A previous post of mine addressed a red herring of memetics that I would like to explicate further by taking aim at Keith Stanovich’s conception of memes. Why does a given meme survive according to Stanovich? He lists four reasons (hint–my argument is that every example of #4 is really just an example of #2):
“1) Memes survive and spread because they are helpful to the people that store them (most memes that reflect true information about the world would be in this category).
2) Certain memes are numerous because they are good fits to preexisting genetic predispositions or domain-specific evolutionary modules.
3) Certain memes spread because they facilitate the replication of the genes that make vehicles that are good hosts for these particular memes (religious beliefs that urge people to have more children would be in this category).
4) Memes survive and spread because of the self-perpetuating properties of the memes themselves.”
The first three existed before Memetics, but number four is what Stanovich really wants to discuss. He thinks that a meme survives because “of its own self-replicating properties.” The faith meme, for example, survives because part of the meme itself guards against rational criticism, according to this view. How do we come to be infected with the memes that we have according to Stanovich? “They exist because, through memetic evolution, they have displayed the best fecundity, longevity, and copying fidelity–the defining characteristics of successful replicators.” Though he is certainly right that, for example, the simplicity of the meme aids in its replicability, the rest of this sentence simply begs the question. We have these memes because these memes survived and they survived because they displayed survivability. This is pure tautology. When discussing actual (genetic) evolution, we can make explanations involving various features of the material environment. The finch has a long beak not simply because finches with the longest beaks survived, but because the flowers upon which the finches rely for food determined that finches with long beaks had a better shot. The problem with those who champion memetics is that in their attempt to sound heretical and edgy they regularly underemphasis the importance of the environment that memes must fit into in order to survive. They try to give memes all of the power so that we will all cower in fear at the all-powerful mind viruses. However, it is absolutely clear that the so-called “properties” of memes have much less to do with their success in replicating themselves than does the environment in which they must survive: the human mind. Certain universal features of human nature are to blame for the success of ideas, not their so-called “properties.” I take the following line from Schopenhauer to be the gospel truth on this matter:
“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.”
We seem to have a sensitive imprinting period during childhood when memes of whatever shape or size can be carved into our worldview. This is just a feature of human nature. Moreover, this process is expedited the more these ideas connect with deep human desires, fears, and values. These features of human nature are the real danger, while memes are a total red herring. An example should make this sufficiently clear.
Let’s create a meme; one that is incredibly simple and thus easy to copy. Oddly, the first one that popped into my mind was “pre-emptive abortion.” I’ll define this meme as “the killing of an unborn child by means of never conceiving of him in the first place.” Simple enough, eh? Let’s first note that this mind-virus, which to my knowledge originated in my head alone and thus was never transmitted by another host, came into existence right when I needed it to. Just when I needed a novel meme, one popped into mind! Your own experience of creating ideas should similarly undermine the picture of meme-viruses running rampant through your grey matter, controlling your thoughts. (note: While this meme was unexpected, it wasn’t totally off of my conscious radar, as I do know that I like to poke fun at the extreme pro-lifers.) Now, even though my meme is rather simple, will its design features be the most causally relevant factor to its successful infestation of the human species? Obviously not. What matters is how well this meme connects to peoples desires and values! If there are lots of pro-life haters out there who want a cheeky meme to lampoon their opponents with, then my meme has a shot. If nobody gives a shit, then my meme is doomed, regardless of its design features. Try it yourself! Come up with the simplest meme you can, but create one that somehow discourages the host from deleting it, and see how long it even remains in your mind if it connects to none of your desires or values. My guess is about 20 seconds.
Oddly enough, Stanovich neatly summarizes my entire objection to memetics:
“Memetic theory focuses us on the properties of ideas as replicators rather than the qualities of people acquiring the ideas.”
