In 1976, in his The Selfish Gene, a book which revealed that most of us are slaves to our genes, biologist Richard Dawkins “discovered” the meme which, in one definition, is any “cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.”
Dawkins snuck memes into the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, after readers had been softened up by edematous arguments of how “selfish” genes are responsible for (mainly) reprehensible or harmful behaviors; yet behaviors and actions—approved of by Dawkins—outside the iron grip of genes were also (somehow) possible. He spent the next several years defending this bizarre thesis (presumably with the cooperation of his genes), making sounds like the yip yip yip of a lapdog affixed with a studded collar under the delusion he is a pit bull.
Most of his efforts were expended explaining how “selfish” didn’t really mean “selfish“, but sometimes “selfish” other times “selfish.” Strangely, only devotees had the power (via genetic mutation?) to understand this amorphous word. In an infamous review article which demolished Dawkins’s ideas, the philosopher and true pit bull Mary Midgley seized Dawkins by the throat and rattled him until she bored of it.
Dawkins reacted to this attack just as a lap dog would: with sullenness. One imagines him sitting in a quiet corner, a single tear escaping from the welling in his eyes, as he wrote, “[Midgley’s paper is] hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic.” This coming from a man who boasted he would jam a black hood on Pope Benedict and toss him in a dungeon.
So “selfish” genes had difficulties and were not universally accepted. But memes had an easier time, at least at first. Now, a “cultural item” that is transmitted from one human to another is anything: a name, a joke, racism (of course), even a theory like memetics. Memes spread by changing, even creating, the behavior of the “host” such that the host, well, is made to pass on its mind viruses. This is not facetious: Dawkins himself prefers this phrase.
In one sense, “memes” are just a re-labeling of a trivial truth: people pass ideas to one another. Calling this mundane process a “transmission of memes” isn’t wrong, but an unnecessary obfuscation, a bureaucratic complication. The word also means a short-lived asinine idea passed between a small fraction of the Earth’s population who have leisure and access to a computer.
But Dawkins and his acolytes mean more than these. The philosopher David Stove, quotes from one of Dawkins’s works1 (all markings original):
Memes are living “are living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind2, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say [Pythagora’s Theorem] is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men…”
One might try saying to Dr. Dawkins: “Look, you are in the phone book, and they print millions of copies of the phone book—right? But now you don’t believe, do you, that you are there millions of times over ‘in the form of’ printed letters, or ‘realized in’ the chemistry of ink and newsprint?” But I would so afraid of being told by Dr. Dawkins that he does believe this that I do not think I would have the courage to put the questions to him.
Memes are also said to reproduce themselves, or to cause themselves to be reproduced, for their own “benefit.” But it is impossible for one copy of a meme to benefit from other copies. It is like saying a chair on sale as Walmart benefits by there being copies of itself for sale at other Walmarts.
Why are we supposed to need the general word ‘meme’? It brackets together indiscriminately such mixed items as ideas, customs, beliefs, traditions, fancies, fashions, art-forms and art-works, tricks of the trade, opinions, doctrines, theories, images, concepts, attitudes, practices and habits. When we are actually trying to study culture, it is not helpful to blur these differences so grossly. Why do memeticists want to do this?
They do it because they think this simplification is scientific. They aim to explain changes in all these things by a single cause, and one of the same kind which is used to explain large-scale changes in evolution. This naturally has to be a cause quite outside our actual thinking. So they treat the various elements of culture, not as aspects of human life – ways in which people act and think – but as distinct entities, quasi-organisms or quasi-genes, substantial things existing on their own and somehow acting on people. These entities’ behaviour has then to be understood, like that of genes, in terms of their own supposed reproductive interests, their own competitive interactions with one another, bypassing all reference to human psychology.
Memes are often welcomed by those who want freedom from responsibility for their own actions. If a man can’t point to his “selfish” genes and say “They made me do it!”, then perhaps memes are the real culprits. People aren’t really racists, they have racist memes. Criminals rampage because of memetic influences, not because they are evil. Yet some of us (like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and of course yours truly) have the ability to “move beyond” the influence of these pernicious mind viruses. We can will our minds to do other than what the memes (or genes) would have us do.
These arguments are identical with those saying there is no free will. “We must not punish the criminal! He has no free will, no choice to have done what he has done.” If you cannot spot the fallacy here, chances are good you will remain convinced memes are a viable scientific concept.