arguments against memes

There are lots of people who still seriously talk about “memes”. It is an attractive idea that has been propagated and will not die in spite of serious problems inside it and outside of it. We may critically question why the idea won’t die. But alternatively we might also question whether the idea – the term, the concept, the cluster of intentions surrounding the word like a hurricane crossing the ocean – is changing.

In fact, a key point, and a key weak point, of the meme concept is change.

Compare, for example, the idea of “the internet”. We have been talking about the internet for thirty years. When I talk about it today, do I mean the same thing as you when you talked about it yesterday? Or do either of us mean the same thing as when we talked about it before it was a general phenomenon, or before there were browsers, or before there were ISPs, or before there was Google or Yahoo? On any date in the history of the internet, the definition of internet was very different, wasn’t it?

Same with memes.

But, when the concept of meme DEPENDS on faithfulness of reproduction, the fact that memes like “the internet” or “the meme” are constantly changing should be significant. The significance is that the original (and dervived) notion of meme is unworkable.

There is a strong assumption – from the original explication by Dawkins to the most convoluted apology by pop-memists – that the reproduction process that spreads a meme is faithful and preserves both syntax and semantics.

But whoa. How realistic is that assumption? In the world of genes in a DNA strand, there are mechanisms and regulatory relationships that KEEP the reproduction process from falling apart into uncommunicating fragments. But not so in language or in culture (that is, communication).

Several phenomena and arguments stand in the way of maintaining the assumption of reproductive faithfulness.

(a) linguistic relativity (howEVER it is formulated)
(b) separateness of cognition from expression
(c) pervasiveness of miscommunication (noise)
(d) impingement of goals onto the communication
(e) mixing of messages
(f) selectivity of folks in networks
(g) the ubiquity of communication without content

Let me expand briefly on each (you can’t stop me).

(a) linguistic relativity
Different languages code experience in different ways, so WHICH way is the coding of a meme going to go? Even if you reject that Whorfian notion, there still remains another reading of linguistic relativity (one I have never read in any literature but which is way cool), which says that what you CAN say/express DEPENDS on the context of communication, including audience, terms, common experience and access to the same narrative/discourse. Since the conversation you and I are having here depends on what we have said (back and forth, interpreted, misinterpreted, selected, associated and randomized), it is a necessary ramification that WHAT we have said cannot be said in other contexts. When memes travel, however, they go between contexts (assuming the hypothesis for a split second). The traveling of a meme from context to context, however, is a process of destruction of the (original) meme. What YOU thought was the meme gets relativized by the next person who is supposed (by Dawkins et al) to be the next link in the chain of meme survival.

(b) separateness of cognition from expression
Take that point of relativity a bit further, and you can apply it to the “minds” of the interactants in the “chain” of survival of a meme. What realistic, thoughtful person would dispute that WE CAN NOT say exactly what is going on in our brains/minds? My thoughts are faster than my mouth. My thoughts are more distributed and more logically networked than any utterance can be. My immediate statement has TOO MUCH thought (and memory and argumentation and development and structure) to ever be uttered. The statement (whatever it is, meme or not) CANNOT in logic or real time ever be big enough to encompass all the shit that the brain is doing to create it. Given that fact, WHAT aspects of the meme are “coming out” in any expression of it?

(c) pervasiveness of miscommunication (noise)
Statements of an “idea” are never going to be the same from occasion to occasion. Therefore, the question arises how much of the change in expression is faithful and how much is distortion? How much noise is there? Whatever the level, it is inevitable and important that there will be noise. In genes, there are mechanisms for dampening noise, and they work mechanically, and have proven stable over millions of years. In human communication, there are some mechanisms for dampening noise, but they certainly do not work mechanically or stably.

(d) impingement of goals onto the communication
One of the great, inventive, creative, fun and troublesome sources of noise and relativity is the idea of goal/agenda. What I am DOING when I talk to you is NOT ONLY to reproduce messages faithfully. Give me a break. What kind of people does Dawkins or the meme-fans think are actually out there in the world communicating? Are they the kinds of people who can faithfully repeat a structured idea? Or, instead, are they people who are constantly trying to influence each other, impress each other, manipulate each other and put the whole world into THEIR frame of reference? The latter is true, I am sure you would agree.

(e) mixing of messages
What is there (in the reductionist/mechanistic view of Dawkins and his sycophants) that allows these people talk and act as if messages are some kind of whole, pure, bounded, definable things?

Notice that I have a habit (everyone does) of hyphenating words, which expresses a kind of hyphenation of messages. Reductionism is one thing (or several). Mechanism is another thing (or many), so when write “the reductionist/mechanistic view” I am conveying a meaning that is [the combination of [one [that is the combination of several]] with [another variation [which also is the combination of many]]].

Sorry Dawkins. That is the nature of talk.

(f) selectivity of folks in networks
What if we (including Dawkins and meme-fans) thought about WHO is doing the communicating with WHOM else? The propagation of a statement (much less an idea) does not take place in an unstructured environment of cognitive units. The cognitive units I communicate with are SELECTED by me from out of a field of candidates that is selected by my community. I talk to certain people, not to everyone. Since I am a poet, I like to be around people who can talk about poetry, but when I say something about poetry to MOST of the people around me (basketball players, coworkers, etc.) they think I am crazy. Any “meme” concerning poetry that I might find structured and appealing is NOT going to be found structured, appealing, sensible, expressible or reproducible by 99 percent of the people I talk to.

This is a problem EVEN in the communities of people who think they are good at expressing and communicating. Consider the world of academia, which is a broken-up jumble of fuzzily compatible, narrowly overlapping, mutually exclusive and mutually violating worlds separated by rhetorical boundaries that change whatever messages cross them.

