Memetics — The Objectification Objection

I use memes / memetics as everyday language that fits with everyday social-mediated comms these days. How much #Brexit debate for example is about snappy branding of alternative solutions to the mess we’re in whether they are Unicorns or Norway models? How much smear or rhetorical marketing is involved in alt-naming of just about anything, January included? I’m so comfortable with “memetics” I tend to forget it’s an idea I’ve bought into that many still doubt or dismiss.

The meta-idea that ideas spread as part of cultural evolution is not contentious in itself and neither is the suggestion that much (most, if not all?) human evolution in the period we call “history” has been of this kind. The idea that naming — rhetorical choice of words — is part of that communication is hopefully equally non-contentious.

The contention seems to be two things. Firstly that, expressed in the common sense way above, the word “meme” doesn’t really add anything to the idea of an idea, so maybe it’s an unnecessary distraction to adopt the neologism. For me the only necessary response to that criticism is that it does give us (me) the shorthand of “memetics”

Memetics (abstract noun): the whole subject — content and processes — by which ideas evolve, are spread and adopted in use, in human culture.
(my working definition)

Can there be any more important topic? Brexit is a good idea, for example. I’d happily use an alternative term, but idealism or maybe just cultural-studies already seems to hold that field hostage? Personally I find the term “memetics” far more important to justify than “meme” itself, where “idea” is probably good enough.

Secondly, what really is in a name? More subtly, is the suggestion, that meme attempts to objectify what is essentially subjective. Ideas held in and communicated between human minds.

Part of the revulsion is the parallel with genes in biological evolution — surely physical and mental evolution must be different for these objective-subjective differences. Furthermore those “scientistic” people pushing genetic evolution and development as physical explanations for almost anything and everything are surely misguided in overlooking humanity in cultural evolution. Guilt by association? This really is just more of the mind-matter-stuff debate, but before we go there, let’s just stick to the objectivity — objects well-defined independently of human minds.

All I would say is that genes themselves are not as well defined objects as many suppose, independent of human conventions and purposes. There may be only four DNA bases, but the permutations of patterns is manifold on many levels. Exactly what defines the boundary of one thing we call a gene and another is moot and, like species themselves(!), a matter of human convention. This is a more general problem with identity and taxonomy within world ontologies which I call “Good Fences” — boundaries between objects of interest, defining those objects and classes of objects. They are NEVER independent of human purpose yet they remain invaluable, practically essential, to all human discourse about the real world (including humans as part of it). It might be considered unprofessional (unscientific / irrational / insane) in any field to talk without well defined objects of logic and argument.

The second part of the objectification objection is the sense in which memes are independent of humans when it comes to free-will / volition of thought and action. Dawkins selfish-gene (regrettable metaphor) extrapolated to selfish-meme by Sue Blackmore and adopted whole-heartedly by Dan Dennett and more. The metaphorical selfishness of a gene is harder to accept when the metaphor of self interest runs into the interests of our selves, both now at the mental level. As predicted, whether we give ideas the objective credibility of naming them memes OR NOT we run immediately into the physical-mental mind-matter, res-extensa / res-cogitans minefield and how much we want to argue these are distinct and/or related. (See dual-aspect-monism and res-informatica.)

The irony is that Dennett is using the independence of ideas (the physically-disembodied information-content of memes) as his explanation of how real consciousness and free-will arise in real human minds. He’s providing a natural evolutionary explanation of mind. He is using memes as independent objects in the process description of how thinking itself evolves. Memes no more have independent volition than electrons think. It doesn’t stop us talking about electrons. It shouldn’t stop us talking about memes as part of the processes of everyday, common-sense reality of our minds. They are as objective as any other terms we use for objects we deal with.

It’s not the first time I’ve paused to round-up my thoughts on memetics. This occasion was prompted by this thread of exchanges following this post from Martin Robinson:

Last time I tried a significant memetics round-up was in this review of Dennett “From Bacteria to Bach and Back, also published in New Humanist.


Originally published at Psybertron Asks.