2002-01-12: Unweaving the Rainbow

Unweaving the Rainbow

Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder  (1998)

by Richard Dawkins (1941-)

Dawkins is a world-class expert on biological evolution, and holds a newly endowed chair at Oxford. He also coined the word meme. One application of memetics is to understand the interaction between communities with incompatible memeplexes. So it is somewhat ironic that Dawkins primary interest is in extreme conflict with those who take a literal view of the Biblical account of creation, and that the field that should have arisen from his notion of the meme has done nothing to help him understand how to approach the conflict.

This book is primarily an attack on people who don’t feel a sense of wonder at the scientifically perceived world. He sets up poets, particular Keats, as the strawmen against which he directs his barbs, but he is really aiming at everyone who perversely refuses to adopt his sense of wonder. While I am wholly sympathetic with Dawkins world-view, I feel he does a serious disservice to those whom he attacks. I think it is immoral to tear down a person’s world view, even with the best intention of eventually replacing it with your own. It is simply true that many people are not interested in investing the effort required to adopt a scientific view of the world. For such people, a faith-based world view is necessary if they are not to drift aimlessly. I think Dawkins could profit from reading the article Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die by Gregory W. Lester.

While some of Dawkins’s anecdotes and examples are interesting, and may even inspire other reading, I will not address them here. He has a few comments (practically afterthoughts) on memes. After discussing the software/hardware co-evolution that must have led to the human brain, he brings in the meme as his fourth candidate for brain software. (He says the word was coined in 1976.) He credits Daniel Dennett (Consciousness Explained) and Susan Blackmore (The Meme Machine) as contributing to the theory. He takes the broad view: “A meme is … anything that replicates itself from brain to brain, via any available means of copying.” A few additional comments:

Anything that spreads by imitation, as genes spread by bodily reproduction or by viral infection, is a meme. The chief interest in them is that there is at least the theoretical possibility of a true Darwinian selection of memes, to parallel the familiar selection of genes. Those memes that spread do so because they are good at spreading. … the general idea that some memes may be more infective than others because of their inherent properties is reasonable enough.

… Sometimes we can work out what it is that a meme has that helps it to spread. Dennett notes that the conspiracy theory meme has a built-in response to the objection that there is no evidence for the conspiracy: ‘Of course not – that’s how powerful the conspiracy is!’ …

Memes could not spread but for the biologically valuable tendency of individuals to imitate. There are plenty of good reasons why imitation should have been favoured by conventional natural selection working on genes. Individuals that are genetically predisposed to imitate enjoy a fast track to skills that may have taken others a long time to build up. …

Memes, unlike genes, don’t seem to have clubbed together build large ‘vehicles’ – bodies – for their joint housing and survival. Memes rely on the vehicles built by genes (unless, as has been suggested, you count the Internet as a meme vehicle). But memes manipulate the behaviour of living bodies no less effectively for that. … Just as a species gene pool becomes a cooperative cartel of genes, so a group of minds – a ‘culture’, a ‘tradition’ – becomes a cooperative cartel of memes, a memeplex, as it has been called. As in the case of genes, it is a mistake to see the whole cartel as a unit being selected as a single entity. The right way to see it is in terms of mutually assisting memes, each providing an environment which favours the others. Whatever may be the limitations of the meme theory, I think this one point , that a culture or tradition, a religion or a political complexion grows up according to the model of the ‘selfish cooperator’ is probably at least an important part of the truth.

These comments seem pretty superficial to me. It is as if Dawkins made up the notion and tossed it out to the public, but has no real interest in it. I probably should look at Blackmore’s book, but the few bits of her work I have seen did not impress me.


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