One of the most popular theories to enter popular consciousness in recent years has been Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. First suggested in the concluding chapter of his book The Selfish Gene, and then elaborated in the succeeding book, The Extended Phenotype, memes have been defined as ‘a unit of cultural transmission … comparable to the physical unit (i.e. the gene).’ 1 Dawkins took the term ‘meme’ from the Greek word for imitation, mimesis, ‘because of the way in which a meme is transmitted from one person or group to another is by imitation.’ 2 Dawkins viewed genes as being like genes ‘in being able to replicate themselves, and in doing so for their own advantage rather than for the advantage of the individual carrying the meme.’ 3 Yet however popular memes have proven to be outside the scientific community, scientists themselves are extremely sceptical of them. It has been noted that ‘the idea of memes is unacceptable to many geneticists and other scientists’. 4 Many philosophers are also extremely sceptical of memes. The British philosopher Keith Ansell Pearson has commented that in his theory of memes, Dawkins
‘simply fails to appreciate the immense complications which the notion of ‘memes’ raises for human ‘evolution’. To replace ‘genes’ with ‘memes’ as a basis for understanding ‘culture’ is to remain on the level of naturalism (as opposed to artificiality). Memetics completely reifies the processes of cultural evolution since it has no insight into how such processes involve technical and social mediation. The idea that culture develops in terms of a process of self-replication analogous to genetic evolution is an assertion at best and completely unfounded.’ 5 Meme theory has also been extensively critiqued by Mary Midgeley, Alister McGrath and David Hull. McGrath, a microbiologist and Christian theologian, has pointed out the differences between the replication of viruses and ideas in his book, Finding Dawkins’ God, while David Hull critiqued meme theory through the practice of science in his 1988 book, Science as a Process. As it stands today, meme theory is effectively dead. A projected journal of memetics folded after only four issues because of the lack of suitable, scientifically respectable papers submitted to it. Dawkins himself has retreated somewhat from some of the claims made about memes, and many, perhaps most of the atheists on his forum are extremely critical of the idea.
Meme theory does, however, seem to live on in the radical views of the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett and the British psychologist Sue Blackmore. It also remains popular amongst a certain type of atheist, among other groups, such as Brian Sapient, who last week accused his detractors of spreading ‘bad memes’. In part this is because of the virulent hatred of religion behind the application of the theory to religion. ‘God’ is described as being a virus of the mind, which has infected believers but from which atheists are immune. This explains meme theories continuing popularity in parts of the atheist community. However, while atheists may enjoy having religion defined as an irrational belief, and approve of the supposed scientific nature of the definition through the analogy with genes and viruses, this does not make meme theory true. And memes pose a wider danger for atheists and secularists as well as people of faith, as meme theory itself undercuts fundamental notions of human rationality, consciousness, free will and even the science that atheists prize so highly. So despite the discredited nature of memes, the continuing persistence of meme theory needs to be extensively critiqued because of the theory’s speciousness and irrationality.
Definition of Memes
For Dawkins, memes could be any cultural trait or motif, from music, literature to fashion:
‘Examples of memes are turns, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.’ 6 These ideas were replicated by passing from brain to brain in the same way that genes were spread from body to body during reproduction. ‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.’ 7 Even scientific ideas are memes: ‘if a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.’ 8
Even strategies by secularists for avoiding religious observance may be described as memes. Keith Henson, an AI researcher, has described in detail how he was responsible for the spread of such a meme that underwent diffusion, mutation, and ultimate extinction apparently similar to the pattern of biological replication. When he first went to the University of Arizona at Tucson, Henson had found amongst his registration material a punch card for religion. Henson wasn’t religious, and was offended by this and feared that it would be used to coerce him into going to church. ‘I figured that they would sort this card out and send it to the ‘church of your choice’ so the church could send around press gangs on Sunday mornings.’ 9 In order to avoid this, Henson put ‘Druid’ on the form, and after giving a speech to the checker explaining that Druids were around long before Christians, he was waved through that part of the registration process. Henson’s strategy was then picked up by other, non-religious students, so that at one point 20 per cent of students at the university was officially classified as Druids. 10 The strategy also mutated, so that there were also Reformed Druids, Zen Druids and Latter-Day Druids. 11 While evangelical atheists like Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore commonly assert that God is a cultural virus, Henson himself admits that this secularist strategy was also a virus of the mind. ‘This memetic infection was faithfully passed down from year to year infecting the incoming students’. 12
