Memes exist: tell your friends

High-end talking shop, TED, has a couple of video lectures on ‘memes‘ – the supposedly self-contained units of information, ideas or actions that replicate through human culture and are selected by a process akin to natural selection.

The first is by philosopher Daniel Dennett from 2002, while the second is from earlier this year and was presented by psychologist Susan Blackmore who updates the idea by proposing that new technology is having a unique effect on the cultural transmission of ideas.

The concept of memes is controversial, not least because it’s hard to see exactly what empirical predictions follow from the theory. Rather than a set of specific hypothesis, it’s really a different framework with which we can re-interpret aspects of culture.

What particularly annoys the critics is the idea that cultural ideas are subject to a Darwinian-style process of selection and (presumably) evolution.

In an exchange with Dennett, philosopher Michael Ruse defended his Darwinian credentials by saying to Dennett “[I am] more hardline than you are, because I don’t buy into this meme bullshit but put everything… in the language of genes”.

Link to Dennett talk on ‘the awesome power of memes’.
Link to Blackmore talk on ‘memes and temes’.

3 thoughts on “Memes exist: tell your friends”

  1. When i read the multivolume “Perspepctives on Imitaiton” by Susan Hurley and Nick Chater, i had direct contact with the theory of cultural evolution and the different views on it.
    There are two approaches to memetic change, the darwinian view, randomeless, lacking goal directedness; and the mendelian view, more intentional and purposeful.
    The critics toward the underlying mechanisms of darwinian selection in meme change (Nick Chater, Dan Sperber for the whole pack of memetic science…) is for me more plausible, because ideas and the way they spread from people to people is shaped by their intentions, expectations… and ideas when they are hosted in people¬¥s brains are transformed and then subsequently transformed when passed, and the same process all over again.
    For me memetics is a fresh heuristics to parallel molecular evolution in the realm of culture, but perhaps is more mendelian than darwinian, as Nick Chater argues.

  2. I find the whole anthropomorphization here to be ridiculous. There is absolutely no scientific support for the claims these people make that information has the same properties as a individual organism.
    Meme advocates are making the same backward and faulty inference process that the AI people have made. The AI people used the computer as the metaphor for the mind in an attempt to explain the mind but yet fail to see that the computer was designed based on our own perceptions of how it is that we think. The computer is modeled after the mind, not the other way around. Meme advocates are doing exactly the same thing; putting the cart in front of the horse.
    I also find it ironic-no, hypocritical-that someone like Dennet, who has argued so vociferously against the existence of consciousness to be embracing the idea of memes… The fact he refuses to accept the existence of something that is a basic experience to all people and yet embraces the illogic of memes, something that is no more quantifiable and encapsulatable than consciousness is simply absurd.

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