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20050719

"Anything That People Do and Monkeys Don't:" More on Dawkins, Replication, and Memes

It is not often that I am stumped by the meaning of a word, but ‘meme” has succeeded in doing just that. Actually since my last post I’ve really been stuck on this to the point where my head has needed a good dose of ibuprofen. Because of Dawkins’s definition of “culture as a process of replication,” I am left with a feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty. I can’t say why I find his theory—though fascinating and convincing as it may be—so troubling, but I suspect it’s because intuitively I sense he is so wrong.

As Cosma Shalizi says in his review of Aaron Lynch’s Thought Contagion: How Beliefs Spread Through Society, "Dawkins is an extremely persuasive writer, as are some of those whom he has inspired to write about memes, most famously Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett. The notion of memes has led to a great deal of buzz and hand-waving and speculation, especially on the net, and even a decent sermon on tolerance. It makes a first-rate mind-toy. But some people want more, specifically an actual science of memetics, and at this point, if not before, they meet opposition. Memetics, an intelligent adversary might say, would not even be wrong. After all, social scientists and humanists have been looking at the transmission of folk-tales, myths, rumors, texts, mores, etc. for centuries. If it makes biologists and their sympathizers feel better to call all these things 'replicators,' well and good; no doubt they can even fit some numbers to the replicator equation, if they have nothing better to do." The Bactra Review, 30 September 1998.

To which we might consider the following:

"I don't know about you, but I am not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dungheap in which the larvae of other people's ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational Diaspora. It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author and critic. Who is in charge, according to this vision--we or our memes?"—"Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 48, 127-35, Spring 1990.

Whether we define our culture as a process of replication or not, I’m sure will be a subject of debate for some time. I will be surprised, though, if Dawkin's ethological argument of social biology becomes accepted theory of how we acquire our shared values and beliefs, social behaviors, customs and practices, for a culture defined in such terms lacks transcendence. And without transcendence how do you replicate the sublime?

S. L. Cunningham