Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The "Promiscuous" Meme: A Look at Cultural Evolution in Dennett's Terms

SerendipUpdate's picture

The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
Second Web Papers
On Serendip

The "Promiscuous" Meme: A Look at Cultural Evolution in Dennett's Terms

Anne Sullivan

In the seventeenth century, philosopher Rene Descartes drew a mind-body dichotomy that has infused Western thought-patterns for ages to come. His famous declaration, "I think therefore I am," has maintained an indelible, seeping impact upon all philosophy, erecting a strict hierarchy of being at which the human mind reigns supreme. This maxim has launched considerable resistance to—among many other disciplines— Darwinian evolution. In contrast to Cartesian thought patterns; Darwin places human beings within the animal kingdom, denying the human mind any superior or unique status. Moreover, Darwinian evolution sees human consciousness and intelligence—and all other "special" human attributes such as morality—as mere outcomes of a long and indeterminate process. Confronting Descartes' praise of human thought, evolution is unthinking; it is a purposeless, algorithmic procedure. Daniel Dennett—belonging to this long tradition of scientists battling Cartesian philosophy—seems to strangely fuel his own opposition during his discussion of the "meme." In his novel, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett builds upon Richard Dawkin's idea of the "meme," yet in doing so; he negates his own understanding of a collaborative evolution. When describing the meme, Dennett ironically borrows from the Cartesian thought-patterns he rejects, stimulating his own opposition.

Dennett opens his discussion of the meme with a story of evolution that identifies various symbiotic relationships as the engine behind biological change. The prokaryotic cell gave rise to eukaryotic cells when the former was "invaded by parasites of sorts [which] turned out to be a blessing in disguise" (1).. The parasite and host equally benefited from the other, and the eukaryotic cell—and thus multicellular life—abounded. A subsequent invasion of a "single species" of multicellular life occurred, which created what we call "a person" (1).. These parasites, called "memes," find ideal homes in this species precisely because they were produced by their hosts. While simply told, this story reveals the fundamental contradiction within Dennett's discussion of the meme. He first identifies the meme as a creation of its host, and one that is advantageous to—as much as it subtracts from—its creator. The memes, he explains, are "symbionts but not parasites," they facilitate evolution. In describing the behavior of memes, however, Dennet uses the language of invasion, attack, and infection. He produces an opposition while insisting on mutuality. Ironically, Dennett set ups the antagonism he combats:

In the next chapter, I will address the important theoretical questions about how language and the human mind could evolve in the first place by Darwinian mechanisms. I will have to confront and disarm the tremendous—and largely misguided—animosity to this story . . . (1).

Dennett positions himself against a mob of Cartesian thinkers who will fiercely defend the singularity of human culture and intelligence. Yet Dennett immediately fashions this resistance—while perhaps betraying his own argument—as he entitles the next chapter, "Invasion of the Body-Snatchers." Memes, accordingly, are not the "symbionts" he initially describes; they are "body-snatchers." We thus begin to see the haziness of Dennett's own posture in the meme debate. If he aims to show that memes are a viable unit of evolution—and a "symbiont, but not parasites"—why do his language and presentation place the human brain and body under attack?

In creating this perhaps unnecessary polarity Dennett ironically maintains a very human-centered perspective. The "personality" that he assigns to the meme certainly compromises kind of evolution he wants to promote. On the one hand, Dennett describes the meme as an unthinking replicator: "The first rule of memes, as for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for the good of anything; replicators flourish that are good at . . . replicating—for whatever reason!" (1).. The meme, like any apparatus of evolution, lacks intent or purpose. Dennett, however, subverts this claim by describing the meme as a vicious and aggressive "parasite." Meme replication, in Dennett's language, sounds like a dangerous plague attacking humanity:

We are all well aware that today we live awash in a sea of paper-borne memes, breathing in an atmosphere of electronically-borne memes. Memes now spread around the world at the speed of light, and replicate at rates that make even fruit flies and yeast cells look glacial in comparison. They leap promiscuously from vehicle to vehicle, and from medium to medium, and are proving to be virtually unquarantinable (1).

