faichney <robin@faichney.demon.co.uk>
Subject: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

As I doubt many people here are also on jcs-online, I thought I'd
forward this. Hope I'm not stepping on any toes. Mary Midgley is, of
course, the well-known philosopher. I'm afraid I thoughtlessly deleted
the message from Chris Nunn to which Midgley is responding, but if
anyone is sufficiently motivated, a copy is probably available from the
list moderator (address at end).

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Subject: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft
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Of Memes and Witchcraft. Reply from Mary Midgley

Chris Nunn likes memes. He thinks that my objecting to them shows that I
don't appreciate the beauty of science. Far from this, the only reason
why I don't celebrate the beauty of science is that I don't need to. The
world is currently full of best-sellers extolling science.

Unluckily, however, this leads people to misuse scientific methods,
trying to fit them into tasks where they cannot work. This mistake can
only bring science into discredit.

Why are we supposed to need the general word 'meme'? It brackets
together indiscriminately such mixed items as ideas, customs, beliefs,
traditions, fancies, fashions, art-forms and art-works, tricks of the
trade, opinions, doctrines, theories, images, concepts, attitudes,
practices and habits. When we are actually trying to study culture, it
is not helpful to blur these differences so grossly. Why do memeticists
want to do this?

They do it because they think this simplification is scientific. They
aim to explain changes in all these things by a single cause, and one of
the same kind which is used to explain large-scale changes in evolution.
This naturally has to be a cause quite outside our actual thinking. So
they treat the various elements of culture, not as aspects of human life
- ways in which people act and think - but as distinct entities, quasi-
organisms or quasi-genes, substantial things existing on their own and
somehow acting on people. These entities' behaviour has then to be
understood, like that of genes, in terms of their own supposed
reproductive interests, their own competitive interactions with one
another, bypassing all reference to human psychology.

This extemalisation is strongly expressed by such metaphors as our
minds' being 'mememachines' (Blackmore) and by the claim (cited in the
last chapter of The Selfish Gene) that reference to memes as
'parasitising' us is not a metaphor but a literal truth. Because of the
current excitement about selfish genes, and the general obsession of our
age with competitive models, many people have accepted this entity-
building, not as a myth, but as somehow a legitimate extension of

Two kinds of thing can be wrong with this story. First, of course, it
may not be seriously meant, it may just be a casual way of talking that
has accidentally been expanded into a piece of ontology. In that case it
should promptly be checked for meaning and, since there is none, be cut
off with Occam' s Razor. On the other hand it may be seriously meant.
The intention may really be that we should believe that all our own
opinions, ideas, attitudes etc. - including, of course, those that we
approve as well as those we disown - are simply alien beings pursuing
their own ends on our premises. What we call our SELVES are then merely
empty sites or mechanisms where they can grow and reproduce. We are no
more responsible for harbouring these ideas etc. than we are for
catching measles or being struck by lightning. Indeed 'we' are items too
vacuous to be responsible for anything.

This does indeed seem to be Chris Nunn's view. Discussing my example of
seventeenth-century witch-hunting, he writes;

"Witchfinders were not often sadistic psychopaths; they were mostly
well-intentioned lawyers and officials anxious to promote justice and do
away with the evils that meme (b) [the use of judicial torture] so
readily uncovered... .The context in which accusations could succeed and
lead to such dreadful consequences was *entirely a construct of ancient
and rarely questioned memes.* Many individuals involved could have
looked into their hearts in the manner that Midgley recommends and been
assured that they were acting from the best of motives and entirely in
accordance with well-established precedent."(Emphasis mine)

Memetic reasoning decrees, then, that it simply was not their fault;
they knew no better, they could not help it. As Nunn puts it, 'new
cultural phenomena may arise from the interplay of existing memes',
apparently without anybody having to do anything about it or take any
responsibility for promoting the new attitudes. But of course there
always are particular people who promote them, and each hearer has a
choice about how much of them to accept. Is the memetic account supposed
to excuse the acts of all functionaries everywhere - for instance, under
Nazism or McCarthyism or during the Soviet Treason Trials? Does it
excuse us today if we negligently accept the crimes that are taken for
granted by our society? Bureaucrats like Eichmann and Himmler do indeed
give this kind of excuse for their acts. But there are always people who
do manage to think and act quite differently, people who do protest,
often at great risk to themselves. The objections to the witch-craze
were not obscure to contemporaries. Many writers pointed them out. Even
King James 1 himself eventually grew doubtful about it. And it was
because people nerved themselves to discuss and grasp such objections,
not because of some mysterious extra-human memetic force, that the craze
finally ended.

Strange views that become popular always have some truth in them
somewhere. The truth in memetics seems to be the simple fact that we
human beings are indeed always, to some extent, passive recipients of
existing ideas - not because those ideas are parasites infesting us but
because we are social animals, closely bound to those around us by
familiarity and affection, so that we largely pick up our habits from
them. And in talking about these habits we often use nouns for them,
which can seem to reify them as substances.This reifying makes them seem
distant and abstract in a peculiar way, which can often be useful so
long as we remember what we are doing.

We therefore always have to accept, along with the language, much of the
world-view that is current around us. But the territory that such world-
views enclose is much larger, less definite, more conflict-ridden and
more changeable than cultural determinists make out. And within that
wide range we are essentially active as well as passive beings. Within
it we SELECT - literally and not metaphorically as in blind 'natural
selection' - the paths that we prefer. We actively SELECT ideas
according to our preferences and actively MOULD them to suit those
preferences better. That is why our motives and likings are crucial
factors in forming culture. It is why psychology matters. It is why the
analogy with genes - which have no such motives - cannot possibly work.

I do not think that the language of memetics adds anything to what we
already know about the workings of convention. We know well that it is a
central element in human life, and that, in talking, we reify the
elements that compose it, which often leads us to stereotype them in a
misleading way. Memetics only adds to these well-known facts a quite
unconvincing cultural fatalism, a strange suggestion that convention
works in a vacuum, on its own, without our help. It proposes that human
beings are merely pawns in the game of history, pawns which are moved
around by abstract cultural patterns. These occult entities,
unchangeable by us, are then the game's only real players. If memetic
theory were ever taken seriously - as something more than a pretentious
way of stating the obvious - that (I suggest) is all that it could mean.
It is because it never is taken very seriously that it still survives.

NOTE. As Chris Nunn says, I am not an internettist and I don't mean to
become one, life not being long enough for everything. Thinking this
topic important, I have, however, wanted to get my two-penn'orth in
about it before it became too complicated. Good-bye for now.

Mary Midgley

List Moderator: Len Maurer <len@maurer.demon.co.uk>

jcs-online is a service of the Journal of Consciousness Studies


Robin Faichney

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