‘Memetics is a Dumb Explanation’ says Dennettian ‘naturalist’

The resident professional ‘philosopher’ of TSZ recently wrote this:

“’memes!’ is a dumb explanation.”

Yes, I agree! (Although that person doesn’t seem to know the difference between ‘memes’ and ‘memetics.’ – e.g. I don’t mind ‘memes’ used for popular shared internet links, but that’s not ‘memetics.’)

Well, given the weekend’s significance for a billion+, let’s ‘crucify’ memetics then. Why is ‘memetics’ a dumb explanation? And there’s no need to hold back with merely ‘dumb’. If one is an ideological ‘naturalist’, isn’t one forced into something like ‘memetics’ because they share the same materialist, naturalist, agnostic/atheist worldview as (chuckling at his own supposed lack of self-identity!) Daniel Dennett? Isn’t the built-in materialism of ‘memetics’ what made it so attractive to certain people and for the same reason obviously not attractive or believable to most others?

Memetics is just bad thinking from start to finish. “Look kids, it’s the ‘Easter meme’ infecting the hearts, minds and souls of hundreds of millions of people around the world this weekend!” For those who think that religion is really ‘just a meme’ that is easily scientifically explainable (like consciousness) in a completely disenchanted way, what you demonstrate is stubborn denial. Memetics is already dead for just about everyone of intellect who has looked closely at Dawkins’ cultural theatrics and theory posturing.

I’ll give my 2 cents to start. Memetics was one of the most dehumanising ideas in the history of (biologistic) philosophy. The gullibility of people who accepted it is a significant and telling symptom showing USAmerican impoverishment of thought among natural scientists who consumed it wholeheartedly because it appeared to support their worldview. It was simply not good philosophy; memetics was and still is philosophistry. Headline: “Weak American philosophy – WAP makes memetics. Tufts professor loses consciousness to ideology.”

Happy ‘skeptic’ crucifixion of dumb dehumanising ‘memetics!’ Will anyone stand up for Dennett’s crucified memetics idol? Or is it really time to do a selfish-oriented dump out of Richard Dawkins, including his ludicrous coinage of ‘memetics’ and return to a more inspiring normalcy?

33 thoughts on “‘Memetics is a Dumb Explanation’ says Dennettian ‘naturalist’”

  1. davemullenix

    OK, I gather from the above that you don’t like memes or maybe memetics or maybe something else. Now how about telling us why? Until you do, I’m guessing your reasons have something to do with your underwear being all bunched up.

  2. Woodbine

    davemullenix: OK, I gather from the above that you don’t like memes or maybe memetics or maybe something else. Now how about telling us why?

    This.

    The whole OP is just an ill-formatted tantrum.

    Memetics was one of the most dehumanising ideas in the history of (biologistic) philosophy.

    ‘Dehumanising’?

    What?

  3. Neil Rickert

    I repaired the formatting of your rant. But where does that “Dennettian naturalist” come from? I’m pretty sure that KN is not a Dennettian, though perhaps keiths is.

    Okay, we get that you don’t like memetics. But someone asked you for an argument against it. I don’t see an argument. I just see insults hurled at memetics and its proponents.

    For the record, I’m not a fan of memetics. I don’t have an argument against it, other than that it doesn’t seem to actually explain anything. Oh, and I am not a Dawkins fan, nor am I a Dennettian (if that’s even a word).

  4. Joe FelsensteinJoe Felsenstein

    Just to provide an argument, even though maybe not an argument that Gregory would put forward, the notion of a “meme” is fuzzy on a critical point. What are the boundaries of memes? They are a lot more fuzzy than, say, “gene”.

    Is the notion that it is good to ride a bicycle a meme? Or is the meme “it is good to ride a red bicycle?”. Since there is implicitly the idea that memes spread through a human population in a way analogous to the spread of an allele in a gene pool, it becomes important to know which of those is the meme. And we get no guidance on how to do that.

  5. keithskeiths

    Gregory,

    Why not read that chapter and quote some statements from it that you disagree with, along with sufficient context to establish their intended meaning? You can then explain to us where Dennett’s reasoning goes wrong, in your opinion.

