Saturday, June 14, 2008


Oh lord, do I dislike the word “meme.” Let me quote from the Wikipedia:

One important criticism of meme theory hinges on the following question: "If memes are the solution, what is the problem?"

“Meme” comes from that troublemaker Richard Dawkins, of course, as an analogy to "gene" in molecular biology. I usually don’t mind a bit of trouble, but really now, enough is too much. Meme, according to Dawkins refers to a unit of cultural information transferable from one mind to another. Dawkins said, “Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”

So what exactly is wrong with using the words “tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” when you want to refer to them? Or, if you’re moving up the abstraction chain, what’s wrong with “idea, concept, notion, belief, ideology, etc. etc. etc. I mean, it’s not as if we have a dearth of words for these things.

Worse, gene actually means something; most genes code for a particular kind of protein formation, and those that don’t are modifiers of other gene expression (or they are “silent,” but what good is a “silent meme?”). What’s the analogy to a protein in the abstract universe of the “meme?” Behavior? Emotion? Doing the funky chicken? (Which may be considered both behavior and emotion if you’re doing it correctly). Moreover, genes are communicated primarily from parent to offspring, while “memes” are mostly just communicable. So memes are more like viruses and other diseases. If you want to look at the spread of ideas, its better to look at disease vector models than it is to look at heritability.

And, crap, here I am treating this as if it actually meant something. But “meme” has more meanings than “paradigm” another fad word that caused more trouble than it was worth. And a word with too many meanings winds up having no meaning at all. These are words that make you stupid, or at least words that interfere with clear thinking.

No, I’m thinking that “meme” is more akin to the secret password (see message 106, May 29, 2006). It’s a word that is overwhelmingly used by the left/progressive side of the intellectual aisle, expressing solidarity with Dawkins, Darwin, and in-your-face you creationist, Christian conservative scum!

Well, dang, your goal is admirable; it’s your methods I question. At least that’s my “story,” (or idea, notion, plan of action) and I’m sticking with it.

I don’t much like mimes, either.


Arnaud said...

I hate memos, myself.

Now, "meme" as a word is indeed pretty much useless. But the concept of ideas and notions travelling from mind to mind and reproducing that way and, more importantly, changing, mutating at the moment of transmission, well... that's something else.

Incidentally that's why Dawkins chose the metaphor of genes to built his memes, instead of virus, because of this constant mutation and because genes are units of information which virus aren't.

So yes, it's been abused. Nowhere more so than on the internet with this "meme" fashion of passing along questions between blogs (THAT I truly hate. If you got nothing to say and need to tell us what your ten favourite movies are to fill up your blog, why do you blog?). Still, as a concept, a description of a mechanism, I find it insightful and useful even if it's wrong/incomplete. And it's that aspect that's missing in words like "tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches."

But I confess having a soft spot for Richard Dawkins. At a time when candidates for POTUS (another meme!) like to rail against "elitism", I enjoy listening to somebody who has no compulsion whatsoever to apologize for his own cleverness.

black dog barking said...

There are pathways along which human communications occur that are damned hard to articulate and quantify. Signor Galileo hears a description of a device seen in the Netherlands that makes far objects appear nearer. Galileo uses the incomplete description to build his own version of the device filling in the gaps in the description with his own experiences and observations. Using his new instrument he makes observations of the world that contradict conventional wisdom and teachings. In spite of the vigorous opposition of the Catholic Church the human world changed. The power of the idea was more resilient than the oppressive powers of the Church.

Anonymous said...

[in passing...just stumbled across this looking for cites on Pangborn]

Dawkins himself has repudiated the idea and the word, but it seems to have a life of it's own. I'm unable to see any significant distance between the meaning of "meme" and "idea", myself. I suspect that, in fact, the problems with the idea of "meme" are the problems of reductionist evolutionary theory, but we'll have to wait and see on that.

J Thomas said...

The idea that ideas evolve by undergoing mutation and natural selection is not bad. It might easily deserve to have a shorthand name so people can use it easier. "Meme" is potentially useful.

If you don't like people who use it as a cultural immune reaction, to distinguish self from non-self, OK -- people can use anything for that. It isn't the word's fault. The word is still useful whenever you have a use for it.

So where can we take the meme idea? My thought is that I want to arrange that the ideas I spread be ideas that are good for me. I don't want memes spreading that are bad for the people who spread them, particularly bad for me.

And in general, ideas that fit reality are good for me. If I have devoted enemies who want to hurt me and who aren't likely to change their minds about that, then I want them walking around in a fog of disinformation. I don't want anybody else walking in that fog. If somehow I'm invisible to my enemy, great! If I'm invisible to random drivers on the road, not great. I don't want anybody believing lies except my devoted enemies, because usually the results are bad for me.

If discussion on this level is useless then words to help us discuss things at this level are useless. Otherwise not.

James Killus said...

One interesting thing on the virus/gene connection is that, despite the existence of "meme," there seems to be a place for the adjective "viral," meaning a highly compact and contagious thing that goes from mind to mind.

I like the "cultural immune reaction" analogy, j thomas. I'll also note that the evolution of ideas is already widely discussed in specific venues. Folk music refers to "the Folk Process," fiction has evolving "genre conventions," science has "the scientific process." Come to think of it, "process" gets used a lot in these analyses, and "evolutionary process," while more combursome than "meme" has the advantage of being self-evidently about something.

And I do like Dawkins, with reservations, which I tend to say about nearly everybody.