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Saturday, February 7, 2004

Memes: The idea whose time didn't come.

In my UU World review of Mary Midgley's excellent book, The Myths We Live By, I mentioned Richard Dawkins's concept of memes in a parenthetical observation:

For all the talk about Dawkins’s “memes,” for example—the pseudoscientific idea that human culture is made up of discrete units analogous to genes or atoms—there is no field of science that studies them.

Just in case my single sentence on the subject didn't adequately clarify why "memes" are pseudoscientific, take a look at H. Allen Orr's generally appreciative review of A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love in the latest New York Review of Books. (Orr has some incisive things to say about how badly Dawkins misunderstands and misrepresents religion, but for once I'll let others address that theme.) Orr writes about the failure of memes as a scientific concept:

But there's another problem, one that has little to do with the gene-meme analogy but that's at least as serious: unlike the selfish gene view, the selfish meme view hasn't led anywhere. Where are the puzzling phenomena that have been explained by memes? Dawkins provides no examples and I suspect there aren't any. The truth is that the meme idea, though a quarter-century old, has inspired next to no serious research and has failed to establish a place for itself in mainstream cognitive science, psychology, or sociology. Though laymen often have the impression that scientific ideas die in decisive experiments, far more often they die because they didn't suggest many experiments. They failed, that is, to inspire a rich research program. Though I could obviously be proved wrong, and while I have no problem with the notion that some science of cultural change may be possible, I'm far less confident than Dawkins that memes will play an important role in any such enterprise.

("A passion for evolution," H. Allen Orr, New York Review of Books 2.26.04)

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 7 February 2004 at 9:55 PM

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