Thursday, June 27, 2013

New Dawkins video mocks meme theory

(Via Friendly Atheist)

For those disinclined to watch videos, here's a condensed summary.  Richard Dawkins talks about genetic evolution, and analogizes it to memetic evolution.   Then he says internet memes have "hijacked" the original idea of memes, because internet memes are intentionally designed with human creativity.  Then the video takes a sudden turn into internet meme territory, with floating brains, rainbows, and auto-tuning.  Dawkins finishes off the piece with an electric clarinet solo as a loch ness monster eats a dolphin.

I initially thought that someone simply took a video of one of Dawkins' recent talks, and made some creative edits, but in fact the whole thing was staged with Dawkins' help to introduce The Saatchi & Saatchi New Director's Showcase, a film festival.  The theme this year was "Just for Hits".  It's a very clever performance piece.  If it was intended to get lots of hits as a way of fulfilling the theme, good show!  In fact, the main problem with the video seems to be that it might overshadow the rest of the festival.

On the substantive content of the video: I've said before that I dislike meme theory, because it's essentially a social pseudoscience invented by Richard Dawkins, who has no social science expertise.  Via Will in the Skepchick comments, it seems that anthropologists hate meme theory even more than I do.

Since the show was staged, that raises the question of whether Dawkins was being sincere in his comments about memes. In my post criticizing memes, I had dug up an interview with Dawkins which suggested that he doesn't take memes very seriously:
"My enthusiasm for it was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture," [Dawkins] said. "It was always intended to be a way of dramatizing the idea that a Darwinian replicator doesn't have to be a gene."
I'm not sure if this statement is entirely consistent with Dawkins' actions, since apparently he was on an advisory board for the now-discontinued Journal of Memetics.  But I accept that Dawkins may have gone back and forth on this issue.

Whether Dawkins' comments were sincere or not, I felt they were ridiculous (though maybe not as ridiculous as the second half of the video).  He seemed to be saying that internet memes weren't proper memes as he had originally intended them, because people were designing them intentionally.  How is this different from any other examples of memes?  Aren't all meme transformations designed?

This seems like another thing to add to the long list of problems with meme theory.  When ideas and culture transform, it is not random mutation followed by directed selection.  The mutation process itself appears to follow non-random trajectories influenced by historical events, trends, as well as individual creative agents.

My issues with meme theory did not cause me to dislike the video.  On the contrary, it was hilarious and thought-provoking.


Anonymous said...

What if instead of looking at "memes" as an EXPLANATION of human behavior, you look at it as a simplistic analogy, just a tool that lets some people gain a bit of insight without having to explain too much. In some ways, "genes" are also just a simplified analogy compared to the in-depth and extremely complicated stuff that actually happens with DNA and proteins and so on.

"Memes" still wouldn't be anything close to resembling a description of the entirety of cultural development, but they could at least still be a useful tool then, perhaps?

I'm just sort of talking in a stream at this point, but I am wondering if that's basically all "memes" were ever intended to be.

miller said...

I'm not sure what Dawkins' original intention was, but we can plainly see that memes are a useful idea. It's just that their main use has been informally describing a variety of internet phenomena, and not describing larger-scale cultural development.

miller said...

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