Problem of Memes for God, Human Dignity and Morality
The leading meme theorists, Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore, are implacably hostile to any kind of religion and see the ‘God’ meme explicitly as a kind of parasite infecting human minds. Speaking of the spread of the meme for the belief in life after death, Nicholas Humphries wrote to Dawkins stating ‘When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.’ 13 Yet the idea has also proven popular amongst those who wish to use it to exorcise human consciousness, and make ideas communal property, rather than original to specific individuals. Dennett himself states that ‘human consciousness is itself a huge collection of memes (or more exactly meme-effects in brains). 14 Sue Blackmore likes the concept of memes because they apparently tell her students that they don’t own or originate their own ideas. 15
Now this reductive view of consciousness, in which the human mind is an illusion arising out of the interactions of selfish memes, contrasts strongly with the traditional Humanist insistence of the existence of free will. Corliss Lamont, in his Humanism as Philosophy stated that
‘Humanism believes, in opposition to all theories of universal pre-destination, determinism or fatalism, that human beings possess true freedom of creative action and are, within reasonable limits, the masters of their own destiny.’ 16
The second of the ten postulates of Humanism drawn up J.P. van Praag declares that ‘men spring from a world of which they are natural part; they are a unity of body and consciousness and intentionally shape the world.’ 17 While Dawkins, Dennett and Blackmore clearly accept the Humanist postulate that consciousness and body are inseparable, the idea that people are mere vehicles for memes, whose consciousness is shaped by them, strongly contradicts the notion that people can act intentionally. As well as attacking religion, memes also attack human consciousness, rationality and free will. It’s part of the radical ‘abolition of man’ that aimed to explain man as a kind of automaton, as the French philosophe LaMettrie did in his L’Homme Machine – ‘Man a Machine’ – in the 18th century.
Memes also attack the concept of morality. For Dawkins, Dennett and co, morals have arisen through the pressures of natural selection on the human brain, and the infection of these brains by socially produced memes for particular moral views. The problem here is that as morals are nothing but self-replicating memes interested in their own survival, there is no way to distinguish between better or worse memes. The decision that one meme is better than another is determined by the overall meme package itself. So however much Dawkins and Dennett may rail against the perceived evils of religion, their position actually undercuts objective moral values and makes all systems of morality equally valid or rather invalid. 18 Thus as well as attacking belief in God and human freedom, meme theory also radically destroys any notion of objective morality. It is therefore extremely problematic why an atheist or Humanist who is seriously concerned about issues like human freedom and morality should support the theory either.
In fact the use of the terminology of parasitism by Dawkins and his allies does have grave implications for the suppression of freedom of conscience and belief. Dawkins and co only describe as parasites those ideas of which they disapprove, such as religion. This opens the door to the radical suppression of freedom of thought because what is being attacked is not a human being, but a parasite preying on a person. Thus Nicholas Humphreys demanded in 1997 that the state should outlaw religious upbringing of children as a form of child abuse. 19 As the science journalist Andrew Brown has observed of this demand by Humphreys, ‘something has gone very badly wrong when the pieties of atheism are so stifling that no one notices anything odd in the proposal to take into care children who are allowed to read an astrology column (or perhaps merely to jail or fine their parents) simply because this modest proposal is justified by appeals to scientific knowledge and human rights … If nothing else, this shows that the attitude which made the Inquisition obnoxious are able to survive and flourish in an atmosphere untainted by Christian orthodoxy and that the problematic consequences of religion cannot be abolished merely by abolishing religious belief.’ 20
Genes Dissimilar to Memes
In actual fact, scientists and philosophers like McGrath and Hull have noted that rather than being mental objects similar to biological objects like genes, ideas behave very differently. While Dawkins may define the gene as a unit of biological information, other scientists prefer a more concrete definition. For example, a gene may be described as a unit of heredity, with its own place on the chromosome, coding for specific proteins or for the RNA molecules responsible for protein synthesis and for the recognition markers for the polymerase enzymes involved in gene regulation. 21 In other words, they have a concrete material existence and may be recognised through the performance of some particular function.
None of this applies to ideas. They don’t exist as physical objects, although they may have physical expression, such as the particular biochemical coding in a section of the brain or a passage in a book. However, these expressions are separate from the ideas themselves.