The meme is "promiscuous," and "unquarantinable;" it is an uncontrollable, invasive, and living organism. Humanity, living "awash" in a meme-controlled world, is merely a "vehicle" for meme replication. This language of contagion and infection challenges Dennett's claim that memes are neutral and unthinking replicators. In creating this antagonism, Dennett alienates mankind from other life forms, thus enforcing Cartesian systems of differentiation. If Dennett wants to reintegrate the human brain within a community of "life" in general, why does he place it under severe attack? Furthermore, in assigning the meme a "human" personality, Dennett engages in a process of anthropomorphism, offering a very "human" centered understanding of evolution. As described by Dawkins, memes are "tunes, ideas, catch phrases, clothes fashions, etc" (Dawkins qtd. Dennett 345); yet Dennett describes them as living organisms. He continues this language as he later goes on to describe "selfish memes." This is a dangerous tendency in the project of evolution, as humans yearn to impute a personality or motivation on nonhuman organisms. In his treatment of the meme, Dennett seems to slide into this human-centered vision of life, dangerously approaching the kinds of thought-patterns held by his opposition.

Dennett presents the meme in a way that detracts from a useful and perhaps more accurate understanding of cultural evolution. His language places the mind against other evolutionary processes and in so doing; Dennett stimulates his supposed opposition—those who believe in the "unique" Godlike human mind. Dennett, along with other Darwinian scientists, wants to demote the human brain from its exalted status, and to deconstruct the strict categorizations—of mind and body, and of humans and "animals"—that belong to Cartesian thought. He perhaps best accomplishes this task during his introduction of the meme, when he describes a collaborative, symbiotic evolutionary process: Culture certainly evolves in the Darwinian fashion (1)., and the meme is not antagonistic, but beneficial to human life. Dennett asks the question, "Who's in charge? . . . We or our memes?" and although he avoids explanation, the question itself seems irrelevant. Humans are not at war with the meme, constantly vying for control; rather, their relationship is one of constituency and mutuality. Memes ensure that culture—like all life—is fluid and always changing. This fact should be most comforting to human beings.

Dennett, however, offers an unnecessarily bleak portrait of cultural evolution, describing it as an uncontrollable process—one that occurs at an exponential rate in comparison to genetic evolution. The basic process of evolution—"descent with modification"—is radically hastened as memes pass through human brains. In describing this process, Dennett reaches for the most dramatic Darwinian terms, exaggerating the struggle for existence—the "great battle of life." Similarly, he suggests one of the most extreme interpretations of the "meme perspective:" (1). A scholar is just a library's way of making another library. Although it is poorly and perhaps inaccurately phrased, this statement may not be as "unsettling" as it appears. For a scholar should be involved in the production of other libraries (although it is not the library that is in control). Scholarship—like all other intellectual and cultural activities—is fundamentally about collaboration, change, and shared work. It is not an isolated pursuit, and it is certainly never the work of a single mind. In spite of Dennett's hyperbolic language, meme replication cannot be hostile to the human mind, rather; it is one that promotes dialogue and collaboration. Because a meme must always change before replicating, for example, there seems to be a higher guarantee for diversity. Yet Dennett ignores the positive aspects of cultural evolution as he describes the meme as antagonistic, erecting strict and unnecessary polarities. Memes do not halt human creativity and originality, rather; they offer new tools for a different kind of exploration.


1) Dennett Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.



Comments made prior to 2007

I have a comment about the segment on 'The "Promiscuous" Meme: A Look at Cultural Evolution in Dennett's Terms by Anne Sullivan'. I'll admit that I have not read Dennnett's work entirely, but I am somewhat familiar with it. I am also very familiar with memetic theory. I don't know if Dennett states explicitly that memes are always nefarious, but they are admittidly not. However, there are many deleterious memes lurking in the world. And I think it is these he is most critical of. There are indeed beneficial memes but it is the harmful ones we need to be leary of ... Karl, 7 July 2006