Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

In Response to A.J. Marr’s “Dawkin’s Bad Idea: Memes, Genes, and the Metaphors of Psychology”

A.J. Marr has written an excellent essay on the notion of the and why he believes it to be essentially a poor metaphor for the complexities of human behavior. It is well-researched and thoughtful, but in the end, relegates the concept of the to the land of mixed metaphors and gives it too much credit of control over human behavior. In his essay, Barr wisely illustrates that just because our every day experience in the world is in agreement with a Newtonian models of Physics, the universe doesn’t necessarily work like clockwork. Einstein’s mathematical models approximate more closely the actual workings of the universe on incredible scales and even introduce non-commonsensical ideas like time travel. But the mathematical model is closer to the truth and it is because rigorous experiment shows it to be so. So while the notion of a clockwork universe is convenient and even accurate on the level of normal human perception, it is not correct.

With this reasonable comparison in mind, Barr turns toward the concept of the . Within the mind, the concept of competing ideas cannot be true. It is merely a mixed-metaphor brought over to psychology from Darwinian concepts of biological evolution. He says:

…The common sense notion that ideas are selected by some obscure competition between objective alternatives … finds an equal bridge to selectionist principles that are derived from biology. Thus, just as Newtonian physics and common sense physics seem to confirm each other, common sense psychology and Darwinian biology share similar metaphorical principles that explain respectively how behavioral and biological selections are made.

Barr mainly argues that ideas are selected by competition and thereby misses the definition of the . The key thing that Richard Dawkins was arguing when he introduced the concept of the meme was the more general concept of the replicator. At the time of his writing of The Selfish Gene [Amazon link] Dawkins was attempting to find natural, basic constructs in nature that could replicate themselves — and do little else. He pointed to genes but he also pointed to viruses, computer viruses, and prions. As an aside he argued that ideas may have some capacity to replicate themselves from individual to individual, but he was not arguing that human behavior could be described by an individual mind’s competition of ideas.

And here’s where it gets tricky. Yes, meme’s can be passed from individual to individual competitively through the use of media (language, music, speech, etc.) and although they can influence behavior, they are not the only thing that does. To understand the concept of the meme it is crucial not to confuse it with perception (such as the color blue or the feeling of cold) or even information. It is a kind of data and a kind of data based on a experiential context.

A exists as an extension of our ability to utilize media to communicate with one another and ourselves.1 Without media (including “natural” media such as speech) there are no memes. Perception and information come from reality and in the desert of the real our connections are our own. It is only in the shared light of media that human consciousness begins to create, trade and disseminate memes.

I have often said that what is funny is that which is wrong. A man slipping on a banana peel. That’s not a duck it’s my brother. Did Paris Hilton just fall in to a vat of… whatever. You get the idea. The joke is the . The tune is the meme. The fashion is the meme. The graphic is the meme. The perceptions that come before it are not memes and no more unique to our consciouness than they are to dogs and monkeys. Flat, far, and cold are not memes. But how flat, far, and cold have to do with our ex-wives is definitely a meme.

The most important embodiment of a is its symbolic notation. It is not that the meme exists outside of the evironment of the individual mind but rather that the meme within the mind is formed when new connections between older memes or perceptions are created through the feedback loop that is the act of observing media. Although memes do not carry the weight of information or value, they can create value within the human mind.

To touch on Barr’s point once more, meme’s are not responible for your behavior, but they may influence it. Barr seems to place memes on a higher level than necessary. Fear is not a meme. It is an instinct, something received through a mechanism other than media (natural or nurtured). I would not posit that memes could possess information nor transmit it. I would however posit that there is a meme in the connection between sex, cold, blue and Sunday morning. And there is most certainly a meme in the ability of an author to choose the words “sultry sullen Sunday” and create within our mind (if the prerequisite experiences are available to us) a new connection between perceptions — a connection you may not have possessed or imagined.

I will finish with Barr’s statement of this:

Thus, we select not only memes, but also the abstract relationships between memes as they are moderated by our thoughts and overt behavior.

But memes are the reverse of this. They are in fact the abstract relationship itself. And sometimes it is that abstract relationship, such as love, that can very much be a driving factor in our behavior.

  1. Daniel Dennett most convincingly makes this argument in Consciousness Explained [Amazon link] when he explains that the act of writing is a kind of feedback loop in which one observes one’s own thoughts and thereby reflects on them in a manner not possible without media (in this case, the medium of language). 

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