JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

Robin Faichney (robin@faichney.demon.co.uk)
Sat, 22 May 1999 19:01:39 +0100

Date: Sat, 22 May 1999 19:01:39 +0100
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: Robin Faichney <robin@faichney.demon.co.uk>
Subject: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

The jcs-online debate continues...

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from: Chris Nunn <chrisnunn@compuserve.com>
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Subject: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft
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It was kind of Mary Midgley, despite not being 'an internettist', to spell
out her objections to memetics for JCS-online. Her dislike of memes seems
to have two main sources:-

(a) The concept is superfluous and/or incoherent. She wrote, for example,
'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 . . . doctrines, theories, images, concepts,
attitudes, practises and habits.'

(b) Memetics might be responsible for absolving people of moral
responsibility for their actions. As Midgley put it : 'Memetic reasoning
decrees, then, that it is simply not their fault; they knew no better, they
could not help it.'

What force is there in these two principle arguments? First it is worth
briefly re-stating the grounds for holding that the concept of memes is
worthwhile, which are:-
* Cultures exist and have profound effects on the content of peoples minds
and on their conduct. An Aztec warrior, for instance, would have seen the
'flowery death' (i.e. having his heart ripped out on a sacrificial stone)
as honorable and even desirable; a London stockbroker, magically
transported to Tenochtitlan, would be unlikely to feel the same way.
* Cultures are probably not infinitely subdivisible; i.e. they seem to come
in 'chunks' of a certain minimum size. These chunks may be described by
individual words such as 'deconstructionism' (to use one of Dennett's
examples), or they may come as individual techniques or habits such as
making wheels or wearing underclothes. You can't do semi-deconstructionism,
and half a wheel is of no use for most purposes.
* Human minds and their backups (books, computers, etc.) do not have an
infinite capacity. More chunks of culture (memes) could in principle exist
than can be accomodated by our minds. Therefore it is legitimate to think
of memes as being in competition for the limited resource of space in our
minds. A sort of natural selection of memes can be pictured though it will
not be strictly Darwinian (the selection will have a lot of Lamarck in it
since Midgley is correct when she says that we are able to mold the ideas
that we hold, though it is also true that we are molded by them).
*If we knew more about memetics, we might be able better to understand why
cultural phenomena take the form that they do. We can all make qualitative
guesses about why Naziism should have taken over in Germany for instance,
despite considerable opposition from the morally robust people of whom
Midgley rightly approves, but one may nevertheless want to explain
quantitatively why it happened and hope eventually to predict and maybe
prevent similar happenings.

The grounds for thinking that memetics might be a valid and useful area of
enquiry are thus straightforward though not, it must be admitted, totally
compelling. Let's look at Midley's two arguments for thinking otherwise.
Her first argument (a) can easily be dismissed as it depends on a claim
which could equally well be applied elsewhere. Because matter comes in all
sorts of shapes, sizes, textures, etc., the argument might go, it is
neither sensible nor interesting to look for underlying unities within
matter such as the interactions of electrons. Of course it may not prove
possible to define a meme in the same sort of way that one can define an
electron. Unless some definition of a meme can be agreed that is as precise
as Shannon's concept of a 'bit' of information, say, memetics will never
take off. The issue of whether such a definition is possible has not yet
been resolved and probably can't be pre-judged.

Midgley's moral argument (b) is more interesting. One can agree with her
that Blackmore's claim that we are 'mememachines', for instance, is no more
than a rather silly caricature that could have undesirable consequences if
taken seriously. It is nevertheless the case, however, that a sort of
whispering gallery of communal mind does have profound influence on the
content of our individual minds, and it is to this more limited aspect of
ourselves that meme theory may have valid application. If memetics helped
us to understand the content of the whispering gallery, would this have
morally undesirable consequences of the sort that Midgley fears?

Midgley seems to suppose that we should all be Gandhis, Sakharovs or
Mandelas. The fact is that we're not, and a good thing too! A society
composed entirely of Solzhenytsins would quickly become an ex-society, and
the sad history of revolutions suggests that vicious memes are especially
prone to run riot during periods of anarchy. No, moral arguments have to
relate to the actual condition of humanity, and the fact is we are mostly
rather unheroic people strongly influenced by fashion and culture. In such
a milieu, a successful science of memes would surely be morally neutral in
the same way that genetics is morally neutral, enlarging our scope for
right action and freeing us from certain natural compulsions or evils but
at the cost of potential misuse. In the society of moral giants that
Midgley would like to see, of course, a successful memetics could only be a
force for good.

I suspect that Midgley's antipathy may derive from Dawkins' claim that
religion, and so by implication morality, is itself only a meme-complex
having no validity other than that derived from success in the competitive
world of memes. I suggest that such a view is NOT built into memetics.
Rather, basic morality can be regarded as that on which to build memetics,
just as mathematics is built on axioms.

A realistic memetics (i.e. not the oversold 'Blackmore' variety), if the
definitions problem turns out to allow such a development, would in my view
help to free us from compulsions that at present often inhibit the sort of
morality that Midgley, and the rest of us, would like to see more of.

Best wishes. Chris Nunn

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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