Human beings can handle misfortune, but they have a very difficult time dealing with uncertainty, especially uncertainty about the causes of their misfortune. As long as we can see our enemy, know him, and fight him, we can maintain our sanity even without winning. We require but a sliver of control. A faceless enemy, however, one who manages to avoid detection, is positively intolerable to us. We far prefer to simply find a scapegoat and execute him with extreme prejudice than to suffer the unknown without a fight, without any hope of finding control. Thus, we separate things into “good” and “evil” in the hopes of excising the latter from the former, scarcely realizing that they are often two poles of the same structure. We search for Lucifer, some external source of evil, because if the problem lays outside us we can combat it without losing a piece of ourselves. Unfortunately, the sources of evil in human life are most often the very sources of meaning and human flourishing. One would think that scientists, biologists and the like, would appreciate this the best, but quite often they too fall victim to oversimplification in the hopes of identifying some easily curable evil that plagues mankind from without. Richard Dawkins, for example, would have us believe that the worlds’ religions are to a large degree the sources of discord and suffering; that they are “mind parasites” that we are better off eradicating. Though parasites reside within us, they are external sources of suffering that we can rid ourselves of without losing our identities. Though I agree with much of what Dawkins and the other Horsemen are saying, I think that on this point they are exercising a bit of wishful thinking. Moreover, the more their interpretation of memetics undermines religion, the more it undermines meaning in general, which is an unnecessary result of a mature memetics.
Dawkins and others place too great an emphasis on the power of memes, at the expense of glossing over the power that our innate drives or desires have in cultivating or perpetuating those ideas. In an unconsciuos attempt to give us an external enemy to fight, these great thinkers have given us a bit of a red herring to chase while quietly undermining human dignity. If the Four Horsemen had their way we would see a world without religion, but what they fail to anticipate is the cost of the resulting power vacuum created in the memesphere by this mass extinction. They are like pundits from one political party decrying the failures and shortfalls of the other party’s plan, but without replacing that bad plan with a suitable alternative. As Howard Bloom argues in “The Lucifer Principle,” human beings will always need ideas to rally around, memetic superorganisms to service, and metaphysical truths that will rescue human dignity and bring people together for a common purpose. Religions have always been enormously successful vehicles both for cultural integrity and the bolstering of political power. So why do the Horsemen think that destroying religions will somehow undermine the cause of war and other evils? Won’t humanity simply find different, perhaps secular humanistic memes that can be rallied in support of our darker ambitions and impulses? Are these darker impulses not the true “mind parasites,” the true source of evil in the human mind?
The idea of “mind parasites” has been around for a long time; how long I’m not entirely sure, but certainly the idea of “demons” should qualify and place the origins of the idea in distant antiquity. Colin Wilson wrote “The Mind Parasites” in 1967, nine years before Dawkins published “The Selfish Gene.” Oddly enough, Wilson’s science fiction cult-thriller is a more accurate portrayal of the true sources of suffering in human life than Dawkins’ evil memes. Dawkins’ 1976 publication, which coined the term meme and speculated about its powers, told us that genes can (for all intents and purposes, appear to) “pursue” purposes contrary to those of the individual organism. Though he rejects genetic determinism as a “bogey,” his book nonetheless raised the spectre of genetic determinism in the public imagination. What Dawkins failed to denounce as a “bogey” was the sort of psychological or linguistic determinism that his theory of memes implies. Like “selfish genes,” “selfish memes” also appear to “pursue” purposes that can be contrary to those of the individual organism and thus human beings are not the authors of their thoughts, but are mere passive receptors of the products of memetic evolution. This paints a picture of the human being as a blank slate that is easily infected with the cultural mind parasites swimming around the Zeitgeist, and who doesn’t so much “author” or “fashion” new memes as much as he stumbles upon ones that are produced by some random shuffling or association of memes in his brain; memes that were fed to him by his environment. This view is not entirely in error, but begins to devolve into folly when interpreted a certain way. Of course, we are not something over and above our brains, so it is quite impossible that we are the passive recipients of our brains’ randomly assembled products. It is precisely here that the meme meme begins to erroneously threaten us with meaninglessness. I think that Dawkins and other proponents of the meme meme do not think that this threat is real, but they still employ the arguments that form the very foundations of this threat in their attempts to undermine the religious memes. Let’s examine Dawkins’ recent attack on Christianity on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.”
