Story of Evolution/Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College
February 21, 2005

On Being Pushy...


Paul being pushy: Is the extension beyond biology adequately justified, reasonable, useful? Can one speak legitimately not only about biological evolution but other kinds of evolution as well (cultural?) in the same terms? Are we going to buy this story just because we like Dennett's presentation...or are there problems here too?

Some of us find Dennett's story very useful:

Alexandra: The idea of an algorithm that accounts for such a complex process as my mind ...shows the complete compatibility between evolution and a belief is some supreme being that might have created the rules of this algorithmic process.

Jennifer: I particularly liked the discussion where Dennett describes that we never pass on memes unaltered. ..I could analyze my own stories to see changes from when I hear them and how I relate them to others. This feels like there is more purpose involved in the transmission of memes. This is a product of the way that people process information...

Britt: I did find it useful how he brought cultural evolution into his story.... that we are evolving at a cultural level much faster than we are on a genetic level....The idea of speaking, writing, reading, and listening being cultural DNA....And then, how culture is like a crane-making useful to me as a student.

Some of us were confused:

Lauren Z: a fascinating idea, but I'm not really sure I trust it; I think perhaps Dennett has gone a little too far....the whole idea of a meme seems very messy. How can we tell where one meme starts and another begins? How can one equate something as abstract as an idea, to a physical process that takes place in the brain/mind....For now, I am just going to view memetics as an interesting metaphor.

Tonda: I enjoyed the idea of memes, continuously floating through culture-space....Cultural evolution particularly interests me...because of the incorporation of morals and cultural behavior....One thing that confused me, however...was how cultural evolution could affect our physical existence.

Laine: the concept of "meme"...seems to explain the way our culture has evolved. I am unclear though how art promotes human not seem as applicable in the broad ways I previously thought they were.

Austin: I especially don't quite grasp the concept of memes. ...For example: "I suggest that the meme's-eye view of what happened to the meme meme is quite obvious: 'humanist' minds have set up a particularly aggressive set of filters against memes coming from 'sociobiology'..." I'm sorry...but... what?

Kelsey: I am completely lost. I don't understand the concept of meme. More importantly, though, I don't understand how the transition from unicellular organisms to more complex lifeforms occurred.

Some of us were disturbed
because of the loss of individual creativity:

from UK Memes Central

Lauren T: I have the vague feeling that my thinking is being shepherded. It's most unsettling.

Anjali: I found the way that he described memes as "larvae" in your brain just using you as a way to replicate and be passed on kind of disturbing... If you view your own ideas as parasites of a sort, then what happens to the self? Where are *you*, in all that?... his description just gave me a very weird image of little larvae crowding in a person's the past...when I've read a good book and am trying to push it on other people, it's a bit like the book is trying to spread itself through me... And then more people will read it as a result, and spread it in turn....I'm sure if it were written later he would have talked a lot more about the internet as a way of spreading memes...

Eileen: I'm not just flattering dennett's mind-virility or this course's legitimacy when I declare my mind blown. I'd prefer to be blase...but all that falls apart easily when we enter discussion of things like "memes", which is the "no, seriously, I'm not being poetic or humble" interpretation that we are further models of genetic expression, committing to memory and transmitting ideas, which are replacing genes as the units of evolution. ...why don't I like the memes? it feels like the negation of human creativity, just when i've partially adjusted to a story of creation that negates God's creative control and existence. I know my open and posted disappointment is nothing but a testament to this lack of human creative power, that I can't come up with counter ideas to this new depressing one...

Haley: The first chapter of this section, on the meme, was what I found the most fascinating, but also hard to believe.....I'm not sure if I believe memes "invaded" and created the human mind....Some of what Dennett claimed made me a little wary...and some of it just seemed slightly ridiculous to me when I first read it, such as the "considerable competition" among the memes for a spot in as many human host minds as possible.

Others were troubled by the way the concept of cultural evolution
muddies the concept of biological evolution:

Ariel : I also found the chapter on memes to be confusing, but only because Dennett took the idea so far. I think that I understand the basic concepts, but then he throws in an example that seems rather far all seems so conceptual.... I think that it is possible to construe this idea as detrimental to the acceptance of evolution, the genetic kind. There are just so many gaps and suppositions that it is easy to refute, and there are people out there who might think that by disproving this memes type of evolution, they are disproving all evolution.

Liz : As I read this section I kept feeling like Dennet was extending himself too far....We cannot apply evolution to society....Evolution is not a process of bettering, it is a meandering that occurs while that allows the most adaptable thing to stay in existance. Stories that...try too hard to connect science to the rest of the world and make it seem friendly... forget about important details that can lead people to misunderstandings.

Arshiya: But as much as he presents me with intriguing metaphors, I'm not sure his ideas are completely problem-free. For me, the biggest glitch is discussing cultural evolution in Darwinian terms. Dennet suggests that in humans, cultural evolution has overshot biological evolution and that we are evolving via exogenetic inheritance. Dennet believes that cultural evolution, memes, etc. are translatable and compatible with Darwinian natural selection. I don't buy this idea at all. I am not sure how fluid random variation, selective reproduction and heritability are with the elements of cultural evolution, memes and so on. It's all a bit flaky. It seems like just another manipulation to try and explain how humans are a few more steps evolved than chimpanzees or the rest of the animal kingdom. When will we give up this struggle for uniqueness?

So, Paul (with everyone pushing together....)


Can we do better than this?

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