Variations on the same meme

March 5, 1999

The notion that ideas concatenate into neat parcels that are "transmitted" in the "frighteningly simple" way Susan Blackmore describes is absurd. It is bizarre to think that "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes etc" can be conceptualised in such unsubtle terms. Her simplistic comparison of two women, one with one child, the other with six, to demonstrate the way some memes win while others lose illustrates how risible is the meme idea. The number of children a woman has is only one tiny factor in how influential she may be to others.

Western Enlightenment "memes" such as science were "passed on" in the Trojan horse of colonialism. Other ideas, better suited to indigenous environments, were displaced not because they were not "based on fact" but because of the arrogant European belief in its own superiority, which was backed up by military force, the spread of disease and terror. Within Europe, the emergence of science was bound up with new methods of perception, particularly the elevation of reason, logic, mathematics and the ever-increasing tendency to abstract from reality. Memes, of course, are a perfect example of this. These forms of perception were and are not free of institutional, professional and financial power.

It is futile for Blackmore to differentiate "good ideas" (science) and "bad ideas" (religion) on the grounds that science is based on "facts". All "facts" depend on certain social conventions for their verification. Privileging one method over others is never an objective process. It is ironic that those who cling so tenaciously to materialist doctrines in psychology, biology and other sciences then adopt completely metaphysical ideas such as memes. They appear to embrace these, as does Richard Dawkins, with even greater missionary dogmatism and feverish zeal than religious fundamentalists. Blackmore dismisses belief in God, the afterlife, transubstantiation and the virgin birth as all "lacking evidence". Yet what evidence is there for memes other than what is enclosed in the naturalisation of a few social prejudices?

Colin Samson Department of sociologyUniversity of Essex

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