Dawkins explains to Maher that the Judeo-Christian tradition comes from “a tribe of wandering, Middle-Eastern herdsman,” and continues by asking “why would they have any wisdom about the origin of the world?” He goes on to say that this “particular myth is the myth that just by sheer chance happens to have come to our civilization.” It could have just as easily been some other meme-structure, he implies. As far as these religious meme-structures, Dawkins continues, “all you can say” is that “some are more poetic than others.” None of them converge on truth or present any intellectual progress, Dawkins implies. He is trying to combat an argument marshalled by many a Christian, that Christianity must be true on account of its phenomenal success; how could an idea so influential possibly be wrong? Dawkins would respond by saying that Christianity succeeding as it did “by shere chance,” in the same way that the design of the eye succeeded by the shere chance of historical contingency and the laws that govern the environment. These laws are without intention, design, or intelligence, and thus we can view the products of genetic evolution as being the products of arbitrary chance. However, when Dawkins applies this same logic to memetic evolution he makes a very serious error. The “environment” that does the “selection” in the case of genotypes is in deed arbitrary and unthinking, but the “environment” that does the “selection” in the case of memes is anything but arbitrary and unthinking. In fact, this latter environment is the only thing that we are entirely certain does think, embody intelligence, and harbor intentions!
Many philosophers and biologists would agree that though certain adaptations, such as the eye, are the products of an unthinking, arbitrary process, these adaptations stick around because they are objectively “good tricks” or “strange attractors.” The eye has actually evolved many different times on earth on account of it simply being a damned good trick, one that any evolutionary process on whatever planet would most likely have to stumble upon (many different times). Many of these same people would agree that evolution, though not a “teleological” process ala Hegel, is nonetheless heading “upwards” in design space, albeit with a kind of zig-zagging, “sawtooth” trajectory. However, Dawkins would like to deny this same line of reasoning to memetics. Only the memes of science move upwards in design space towards truth. Christianity didn’t survive because of its truth value, but only because of its virulent and robust design properties, which render it a highly contagious mind parasite. He would like to gloss over the fact that these “robust design properties” were not crafted by unintentional processes the way that biological adaptations are; they are only well-designed insofar as they jive with the impulses and needs of the human mind, which is by definition an intentional process! Dawkins writes that “regarding the differences between memes and genes; these are just different kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates.” True, but that “different media” part is extremely important! Memes are the product of intentional, meaningful, and non-arbitrary environmental parameters. To argue otherwise is a trap.
In an interview with Robert Wright, Robert Pollack spotted this trap and proclaimed that there is “no worse horror of meaninglessness than the trap of memes.” This trap “is a rhetoricians argument to gut meaning from language.” It is “a self-reflective argument that assures that whatever you feel most strongly about is a demonstration of its meaninglessness.” Pollack is quite right that the view of memes forwarded by Dawkins in his attack on Christianity “diminishes humans as ‘carriers’” of these memes, as passive receptors who keep those memes that make them feel good, and discard those that don’t. Thus, humans appear to be ultimately fallible, fickle beyond measure, and tragic victims of the active agents known as memes. Pollack is careful to state that “the mechanism of transmission I accept” but rejects “the meaningless implied by the mechanism being the sufficient explanation of its purpose.” “Mechanism is not purpose is my faith,” he proclaims. This is remarkably evolutionary when you think about it: it is the very paradigm of the “exaptation,” a process known by evolutionists as the primary source of most phenotypic features. However, I take issue with the bit about “the meaninglessness implied by the mechanism,” for as I stated earlier, the mechanism is not unintentional or devoid of purpose and meaning. The “mechanism” is the human mind, a veritable meaning machine. Gould (as quoted by Dennett) articulates this point nicely: “much of the mutation that happens to memes–how much is not clear–is manifestly directed mutation: ‘memes such as the theory of relativity are not the cumulative product of millions of random (undirected) mutations of some original idea, but each brain in the chain of production added huge dollops of value to the product in a non-random way.” Dawkins glosses over this fact so that he can undermine the meaning of religion; reducing it to the mere arbitrary result of unintentional processes. His attempt to “de-mean” the products of human culture by appeal to an evolutionary analogy is a total red herring. Dawkins would likely be comfortable with the idea that algebra is a “good trick” just like the adaptation of the eye-ball, and that algebra is “true” in the same way that the eye-ball is “truly useful.” However, when he examines other memes, he concludes that they are not only arbitrary in their genesis, but also arbitrary regarding truth. Why isn’t algebra just the arbitrary meme-structure that our culture just happened to inherit from ancient Arab nomads? How come we can discredit Christianity because it sprung from “a tribe of wandering, Middle-Eastern herdsman,” but we can’t discredit algebra if it shared the same genesis? The people who came up with algebra probably practiced leaching and other barbarous medical remedies, so why should we assume that they had any privileged access to the truth? Well, because they were freakin smart people, despite the fact that they had some backwards ideas!
