Sunday, October 15, 2006

I Thought I Was Joking

In my previous post, I asked the tongue-in-cheek question, "Is Memetics the New Scientology?" I thought I was joking. Really, I did. So, this makes what I discovered rather eery and bizarre. I've been reading a lot about memetics in part because I expect to include information on it in my book, as part of a possible chapter on the distortion of science. Then, I found this, The Church of Virus. Now, I'm frightened.


Blogger Catana said...

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9:51 AM  
Blogger Catana said...

Didn't Dawkins originally use "meme" as a kind of metaphor? He should have known better.

Psychohistory shows us how easily ideas sweep the proles and are distorted out of all recognition. How about a little sympathy for the many scholars who can't find a niche in overcrowded fields of inquiry? Memetics offers them a wide range of new topics for development and for scholarly debate by the similarly deprived. We must allow pseudo-intellectuals their due, mustn't we? After all, one person's opinion is just as good as another.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

That's what I'm looking into: how did "meme" start and how did it turn into a new field of pseudoscience? As far as I know so far, Dawkins meant "memes" to be taken seriously from the beginning, but first proferred the idea in a very fuzzy, abstract form. What troubles me is that his theories on religion and culture, based solely on this pseudoscience and ignoring the findings of the established social sciences, are misleading so many. Apparently his ideas are even more popular in the UK than they are here. Where does this lead? A new religion? Or will it, as a popular and influential pseudoscience, have the deleterious effects on society that other popular, influential pseudosciences--like eugenics and social darwinism--have had?

10:05 AM  
Blogger Reason said...

First off, I'm pretty sure that the "Church of the Virus" is meant to be either a joke or a thought experiment in taking an idea to the extreme. (Similar to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster)

Secondly, I can assure you that Dawkins originally proposed the idea as a metaphor to explain how ideas which were better at perpetuating themselves survived while those which perpetuated poorly did not. He meant to say that the processes of natural selection apply (roughly) to any self-perpetuation. His foward to Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine outline his point nicely.

Others have taken the idea in many directions, some good and some bad, but the idea itself bears absolutley no relation to the absolute absurdity of Scientology. Unless you look at Scientology as a complex of memes.

Meme is a useful term for a unit of human knowledge that can maintain its form over several transmissions, whether it be the Ten Commandments or a recipie for apple pie. I don't think that it is appropriate to compare it to Scientology.

10:56 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

My understanding was that Dawkins takes memes quite seriously, to the point that he's argued that we can now ignore genetic/evolutionary interpretations of human culture for memetic interpretations. I think the quote is something like: once genes provide a functioning brain capable of ideas, memes take over. I'm a bit too tired and ill to look up the exact quote right now. I'll go into this later, after I've had a chance to do a bit more research.

From what I understand, the "selfish gene" was a metaphor taken out of context, but "meme" was an idea intended seriously but only presented in a fuzzy, abstract form at first.

The comparison to scientology was originally a joke, an intentional exaggeration. As for the Church of the Virus, I've been trying to find out if it is indeed a joke or meant to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, my ill health has stopped my research for the moment. For now, I'm hoping you're right. I would be quite relieved to issue a correction on this matter.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Reason said...


I hope you feel better. I took the liberty of digging around for answers to som of those questions.

First, background info for the uninitiated:
Richard Dawkins

This is a quote from Dawkins on memes:

" Next question might be, does the information have to be molecular at all? Memes. This is not something that I’ve ever wanted to push as a theory of human culture, but I originally proposed it as a kind of… almost an anti-gene, to make the point that Darwinism requires accurate replicators with phenotypic power, but they don’t necessarily have to be genes. What if they were computer viruses? They hadn’t been invented when I wrote The Selfish Gene so I went straight for memes, units of cultural inheritance."

Personally, I am a historian with significant training in anthropology and I see no conflict between meme-theory and other anthropological and sociological explanations of human culture and behavior.

It can often be very useful to think about exactly how an idea spreads through a population and how it changes along the way. Meme theory simply argues that the spread of cultural information is somewhat analagous to the spread of genetic information.

For example, I might give you a recipie for apple pie. (Which we will call the "apple pie meme.")

You might try that recipie and you might like it and pass it along. (Selecting for the apple pie meme.)

Or you may dislike it and not use it again. (Selecting against the apple pie meme.)

You may find that one of the ingredients is expensive or hard to find and replace it with a less expensive or more widely available ingredient. (Mutation of the apple pie meme.)

You might find this modified recipie more appealing because of its taste, lower cost, or both and choose to pass it on to more people. (Selection for the mutated apple pie meme.)

That seems to fit not only our observable experience, but also our pre-existing theories of cultural evolution. It's simply another perspective from which we can analyze cultural change.

Do memes "take over" the biological brain? I guess they do, but that's just because a meme is really just an idea. The utility of memes is in understanding how ideas spread, so a meme is simply the transmissible form of an idea. So saying memes "take over" is the same as saying "ideas take over the biological brain."

12:54 PM  

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