    Wouldn’t it be exciting to make an actual argument?

  6. GlenDavidson

    Joe Felsenstein:
    Just to provide an argument, even though maybe not an argument that Gregory would put forward, the notion of a “meme” is fuzzy on a critical point.What are the boundaries of memes?They are a lot more fuzzy than, say, “gene”.

    Is the notion that it is good to ride a bicycle a meme?Or is the meme “it is good to ride a red bicycle?”.Since there is implicitly the idea that memes spread through a human population in a way analogous to the spread of an allele in a gene pool, it becomes important to know which of those is the meme.And we get no guidance on how to do that.

    Yes, it’s kind of a static, atomistic view of thoughts, which are more fluid and inexact. And of course “memes” are hopelessly entangled with emotions and values. Cats are a meme? Internet memes are one of the few good uses of the term “meme,” of course, but cats happen to be complex organisms with whom we have a somewhat unusual and complex relationship, and that’s why they become a “meme.” But cats mean all sorts of different things to different people. I think the fact that we write “cat” in a somewhat gene-like way is one reason why Dawkins thought up “meme” in the first place, but even the word “cat” shifts contextually all of the time in use, which genes do not. Emotionally and conceptually “cats” ranges far more in the human mind, and there’s no pinning that “meme” down.

    I think Gregory got it right in his example of Easter, that memes were used largely as an anti-religious “meme” in its origin. Religion infects the mind, being the idea. OK, maybe in a way (but then what doesn’t, including internet atheism?), but religion is another “cats,” the interrelationship with humans, their genes, and their emotions and desires, is far more complex and fluid than any “memetics” can pretend to handle meaningfully.

    “Memetics” is hopelessly reductionistic, a lot like ID’s claim that the genetic code is a language. Language never reduces down to the relatively simple interactions of genes, nor is the convenient internet shorthand term “meme” anything like anything as simple and discrete as a gene. It was convenient for Dawkins to attack religion as a parasitic meme composed of a whole bunch of memes, but religion is far more than that, whatever one thinks of it.

    Glen Davidson

  7. waltowalto

    Rumraket:
    Why is Gregory always so angry anyway?

    It’s a powerful argument against wanting to share his religion, certainly. Who says Gregory doesn’t make arguments!?

  8. vjtorley

    Hi everyone,

    I’m no great fan of memes, but I think it might be an idea for people to have a look at these two articles by Susan Blackmore:

    Memetics does provide a useful way of understanding cultural evolution. The second-last paragraph cuts to the chase:

    A common objection to memetics is that it undermines human autonomy and the creative power of consciousness, and treats the human self as a complex of memes without free will. These ideas follow naturally from the universal Darwinism on which memetics is based. That is, the idea that all design in the universe comes about through the evolutionary algorithm and is driven by replicator power. This means that human creativity emerges from the human capacity to store, vary and select memes, rather than from some special creative spark, or power of consciousness (Blackmore 2007). The human self may also be a construct of memetic competition, surviving because it protects and propagates memes, including the many memes that make up a person (Dennett 1995). In this view the self is not a continuously existing entity with consciousness and free will but is a persistent illusion. This memetic view of human beings as the evolved creation of two replicators may be unsettling but it has the advantage of uniting biological and human creativity into one, and providing new ways of understanding human nature, self and consciousness.

    Hmm. Whose illusion? And if that’s a bad question, why?

    Blackmore also maintains that consciousness is an illusion, in the sense that “that there is no stream of conscious experiences on which we act.”

    The trouble with the trouble with memetics

    Genes have been evolving for about 4 billion years. Starting from very simple self-replicating molecules they have ended up packaged inside elaborate vehicles, and with fabulously high-fidelity, effective copying machinery, involving accurate transcription, random variation, and a separation between the germ line (which is copied) and its phenotypic expression (which is not). Memes have been around for, at most, 2 million years but now they are catching up very fast indeed, and are rediscovering such “good tricks” as separating out the replicator itself from the products it makes possible; a trick that, among other advantages, avoids errors accumulating and allows for easier redesign of phenotypes.