And there is also no such thing as a single, basic meme. As soon as memes are examined, it appears they are composed of smaller memes that in turn are composed of yet more basic memes in an infinite regress. Thus, for David Hull, there are no basic blocks of understanding. ‘There are no atomic sentences, no atomic facts, and no one-to-one correspondence between the two. Our understanding of the world cannot be subdivided into units of equal size and treated in isolation from other conceptual units.’ 22
Memes also don’t compete with each other in the same way that genes do. Genes occupy specific locations on the chromosome, and when a gene spreads through a population, it does so at the expense of a less adapted variant. However, memes very rarely replace each other in the same way that genes do. Thus ‘almost everything suggested as a meme-candidate is much more like a phenotype or interactor, than a gene or a replicator …Ideas or memes fit together much more like animals in a complex ecology, than they do like genes competing for slots on a chromosome.’ 23
Even the process of reproduction and replication of ‘meme’ and gene are very different. Dan Sperber, a materialist anthropologist with an interest in the epidemiology of ideas, has suggested that it is the nature of ideas to be changed every time they’re copied, while genes usually remain stable. Although stories may take predictable forms as they are passed on through the human community, nevertheless there is in general only a resemblance between the communicator’s and the audience’s thoughts. Rather than the strict replication of genes in chromosomes, the strict replication of ideas, ‘if it exists at all, should be viewed as just a limiting case of maximal resemblance, rather than as the norm of communication.’ 24
Hull in his analysis of the practise of science amongst zoologists, although considering ideas as replicators, similar to Dawkins’ ideas of memes, also termed people their interactors, rather than vehicles. For Hull it was the scientists who held, discussed and promoted these ideas as conscious beings who were the driving force behind the evolution of culture, rather than being their passive vehicles as required by meme theory. 25
Problem of Model of Brain Function in Meme Theory
There is also the problem that the human brain simply doesn’t function the way the memeticists consider it should. For Dawkins, the key to ideas and their replication and transmission is brain structure. Now scientists have made bold strides in creating machines that read changes in the brain state, so that, for example, a paralysed person may move an artificial arm or type messages on a screen. However, the precise relationship between brain state and idea is extremely problematic to the point where meaning cannot be linked to a particular brain state. For example, a scanner measuring changes in brain state would identify the changes taking place in a human brain writing a sentence in English. But that scanner would register slightly different changes in brain state when that same sentence, with the same meaning, was written in a different language like Swedish. 26 Thus there is no straightforward correlation between brain state and meaning or consciousness, and so the simplistic idea of the replication of ideas from brain to brain falls apart.
Also, Dennett and Blackmore have extremely mechanistic ideas of the brain. Dennett is essentially a functionalist, who believes that as mind is simply what brains do, computers will similarly achieve some kind of consciousness. Hence his description of the brain is strongly informed by contemporary developments in computer science, such as parallel processing. Blackmore also endorses such a ruthlessly mechanistic view, entitling her book on memes and the brain as The Meme Machine. Yet such functionalist views of the mind have come in for severe criticism. The brain is not a computer, and if it can be seen as a machine for processing information, it can also be viewed as a gland that secretes behaviour. Some of the fascination of memes has undoubtedly come from Transhumanists who look forward to the development of Artificial Intelligence and the downloading of their personalities into machines. Yet the atheist philosopher John Searle has argued strongly against this possibility, describing it as the last bastion of dualism. It is ironic in this sense that Searle notes he got more abuse from offended followers of Dennett than from Christians or other people of faith. Clearly, whatever Dawkins may feel about religion, here its adherents are less violent and offensive than those who follow the views of an avowed and militant secularist.
Even the comments about memes parasitising brains are wrong. Brains naturally process ideas, so that they cannot be parasitised. If brains can be said to be parasitised by ideas, then by the same logic the earth is parasitised by plants. And if ideas are mental parasites, then so must be all memes, including the meme for atheism, propounded by Dawkins, Dennett and Humpheys. 27
Another problem for the theory of ideas as ‘viruses of the mind’ is that it fails to answer the benefits religions can confer on the bearers, benefits that may explain why one belief is held while another is rejected. While Dawkins is prepared to accept that religions bring comfort, he regards religion itself as some kind of maladaptation that is best eliminated. In the case of religion, the underlying assumption is that the meme is selfish, and so propagates according to a kind of internal logic that increases human credulity and intolerance. However, religions do interact with the world, and all religions consider themselves rational and will use reason to support their arguments and doctrines. In the Middle Ages the underlying principles informing theological debate and discussion was the same Aristotelian logic that informed the exploration of nature by the natural philosophers. In Islam, the kalam project similarly defended the doctrines of the faith by supporting them with rational arguments based on logic. The result of this is that practises sanctioned by religions, which may seem strange or irrational to outsiders, can have perfectly logical defences and provide real benefits. At the moment BBC 2 in Britain is showing a series, Arrange Me a Marriage, in which a British Asian lady attempts to arrange the marriages of four of her friends, most of whom are indigenous White Brits. While this would strike many as a surrender of personal autonomy, defenders of arranged marriages naturally consider it the best way of selecting a marriage partner. A conscious choice by informed friends and relatives is seen as producing a better match than chance romantic encounters, as several of the individuals interviewed in the programme claimed. This is problematic, but nevertheless it demonstrates that rational explanations are used to support religiously sanctioned cultural practices, and that they are taken up because they are felt to produce real, this-worldly benefits. It is not simply a case of gullible people doing something because they fear going to hell.
