He [Dawkins] rubs me the wrong way when he talks about science (I wish I could find the old post somebody on ScienceBlogs did about the vapidity of the whole “meme” thing), and really gets up my nose when he talks about religion.
I don’t know if he’s referring to my critique of the meme concept, but I figured it gives me an excuse to resurrect this post about memes from the old site:
I’ve mentioned in several posts that I can’t stand the word meme. I suppose it’s time I explain myself. (You can find several definitions of the word meme here). It was first coined by Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, a meme is “the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” Here’s some reasons why I think the word meme is a bad idea:
- Funny, I just used the word idea. Call me old-school, but the word idea would seem to be “a unit of cultural transmission.” Why make up a new word? Although, using the word meme might be a useful chick magnet (n = 1).
- Memes are analogous to genes. Ok, so what’s a gene? I count at least four different meanings of the word gene. A gene can be a transcribed region of protein-coding DNA (a locus). A gene can be shorthand for a genetically heritable trait. A gene can be a particular bunch of nucleotides (e.g., regulatory regions). And a gene can be multiple loci that segregate together, such that they act as one gene, even if each locus is transcribed independently. So, what’s a meme like?
- What is the mechanism of acquisition of memes? In other words, are memes particulate? When Darwin formulated his theory of natural selection, one huge problem he faced (and was unable to resolve) was the mechanism of inheritance. At the time, most people, including Darwin, thought that blending inheritance was the primary mode of inheritance: cross a tall pigeon with a short one, and you get lots of intermediate pigeons. This made Darwin’s theory hard to accept, since how could a population ever diverge? What rescued Darwin’s theory was particulate inheritance (usually ascribed to Gregor Mendel). Here, discrete units of inheritance (or genes) are sorted into each offspring. Thus, selection on a particular variant of a gene (an ‘allele’) can cause those alleles to increase in frequency, enabling divergence. So the question I have is how are memes acquired? Are they particulate? If you’re a Hegelian (or you just like dialetics even if you’re not), ideas might actually blend. Oh dear.
- Memes are based on Dawkins’ replicator-interactor dichotomy, which is a stupid dichotomy. One of Dawkins’ ‘contributions’ is the idea of replicators and interactors. Replicators are things that make copies of themselves, whereas interactors are the things replicators use to ensure further replication. Hence, the idea (meme? snark alert!) that ‘a cell is simply a gene’s way of making another gene.’ Guess what? A gene is also a cell’s way of making another cell. Decomposing the cell into DNA and everything else is foolish because it ignores that cells (and organisms) reproduce as wholes. I won’t even broach the subject of maternal effects (the status of the maternal cell or organism influences the fitness of the offspring independent of genes). The replicator concept ignores all the cool interactive things DNA does: viral integration in the genome, plasmid integration, and gene conversion (just to name a few). Any meme concept based on such a flawed misunderstanding of biology is highly questionable.
- The meme concept is vitalistic. The meme concept implies that information is separate from the organism, in the same way, some think the mind is divorced from the brain (and rest of the body). Biological structures contain information, but are not separate from it (e.g., DNA and maternal effects, alterations during transcription and translation, etc.). Where exactly is the meme? Humanity is not a giant server onto which software is loaded. In other words, ‘information’ in the biological context is not independent of the organism (the computer geeks never remember that thingees called computers actually run the software).
- The information of a meme is not context independent. Two people with the same meme (“Bush is a good man”) can react in completely different ways. A Republican, upon hearing this, will fall to his knees and abase himself before his personal savior. A Democrat will project vomitous fluids. The effects and acquisition of ideas do not appear to be independent of the other ideas held by the subject. Once again, what exactly is the nature of the meme?
- The meme is a conflation of cause-and-effect. Because Dawkins engages in this silly divide between replicators and interactors, he incorrectly makes genes the causal entity in natural selection. Evolution in its most reductionist form is the change in gene frequencies; however, the change in gene frequencies (or the frequency of a single gene) is not the target of the process of natural selection. The target of selection is usually a polygenic trait or an organism-level trait (e.g., “speed”). By the same logic, it is not clear that the adoption of a ‘meme’ is due to the ‘selfishness’ of the meme itself. For example, men and women have done remarkably stupid things to impress members of the opposite gender, even when they have known that said things are stupid. Here, the desire to impress is what is favoring the ‘meme.’ Dawkins claims that many ideas, such as religion, are the equivalent of viruses, in that they infect people to their hosts’ detriment (a view of religion with which I disagree). By focusing on memes as causal units, he makes understanding human cognition that much harder.
So, I don’t like ‘memes.’ The word doesn’t add much, obscures important phenomena, is imprecise, and is vitalistic. Now, if we could do something about “paradigm shifts“…