Variations on the same meme

March 5, 1999

I would support Robert Aunger's call for evidence for the meme hypothesis - except that even this seems a category mistake. Meme theory seems at best an analogy, which, of course, cannot be proved or supported by evidence. Unfortunately "selfish genes" are not even an illuminating analogy for ideas and beliefs - unless one's world-view is so narrow that so much of experience and culture can be admitted for consideration only if it fits the same model of mindlessly self-replicating entities.

The worst of the meme hypothesis is the notion that ideas and beliefs "get themselves propagated" and "are (or are not) good replicators". Human agency and responsibility are thoroughly sidelined; those who commit racist murders or incite ethnic or religious violence are no more guilty for them than I am guilty of the influenza I catch and then unwittingly pass on. After all, such evil and destructive beliefs "sneak into our minds" and "use clever tricks to get themselves copied, just like viruses do".

There seems to be no new insight into the history of ideas or human propensity for belief resulting from this model. Worse, it threatens to undermine what little reflection we do give to the ethical and social consequences of our views.

Gwen Griffith-Dickson Birkbeck College, London

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