Precisely! And this is the problem! Again, an example will make this clear. Let’s take Anselm’s Ontological Proof for the existence of god. If you will forgive my poor summary, this argument essentially goes as follows: god is defined as the most perfect possible being, but existence is one of the properties of perfection, and thus god must be the most perfectly existent thing in existence. Now, far from being simple and easy to copy, this meme is a tangle of twisted logic that I probably didn’t even paraphrase correctly. So why did it survive? Stanovich would have made Anselm proud by implying that it survived because one of its properties is survivability. If the meme’s survival depended mostly on its design, which should be the same regardless of which century it is iterated in, then we should find this meme spread throughout the populations of Europe in equal proportions both today and four centuries ago. But of course this is not the case. A much smaller percentage of the population of Europe is infected with this meme today than in Anselm’s time. Why? Because the memes of science have weakened the memes of religion within the memesphere? If this were so, then the meme would simply have died out when Kant struck his death blow, which it hasn’t. Could it be the case that human beings happen to desire immortality and the notion of a loving, protecting father figure in the heavens? Could this quality of the people acquiring the meme explain why, despite the fact that it is not particularly “catchy” or simple, the meme still persists? Of course! Human beings create memes that make them feel good, further their ideological goals, help them survive, etc. As long as human beings keep desiring the company of a loving god, I dare say that meme-viruses of all different shapes and sizes will be produced to this end. Many of them will survive despite having deplorable design features and despite coexisting with scientific or rationalistic memes that are far more powerful and that have far better design features. Losing sight of the values and desires that our memes serve is a serious error, but as Stanovich points out above, one that is at the very heart of memetic theory.
We simply should not be worried about mind-viruses like this. They don’t govern the mind! Plenty of beliefs and practices existed well before any meme was articulated about them. Take the religious-faith-meme that Dawkins, Stanovich and them are really taking aim at. Notice that the design features of this meme that guard against rational criticism came into existence long after people were already exercising blind faith. The Jews of the Old Testament seemed to have no trouble believing in God though unarmed with the heady rhetoric of the Scholastics. They practiced faith without having created the blind-faith-meme! In fact, if Julian Jaynes is right, the human race was practicing blind faith for most of its prehistory, before consciousness as we know it arrived, let alone the rhetoric of blind faith.
I am not claiming that there are no dangerous ideas out there. What I am claiming is that we should not fear the ideas, but instead the native powers and weaknesses in human nature. The meme that somehow convinced thousands of AIDS victims in Africa that sleeping with a virgin would cure them is certainly a dangerous, horrible meme. However, it was a meme born of total desperation and it is desperation that fuels it, not its “design features” or the internal logic of the idea. It has not survived on those merits. It could have easily been a thousand other variants of a “panacea-meme” that caught on, some less dangerous, some more. If the “virgin-panacea meme” is somehow cut down, but no cure for AIDS comes along, I guarantee we will see some of these other variants. Let me ask you this, however: why didn’t the “blind-faith-panacea-meme” out-compete the “virgin-panacea meme”? It has far better design features and massive proselytic advantage!
Stanovich uses an example from Aaron Lynch (1996) that illustrates my point nicely. Lynch proposes that the meme “my country is dangerously low on weapons” has a proselytic advantage built into its “design features.” He continues:
“the idea strikes fear in its hosts…that fear drives them to persuade others of military weakness to build pressure for doing something about it. So the belief, through the side effect of fear, triggers proselytizing. Meanwhile, alternative opinions such as ‘my country has enough weaponry’ promote a sense of security and less urgency about changing others’ minds. Thus, belief in a weapons shortage can self-propagate to majority proportions–even in a country of unmatched strength.”
This example should lay bare the twisted logic employed here. Fear is listed as a “side effect” through which the meme gains power. This is preposterous. The fear was likely what prompted the creation of the meme in the first place! Someone feels scared and powerless and seeks beliefs that confirm his feeling. Did Anselm’s Ontological Argument engender faith as a “side effect” or was he motivated to create the argument in the first place by his desire for the existence of a loving god? Memetic theory seems to get things entirely backwards. Regardless of a given meme’s origins, it is clear that it survives because it connects with peoples desires and passions, not because of it’s innate design features, as this ability to connect with desires and values is just being listed as a design feature!
