greer-heard review 5: more problems with memes
4/09/2007 11:52:00 PM
McGrath was quick to point out that the entire discussion of religion as Dennett paints it is focused on the meme. Dennett bases his entire paper on the concept of the meme, and it is on that issue that his house will stand or fall. As discussed and McGrath points out, memes are based on an analogy: memes are to information as genes are to biology. Like most analogies, they break down at some point. Analogies generally speaking not represent their analogs in every aspect, and are generally used to aid understanding, but they cannot be the analog entirely. The analogy between memes and genes is no different. To McGrath's analysis, I would add a few things.

First, I would add that genes are not irreducible. In other words, genes are self-contained—one cannot make a new gene by combining other genes and one cannot make another gene by deconstructing a gene. If the gene is combined or deconstructed, it will not be useful in biological terms. They can be no more complex or simpler than they already are. Because of this, one can map genes, locate genes, manipulate genes, and count them. Because of these properties, there are only a finite number of genes in any given organism.

Memes, however, are not irreducible. Given a meme, it can be broken into smaller memes, and those smaller memes can be broken into even smaller memes, perhaps with no end in site. Dennett uses the analogy of words. Words can be broken into letters, letters reduced to symbols, and symbols reduced to abstractions. Take for instance the sentence, "Memes can be scientifically observed and manipulated." If a word is a meme, then this sentence could be reduced to, "Memes meme meme memeficially memed meme memed." Then one could reduce the letters in the same way accordingly. Such a sentence could perhaps contain more memes than there are genes in the entire human body, depending on how a person wants to look at the words.

On these terms, the analogy breaks down. It would virtually impossible to treat memes in the same manner one treats genes; one cannot identify them, count them, or change them according. This doesn't make for good science, because there is no means to quantify, analyze or even recognize memes.

Second, I would add that the whole concept of a meme is somewhat self-defeating. As aforementioned, genes are a particular item: they are self contained, can be counted and worked on. The processes that work on genes are not genes themselves, but other biological processes, such as mutations, DNA replication, and protein building to name a few. Likewise, genes undergo selection, whether it is artificial or natural. Bad genes are weeded out of populations by selections and vice versa for good genes.

Memes however are different, because the processes that manipulate memes are memes themselves. If these processes are memes themselves, then it is possible that the processes will themselves be weeded out or replaced if the processes are deemed bad. If meme selection is a meme itself then it is possible that the standard for evaluating memes may change. It is even possible that the concept of meme themselves get weeded out. (It would essentially be the suicide of the meme!) Whatever happens in memetics, it seems that memes ultimate evaluating memes because viciously cyclical or self-defeating altogether. The processes that govern genes are independent of the genes themselves, and therefore are not subject to the same volitions genes are. This is not true for memes, so again the analogy breaks down here.

Third, even if memes are mutually exclusive and not self-defeating, what does one gain from using memes? McGrath pointed out that scientist and social scientists can and have applied evolutionary paradigms to other sciences without the use of memes, such as Freud and Marx. If memes catch on, it could perhaps slow, not help the process of science because sciences will have to be reframed in terms of memes. It would like going through the Manhattan Phonebook and giving everyone a new name in German. Such processes can over-complicate the issue unnecessarily, and not to mention the time that would be needed to undertake such projects. In the end, it seem that memes are neither necessary nor beneficial to the overall scientific project.

If Dennett were to abandon the idea of memes, and approach his analysis of religion from other more developed science, such as anthropology, then he may be able to build a case. As it stands right now though, his entire case seems to be internally inconsistent because of it dependence upon memes.

Comments: 1
Blogger magic said at 5/12/2007 10:58 AM...
agree with much of what you say except that I find the concept of memes (the meme of a meme?) not so much useful as entertaining. On the other hand I find much of Dennett's work not so much entertaining as useful (eg where he tears down ramshackle metaphors such as John Searle's Chinese Room, and others) I don't buy his view of consciousness as a glorified A.I. but much of what he says on consciousness is pretty right. in my view. I'm putting Practicalithe(ology) on my blogroll. Perhaps you could carry a link to my manic memesblog in turn. And have a look at my portal to the multiverse blog, you may find it interesting. BTW what is the meaning of your blog title?
cheers
M
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