Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Le Meme Chose

In Goethe’s play, Faust sells the Holy Roman Emperor on the idea of issuing paper money backed up by buried treasure since the emperor is entitled to such hordes by imperial law and the gold will turn up eventually. Naturally, the float sinks; but the brilliant absurd notion is no crazier than what various philosophers and scientists have promoted in earnest. Hume, as an impatient young man, advertised his initial epistemology as the application of Newtonian methods to the physics of ideas as if sense impressions formed little solar systems governed by simple laws of attraction. A.J. Ayer’s also proposed to cut all the Gordian knots at one stroke by assassinating traditional ethics and epistemology with a superficially plausible theory of meaning. This sort of thing can also be institutionalized. Some Sumerian grad student once got the bright idea of keeping track of what happened in Mesopotamian politics when comets appeared or the moon was eclipsed, but his program continues to this day as astrology. Learning theory in psychology can’t claim such a long run, but it is also based on an obvious methodological insight. All we’ve got to do is find the law that relates stimulus and response! Well, that’s the sort of thing that works when it works and, in any case, is always easy to explain, which counts for a lot.

Although every successful theory gets mechanically applied to every available problem, in most cases all that gets transferred is a set of buzzwords. That’s certainly true in relationship to the current fad for applying ideas drawn from evolutionary biology to discussions of the transmission and fate of ideas and institutions in human society—the meme meme. Since both living things and cultures change through time, it’s hardly surprising that the processes involved in their evolution are analogous. The trouble is, they are aren’t apparently homologous, i.e. the terms of the theory of natural selection—genes, genotypes, phenotypes, fitness—don’t match up one-to-one with the corresponding cultural terms, assuming there are corresponding terms. While genes prosper because the organisms to which they belong survive and reproduce better than organisms with other genes, the success of melodies, jokes, poems, slogans, gestures, gods, faiths, philosophies, and other cultural detritus seems to mostly depend merely on their tendency to be copied. Meanwhile, while it is possible to define what gets replicated in natural evolution—crudely speaking, stretches of nucleic acids—almost anything can and has been identified as a meme, though only a few candidates for memehood have anything like the specificity of an allele. It may be possible to model the fate of a catchy melody or an exactly repeated ritual by recourse to the mathematics of population genetics, but, as Scott Atran points out in his book In Gods We Trust, even something so apparently cut and dried as the Ten Commandments is impossible to specify. We’re not talking about a series of sounds in Hebrew or a series of letters in the KJV, after all, but the meaning of a form of words. In lieu of anything like the chemical formula that defines a gene or a protein, such entities are, as I like to say, boneless. Just think for a moment of the admirable flexibility of the Thou Shalt Not Kill provision.

Knowledge is limited by the intelligibility of its objects. Natural evolution is understandable because living things have genetic and developmental systems that drastically constrain how they change over time. They are good to think. The cultural systems that are best understood—languages, folk taxonomies, musical systems—are also apparently constrained by nature, which is to say human neural biology. Where such preexisting regularities are lacking, the will to know will simply create superstitions. I think that’s what’s happening with memology, which seems remarkably like the Intelligent Design movement in its endless production of programmatic statements and its utter lack of a research program.

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