Friday, 11 May 2012

Two Horsemen - without horses

On Wednesday evening I was one of the people lucky enough to get a ticket to see two of the three remaining 'horsemen of the apocalypse'.  (Well in fact I got four tickets and was accompanied by three friends.)  In front of a packed hall in the Oxford University Exam schools, with a similar sized overflow room filled to near capacity, we witnessed Richard Dawkins in discussion with Daniel Dennett.

The event was videoed and hopefully when I find it online I will add a link from here so that you can watch it yourself.  Update 2nd June:  here is the link.

Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins in Oxford, May 2012

The most surprising thing for me was that a large proportion of the discussion revolved around the concept of 'the meme'.  The meme of the meme was introduced in Chapter 11 of Richard's first book, 'The Selfish Gene' like this:

"Examples of memes including tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches.  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."

I have had the impression from my recent reading that Richard was moving away from using memetics as a direct analogy for genetics but it seems that I would be wrong to believe that.  Exploring the topic a little more, I think he had been surprised that 'memetics' emerged as a new science in the 1990s and had originally proposed the idea as a metaphor rather than a true cultural counterpart to the gene.  (However, I might be wrong.)

In fact, in their discussion, they made analogies to both evolution and 'Intelligent Design', and made a comparison between religion and a parasitic infection - another common meme.  Scientology is clearly an example of Intelligent Design (and we even know who designed it).  Mormonism might fall into the same category, but many other religions could be said to have evolved.  The rest of Christianity (for example) could be said to exist for its own sake, with believers ensnared by (or willingly submitting themselves to) another power.  In much in the same way, ants infected with a parasite (Dicrocelium dendriticum) are observed to go to the top of blades of grass where they are more likely to be eaten by ruminants.  The parasite life cycle is thus continued in the guts of mammals.  This is depicted on the cover of Dennett's book, 'Breaking the Spell'.

They suggested that the test for a good meme is to make a recording every so often and to see whether, on playing back the recordings, it is possible to rank their chronological order.  They also mentioned that memes probably survive in groups, (memplexes) in much the same way as genes.  No single gene can generally propagate itself without cooperation from the others that go around together.  For example, Roman Catholicism's mysterious memes tend to be inseparable and clearly they have thrived for centuries, whereas individually they tend not to survive.  (Do you really believe that the wine turns into blood?)  Dennett pointed out that this particular collection is now beginning to break down, surprisingly quickly.  The Catholic church has gone from the position where it had three priest per parish to three parishes per priest.  He believes that this is largely due to the way that information can now be transferred around the world so easily.  Religions have survived by presupposing the relative ignorance of the parts that make them up.  They were not designed this way but evolved.

There was more to the discussion, much of it revolving around 'The Clergy Project'.  That was followed by a good number of questions from the audience.  As usual some of them made me wonder whether I couldn't understand them or they simply didn't make much sense.  However, I find that to be one of the hazards of attending events in a city which is home to one of the world's top universities. 

The whole event was free, subsidised by the RDFRS.  It is clearly part of the educational outreach to the young people in the city, but I think it also demonstrates that altruism does not require gods.


Anonymous said...

Will be looking forward to your added link to watch these two highly gifted intellectuals.

Rosa Rubicondior said...

Memes are replicators and, as such, have no choice in what sort of replicators they find themselves in alliance with. Hence we have gene-meme co-evolution which has existed since our ancestors developed culture. The same goes for genes in the presence of memes of course.