Conclusion: Fall of the Meme
Thus, rather than being a scientific discipline that explains the propagation of ideas, and which clearly distinguishes between truth and specious nonsense, memes are the complete opposite. While attacking belief in God, they also attack notions of human autonomy, dignity, freedom and morality, and can be used to justify the suppression of freedom of conscience. They depend on a highly questionable philosophy of mind. The mechanisms by which ideas replicate and spread, and those of genes are markedly different. Memes themselves don’t exist, as there is no such thing as an irreducible, atomistic meme. Furthermore, ideas and beliefs are not separate objects like some kind of parasite, but intimate parts of the human creature that may bring real world benefits, regardless of the metaphysical nature of the belief. As the British philosopher Mary Midgeley observes:
‘Prominent ideas cannot die until the problems that arise within them have been resolved. They are not just a kind of external parasite. They are not alien organisms, viruses: ‘memes’ that happen to have infested us and can be cleared away with the right insecticide … They are organic parts of our lives, cognitive and emotional habits, structures that shape our thinking. So they follow conservation laws within it. Instead of dying, they transform themselves gradually into something different, something that is often hard to recognise and to understand. The Marxist pattern of complete final revolution is not at all appropriate here. We do better to talk organically of our thought as an ecosystem trying painfully to adapt itself painfully to changes in the world around it.’ 28
As a scientific project, memes have failed. Human consciousness and belief cannot be so reduced to such a simplistic, reductionistic model. And in this irreducibility lies much of human freedom, dignity and morality, regardless of whether one is theist or atheist.
- ‘Meme’, in Anna Hodson, Essential Genetics: Genetics Clearly Explained (London, Bloomsbury 1992), p. 174.
- ‘Meme’, in Hodson, Essential Genetics, p. 174-5.
- ‘Meme’, in Hodson, Essential Genetics, p. 175.
- ‘Meme’, in Hodson, Essential Genetics, p. 175.
- Keith Ansell Pearson, Viroid Life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition (London, Routledge 1997), n.3, pp. 12-13.
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p. 192, cited in Andrew Brown, The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods (London, Simon and Schuster 1999), p. 160.
- Dawkins, Selfish Gene, p. 192, cited in Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 160.
- Dawkins, Selfish Gene, p. 192, cited in Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 160.
- Ed Regis, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly over the Edge (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1992), p. 188.
- Regis, Great Mambo Chicken, p. 188.
- Regis, Great Mambo Chicken, p. 189.
- Regis, Great Mambo Chicken, p. 189.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, pp. 171-2.
- Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 210, cited in Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science and Faith (Crowborough, Monarch Books 1999), p. 76.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 162.
- John E. Smith, Quasi-Religions: Humanism, Marxism and Nationalism (Basingstoke, MacMillan 1994), p. 17.
- J.D. van Praag, ‘What is Humanism?’, in Paul Kurtz, ed., The Humanist Alternative: Some Definitions of Humanism, p. 44, cited in Smith, Quasi-Religions, p. 31.
- Forster and Marston, Reason, Science and Faith, p. 51.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 172.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 173.
- ‘Gene’ in Hodson, Genetics, p. 121.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, pp. 210-211, citing David Hull, Science as a Process, pp. 442-3.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 161.
- Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture, pp. 82-3, cited in Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 164.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, pp. 204-5.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, pp. 165-6.
- Brown, Darwin Wars, p. 172.
- Mary Midgeley, ‘How Myths Work’, in Mary Kathleen Cunningham, ed., God and Evolution: A Reader (London, Routledge 2007), p. 32.