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There's no "I" in "meme". Brodie claims to get it, but his writing shows otherwise.
on September 6, 2014
I've read Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene" and Blackmore's "The Meme Machine", both of which I found to be extremely interesting and consistent explanations of memetics. Much food for thought. Looking for more, I came to Brodie's "Virus of the Mind". What a disappointment! Brodie gets the details right in some places, but seems to completely miss the big picture throughout.
He got my hopes up at the beginning of chapter 2 when he said "In this book I'm going to write as though ALL your behavior is dictated by a combination of the instructions in your DNA and the mental programming you acquired as you grew up: your genes and your memes." Aside: Not all mental programming is memetic. As Blackmore notes, some modes of learning are not based on imitation. Brodie continues "Some people believe there's a third factor in there: a soul, a spirit, a little "me! me! me!" demanding recognition as something more than machinery. ... we don't have to resolve that particular philosophical issue right here, since either belief works fine for understanding memetics and this book."
If only Brodie had stayed true to his promise not to invoke any "third factor". However, though he may not even be aware of it, Brodie's writing (and indeed his entire premise that people can take control of their own mental programming) presupposes the existence of a "third factor"; something that is apart from the mind and yet can control it; something that can select or reject new memes, uninfluenced by those it has already acquired.
There are many examples in his writing. I will highlight just a few:
Brodie says "Will we allow natural selection to evolve us randomly, without regard for our happiness, satisfaction, or spirit? Or will we seize the reins of our own evolution and pick a direction for ourselves? Memetics gives us the knowledge and power to direct our own evolution more than we've ever done at any time in history."
If ALL our behaviour is dictated by genes and memes, how can "we" seize the reins? "We" are just a combination of genes and memes, so if "we" have the reins, doesn't that just mean our genes and memes have the reins? If Brodie is suggesting that there is anything else but genes and memes to hold the reins, wouldn't it be a "third factor" by definition? Blackmore correctly asserts that there is no third factor... only genes and memes competing to replicate in an environment consisting in part of other genes and memes.
Brodie says "I choose to program myself with memes that support my values in life rather than ones that support the agendas of viruses of the mind."
If ALL our behavior is dictated by genes and memes, what does it mean to say "I choose to program myself...". There is no "I" to do the choosing or the programming. There are only genes and memes. As Blackmore illuminates in "The Meme Machine", the "self" (the feeling that we are authors of our own thoughts... the feeling that we act "consciously"... the feeling of "free will") is just an illusion created by the memes we've acquired. "I" cannot reprogram myself any more than I can choose what thoughts will next arise in my mind.
Brodie says "Consciously spreading ideas you consider important is one way to combat mind viruses."
If ALL our behaviour is dictated by genes and memes, what can it possibly mean to have "ideas you consider important"? There is no "you" (in the sense Brodie uses the term) to consider which ideas are important. You are just genes and memes. The perceived importance of any idea (meme) you hold is dictated by its compatibility with the other memes you have acquired. All your memes are competing to be considered "important".
I think anyone who has read and understood Blackmore's "The Meme Machine" would agree that Brodie's notion that we can somehow gain control of our own mental programming (ie guide our own memetic evolution), uninfluenced by our existing memes, is entirely inconsistent with the theory of memetics. As Blackmore says, "Instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and working for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working only to get themselves copied".
I am not saying that an understanding of memetics will not benefit people in the ways Brodie hopes. It may very well do so. But it will not be for the reason he implies: that after learning about memetics people can consciously choose to reprogram themselves. It will be because people have been infected by yet another meme (the memetics meme), the presence of which may make them a welcoming host to certain memes a hostile host to others.
By Blackmore's reasoning, ALL memes are "Viruses of the mind" in a sense. They are all selfish replicators, trying to take control of their host in order to get themselves copied to yet another mind. That's what I originally thought Brodie meant by his title. I was disappointed to find otherwise.
To anyone considering reading "Virus of the Mind", I highly recommend reading Susan Blackmore's "The Meme Machine" first. Sam Harris's "Free Will" would be a good choice too (he does an admirable job of debunking the myth of "self" and "free will" without even mentioning memes). Then you will be well prepared (ie infected with the right memes) to see all the flaws in Brodie's arguments.