Sunday, 21 May 2017

Gould on why the meme concept is bankrupt (1996)

Here is S. J. Gould in 1996 on why memes won't work (35 minutes in):
I think Brenda put her finger on exactly why the meme concept is bankrupt and I don't think it's going to get very far although try it by all means [...] I don't believe I'm a First Amendment absolutist in U.S. terms: pursue whatever you want [...] but it's so central in science to distinguish between metaphor and mechanism. Metaphors are not useless, the Gaia metaphor is a non mechanistic statement that has some utility. To me memes are nothing but a metaphor and they're a metaphor based on a fundamentally false view of consciousness and I think that's why it isn't going to work. You see it's ultimate Western reductionism to have a notion of the meme you have to be able - as you can for genes because they are physical entities [...] you have to be able to cash out the notion of "meme" to divide the enormous complexity of human thinking into items, items that have a certain hardness, that have a certain transmissibility, but human thought is not that, it's not breakable up into tiny little hard units - everything interpenetrates. The only thing memiec analysis has ever been any good for are things that are trivial like changes in hairstyles and skirt lengths because those are things. The other thing is you'll never be able to work a Darwinian metaphor because the Darwinian mechanism requires random variation. Memic variation is not random there's no way on earth it is ever going to be that's why every attempt - and memic thinking is not the first, there's a whole history of this - every attempt at so-called evolutionary epistemology - that is: to make a Darwinian evolutionary epistemology - has failed because you will never get the fundamental characteristics of the Darwinian mechanism: random variation and the natural selection of random variants. Mind directs its items, and there are no items! As soon as you have the impossibility of breaking down... it's hard enough for genes - that's why sociobiology failed because my thumb length isn't the gene and aggression isn't the gene and homosexuality isn't a gene they are complex genetic and environmental components you can't do it for human culture, it won't work.

This is the same interview where Gould describes genes as being a "meaningless metaphor" (13:45).

This is mostly of historical interest now, but I think it illuminates some of Gould's confusion about cultural evolution.

IMO, these days, people are less likely to argue that human culture can't be usefully broken down into small units. The internet has comprehensively demonstrated that all kinds of human culture can in fact be broken down into bits: digital, discrete 1s and 0s.

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