    Comments, anyone?

  9. Gregory Post author

    For thread continuity, this was posted previously, but one of the anti-theist atheist ‘skeptic’ Mods here practiced guano censorship. Here is what was GCd…

    Thanks Joe, the one who actually tried to make an argument. The rest of the stuff I don’t read.

    “What are the boundaries of memes? They are a lot more fuzzy than, say, ‘gene’.”

    Yes, we are agreed; ‘memetics’ is fuzzier than ‘genetics’ in part because the so-called ‘unit of replication’ (concocted to rhyme with ‘gene’!) is not ‘purely material.’

    Check the record, folks. I’ve done Dennett’s ‘memetics’ already & will waste no more time on it. Memetics *IS* dead. The question is if YOU ‘skeptic’ folks have any clue WHY. Joe offered one reason, among many.

  10. Gregory Post author

    Same as above, posted previously:

    It doesn’t seem most ‘skeptics’ here have much idea what memetics is or why it was stillborn. Another recent thread on Dennett made it appear that KN’s position had changed, that he’s finally realised the emptiness of ‘memetics.’ KN now seems to KNOW that “’memes!’ is a dumb explanation.” Ok, so let’s see if KN actually KNOWS or just BELIEVES that about memes because he’s got ‘fuzzy’ syndrome about other things already.

    None of the armchair cynics here offers much of value compared with KN, who is actually trained in some inspirational philosophy and should be without excuse for his damaged, ancestor-denying philosophistry, the kind of thing that Dennett would likely stand up and applaud exactly for it’s pretentious nonsense.

  11. Gregory Post author

    Same as above without the word ‘kooks’ and ‘kooky’ to describe people who embrace what KN calls a ‘dumb explanation’:

    “And we get no guidance on how to do that.” – Joe

    Well, to be fair, we have seen attempts. If you want to ‘trust’ Susan Blackmore’s wacko bizzaro world of ‘meme machines’, that’s a strange sort of priority (“Memetics is founded on the principle of Universal Darwinism.” – Blackmore).

    I’m looking forward to KN saying more about how ‘memetics is a dumb explanation’ so that people might hear him, instead of just listening without hearing.

  12. Gregory Post author

    “I’m no great fan of memes, but…” – Torley’s forked again!

    I reject the Discovery Institute, but I’ll take their IDism for a wallaby.

    And this time he followed my link to Blackmore, now soliciting “Comments, anyone?” without credit (just as he doesn’t credit the DI for giving him the ideology of IDism that he now hocks to atheists, agnostics and skeptics, to aid in their _________).

    This place is hilarious! Expelled Syndrome + ideological and oftentimes worldview skepticism dancing together … awkwardly.

  13. Gregory Post author

    Thanks to Glen for addressing the topic, via Joe.

    “And of course “memes” are hopelessly entangled with emotions and values.”

    Yes.

    “Internet memes are one of the few good uses of the term “meme,” of course”

    Yes, though ‘high-jacked’ from Dawkins’ memetics meaning (his choice of words) – they are now separate topics.

    “I think Gregory got it right in his example of Easter, that memes were used largely as an anti-religious “meme” in its origin.”

    Thanks. As with most things, it is not all bad. I have written also about the ‘good intention’ that can be found behind some peoples’ embrace of memetics elsewhere. But you are correct and word it well how memetics was used, and is still used, thankfully by fewer and fewer.

    “‘Memetics’ is hopelessly reductionistic, a lot like ID’s claim that the genetic code is a language. Language never reduces down to the relatively simple interactions of genes, nor is the convenient internet shorthand term “meme” anything like anything as simple and discrete as a gene. It was convenient for Dawkins to attack religion as a parasitic meme composed of a whole bunch of memes, but religion is far more than that, whatever one thinks of it.”

