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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Dennet's Treatment of Memes

Nada Ali

Dennett's book, "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," delves into the treacherous terrain of trying to apply Darwin's theory of evolution to other areas of scholarship and ideas. He describes "Darwin's idea- (as) bearing an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways." (Dennett. Pg. 63)As fascinating and this concept of universal acid is and sounds, its application in one particular instance is unsatisfactory. Dennett argues that evolutionary theory can be applied to the development of culture in the sense that "culture must have a Darwinian origin." (Dennett. Pg. 341) This cultural evolution occurs through Memes, defined as "the name for any item of cultural evolution." (Dennett. Pg. 342) Examples of memes include musical tunes, concepts, phrases and ways of building ornaments. Dennett claims that it is these very memes that separate human beings from the rest of the living world. It is the "special" capability that distinguishes starkly the differences between human beings and a fruit fly. This paper will try to explain why the way in which Dennett presents the idea of memes creates tension between evolutionary biology and its application to the evolution of culture. In addition this paper would like to discuss the implications of meme evolution as a part of the biological evolutionary process.

Biological evolution occurs when there is variation, heritability and differential reproductive success. Dennett states "that evolution occurs whenever the following conditions exist: (1) variation: there is a continuing abundance of different elements (2) heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves and (3) differential 'fitness': the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on interactions between the features of that element and features of the environment in which it persists." (Dennett. Pg. 343) The purpose of this quote is not to bore one but to notice the language used by him to make his point more plausible. The use of the word "elements" is an interesting choice that allows more flexibility than a more descriptive phrase such as "genetic variation." Dennett deliberately uses the word "element" to facilitate his persuasion that Darwin's idea can offer an explanation for human cultural evolution. Hence he is attempting to push the biological context further away in order to facilitate its use to his benefit.

To further illustrate this point consider his following quote. He states that "notice that this definition, though drawn from biology, says nothing specific about organic molecules, nutrition, or even life." (Dennett. Pg.343)He offers the reader information that implies that the theory in some way was meant to be understood within and outside the realms of biology. By presenting the case pervasively outside a biological context he unintentionally takes the focus away from implications of biology. The very implications that then give rise to the evolution of memes. It seems as though he is trying very hard to separate the two in order to make memes more plausible. However what he doesn't realize is that the biological context strengthens his argument because without it memes would not have come into existence.

Dawkins on the other hand claims more effectively that similar to the process that enabled the existence of genes in an environment of oxygen created by the evolution of plants, memes came into being after the evolution of the brain was conducive to their existence. Hence in some sense we can infer that memes are chronologically a part of the process of evolution. He argues that while "meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genic evolution," but rather "a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection quite exactly," (Dennett. Pg. 345)he suggests that meme evolution is an outcome and part of the process of biological evolution. It is important to note that Dennett's use of language when speaking of Dawkins relays a sense of hesitation. He spends a considerable amount of time explaining his use of Dawkin's theory of memes when it may not have been necessary. To the reader it seems as though he is creating a distance between Dawkins and himself in order to draw on this disclaimer if needed. For example he is skeptical of the creation of a science of memetics while he is rallying for the existence of memes. This internal contradiction is somewhat problematic to a reader, especially one that is learning about memes for the first time.

By presenting the idea of memes in a comparative way, Dennett and perhaps others that have written about memes, miss the most important point. This significance being that meme evolution as an outcome of biological evolution is more plausible because it takes into accounts a development of biology that facilitates the existence of memes. Therefore memes understood to be learnt behavior can be viewed as being biological in the sense that the brain developed the capacity to generate memes and transmit them upon other brains. This logic while not absent in Dennett's book, misses the point by constantly trying to be analogous. By doing so he takes away from the biological basis of meme evolution. This is not to say that memes are biological and physical but rather that their existence was facilitated by biological evolution.

Dennett argues that memes are what make human beings "special." He assumes that the ability to transmit culture makes the homo sapiens in some ways, I dare say, more evolved or differently evolved from other living organisms. This is not to say that I agree with him, but rather the way he uses the word "special" intuitively suggests that human beings are better evolved. This is problematic because biological evolution emphasizes randomness, common descent and lack of purpose, and here we are claiming that memes make us special. This incongruity is troubling. True or not, it is troubling because it brings forth implications of meme evolution that may add to the complexity of how we view meme evolution in light of biological evolution.

Since memes and genes are "just different kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates," (Dennett. Pg.345) doesn't that suggest that human beings are evolving at greater speeds than the rest of the living world. Hence if that is so then has the overall rate of evolution increased for human beings to such a degree that they are now in some sense controlling the evolution of the rest of the living world. After all, selective breeding of certain live stock results in the harnessing of 'better' cattle, genetic engineering helps create desirable genetic characteristics in certain animals and plants while cloning allows us to control what in essence is replicated. Therefore in some sense does this not create purpose? Since human beings are able to control evolution because memes have allowed us to develop intelligence and ideas, is not plausible to say that cultural evolution may have created purpose in biological evolution. This is a dangerous implication. Dennett may not assert this but isn't that a reasonable inference. If memes exist as an outcome of biological evolution, and we can now control evolution in some sense through the rejection and acceptance of memes, are we not in control of our own evolution.

Dennett's universal acid has the power to seduce, convince and amuse but his application in the form of cultural evolution via memes is problematic. While analogies are helpful, they are not literal. Darwin's theory of evolution can be used metaphorically to explain many things but its true place is in biology. While I agree with the notion that biology has everything to do with the existence of memes I do not believe that the analogy is helpful without a biological context. After all Dennett himself admits that "the truly dangerous aspect of Darwin's idea is its seductiveness" (Dennett. Pg.521) and perhaps it is this very "seductiveness" that has led him down this dangerous path. Memes are not an analogy but rather a part of evolutionary biology.


Dennett, Daniel C. 1995. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster

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