Field of Science

Memetics - problems with the current state of the field

Someone was wrong on the internet on one of the forums I waste my time at frequent, claiming memetics was 'dead' and unsubstantiated - this lead to a discussion of problems with the current state of memetics, which I will repost here: (an introduction to memetics will follow in a later post...)

I see a few issues with the field as it is today (which, btw, has a freakish number of parallels with genetic theory prior to the discovery/characterisation of DNA):

- legitimate work in the field is being overshadowed by laymen's musings and ill thought out theories. While there are those who treat the field with full scientific/academic rigour (eg. Blackmore, Dennett), the vast majority of the stuff that reaches the general public seems to come from 4chan and the likes (ie. not particularly academically-oriented places).

And here I must make a highly emphasised clarification -- a 4chan 'meme' is NOT a true meme! I'd argue it's more of a memeplex or a memetic organism, if you will... if the meme is to be the fundamental unit of semantic/cultural heredity, 4chan 'memes' are far too complex for that. Even words are too complex to be memes (Dawkins seems to imply words act as memes, but, no offense, his linguistics background is rather sketchy).

- This leads me to the next point: memetics is about as multidisciplinary as one can get; to do work in the field, one must be able and willing to rigorously analyse ideas and knowledge in everything from evolutionary biology to genetics to neurobiology to psychology to linguistics to sociology, anthropology... pretty much sealing that chasm of CP Snow's "Two Cultures". Now there's a bit of a problem with that: The cultures in question seem to LIKE their border, and rather cherish it.

What I consider to be one of the greatest obstacles to a scientific exploration of the humanities is: Cartesian Duality - the mind/body being separate ontological realms bullshit. I HATE it. Dennett goes into this in some detail in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (great book, btw - highly recommended!), and it becomes rather evident those people are 'skyhook' seekers, to use his wonderful term. The dualists, both in the sciences and the humanities, are deeply repulsed by the idea that all we are is a pile of chemical reactions, and that conscious thought is an epiphenomenon of complex biochemical processes inside the brain (not all of them are actually aware of this perfectly natural repulsion...) They want for us to be special -- at every step, science undermines our status as the lords of the universe more and more, from Copernican cosmology to Darwinian evolution (still deeply resented by many) and beyond.

Thus, many people rather NOT touch that great mind/body divide: 'Scientists must stick to their physical realm and those in humanities are to deal with the higher ontological plane -- the Mind. Theology can have the Soul.' Etc. And many people seem to be quite happy with this arrangement -- no wonder discourse between the fields is still rather limited! Our very ideas of how to gather and analyse data are different!

Now it can be argued the humanities cannot be done in a scientific manner because you can't run experiments there. But I really wonder -- have people really tried? Experimental human psychology was ethically off limits until modern technology like fMRI enabled one to view subjects in real time with no harm done. Perhaps there are valid experiments to be done in social science and anthropology as well! The linguists have plenty of experimental stuff figured out... so there isn't that much of a limitation after all.

- As in 19th and early 20th century genetics, memetics is hindered by the fact that we honestly still have no fucking clue how the brain works. Perhaps there is a neurologically encoded semantic unit, somehow. It would be analogous to how genetic information is encoded in mere sequences of atoms -- that also seemed quite ludicrous not too long ago... As soon as we overcome Cartesian duality, we realise that there must somehow be some physical manifestation of thought -- semantic meaning must be stored in some physical/neurological form.

Perhaps the great discovery of the 21st century may be the neurological manifestation of the "Mind". Perhaps we're not ready for that, perhaps it's even impossible for one reason or another. But we must keep looking, for that is how science is done -- by poking around in the dark, with only a small candle in hand.

"If you know what you're doing, how long it will take or what it will cost -- it isn't research." - anon. I can testify to that, personally!

Until then, memetics can act as a powerful (and quite rigorous) model for cultural transmission of information. I don't see anything wrong about that idea, save for the few morons who hijacked the term and defiled the public image of the field.

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