virus: Re: JCS: Of memes and witchcraft

Joe E. Dees (
Sat, 22 May 1999 15:13:38 -0500

> 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