Variations on the same meme

March 5, 1999

As a non-expert, the idea of memes seems essentially sterile - it does not tell us anything that is not obvious to start with. In fact, the BIDS Institute for Scientific Information science citation database for 1998 reveals 59,053 articles with "gene" in the title or keywords. Studies relating to the remote planet Jupiter yielded 305 articles. How many publications arose from the powerful insights offered by memes? I counted fewer than 20, several of which appeared to be disputing whether memes exist. Hardly impressive for a theory now in its 23rd year.

Susan Blackmore uncritically repeats the idea that religious belief, which she blithely equates with superstition, is a "virus of the mind" that "infects" its victims. But the theist could equally respond that atheism is a virus of the mind. It tricks its victims into copying it by offering them a feeling of superiority over poor deluded theists; a flattering view of themselves as heroic figures standing for stark truth against the common herd and a freedom to make up whatever morality they find attractive. A theory that can support both sides of an argument is of little use. Of course, Blackmore proposes we test memes against "the facts", but surely religious beliefs are metaphysical schemes rather than simple scientific theories and so not subject to such easy dismissal?

Finally, those proposing that beliefs they do not share are viruses infecting otherwise healthy minds should ask themselves how they would respond to a totalitarian government that decided, say, that the concept of the right of the individual to freedom is a virus to be stamped out and those infected should be cured?

Nicholas Mitchell Lecturer in physicsUniversity of Wales, Aberystwyth

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