{Reproductive Memes :: Dennett on How our Ideas are Alive}

DC Dennett, ‘Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination’ (1990) 48(2) The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 127-135.

In this superbly written article, Dennett looks at the theory of the evolution of ideas by natural selection: ideas as replicating entities that evolve through differential survival = memes. Memes couldn’t evolve until people, and their brains, had evolved sufficiently. But these ideas now evolve, and are transmitted, independently, through our minds:

my brain as a dung-heap in which the larvae of other people’s ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational Diaspora.

The memes that flourish are those that are good at replicating, not necessarily good for us: a suicidal meme can spread: think inspirational martyrdom. Memes can be beneficial or detrimental to us just as parasites are. We are the most lasting perpetuators of memes, no book, or even stone tablet, has lasted as long, or spread as far, as the ideas, Platonic or Biblical, that we continue to replicate. Memes that persist have characteristics that disable the selective forces arrayed against them. We filter out many memes using other memes (ex. don’t read anything from The National Inquirer) and the structure of the filters is complex and dynamic, compensating for our limited capacity of meme comprehension and retention. Memes then compete to get past these filters:

The huge arrays of garish signs that compete for our attention along commercial strips in every region of the country are the exact counterpart, in the infosphere, of the magnificent redwood forests of the biosphere.

Memes provide incalculable advantages to us and some Trojan horses and they enhance each others’ opportunities: ex. meme for education. human minds are the creations of memes: they can’t be incompatible: you are what you read. The memes for normative concepts – ought, good, truth – define our existence. Just as we are our ideas, we are our constructions, our ecology, and we evolve with, and depend on, them. The memes have turned against their inventor, Richard Dawkins: ‘humanist’ minds have set up filters against his field, sociobiology. Dennett hopes this meme will fair better coming from a philosopher

Several excepts from the article follow:

“I don’t know about you, but I am not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dung-heap in which the larvae of other people’s ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational Diaspora. It seems at first to rob my mind of its importance as an author and a critic. Who is in charge, according to this vision-we or our memes?”

“The first rules of memes, as it is for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for the good of
anything; replicators flourish that are good at … replicating! As Dawkins has put it, ‘A meme that made its bodies run over cliffs would have a fate like that of a gene for making bodies run over cliffs. It would tend to be eliminated from the meme-pool. … But this does not mean that the ultimate criterion for success in meme selection is gene survival. … Obviously a meme that causes individuals bearing it to kill themselves has a grave disadvantage, but not necessarily a fatal one. . .. a suicidal meme can spread, as when a dramatic and well-publicized martyrdom inspires others to die for a deeply loved cause, and this in turn inspires others to die, and so on.”

“Meme vehicles inhabit our world alongside the fauna and flora. They are “visible” only to the human species, however. Consider the environment of the average New York City pigeon, whose eyes and ears are assaulted every day by approximately as many words, pictures, and other signs and symbols as assault each human New Yorker. These physical meme-vehicles may impinge importantly on the pigeon’s welfare, but not in virtue of the memes they carry. It is nothing to the pigeon that it is under a page of The National Inquirer, not The New York Times, that it finds a crumb. “

“We are all well aware that we live, today, awash in a sea of paper-borne memes, breathing in an atmosphere of electronically-borne memes. Memes now spread around the world at the speed of light, and replicate at rates that make even fruit flies and yeast cells look glacial in comparison. They leap promiscuously from vehicle to vehicle, and from medium to medium, and are proving to be virtually unquarantinable. Memes, like genes, are potentially immortal, but, like genes, they depend on the existence of a continuous chain of physical vehicles, persisting in the face of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Books are relatively permanent, and inscriptions on monuments are even more permanent, but unless these are under the protection of human conservators, they tend to dissolve in time. As with genes, immortality is more a matter of replication than of the longevity of individual vehicles. The preservation of the Platonic memes, via a series of copies of copies, is a particularly striking case of this. Although some papyrus fragments of Plato’s texts roughly contemporaneous with him have been recently discovered, the survival of the memes owes almost nothing to such long-range persistence. Today’s libraries contain thousands if not millions of physical copies (and translations) of the Meno, while the key ancestors in the transmission of this text turned to dust centuries ago.”

“The huge arrays of garish signs that compete for our attention along commercial strips in every region of the country are the exact counterpart, in the infosphere, of the magnificent redwood forests of the biosphere. If only those redwoods could get together and agree on some sensible zoning restrictions and stop competing with each other for sunlight, they could avoid the trouble of building those ridiculous and expensive trunks, stay low and thrifty shrubs, and get just as much sunlight as before! In the more dignified ecology of academia, the same arms race is ‘manifested in department letterheads, “blind refereeing,” the proliferation of specialized journals, book reviews, reviews of book reviews, and anthologies of “classic works. “

“the memes for normative concepts-for ought and good and truth and beauty are among the most entrenched denizens of our minds, and that among the memes that constitute us, they play a central role. Our existence as us, as what we as thinkers are-not as what we as organisms are-is not independent of these memes. Dawkins ends The Selfish Gene with a passage that many of his critics must not have read:
‘We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. . . . We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.'”
“the beaver’s dam, the spider’s web, the bird’s nest as not merely products of the phenotype-the individual organism considered as a functional whole but rather as parts of the phenotype, on a par with the beaver’s teeth, the spider’s legs, the bird’s wing.”
“There is no radical discontinuity; one can be a mammal, a father, a citizen, scholar, Democrat, and an associate professor with tenure. Just as man-made barns are an integral part of the barn swallow’s ecology, so cathedrals and universities-and factories and prisons-are an integral part of our ecology.”They are the memes without which we could not live in these environments.”

“Since memetic evolution occurs on a time scale thousands of times faster than genetic evolution, however, in the period since there have been memes-only tens of thousands of years-the contributing effects of meme-structures on our constitution-on human phenotypes-vastly outweigh the effects of genetic evolution during that period.”

{Reproductive Memes :: Dennett on How our Ideas are Alive}

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