    Agreed. Also about the IDist reductionism. We had some discussion about this in Seattle. Most didn’t want to agree they even could be reductionists in principle, just like they don’t agree there is anything ideological in IDism. They are the ideology-free IDists (Revolution!) amongst all the other blind ideologists, not only atheist evolutionists, but also theists are their opponents who accept limited evolutionary (e.g. extended synthesis) biological theories too.

    They’re busy doing the fighting & reproduction game with ‘new atheists’, so that a guy like me can come in, smile, speak easily and calmly (& of course get accused with anything buttery), pointing out that I agree with the person who said ‘memetics is a dumb explanation.’ Maybe others will say why they agree too.

  14. waltowalto

    Gregory: Thanks Joe, the one who actually tried to make an argument. The rest of the stuff I don’t read.

    Same. That’s why I’ve had you on ignore for a long time. After seeing your latest screeds (but including a couple of suck-ups too!) I’ll plop you right back on!

  15. Kantian NaturalistKantian Naturalist

    GlenDavidson: Yes, it’s kind of a static, atomistic view of thoughts, which are more fluid and inexact. And of course “memes” are hopelessly entangled with emotions and values.Cats are a meme? Internet memes are one of the few good uses of the term “meme,” of course, but cats happen to be complex organisms with whom we have a somewhat unusual and complex relationship, and that’s why they become a “meme.”But cats mean all sorts of different things to different people.I think the fact that we write “cat” in a somewhat gene-like way is one reason why Dawkins thought up “meme” in the first place, but even the word “cat” shifts contextually all of the time in use, which genes do not. Emotionally and conceptually “cats” ranges far more in the human mind, and there’s no pinning that “meme” down.

    Nice points there. Even Dennett himself should acknowledge that thoughts, being inferentially articulated in a space of reasons (he says he agrees with Brandom!), can’t be treated in this absurdly atomistic, static way. Memes aren’t even analogous with molecular genes — they’re analogous with Mendelian genes!

    I think Gregory got it right in his example of Easter, that memes were used largely as an anti-religious “meme” in its origin.Religion infects the mind, being the idea. OK, maybe in a way (but then what doesn’t, including internet atheism?), but religion is another “cats,” the interrelationship with humans, their genes, and their emotions and desires, is far more complex and fluid than any “memetics” can pretend to handle meaningfully.

    I think that’s right. Dawkins invented this idea just because he himself doesn’t “get” religion. But as Terry Eagleton points out, Dawkins’s not “getting” religion (and likewise for Dennett) says much more about his socio-cultural position and esp his class position. Dawkins (and Dennett) don’t “get” religion but they probably also don’t “get” deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, or post-punk music.

    “Memetics” is hopelessly reductionistic, a lot like ID’s claim that the genetic code is a language. Language never reduces down to the relatively simple interactions of genes, nor is the convenient internet shorthand term “meme” anything like anything as simple and discrete as a gene. It was convenient for Dawkins to attack religion as a parasitic meme composed of a whole bunch of memes, but religion is far more than that, whatever one thinks of it.

    I agree with all that, especially with how memes relies on a mistaken conception of how genes work. There’s a nice clarification that I recommend, What Genes Can’t Do that would dispel the confusions that Dawkins and Dennett take advantage of.

    I also highly recommend Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution for a much better way of thinking about cultural evolution and the evolution of culture besides “memetics”.

  16. Kantian NaturalistKantian Naturalist

    walto: Same. That’s why I’ve had you on ignore for a long time. After seeing your latest screeds (but including a couple of suck-ups too!) I’ll plop you right back on!

    Oh, my experience of TSZ has been much better now that I have both Gregory and keiths on “Ignore Commenter”.

  17. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    Moved a comment to guano. It’s perfectly fine to re-post “guano’d” comments minus rule-breaking content. It’s not fine to re-post unedited.

  18. Tom EnglishTom English

    Kantian Naturalist: Oh, my experience of TSZ has been much better now that I have both Gregory and keiths on “Ignore Commenter”.

    Ignor(commenter)ance is bliss. But Gregory fascinates me. Somehow he manages to present as a disdainful cognoscente without saying anything of substance.

