Memes Glorious Memes

Everyone loves memes, how we chuckle at LOLcats, how we laugh at their inherent creativity, how some of us take them pretty seriously politically. Conor Cunningham, however, really doesn’t like them. In an interview for the The Other Journal he lets rip:

as for memes, they are pure nonsense; you may as well speak of astrology or the X-Files. Not to sound too paradoxical, but if memes existed, first, we would never know, how could we? Second, how could there be more than one? Sure, we have things like fashion that some of us follow, but if, as Dawkins, Blackmore, Dennett, and company insist, we are created by memes rather than the other way around, then in a sense, there could only ever be one metameme. There could only be the selfish meme, because all thoughts, being illusory products of mimetics, would be evacuated of all content, and therefore, all thoughts would be instances of one type: small memes of the one great big meme. All thoughts would just be examples of the one “truth,” the metameme. This would have catastrophic consequences for science, because all scientific theories would be products of the selfish meme, like some great matrix; radical epistemological and ontological scepticism would surely follow.

I actually agree. From the perspective of any decent sociology mimetics is bunk and it makes no sense at all as social science. First because the problem of individuation Cunningham hints toward, second, the fact that Dawkins and crew tend to only consider it pejoratively in regard to religion, and third that like evolutionary psychology itself it is an inappropriate and facile explanation in the social sphere that tends towards ‘just-so’ stories that can never be verified or even argued against. However, these are not the claims here – there is an immediate move to the poking of philosophical problems. The argument for this is that all if all thoughts are memes then there must be some kind of flattening of distinction – all memes are equally true. But I don’t see how it this ends in there being one big meme “There could only be the selfish meme, because all thoughts, being illusory products of mimetics, would be evacuated of all content, and therefore, all thoughts would be instances of one type: small memes of the one great big meme” – I don’t see how that follows – surely even if we agree that there is this floating world of total untrue memes with no one being actually true as they are all memes, then I don’t see how this means there is one great big meme behind them – one massive ‘O Rly?’ owl, say.

So he goes on:

One last point, ultra-Darwinism, which gave birth to this pure fantasy (and, again, how did they know, are they outside the world of memes?), already offered an earlier version of this. For the ultra-Darwinists, truth had become subordinate to survival, which of course means that function has ascendency over veracity. In other words, anything, any belief that gets the job done, namely, survival or, less delicately, sex, is good to go: who cares whether it’s true or not. This means that all beliefs are empty except in terms of use, whether they are from the Bible, the Origin of Species, or Mein Kampf. All roads lead to Rome! After all, Columbus never thought he had discovered America—he had, but that’s beside the point. In short, isn’t the idea of a meme a meme itself?

Okay, so the problem with ultra-Darwinism is it flattens all truth claims to just being about adaption and therefore we can’t pick out what is true and what is simply a good adaption. This is an argument made by Ray Brassier with regard to the Churchlands in Nihil Unbound - Churchland finds it difficult to say science is ultimately true, only that it is useful. It is also made by Alvin Plantinga in his evolutionary argument against naturalism. Given naturalism and evolution, evolution selects not for the truth of beliefs but for the consequences of these beliefs for behaviour that allows successful reproduction. Thus it is irrelevant if a belief is true or false with respect to the world – only that it allows breeding. Believing you should run away from tigers has the same net effect, preserving your genes, as if you think tigers are lovely creatures but the best way to pet them was to run away from them. Thus with no binding of beliefs to truth, the chances of reliable beliefs are minimal, because the reliability of a belief as truth is unimportant to the mechanism of evolution. How can we believe that we would have reliable cognitive faculties, the sort of faculties that would eventually lead one to conclude that evolution was true if this is the case? Its certainly an interesting argument, while I’m not sure entirely coherent. But this isn’t the argument Dawkins is making about memes, as far as I am aware – that all memes are equally true, or that memes are all as true as one another – this is pretty clear when we consider the most common and pernicious meme for Dawkins – religion.

If it is the case that all memes are equally true for Dawkins, then he would have no stance to make the claim that religion was a false meme because the claims of evolutionary science have shown it as such. The whole basis of the viciousness directly toward religion as meme is on the basis that it is a false meme. Memes might be the basic units of cultural transmission, but Dawkins has no problem claiming some memes – science, being racist about the ‘threat of Islam’ – hook up to the world whereas others – religion and crystal healing and so on – do not. So for Dickie the Bible and Mein Kampf are memes, but false in terms of reality, but Origin of Species is proven by scientific facts so everything is wonderful.  Saying everything and all culture has a specific format, the meme, does not mean the same as all memes are equally true or one cannot pick out which might accord to reality and which might not. Let us use a parallel example – we can have hundreds of ideas about how a particular phenomena works, but the fact all these ideas are of the category ideas does not make them all equal or that it is impossible to conduct, for Dawkins or anyone sensible, some scientific practice to sift them. Or in theology that all versions of Christianity are true because they all have ritual in them of the form, ritual. Declaring everything is a meme doesn’t seem to trouble the fact that the mimetics meme might be a true explanation of social facts. I guess for Cunningham since the universal acid of Darwinism supposedly undercuts truth as such, then we can’t know even if mimetics (or Darwinism) is true – fine – but there are independent authorities that can assert if a meme is true or not within the discourse of memes – the final court is science, which gets us into the outside world via experiment. Hence we get claims by keen mimeticists that science in their version of it is a great meme which has the virtue of also being true.

So in short, what are your favourite memes? Am I missing something?

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One Response to “Memes Glorious Memes”

  1. Chris Says:

    Huh, I wish there was some response to this. I don’t know enough about memes to comment.


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