virus: Of memes and witchcraft

Joe E. Dees (
Thu, 20 May 1999 15:17:29 -0500

This is a cross-posting from the Journal of Memetics email list.
> 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
> biology.
> 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
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