Algebra was created because human beings have brain structures capable of producing it and using it and because they have innate desires that are well served by algebra. This is why viewing algebra as a “mind parasite” that happens to be good, like the normal flora bacteria in our gut, is quite a bit misleading. The meme is not “in control” of the mind in the way that the word “parasite” would imply. In deed, normal flora bacteria are not parasites! They are symbionts. However, I am not so much concerned with how much “control” the memes have versus the brains that they inhabit, but instead want simply to emphasize that however powerful these memes are, they are both created and granted this power by the intelligence of the human mind. They simply cannot be meaningless, even if the mind that created them did so “by accident,” unintentionally, or by some random process of association. The meme “stuck” or popped into consciousness for a reason, and I mean “reason” in the sense of an intention or motive. All of our thoughts are motive-riddled. Dawkins talks about memes as if they have their own purposes, but really they have our purposes as selective pressure, creator, and then vehicle or host. Dawkins is careful to say that he doesn’t actually think that “selfish genes” are actually intentional or thinking in any way, but he is not so careful to articulate the same thing about memes. This is because it is rhetorically expedient for him to place memes in the driver’s seat sometimes; to place their “interests” in juxtaposition to ours. However, a simple counter-example should suck most of the venom from this formulation.
Cheesecake is a meme; a very successful one. Dawkins would have us believe that it survived because it made us feel good, and he is right. Moreover, cheesecake is actually juxtaposed to our purposes of staying alive and all of that. But should we fear the awful “mind parasite” of cheesecake whose insatiable drive to relicate itself in our minds could lead us all to an early burial in a double-wide cemetery plot? Of course not. The meme is not in itself powerful at all. Our innate biological drive for energy-dense foods, however, is very powerful. That drive is what we should be fearing, not the memes that we have intentionally created to satisfy this drive! The same goes for religion. We should fear the innate drives in each of us that perpetuate the religious memes much more than we fear the memes themselves. These memes exist to service human desires and could not survive without doing so. Examine the following quote from Daniel Dennett and you will see the sleight of hand that renders the meme meme so frightening:
“Minds are in limited supply, and each mind has a limited capacity for memes, and hence there is a considerable competition among memes for entry into as many minds as possible. This competition is the major selective force in the infosphere, and, just as in the biosphere, the challenge has been met with great ingenuity.” “A meme’s prospects depend on its design–not its ‘internal’ design, whatever that might be, but the design it shows in the world, its phenotype, the way it affects things in its environment.”
Where the AIDS virus, for example, owes its success to its genotype, its “internal design,” which includes a capacity to mutate very quickly, the meme owes its success to its “phenotype, the way it affects things in its environment.” That is, it owes its success to the design of its host. I would add that it also owes its genesis to the design of the host! So why are we so afraid of memes if we create them and they only succeed if they make us feel good or otherwise prove their utility? Why would we view them as external threats or “mind parasites?” The answer can be found in Schopenhauer: “There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity.” The scary fact is that memes can survive even if they make us feel horrible and guilt-riddled; that human beings can be brainwashed! However, these memes would not survive unless they produced some human good, like granting humanity an immortality project to work on, or unifying a group of people into a distinct culture. But the memes are not the true parasites. The truth is more like the following statement from Arthur Schopenhauer: “The brain may be regarded as a kind of parasite of the organism, a pensioner, as it were, who dwells with the body.” It is the mind and its various drives and desires that is the real parasite, the real source of those memes which can promote destructive behavior, like terrorism, anorexia, or Kamikaze strikes. We shouldn’t be fearing the meme of anorexia, if this behavior even requires a meme in order to be motivated into action, but should fear instead those innate drives that impel human beings to such destructive actions. Unfortunately, these drives are the same drives that grant us a sense of meaning and satisfaction in life! We would prefer that these external parasites, the memes, were the culprit, the cause of anorexia, but in reality it is the desire to be loved, the desire to love, the desire to be admired and respected, the desire to be perfect! Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn expresses this dilemma best: “if only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Perhaps you would protest that some twisted societal norm, some meme, is necessary for the production of anorexic behavior: a meme that says “you must be skinny to be loved.” Because it is easier to address this meme than to address the ontological motives of Agape and Eros, we speak of the meme as the driver of the disorder, the link in the causal chain most easily severed. But is it? Once someone gets a diagnosis of having the anorexia-meme parasite and told of its destructive affects, we should expect it to disappear, right? Because we only keep memes around that make us feel good, right? So why doesn’t it go away that easily? “Well, because society keeps it alive,” one might respond. But why does society keep it around? Is it some innate part of the “skinny=love” meme? Some omnipotent feature that forces us to keep this illusion alive? Of course not. It survives because there is some biological reality to it, a reality that is not just the result of some twisted, random evolution of memes. Though anorexia is a “software” problem, it is nonetheless produced and sustained by our mental “hardware,” which is just as capable of sustaining other deleterious “software” even if we somehow find an antidote for the anorexia-meme. Perhaps we would defeat the “skinny=love” meme only to be infected with the “more-cushin-for-the-pushin” meme! The point is, we should be more worried about the fact that humans will suffer anything to service some of their ontological motives, and scarier still, they are still more willing to have others suffer anything for them.
