Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dawkins's "Meme" Meme: A Wonderfully Creepy and Haunting Idea

Not long ago I dropped the word meme into one of my spoken sentences and a bright young person stopped me and said, "Huh?" I had to explain that it was an idea about...ideas. And that the brilliant biologist and public intellectual Richard Dawkins had coined it in the early 1970s. It rhymes with "cream" and is the unit of replication outside the body, as genes can be thought of as the unit of replication inside the body.

"Oh! Cool!" Yep.

Going on, I did what I always try to do and make a new idea seem as wonderfully dramatic as possible. The meme is an easy one.

"Do you know the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers?," I asked.

She nodded yes.

I then explained that memes are ideas that parasitize our brains. And Dawkins thought memes might have their own purposes in "mind," just as he'd convinced himself and (most?) of his readers that genes want to make more of themselves, so they...sorta control your thinking. Catch my drift?

She shifted uneasily. I knew what she meant.
I was recently reading a wonderful book called On Deep History and the Brain, by Daniel Lord Smail. Lately I've been reading scads of stuff on "deep history," so it was quite a find. In one very short section Smail discusses Dawkins's meme idea, and at one point writes this:

"Ideas 'possess' people's brains in a way that wheels do not and therefore, apparently, are more appealing: you can speak of a meme as a body-snatcher, replicating itself with little regard for the adaptive fitness of the brain it is currently operating." (pp.95-96)

This I found pleasing because I had used the "body-snatcher" analogy the day before I read this. Smail and I like horror films, apparently. Or: the ideas about disease, metaphors of loss of agency and colonization from without and then within...are these "memes" that go way back? Perhaps to the Silk Road? And now they are common currency in our daily discourse? To try to remain on the level here: I'm talking about body snatching, bacteria and viruses, memes, and body snatching and diseases as memes.


That's one of the weirdities about memes: when you talk about them, you soon find you're using metaphors that...are...or seem to be...memes themselves!

Lest the Reader think Smail or I were being overly eldritch about Dawkins's idea, here's what Dawkins says about them in his The Selfish Gene, first published in 1976:

"When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell." (p.192 of the 1989 edition, in paperback on Oxford Press.)
None of this is new to those of you who have immersed yourselves in memes, but one paradox - or it still seems like one to me - is that memes are not necessarily adaptive to the host organism. The idea of suicide, for example. Or of a vengeful, jealous "god." Then...if human minds picked up on these ideas and they hopped from mind to mind, colonizing untold millions...why do they survive?

I can surmise that there are competing biochemicals that have to do with depression and hopelessness, and the ideas that are concomitant with them, and look at suicide from another level. "Hey! Things are so bleak and without hope and I'm no good and will never live up to my loved ones or my own expectations...suicide is an idea that's always been there for me. Everyone's heard of it. I think I'll do it!"

This just seems bizarre when I think of it: suicide as a meme. But I don't reject it out of hand.

If Edward O. Wilson and his "consilience" idea, and the whole sociobiology and evolutionary psychology crowd want Darwinian ideas to be at the center of history and the social sciences, doesn't the idea of the meme-as-parasite sort of take the edge off their own designs on the sociology of knowledge? I think of suicide from a biosocial perspective as my main view, but I emphasize biochemicals and thoughts and ideation, that, once established, encourage a circular, causal-feedback-loop that feeds upon itself. (This is one reason I find it maddening that, say, Catholics are so down on people who commit suicide.) But from a Darwinian point of view, what was the advantage of suicide as a "meme"? How many brilliant artists and thinkers have been manic-depressive!

Or as a Darwinist, do you say, "Well, we don't fully know what junk DNA does yet either. We're not sure why it exists, but it does."? Then if it exists, somehow it was adaptive? I can see this point if I squint, but it sure starts to look like playing tennis with the net down.

On the other hand, OF COURSE memes arise from our own biological processes. Where else would they come from? The Platonic Realm of Pure Ideas? Straight from the quantum foam? (This seems basically the gist of what Dawkins considers his best contribution to Darwinian thought: the "extended phenotype," or how genes extend themselves via bodies and minds into the wider environment.)

