Rod McLaughlin

Darwin - Dawkins - Dennett (24 oct 12)

And not forgetting Susan Blackmore.

Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection, Dawkins' popularization of its implications in The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, and Dennett's universal Darwinism, the explanation of how, given anything which can make copies of itself, evolution just has to happen, are the basic framework for understanding who we are, and where we are going. 

One of Richard Dawkins' ideas is the meme. This is something which can replicate itself, which isn't a gene. For example, a catchy tune which you can't get out of your head, or the Bible. Susan Blackmore took this idea and created a whole new philosophy out of it in her 1999 The Meme Machine (OUP).

It's not often you read a book which brings together the insights of Gautama Buddha with the theories of Charles Darwin. In fact I hadn't read anything like this 'til I belatedly encountered Blackmore's masterpiece.

She takes the world's leading popularizer of Darwin's ideas, Richard Dawkins' suggestion that there is a second entity, in addition to the gene, which copies itself - the meme

Memes are the means by which songs, ideas, habits and religions perpetuate themselves. This cannot be explained directly by genetics - evolutionary psychology explains much, but not everything. Blackmore fills in the holes.

Memes occur only in humans. They depend on the ability to imitate, which involves, not just mindlessly copying behaviors the way parrots copy sounds, but also an understanding of what the person is trying to do in the behavior being copied.

We don't know exactly the mechanism for meme replication, but, as Blackmore points out, Gregor Mendel didn't have a clue about the mechanism of gene replication. This didn't stop him creating the science of genetics.

Memes can affect genes. According to Blackmore, ordinary genetics would not predict the size of the human brain, which is unwieldy to carry and dangerous to give birth to. There is truth in the idea that we don't use most of our brain - it doesn't even look like it was designed, unlike the heart and the liver. 

If the brain is a product of memes selecting the genes for good imitators, just as genes select good vehicles for replicating them, this explains

  - the size of the brain

  - the fact that it's full of useless clutter

and gives us a clue as to how to calm our minds, which are full of irritating, energy-wasting chatter.

Genes work only for themselves, as Dawkins explains in The Selfish Gene, NOT for us, NOT for the good of the species. Blackmore says memes are selfish too.

She says one should live one's scientific claims, not just say them. She describes the process of abandoning the idea of 'self' and replacing it with 'memeplex'. Just like the Buddhist goal (?) of anatta (no self).

Unlike her mentor Dawkins, she doesn't end up with a boring atheism. She produces a guide to a way of life, where we abandon the idea of a self which makes decisions. In this, she is backed up by the work of Daniel Dennett, whose Consciousness Explained disproved the notion of a unified subject living somewhere inside us. Empirical tests appear to show that the moment of 'decision' takes place after the act decided upon has already begun. The 'self' which makes the decisions is not real, but a strategy for convincing others - and, as Robert Trivers said, the best form of deception is self-deception. 'Decisions' are post-hoc rationalizations. The self is the marketing department of the brain.

This means abandoning free will. Living with the knowledge that there are just vast complexes of memes trying to reproduce, rather than 'selves' living inside human bodies, leads to a radical new way of life. Well, not entirely new. The Buddha partly got it 2500 years ago. Susan Blackmore has the whole picture.

Memetics is

  - a rigorous scientific theory

  - testable

  - the most economical explanation of several mysteries not explicable by ordinary genetics

and a way of life.


Portland London