dennett defending memes

This is an article i’ve had sitting on my waiting list for about a week. It’s Dennett trying to do his friend Dawkins and favor and lend some philosophical credibility to the (academically) failed concept of a meme (“cultural replicators propagated through imitation” ie catchy ideas).

The article is short and to the point. Dennett grants Sperber most of his objections to the evolutionary soundness of the concept of a meme, especially the contention that memes require intentional reproduction on the part of humans, something that ‘blind’ natural selection cannot admit of. But in the end, he interestingly switches sides by explaining that the intentional beings that go about replicating memes are themselves products of natural selection so that their intentional abilities can themselves be interpreted as simply the latest and best evolutionary strategy. Homo sapiens has thus developed norms (like the alphabet) that allow people to carefully reproduce ideas, that is, memes.

Remains the problem of defining the size of a meme, but this does not seem to bother Dennett too much, as he thinks we always manage somehow, if only to define what size of information constitutes copyright infringement (one bit according to the MPAA). So memes can be rehabilitated as products of (a higher) evolutionary selection, or so the philosopher would have us believe.

Myself, i am not so sure that all this philosophical bending over backwards really helps to make the meme a useful scientific concept. The size problem is actually a gigantic hurdle to quantification. And a book like the S. Blackmore’s The Meme Machine never quite says anything interesting or falsifiable. Nevertheless, Dennett’s paper is in itself very interesting, though probably more for the attempt to expand the reach of evolution to the realm of human culture than for the particular tools he wants to use to accomplish this feat.


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