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14.6 Doubts

In much the same way that the selfish gene concept offers a way of understanding and reasoning about aspects of biological evolution, the meme concept could conceivably assist in the better understanding of some otherwise puzzling aspects of human culture.

An objection to the study of the evolution of memes in genetic terms involves the fact that the cumulative evolution of genes depends on biological selection-pressures neither too great nor too small in relation to mutation-rates. There seems no reason to think that the same balance will exist in the selection pressures on memes.

14.6.1 Lack of philosophical appeal

In his chapter titled “Truth” published in the “Encyclopaedia of Phenomenology”, Dieter Lohmar questions the memecists’ reduction of the highly complex body of ideas (such as religion, politics, war, justice, and science itself) to a putatively one-dimensional series of memes. He sees memes as an abstraction and such a reduction as failing to produce greater understanding of those ideas. The highly interconnected, multi-layering of ideas resists memetic simplification to an atomic or molecular form. Lohmar argues that one cannot view memes through a microscope in the way one can detect genes.

Another philosophical criticism sees memetics as re-introducing, or reinforcing a form of classical Cartesian dualism, that of mind versus body. Memetics interposes into the human evolutionary picture the concept of discarnate memes as a prime unit of heredity separate from the physical heredity determined by genes. This dualism remains tenable, but many prominent philosophers have criticised it widely and historians of philosophy often see it as waning.

14.6.2 Applications

Opinions differ how best to apply the concept of memes within a “proper” disciplinary framework. One view sees memes as providing a useful philosophical perspective with which to examine cultural evolution. Proponents of this view argue that considering cultural developments from a meme’s eye view can lead to useful insights and yield valuable predictions into how culture develops over time. Others such as Bruce Edmonds and Robert Aunger have focused on the need to provide an empirical grounding for memetics to become a useful and respected scientific discipline. A third approach, described as “radical memetics”, seeks to place memes at the centre of a materialistic theory of mind and of personal identity.

Some prominent researchers in evolutionary psychology and anthropology argue the possibility of incompatibility between modularity of mind and memetics. In their view, minds structure certain communicable aspects of the ideas produced, and these communicable aspects generally trigger or elicit ideas in other minds through inference and not high-fidelity replication or imitation. Atran discusses communication involving religious beliefs as a case in point. In one set of experiments he asked religious people to write down on a piece of paper the meanings of the Ten Commandments. Despite the subjects’ own expectations of consensus, interpretations of the commandments showed wide ranges of variation, with little evidence of consensus. In another experiment, normal subjects and autistic subjects interpreted ideological and religious sayings. Autistics showed a significant tendency to closely paraphrase and repeat content from the original statement. Controls tended to infer a wider range of cultural meanings with little replicated content. Only the autistic subjects came close to functioning as “meme machines”.

14.6.3 Religion

Although evolutionists had previously sought to understand and explain religion in terms of a cultural attribute, Richard Dawkins called for a re-analysis of religion in terms of the evolution of self-replicating ideas. He argued that the role of key replicator in cultural evolution belongs not to genes, but to memes replicating thought from person to person by means of imitation. These replicators respond to selective pressures that may or may not affect biological reproduction or survival.

In her book, The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore regards religions as particularly tenacious memes. Many of the features common to the most widely practiced religions provide built-in advantages in an evolutionary context, she writes. By linking altruism with religious affiliation, religious memes can proliferate more quickly because people perceive that they can reap societal as well as personal rewards. The longevity of religious memes improves with their documentation in revered religious texts.

Aaron Lynch attributed the robustness of religious memes in human culture to the fact that they incorporate multiple modes of meme transmission. Religious memes pass down the generations from parent to child and across a single generation through proselytism. Most will hold the religion taught them by their parents throughout their life. Believers view the conversion of non-believers both as a religious duty and as an act of altruism. The promise of eternity in heaven to believers or hell to non-believers provides a strong incentive to accept and retain Christian faith. Lynch asserts that belief in the crucifixion in Christianity amplifies each of its other replication advantages through the indebtedness believers have to their Saviour for sacrifice on the cross.