This point can even be found in Stanovich’s own definition of memeplexes: “sets of memes that tend to replicate together (co-adapted meme complexes)–that connect their product with something already valued.” Already valued!!! There is the key. If a meme doesn’t connect to something already valued, regardless of its so-called design features, it is dead in the water. I could savagely pillory Stanovich’s comparison of some memes to junk-DNA, as our knowledge of junk-DNA has far outgrown Stanovich’s tortured analogy, but let me instead complete his picture of junk memes. “Think about it,” Stanovich writes, “You will never find evidence that refutes an unfalsifiable meme. Thus, you will never have an overt reason to give up such a belief.” To complete this picture, you will also never have an overt reason to humor such a belief in the first place if it doesn’t connect to one of your desires or values!
Stanovich is so hell-bent on putting memes in the drivers seat that he claims that many memes are desires. He writes, “regarding memes that are desires, (we should) seek to install only memes that do not preclude other memeplexes becoming installed in the future.” Memes simply cannot be desires, only beliefs about how those desires can be fulfilled. For example, “I want to eat a Bic Mac” is the meme that the McDonalds commercial is seeking to install, but really this is just the belief that your innate, biologically programmed desire for calorie-rich food can be fulfilled by eating a Big Mac. It does not install a new desire in your brain, just a new avenue of fulfillment. Stanovich, who desperately needs to review David Hume’s work, is clearly being misled by his reliance on Harry Frankfurt‘s theory of higher (and higher) order volitions. They both should take Schopenhauer more seriously when he says that “I can do what I will, but I cannot will what I will.” Frankfurt and Stanovich are simply taking too literal an interpretation of what people say about their desires. To use an easy example, I happen to enjoy looking trim and fit as well as eating ice cream, which presents an obvious conflict of interests. Now, when I say “I wish I didn’t desire ice-cream,” Frankfurt would say that I am describing a higher-order desire. But he is taking me too literally. What I really mean is “I wish I could have both ice-cream and six-pack abs, but because this is impossible, I wish that I didn’t have to suffer for wanting either.” You see, I am merely expressing a desire that existed from the start: my desire not to experience the frustration of my desires. If we were able to change the universe such that ice-cream was not fattening, my so-called higher-order desire would vanish along with my belly fat! Anyway, this is why Stanovich is mistaking some memes for desires. For those who would object that human beings have invented some desires, like the desire for immortality, just look around you at the animal world and ask which of those creatures does not desire immortality! What about the desire for heaven? Well, what is this meme called “heaven” if not a stand-in for the satisfaction of every single human desire! The meme does not invent some new desire that is installed in unsuspecting minds, it simply tries to fashion a new avenue for the attainment of those same old desires. Ad execs do not invent new desires; they try to connect new products with desires as old as human nature.
In an attempt to undermine Hume’s famous dictum about reason being the slave of the passions, Stanovich quotes Nozick (1993):
“if human beings are simply Humean beings, that seems to diminish our stature. Man is the only animal not content to be simply an animal…It is symbolically important to us that not all of our activities are aimed at satisfying our given desires.”
What Nozick fails to see is that this desire for god-like status, this desire for freedom, just is one of our given desires! We are paradoxical to the core. Camus is almost correct when he says that “Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is.” This refusal is part of what he is! It is part of human nature to desire and value freedom, power, god-like status, meaning, etc. These are not higher-order desires that pop into existence through our story telling, though the stories are instantiations of these desires.
I hope this discussion has given you some reasons not to believe with Stanovich that “the concept of the meme allows us, for the first time in the thousands of years that humans have had culture, to get a handle on, to examine at a distance, the cultural artifacts that infect our thoughts.” Hopefully you will agree that some of us have been able to evaluate our own beliefs and desires well before Dawkins started writing.