David E Romm

Rhetoric 1152W

Oral Presentation 3/22/01

Richard Dawkins, "Memes: the new replicators"

< I don't know how apocryphal this tale is, but I'll repeat it anyway. Way back in the 50s or 60s, the US government wanted to know how quickly a virus would spread throughout the NYC subway system. They didn't want to use an actual virus, so they picked something that spread LIKE a virus: gossip. Gossip is spread by personal contact, and one person can affect many others who then each affect many others. What they found was disturbing: The planted item spread so quickly and so dangerously that it was determined that gossip itself was a weapon that could affect the behavior of a whole population.

In the chapter on "Memes: the new replicators", Richard Dawkins attempts to describe this phenomena in scientific terms. I don't think he does a very good job. He keeps trying to force an analogy to genetic transmission, which seems more a parallel than an analogy. He says that genes are replicators, with similar survival values of longevity, fecundity and copy fidelity. And yet memes don't behave like genes in that sense. Memes behave like gossip. People hear a juicy tidbit and pass it on, not always in the same form as the original. In politics, if you throw enough mud some of it will stick, no matter how untrue the charges. In that sense, memes have longevity, but it takes repeated political spin (which we mortals call "lies") for the meme to stick in people's memories. Perhaps only false memes don't have fecundity, but Dawkins doesn't really deal qualitatively, just quantitatively.

Dawkins uses the example of how bird songs get transmitted from bird to bird, and yet the songs chirped do not have particularly good copy fidelity. Bird songs, like human music, go through what musicians call "The Folk Process". A musician hears a song, likes the tune and the words, and when called upon to play it herself she only remembers the important bits; at least, what's important to her. The lyrics change and the tune is altered, even as the song spreads further.

Dawkins doesn't talk about synergy or memory. For a meme to have longevity, people have to remember the idea. Some ideas are more dramatic than others, and some stay in the mind easier. Some ideas completely change how you look at the world, in a very synergistic sense. You are more than the sum of your memories; you can change how you view the world. Many of the articles we've discussed insist that one's worldview determines what experiments you'll undertake. One good idea, successfully transmitted, can alter an epistemology, as Kepler to Tycho Brahe.

I relate this article to the Heyerdahl piece on Isolationists vs. Diffusionists. Isolationists claim that ideas spring up independently, and see parallel development in human history. Heyerdahl says that people had more contact with each other than assumed, and that good ideas spread by human contact. The Diffusionists make a lot more sense, to me, and Dawkins concept of memes is one of the mechanisms to diffuse ideas.

Ideas are important. New information is added to your life all the time. But hearing the outcome of a college basketball game isn't going to change your life very much, though you'll spread the information verbally and to many people. Hearing about how foot and mouth disease may be headed this way is likely to change a lot of your behavior and thoughts on safety and nutrition.

Dawkins tries to use the kind of scientific terminology that Myers does in his article on peer reviewed science journals. While memes may share some behavior with physical genes, they are not the same and the differences must be allowed for.

The basic recursive question here: Is "meme" a meme? Having heard about the concept, will you remember it and spread it to other people in a reasonably accurate form? Well, will you?

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