Friday, 15 June 2012

Was the science of memetics accidentally created or not?

I wrote a few weeks ago about the interesting event in Oxford where Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett met for a public discussion.

In that talk, the topic of memes occupied a large proportion of the time, and I commented that I was surprised about that.  I had thought that Richard has distanced himself from the idea since inventing it in 1976, but I couldn't remember why I had that impression.  Now I have found the reason why I thought that.

Dawkins and Dennett spent a lot of time discussing memetics

In a document The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object 1976–1999, by Jeremy Trevelyan Burman of York University I found a passage saying:

Dawkins’ intent - contrary to the popular understanding - was never to inaugurate the new science of memetics. That was accidental.  He explained this in an essay published in Time Magazine in 1999:

I am occasionally accused of having backtracked on memes, of having lost heart, pulled in my horns, had second thoughts. The truth is that my first thoughts were more modest than some memeticists might wish. For me the original mission was negative. The word was introduced at the end of a book that otherwise must have seemed entirely devoted to extolling the 'selfish' gene as the be-all and end-all of evolution, the fundamental unit of selection. There was a risk that my readers would misunderstand the message as being necessarily about DNA molecules. . . . This was where the meme came in.

The original meme, in other words, was a rhetorical flourish intended to
clarify a larger argument.

Whether this is a true account or not (and the evidence of my eyes and ears suggests that it is not quite as clear-cut as it is described - or at least it is rather out-of-date), at least my curiosity is now satisfied. 

I wasn't imagining it!


RosaRubicondior said...

It's by no means uncommon for the founder of an idea to fail to recognise the power and scope of it. Darwin himself doesn't seem to have recognised the scope of Natural Selection and only saw it in terms of biological diversity. As Daniel Dennett shows in "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", it has a much wider scope than just biology.

Both Susan Blackmore in "The Meme Machine" and Stephen Shennan in "Genes, Memes, And Human History" have applied it to memetic evolution and so proposed it as an explanation of cultural and moral evolution. Shennan describes it like a light being switched on in his mind when he read "The Selfish Gene" and understood memes and how they can evolve like genes. For him, it transformed his understanding of history.

I think Darwinian Evolution can also be applied to scientific development, as I showed in If It Wasn't For Evolution We Wouldn't Have Science

It also seems that Einstein failed to appreciate the power of Relativity and made the mistake of including a 'cosmological constant' because he thought the universe was static, whereas, had he understood his own discovery a little better, he would have 'discovered' that the universe is expanding and began as a singularity.

Tim Tyler said...

Darwin recognised that culture evolves. "The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection." - Charles Darwin, 1871.

Naomi Most said...

Even as someone who finds the idea of memetics to be a very potentially profitable area of inquiry, the problems with defining the field scientifically are obvious to me -- namely the difficulty in providing "evidence" of memes or assigning any predictive power thereof.

So it doesn't surprise me at all the idea that Dawkins hasn't really been invested in his last-chapter-of-a-book "throwaway" idea about finding a discrete cultural unit akin to a gene.

RosaRubicondior said...

That'a another problem. The term 'meme' is necessarily an abstraction, like 'thought' or 'idea'. There is nothing there you can see or pick up. However, there is little doubt that these things exist in the material realm of neurophysiology, even if we don't know how or where yet.