virus: Meme vs. Meme

Apfel, Jeffrey (
Fri, 07 Feb 97 17:32:44 EST

In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett discusses the inherent conflict
between the imperatives of the "selfish gene" and the imperatives of
cultural ideas--of memes. It occurs to me that, as a result of the
gene-meme conflict, one might consider a related meme-meme conflict.

What kind of meme to meme conflict might exist? Let us consider that
memes might be classified into two basic types. First, many memes,
although purely ideational constructs, exist in recognition of and in
relationship to our biological selves. So, for example, while all
cultures handle the sublimation of the sex drive in different ways,
each such ideational construct in this arena exists in a state of
dynamic tension with the genetically programmed predispositions and
urges it touches on.

On the other hand, part of man's uniqueness relates to his ability to
think abstractly, the mode of thought which leads to scientific
thinking. The memes associated with this kind of endeavor may not
need to pay any kind of tribute to our biological selves. Thus, we
are creatures which can develop, as Dennett puts it, a "meme meme",
that is, an abstract idea about the way humans have developed, and
continually elaborate on, structures of meaning.

Is it not necessarily the case that these two types of memes will be
in conflict? Real human beings have longings, worry, seek affection
and fear the unknown, necessarily utilizing the world of memes to
guide them through life. At the same time, some of the same human
beings are capable of creating a scientific construct which tells them
that no meme has any particular validity beyond its adaptive value or
the specific historical reasons for its creation in the first

It is in this context that Darwin's idea can be seen as truly
dangerous. It is one thing to have, in Dennett's terms, a universal
acid capable of scouring away what are typically viewed as old,
outdated or incorrect cultural ideas. It is quite another to pour
universal acid on any and all memes which seek to create meaning for
real, biological human beings.

Of course there is a conundrum here. Very few individuals, if any,
can survive on a diet of universal acid alone. In a sense, universal
acid has much in common with Zen Buddhism. Yet Zen, which is nothing
if not rigorous, seems to be quite unsuccessful as an broad cultural
adaptation. My bet is that such an anti-conceptual worldview is
destined to be a minority taste and not a belief system for the
millions. Kinship, love, fear and all the rest seem unlikely to yield
to the demands of nothingness without a major genetic overhaul

So it is possible that one may simultaneously recognize (abstractly)
that one's system of meaning is in a sense arbitrary, yet still behave
(and in a deeper sense, believe) that this system of meaning makes
sense in it's own terms. Is it any wonder that people wish to resist
the spread of the meme meme in undiluted form? Sure, creationists can
be expected to line up against the implications of an unbridled
reliance on natural selection as an explanatory tool. But why would
it not be reasonable to suppose that any individual with a stake in
finding meaning might wish to resist a steady diet of universal acid?

I am not stating this to take a position "against" universal acid. It
makes little sense to side with one meme or another, just as it makes
little sense to side with genes against memes. But when Dennett talks
about how the scientific case he presents is overwhelming, that in the
late twentieth century it is unfathomable that our education system
not deal with this science straight on, that religion is just another
meme to be explained away, I think he is the one showing naivet?.

My guess is that, absent a genetic overhaul that would permit us to be
satisfied living in a world of abstract ideas, the meme meme will
always be living a hand-to-mouth existence.