Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Memes for the Trivial

Let me continue my discussion of evolutionary ideas on religion that I don’t find convincing. Another of Dawkins's ideas was the meme. Daniel Dennett picks up this concept as his explanation for religion in Breaking the Spell. A meme is a gobbet of culture or an idea that spreads from mind to mind. The point about a meme is that its success in spreading is not a function of whether the gobbet is true, useful, beautiful or good. Instead, Dennett postulates memes spread simply because they are good at spreading. This is a tautology, of course, but it is not as uninsightful as it sounds. After all, there is a law of economics that states that the value of anything is equal to what someone is willing to pay for it. This is also a tautology but somehow socialist economics was built on the idea that it isn’t true.

The problem with memes is that almost all the evidence suggests that, in the long term, ideas spread because they benefit the group that holds them. They are, in evolution-speak, an adaptation just as much as large brains and a biped posture. No one has managed to predict what makes ideas inherently likely to spread (think of the money to be made if you could do this!). Rather, sociologists have worked on the basis that the ideas that are successful are the ones that benefit their holders. This is true even of previously popular ideas like socialist economics which have now become extinct because they doesn’t work. A society based on socialism will always fail relative to a society based on a market economy.

So there may be room for memes as a short-term explanation of how ideas are transmitted but not as part of the long-term story of the evolution of culture. Crazy Frog, the Spice Girls, the Filofax and other ephemeral trends might well be memes in the sense that there is something about them that lets them leap through our culture and briefly appear ubiquitous. But then they also quickly die away because there was so little of substance holding them up. Other ideas, like modernism in art or structuralism in history, have an appeal which is essentially aesthetic. This allows them to survive for longer but means that they cannot fall back on their own usefulness as tastes change. The really big concepts upon which the modern world is based, that is things like democracy, the market, science and individual liberty, survive and prosper because they benefit us all. Some concepts, like free trade, survive even though most people, falsely, think they are a bad idea.

Thus, for everything except perhaps the most trivial, memes do not get us very far. We need a more robust explanation.

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