It is a red herring to indict the memes as the ultimate cause of human suffering because our minds and their memes are not competing for different ends. If two drunk men who cannot hold themselves up alone manage to lean on each other and walk back to their hotel, it doesn’t matter if one drunk dude is stronger and providing more locomotion—they are both necessary (but not sufficient) to the end, and the strong one is not “in control,” because he is not competing for control. In a tug-of-war the notion of “which is in more control” makes sense, but the mind and its memes are not competing: they are like two drunk guys leaning on each other to get somewhere…the same somewhere. Dennett adds that “it cannot be ‘memes versus us,’ because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The ‘independent’ mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth.” He continues, “It is no accident that the memes that replicate tend to be good for us, not for our biological fitness…but for whatever it is we hold dear. And never forget the crucial point: the facts about whatever we hold dear–our highest values–are themselves very much a product of the memes that have spread most successfully.” Though this is true, Dennett quickly qualifies this statement with the following: “Biology puts some constraints on what we could value.” There is the crux of it. Though our highest values aren’t independent of our memes, our memes are not independent of our deepest values! It is our deepest values, those constrained by our biology, that are the real culprits. After this explanation, it should be easier to spot the fallacious move in Dawkins thinking. Dawkins writes that “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.” But is it the meme, or the “deeply loved cause” that we should be worried about? Dawkins seems to suggest that all we need to do is discredit the meme, discredit religious dogma and the such, and we will have solved the problem.
Dennett tells us that “We should note that the memes for normative concepts–for ought and good and truth and beauty–are among the most entrenched denizens of our minds.” Could this be because they are part of the very fabric of our minds? Could they be part of our “universal grammar,” as indispensable to thinking as the innate, a priori categories of space, time, and causality with which the mind instinctively organizes the world? Do we not have an experience, a feeling, or a gestalt of “beauty” before we form some concept or meme of “the beautiful?” If so, then it is entirely misleading to say that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, as a meme, “infects” the minds of those who hear it. The minds who hear it lean on the 9th symphony to go where they already wanted to go! The meme is not controlling them, but is cooperating with their deepest desires, conforming to their biological reality, not the other way around!
Dawkins real problem is the proverbial “god hole,” not the various round and square memetic pegs that are jammed into it. Disabuse humanity of one or two ill-fitting pegs and he will simply invent new ones. The competition does occur at the symbolic or computation level (memes do compete), but only as proxy competitors for deeper motivational conflicts that already exist in the human psyche. The real competition takes place at the level of “the will” or the set of ontological motives. Similarly, it is not the individual choices possible in a given decision that “do battle,” but their effects vis-a-vis one’s motives. They only “do battle” as proxies. When the ontological motives do not conflict, neither do the possible actions conflict. If I don’t care about my health and I love ice cream, the “health” and “ice cream” choices don’t conflict anymore than the “health” and “ice cream” memes compete! However, it seems like certain memes do conflict by definition, like “love” and “hate.” Something about their formal properties are antithetical. Faith and Empiricism could be another example. Though these memes do conflict by definition, they only “do battle” on occasions when two opposed motives “do battle.” Memes are tools of war, not their causes. SCUD missiles and Patriot missiles are by definition nemeses: one was created to counteract the other exclusively. However, they never “do battle” by themselves but are only wheeled out in times of geopolitical conflict. Dawkins is suggesting that decommissioning the weapons will help us avoid the war, but he fails to realize that people will just fight with less refined weapons, or invent new ones if none are to be found. A virus, just a string of RNA, will replicate with certainty once placed inside a suitable organism, but a meme will only stick if the “peg” fits the “hole,” like the “monotheism” meme fit the “god hole.” Thus, if there are no holes for a meme to fit into, its dead in the water. That is the extent of a memes “power” over us. We should be trying to address the holes, not just the pegs!
Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” is a particularly egregious example of the dangerous, misleading, demeaning use of the meme meme. I agree with nearly everything Bloom says in the book, even his explication of the causal role of the meme. However, most of his statements concerning memes are equally if not more true if they are turned entirely on their heads. Take the following examples:
“Memes stretch their tendrils through the fabric of each human brain, driving us to coagulate in the cooperative masses of family, tribe, and nation.” This should read: “Humans, who strongly desire cooperative family life and the creation of tribes and nations, stretch their memetic tendrils as far into the memesphere as they can in order to further these innate ends.”
“Little did he realize it, but the bearded writer was simply the tool of fragmentary memes. Those ideas had been floating in the zeitgeist, waiting for a receptive human mind to come along and function as an enzyme functions in human metabolism–splicing together molecules destined for each other.” This should read: “Though he didn’t realize it, the bearded writer ‘s mind was innately receptive to a certain idea, and was fortuitous enough to be alive at a time when two readily accessible ideas, which were well suited structurally for combination, entered his mind, where he combined them to his delight.”
“At its birth, the new ideological meme was vulnerable and powerless. The only small batch of matter over which it had any control was the body and mind of Karl Marx.” This should read: “Karl Marx was the only person who could wield the power of this new ideological meme.”
“And the Puritan meme had used violent battle and the dark impulses of the animal brain to radically increase its sway.” This should read: “The dark impulses of the animal brain used the Puritan meme to justify violent battle.”
“He became possessed by a new idea.” This should read: “He possessed a new idea.”
“They were welded into a social body by a meme.” This should read: “They used a useful meme to weld themselves into a social body.”
“At the center of each society is an imperious master–the meme.” This should read: “Each society utilizes powerful memes that activate in each citizen deeply held values that are the imperious masters of society.”
Of course, Bloom does not actually believe that we are all automatons, meat-puppets being run by memes–this is just an expedient means of getting his point across. He is using the “courting-controversy-wins-an-audience” meme to further his ends. He doesn’t actually think that memes can think or plan. “No, memes do not plot their conquests. They do not have to,” he tell us. It is just useful to speak as if they did. This is easy enough to see in many of his other comments on memes:
“Memes fan out across the planet carried by vigorously scheming hosts. These humans–out for idealism, gain, guts, or glory–spread the meme.” These “vigorously scheming hosts” who are driven by “idealism, gain, guts, or glory” are obviously not senseless, unintelligent pawns of scheming memes.
“The commands of the Hebrew God were the same as those that primal instincts had delivered to the rats. What sounded like the voice of the Most High was actually the whispering of the animal brian.” “The mammal and reptile brains seemed totally in control of Oliver Cromwell’s mind. Eventually those animal puppet masters would prove useful in the service of the meme.” Bloom is clear here that the mammal and reptile brains are the “puppet masters,” and I am simply arguing that it is slightly more truthful to say that the memes were in their service more than the other way around. Bloom would likely have no disagreement with that. He doesn’t think that Hindus, for example, were mysteriously infected by a “dont-kill-cows” meme that has since restructured their society to fit its selfish ambitions. He explains that “Indians survive by using the cows’ dung as fuel, their traction to pull plows, and their milk to feed children. Killing the cows would make agriculture impossible, heating unheard of, and milk unavailable. The worship of the sacred cow works because it keeps alive the creatures on which the Indian economy is based.” “Pictures of the invisible world can have wild inaccuracies, but every view that flourishes does so because it solves at least one major problem.” It is that major problem that we must address with regards to religion, not the pictures of the invisible world. We must realize that when great thinkers like Bloom make the following kinds of statements, they are not seriously undermining the meaning of our thoughts or our minds, but just grasping for linguistic tools that are capable of properly tilling our minds so as to receive his intended meaning:
“Memes have an ultimate ambition: taking vast chunks of the world into their possession and restructuring it according to their form.”