What’s in a Meme?

You know what a meme is, right? If you are thinking of those captioned photos that seemingly everyone shares on Facebook these days (e.g., see pic below), you would be wrong. Or, at least, that wasn’t the “meme” I was asking about. I’m not sure if the social-media type meme came about as an effort to spread existing memes of the other sort or to create new (though largely humorous or otherwise superficial) ones. Eh, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

So, what is this other, original type of meme? If you are familiar with the writings of atheist/Darwinist apologist Richard Dawkins, you probably have an idea. I cite the following from Ron Londen’s The God Abduction, which explains and briefly assesses the concept:

richard-dawkins-funny-meme-96“Dawkins came up with the idea in The Selfish Gene (1979) to propose a ‘cultural replicator’ that behaves in the self-perpetuating way he claimed genes operate. In fact, he chose the term meme (rhymes with cream) because it calls to mind a derivation Greek word for ‘imitation’ (mimesis) — and it sounds a lot like gene. As genes reproduce by passing from body to body through sexual reproduction, memes reproduce by passing from brain to brain…. A meme operates just like a ‘virus’ — a term Dawkins has actually used.”

In fact, as soon as he introduced the concept of the meme on page 192, he suggested that the concept of God must be one of these viral memes — and a particularly dangerous and powerful one, at that. But, while Dawkins and fellow “New Atheist” Daniel Dennett continue to use the idea in their books, the idea in general hasn’t done so well. Many scientists (along with theologians) have a hard time taking it seriously. For example, Simon Conway Morris calls it, “Trivial… hopelessly, if not hilariously, simplistic.”

Londen continues…

“Despite Dawkins’ intentional associations, the contrast between memes and genes is quite stark. Genes actually exist, physically. They are stretches of DNA that can be identified, studied and messed around with. A gene is a real thing. A meme, instead, is a metaphor, an idea once removed — an idea about what ideas are about. If memes are supposed to be real in the sense genes are real, then the concept has no foundation in fact. If not, then it is nothing more than a truism: that some ideas tend to stick. So the whole concept of a meme is — take your pick — either completely unproven, completely irrelevant, or completely obvious. In the end, the problem with the meme may not be it is wrong so much as it is pointless.”

I should clarify something here. Londen is not denying the existence of non-physical things; to do so would be contrary to Christian theism. Rather he is emphasizing the inability of the meme/gene analogy to work for Dawkins. It is also a touch odd, even ironic, that an empiricist/materialist like Dawkins would come up with such a thing.

“Still, the subject demands three further brief considerations, each almost too obvious to mention. But we should, if only to keep the memes rolling.

First, the whole conceptual structure that surrounds the meme idea says absolutely nothing about whether a particular meme is true, important or even useful. Democracy is a powerful meme that took hold and spread between people over time. But so, apparently, is “that’s what she said” — the punchline to what seems like half the jokes in the English language. Are those two ideas equally valuable? If not, labeling something as a meme may not be an enlightening exercise.

Second, the concept of a meme is itself a meme. So if calling something a meme is an attempt to discount the underlying idea — and let’s not kid ourselves, that’s exactly what it is — then why pay any attention to this meme business in the first place?

Finally, of course, atheism is a meme. It is not a new concept. It is not a recent discovery. It is not scientifically proven. It is an emotionally appealing idea that has taken hold and spread like a virus. So if memes are to be viewed with suspicion, then knock yourself out.

Reading the breezy self-confidence with which Dawkins enthusiastically endorses his own idea of memes — ironically, without sustaining evidence — one wonders whether unannounced motives might be in play.”



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