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Cultural Memes and The Human Selector

ewashburn's picture

Daniel Dennett's discussion of the "meme" as a cultural equivalent to the "gene" is supposed to be geared towards applying the theory of evolution to other concepts, such as the development of culture. But the problem I see in this model is the conflict between the inherent idea of randomness in evolution, and what seems to me to be an inherent element of design in culture and in cultural memes.

One of the primary ideas that we've stressed, and that Dennett stresses, about evolution is the fact that it is random. There is no designer, no selector, no higher purpose, no "goal of progress." But I have trouble applying that to culture because it seems to me that, when it comes to how a meme gets created and which memes are "worth saving--or stealing or replicating" (Dennett, pg 142), human beings become the both the designer and selector. It is a person, a trendsetter, who creates a meme, and other human beings actively judge that meme and deem it to be hip, practical, flattering, and allow that meme to pass into widespread use through their imitation and replication. Other human beings also decide when a meme has become tacky, impractical, unnecessary, and let it die unnoticed or let it phase out of view--until a couple of decades later, when another human being decides it's hip again and reinstates it in the public view.

If there is an active figure of generation and active figures of selection, where is the randomness involved? Is it in the inspiration which struck the human being and led to the creation of a meme? Is it in the decidedly fickle nature of others' approval or disapproval, in the minute alterations others make in their own replications? But if that's so, who's to say that there isn't some designer who was randomly inspired to create the heaven and earth, and, in its decidedly fickle way, selected some species to live on while others perished? It's entirely possible I glossed over something Dennett spoke of in his reading, or I haven't yet reached the section where he clears it all up. I hope our discussions in the next couple of weeks will help me answer these questions, because it seems to me like the case he's trying to prove is turning on him.

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