The Meme Wars: Episode 2: An Electric State of Mind

In my last post I went on for several thousand words about memes as avenues for understanding human culture. In particular, I argued that memes were a good place to start looking for common threads between the social aims espoused by socialists and the empirical foundations of Darwinian theories of the human condition. My point, if I had to put it into a sentence, is that we must use our understanding of human psychology to properly direct our political and moral campaigns if they are to be successful. I praised Adbusters for being openly conscious of this constraint on politics, as evidenced by their frequent use of memes as actual entities that must be grappled with if their aims are to be successful.

I still stand by these main points, simple as they are. But much has changed in the time since my last post. By coincidence, I came across an extremely cheap copy ($1, First Edition) of a truly remarkable book that pretty much blows the doors off my admittedly simplistic view of memes.The book is The Electric Meme by Robert Aunger. A fair warning: it will require much of my restraint to avoid hyperbole in my endorsement of this book. Hopefully I’ll catch most of it.

The Electric Meme - Robert Aunger (A particularly egregious case of good book, bad cover)

First of all, it is by far the most comprehensive and innovative book on memes that I’ve read. Aunger has worked as an anthropologist and has an undeniably sophisticated understanding of evolutionary theory, and particularly of replication theory.  In my meanderings, the only other book on memes of comparable quality that I’ve come across is a collection of essays edited by Aunger called Darwinizing Culture. Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine was enjoyable, but Aunger’s approach is on a conceptually higher plane.

Second, it comes with heavyweight endorsements like Richard Dawkins’ and Daniel Dennett’s. This is always a selling point for me, no matter how academically sloppy that may be. However, Dennett and Dawkins are not the types to blindly support their disciples and sycophants. Aunger develops memetics well beyond anything that Dawkins or Dennett have established. He takes both to task on inconsistencies in their theories and refutes a number of their conceptual claims about memes. Aunger clearly establishes in his book a theory of memes that surpasses in coherence and testability anything that has been written by his intellectual forebears.

Finally, The Electric Meme was not a light read, nor a particularly brisk one. But Aunger writes incredibly well about complex and abstract concepts. Dawkins may be stretching it when he says that Aunger writes “entertainingly”, but a rewarding read it is without question.

Now that I’m done my sales pitch, (you’re welcome, Robert), we can return to the question at hand – namely how memes can help us achieve political goals. For the moment, there seems to be only one effective avenue, which I hinted at in my last post: successful memes as reflections of ‘human nature’ (whatever that means!).

Aunger goes into great theoretical deal about the nature of memes and how they are transmitted. He examines other replicators (genes, prions and computer viruses) to establish the fundamental conditions of what constitutes replication.

His definition is much narrower than the conventional uses of meme (such as Internet jokes and public relations campaigns). He limits the actual physical substrate of the meme to our brains, and specifically to patterns of firing synapses, hence The Electric Meme. What many have thought to be memes (inventions, ideas, documents, fads etc.) are the products of memes, but not memes themselves. Memes do indeed spread from one brain to the next using these various artifacts and forms of communication, but this is an important theoretical distinction (to which Aunger dedicates much of his book).

Of the three ways that Aunger says memes can reproduce themselves, most supporters of memetic theory (Adbusters included) seem to be focused on just one, which I mentioned above. It is the meme’s capacity to exploit an existing disposition to form across multiple brains. Memes whose structures conform to idiosyncrasies of a particular environment (i.e. human brains) will be more likely to proliferate. This assumption is one that leads meme theorists to psychology (and particularly evolutionary psychology) as a window into such peculiarities of the human brain and thus the memetic population. Our evolutionary predispositions, as I alluded to in the first post, are perhaps the easiest memes to predict. Memes (and the technologies that transmit them) which fulfill our love for fat, sugar, sex, laughter, violence, and so forth are no-brainers, so to speak.

The problem is that we so poorly understand the function of the brain in its boggling complexity. Our ignorance is so great that any effort to extrapolate the firing of select synapses based on the study of trends in human evolution is – for now – a folly. One day we may better understand how our brains come to mesh with memetic replicators, and in turn how larger cultural forces and memes co-evolve, as Aunger argues they do.

But before we can engage in anything like a properly substantiated meme war (or memetic engineering, for the less bellicose among us) we have much ground to cover. The best we can hope for in these early days, it seems to me, is an approach that in broad strokes allows us to take the meme’s-eye-view as a helpful shortcut to finding ways to make counter-intuitive or as-yet unpopular ideas stick. Psychology, biology, anthropology and sociology all have a part to play. And so do many of the values espoused by Adbusters.

Finally, I will add a note on reductionism. Like genes, memes are explanatory to a certain degree. But never would I argue that all of culture is entirely reducible to memes. On the contrary, much of what we see occurring in human life may only be partially influenced by memetics.

The gene is a good example: strings of A,G,C and T do not fully explain human beings. But any explanation of human beings that violates the laws of genetics as we come to know them is necessarily flawed. Ditto for memes, although we admittedly know so little about the laws that govern their influence that to dismiss possible explanations of human behaviour as anti-memetic is for now unreasonable.

Memes do not provide a complete picture, but they may eventually present a real constraint on any explanation of human affairs, just as the laws of genetics, chemistry, physics now do. You can’t explain a human with pure physics, but you can’t explain a human if you ignore those laws either. This is the hard-won lesson of consilience as opposed to what Dennett called ‘greedy reductionism’.

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