Justin Li


Daniel Dennet and Memes

2008-11-02

I just finished Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell, and after hearing him talk on Thursday, I have a few comments to make.

First, Dennett is an excellent speaker. He is humorous and knowledgeable. My only critique of him is that sometimes you forget why the current topic is under discussion; it somehow makes you lose sight of the his overall point. This is much more obvious in his book, because there's space for his words and thoughts to wander.

Before I go on, let me give two examples of his humor:

The way he weaves jokes into his story telling is impressive, and it keeps his audience's attention.

A lot of ideas were presented in his speech, and even more in his book, but one in particular stands out. I've explained before Richard Dawkin's interpretation of evolution, and since Dennett makes use of memes in his explanation for religion, the same idea was expressed in his book. This was also mentioned in his speech, which was where this next idea came to me.

Dennett suggested that memes, like genes, evolve. They under go the same process of speciation and differentiation, in genes through enzymes making errors, and in memes by people making errors when doing a ritual (by that I mean any action which the meme consists of). Memes are what are generally called "culture"; lolcats are a feature of the internet community - more specificly, the geek crowd - and by simply mentioning it here I am ensuring the concept passes on.

In his book, Dennett suggests that memes provide another information highway between parent and child, that the child learns cultural behavior from its parent not through genes but through memes. Religion is one of them, and Dennett suggests that as a meme it has adapted by taking advantage of certain human traits, like our tendency to anthropomorphize and to find cause and effect relationships. What struck me was that memes are built on top of genes. Without these biological tendencies, certain memes wouldn't exist; and for animals, without the biological sophistication to support a "culture", memes don't exist at all*. By extension, then, there are probobably evolutionary objects, the existence of which depends on the complexity of certain memes. I wonder if anyone has made conjectures as to what these might be like?

For some reason this makes me think of Spore.
* I'm not sure if Dennett would agree with this point; there are probably behaviors in the animal kingdom, among social animals like great apes and dolphins, which are passed along by the socially. In fact, I can name one: the bubble blowing behavior in dolphins is group dependent, and only dolphins which live in proximity of others who know how to blow bubbles learn how to do it themselves. Since this behavior is not genetic, it is arguably memetic. Perhaps the lower limit for memes is one of communication, not of consciousness.

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