So how and whether a meme can propagate DEPENDS on the self-selected culture of the people who form the networks for the channels of communication. How do the meme-theorists deal with that wrench in the propagation?

Anyone with an answer to that question, please speak up.

(g) the ubiquity of communication without content
What are we doing most of the time when we talk? Of all the many functions of communication between individual humans, how many of them are related to meaning? Ninety percent of the people, ninety percent of the time have absolutely no interest in fealty of transmission of concept. When these people get together, and use popular words (or unpopular cult words, or idiosyncratic words, or specialized words, or trendy words, or words that sound cool even without semantics), are memes being transmitted or not?

All these questions (how many more?) raise issues that should be dealt with by anyone who thinks that memes are real, or that memes CAN be faithfully transmitted in any way similar to genes.

And there are hundreds of other objections, I am sure. Not entertained by the fans.


About mrsorenson

all over the place
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6 Responses to arguments against memes

  1. koan911 says:

    Your excellent points are illustrated (luridly) by consideration of change within the camp of religion. The Catholic Church, or the Anglican, for that matter, in which issues such as female ministers, homosexuality, birth control etc, meet resistance from the establishment and “the creed” — which after all, advertises itself as something comfortably absolute to believe in — exists within the world and a changing milieu.

    Some religions’ “claim to fame” is as a rock in the swirling waters of change, a rock to cling to; as well as a world model justified by numbers of believers and length of tradition. There is thus a very fine line to walk for the absolutist religions: tradition versus flexibility. But it you ask me, the objective of religion is inflexibility, anyway.

    A supporter of the meme idea might just respond to say that your observation seems simply to note that memes evolve and/or mutate more flexibly than genes.

    Do memes exist in the same way genes do? No. Do thoughts or concepts exist in the same way photons do? No.

    Ultimately, we have to ask: is it a useful term/idea? In doing so, naturally we might choose to take into account how and who uses the term.

  2. mrsorenson says:

    Before Dawkins’ forced gene metaphor there were disciplines and jargons and methods for dealing with similarities and histories of ideas.

    After Dawkins these same disciplines, and perhaps others, will continue to productively study how our ideas spread, split, evolve, and grow.

    These other viewpoints do the job that Dawkins knocked off the track by wanting too badly that everything beyond his jargon be expressed in his jargon.

    • koan911 says:

      I am eager to use different terminology to accommodate discussion or to achieve greater fidelity of ideas. (And the sticking point does begin to appear to be Richard Dawkins and things connected to him; perhaps deservedly?)

      So, B.R.D., (before Richard Dawkins), how would I have expressed the idea, e.g. that “‘Intelligent Design’ is an elaborate and concocted facsimile of a scientific theory that is appealing to people who are totally prepared to believe things anyway without scientific evidence, appear to value the convenience of not making sufficient mental enquiries and have adopted anyway an axiomatic belief that God loves them and has constructed the whole damn universe for them to live and and serve Him”? Obligatory :).

      I say this with more respect for religious views than resonates in the wording above, because a belief in the scientific method is itself axiomatic, debatable and even poorly-understood amongst recent “science” graduates of illustrious, (and expensive), world-class universities. (“Oh, I have a science degree. I do expect you will believe every word I say, even if I don’t understand a word of it myself”, being the parody here.) Oh dear, I seem to have gone off on a tangent… ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Anyway, how should I say, “ID is merely a meme”?

      • mrsorenson says:


        I am tempted to tangentially look at your comments on religion and the attitudes in them, but no …

        I suggest it is possible to productively talk about Intelligent Design (notice I capitalized it and you acronymized it?) in terms totally separate from Dawkins, totally avoidant of meme jargon.

        As long as that can be done, all the better. As many good philosophers have warned us, don’t toss kitchen sinks into discussions where they were not invited, are not useful, and where they tend to take over non-productively.

        Consistent with my arguments in the above post, I should ask “what is meant” by one hundred people from one hundred backgrounds with one hundred agendas using one hundred types of descriptions when they yack about “ID”?

        I would be willing to concede intelligent design IS something, or that intelligent design is a meme, IF (notice typographically as well as logically that is a big if) it were dependably propagated across most of those one hundred cases.

  3. koan911 says:

    Guilty as charged. Allow me to back off. ๐Ÿ™‚

    We use language as a tool to communicate and we are wise to understand its limitations and remember its goal.

    Similarly, in sharing ideas with each other, we are wise to understand that ideas have motivations. Focusing on the ideas without enquiring into the motivation is perilous.

    Think “virus”. Is this not a useful analogy? How did Hitler and Goering infect and/or manipulate so many people?

    The word manipulate suggests one will being forced by another, to serve a foreign interest.

    Furthermore, now we start to think that there is a spectrum of goodness in ideas. And that there are bad ideas. And there are “viral” ideas.

    • mrsorenson says:

      Yes, I am confident, dear friend, that there are good, bad, in-between and viral ideas. My stubborn path is to keep asking WHAT is gained by adopting Mr Dawkins’ contrived idea in order to understand spread of ideas. I see no value in it.

      I suspect all communications are viral, but the degree of their effect DEPENDS on a lot of variables. Ideas that are compatible with an already set up model in the brain of Player A will more likely be embraced than ideas that are strange, foreign, nonsensical, or divergent. This is because brains keep following patterns already set. In this light, then wouldn’t it be feasible to suggest that the ideas we find friendly to our existing mental structures are more likely to be “viral”, or at least labeled as good and accepted?

      Conclusion from that would be the idea that foreign ideas would be very difficult to make viral, or make appealing.

      The greatest danger of the most viral ideas come from people who think like us.

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