Still, the idea seems wonderfully creepy to me.
Notice also that memes can exist without really taking hold of you. You can know all about suicide, but you love life, even though times are hard right now. You may have never even spent a serious moment thinking of offing yourself. Celibacy is another one here. I know a lot about God, theology, the gods, etc, but I'm not a conventionally religious person by any stretch of the imagination. Certainly this meme has parasitized the brains of countless others.

About celibacy as a meme, Daniel Dennett has challenged Dawkins by wondering that, if, say, "celibacy" is a meme that only becomes active when "expressed," then anything thought of is a meme, then the meme idea seems to retreat to some sort of ontological status that's negligible. If I take the hard drive out of my computer and drop it into a volcano, in 100 years do my various noodlings once "there" have much to say about me or anything?
Where Smail and others before him have rescued Dawkins's idea has to do with this: even though you know about suicide, celibacy and God but do not "express" these memes, they do condition your neural pathways. You think about the ideas with regards your fellow humans. These ideas do alter moods. When David Foster Wallace committed suicide, I was quite sad - even to the point of tears - for at least a week. The suicide meme meant a lot to me, in a manner of speaking, in that week.
So: does the idea of will  or human agency qualify as a meme too? As of today I think it doesn't matter much, because so many of us find it good to believe (most of the time) in these ideas. And besides, as Smail points out, in medieval Europe, military aristocrats with too many sons and daughters and not enough estates and dowries found "celibacy"a good idea to propagate. That seems Darwinian enough for me. Similarly, the Catholic Church's holdings of land had grown so extensively that making priests and other churchmen take a vow of celibacy was a good way of keeping control of their land and away from the previously "legitimate" claims of the sons of churchmen.

I hope whatever colonization of your mind I have made here will be found as more felicitous than depredating.

Here's a 53 second clip of Dawkins talking about memetics:


chas said...

Michael--in my view, suicide as a meme is more akin to an idea connoting escape, desperate escape. So when someone with the suicide meme begins to feel hopeless, trapped, to sufficient level of desperation--bingo! Where can I get a rope?. . .OH! Extension chord!

Hesse's Steppenwolf digs into this beautifully. Nice descriptions in that book of mystical experiences that have no religious overtones, btw.

michael said...

chas- i'd forgotten about this post, so I had to re-read it. Sometimes when I read essays I wrote a while ago, I think, "Who is this guy?"

The idea of suicide as meme: I'm still not sure about it. I agree with everything you say, and I think the idea of suicide as a "meme" either 1.) has some merit, but it's very unpleasant think about in this way, and so, sort of taboo; 2.) it's a crass misreading of "memes;" 3.) I do have a problem with the "idea virus" and suicidal ideation, and especially those who carry it through, like the beautiful soul DFW. I'm just not comfortable with it, even though, as I understand it, memes have only a tenuous relationship with rationality. Then again, maybe things are so dark and hopeless you're positive there's no way out of the suffering you're experiencing (DFW had gotten off his meds, then when he tried to go back on them, they didn't work), that you simply see no way out. I would think there are instances where someone had never heard of suicide yet "committed" it anyway.

I have yet to read Steppenwolf; I had a difficult time with Magister Ludi/The Glass Bead Game in that I enjoyed it but wasn't ready for its density, and didn't give it what I think of as a "good" reading. After I finished it, I read what Leary had to say about it: quite a lot, and it was edifying, and I had a couple "A-HA!" moments.

I'm aware that when RAW writes, "The price of admission: your mind," he's quoting from Steppenwolf - that kind of thing percolates into general knowledge? - but I'm still not an accomplished Hessian.

Another thing that impresses me about Hesse is his incorporation of musical structure into his writings. This is fascinating to me, and I'm still a rank beginner in reading this way. I know Paul Klee played violin every day before he painted...

chas said...

Michael--Thanks for offering your thoughts so freely and good naturedly..The Steppenwolf is awesome--you must read it! It's not dense like Magister Ludi at all.