  19. keithskeiths

    KN,

    Oh, my experience of TSZ has been much better now that I have both Gregory and keiths on “Ignore Commenter”.

    I’m sure it’s been easier to maintain your self-image since you put me on ignore. Less cognitive dissonance.

    Take the recent Dennett thread, for example. You described your knowledge of Dennett this way:

    As far as I understand Dennett (which is pretty good, if I don’t mind my saying so)…

    That fiction would have been impossible to maintain if you had actually read my comments, including this, this, this, this, and this.

  20. Gregory Post author

    Correction, I should acknowledge that Mung also wrote the following, which does offer an argument: “My selfish memes won’t let me.” There’s both an ‘externalism’ involved as well as a distorted and disenchanted understanding of what a human being is in memetics and the ilk who push it. [The fact that KN admits his own disenchantment and then tries to act ‘secularly enchanting’ is simply the cream on the top of his pudding, as goofy fiddle music by Dennett plays in the background.]

    That makes Joe, Glen & Mung. Thanks for making an argument!

    This time around got more play than the previous attempt: http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/skeptical-of-memetics-and-memes/

    Notice what davehook wrote then:

    “Memetics came and went in the early 2000s. It’s dead. A simplistic approach that (unsurprisingly) didn’t turn out to be useful.

    The term “meme” has found a home and that’s as far as the whole thing goes.”

    The ‘biggest success’ of ‘cultural evolution’ theories so far is now gone, or at least questionable (even by philosophists!) as ‘dumb.’ Back-thinking into or recommending the work of Richerson and Boyd isn’t going to take us forward (Hint: they are part of the ‘memetics’ problem!). The cultural evolutionists are discombobulated right now … and we owe ‘memetics’ a big thanks for it!

  21. Kantian NaturalistKantian Naturalist

    Neil Rickert: In the earlier thread, I assumed that nobody took memetics seriously.

    I have since discovered that Dennett takes it seriously.

    I still don’t take memetics seriously.And now I have one more reason not to take Dennett seriously.

    I never took memetics seriously. In grad school we joked that the only good example of a meme was the word “meme.” I can see the need for a theory of cultural evolution, but I don’t see how memetics can do the explanatory work that we need.

    As for Dennett, I’ll know more when I finish the book. Right now I’m taking a break from Dennett to read stuff more directly relevant to my research.

  22. Gregory Post author

    Treating either Daniel Dennett or ‘cultural evolution’ with intellectual seriousness is like advocating ‘development studies for dictators.’ No one interested in anything but the kind of disenchanted humanity that KN is pushing here could accept them.They both dehumanise … ironically, on purpose!

  23. Gregory Post author

    What a gift to be ‘passed over’ (just ignore it) by a self-described secular/non-religious Jew (that isn’t a swear word) at TSZ during the Jewish Passover! = )

  24. keithskeiths

    Neil,

    In the earlier thread, I assumed that nobody took memetics seriously.

    I have since discovered that Dennett takes it seriously.

    I still don’t take memetics seriously. And now I have one more reason not to take Dennett seriously.

    The earlier thread was a disaster for you, because it became obvious that you couldn’t even understand Dennett’s position, much less refute it. My summary:

    It’s no wonder you scoff at Dennett. If I misunderstood him as badly as you do, I’d scoff too.

    Dennett-as-interpreted-by-Neil is a hopeless mess, but the problem lies with the interpreter, not with the source material.

    I’m skeptical that you understand his position(s) on memetics, but perhaps I’m wrong. If so, you should be able to do what Gregory cannot:

    Why not read that chapter and quote some statements from it that you disagree with, along with sufficient context to establish their intended meaning? You can then explain to us where Dennett’s reasoning goes wrong, in your opinion.

  25. keithskeiths

    I’m quite open to the possibility that Dennett gets memetics wrong. What I can’t figure out is why no one here has criticized Dennett’s actual, stated positions on the issues.

    What does he get wrong about memetics? Please provide a quote and an explanation of how his reasoning fails, in your opinion.

Leave a Reply