By Michael J. Smith on Friday December 9, 2011 09:37 PM

Is it really true that we owe the term 'meme' to this horrible, horrible man, one Richard Dawkins by name? If so, I now feel entirely justified in the deep distrust I have always felt towards this notion, and my instinctive reluctance to use the word.

Comments (59)


Yes it is true.

Al Schumann:

The "meme" is the linguistic version of the "selfish gene". It's a ravenous concept that exists, metaphorically, to eat the brains of its hosts and thus secure the strength to propagate.

Clinton Richard Dawkins: one purveyor of the greatest false dichotomy unknown to human-osis


Even re-reading that incoherent piffle you spouted last time about Dawkins, it's hard to understand such balderdash - you and Cockburn, off the rails on religion and other ersatz populist buncombe.
You don't like "meme" - fine, what else gets your unreflective goat?


Al has it by the cubes

of copurse any poor spirit that doesn't ge a nice zing to the snapses
from this brutal reverse reification
must have a very low voltage
and sadly plod-ing and dim
neuron network inside their skull

my heros
on the socio biologic right left front

like friend of humanity
generative noam
and kold shouldered herr der trivers
or even that earnest cracker A O hotspot
find this sort of flirtation
with a zero mentalese model..
dull not daring

like lockean emperiogenetic neotodes
-- monads as go go nads ??--

let us rather
dance to the music of such virtual molecules

a shandyian frolic


chief joseph
on war path in tea pot again

A doubly happy coincidence floating in my corner of the ether this morning:


has a dry crypt like sense of humor
and always did
so far as i know

no not cryptic davidly ....crypt like

but he's a fine speller and daring sportsman


Yeah, mjosef is always welcome. A nice distinctive palate-clearing snarl, like the krummhorn or barpfeife in a Baroque orchestra.

Owen has pointed out to me, off-site, that the 'meme' is really a perfect thing for Dawkins to have invented, and I have to agree; it must seem maddening to him that thinking can't be reduced to ontologically privileged atoms, like his notion of the genome.

I (daring speller and indifferent sportsman) would like to mention in this context the excellent Andrew Brown's excellent book The Darwin Wars. So I have.


ahh could ya send me your copy johnny !!

i'm a bit short on decent library buildings here
in lower sakhalin

MJS: seems to be asking $35,000 and change for a copy. Must be quite a book, but a little rich for my blood.


Yeah, that was just a remote blast of jackassery from me - SMBIVA is beyond reproach, even if I have reproached it myself biliously from time to time - it's an enduring work of art, and you deserve your own line of T-shirts and mugs, at least - always brilliant, if wrong on a few matters in my nihilistic eyes.


i used to root for this jouster

richard lewontin
a man honestly trying to apply
the dialectic
to the foundations of biology

but on a long train ride
back to boston in the mid 90's
i found him exceedingly unconvincing
and exceeedingly over-anxious to refute
the genetic "determinists"
as if sweetness and light depended on it

as if preventing a second holocaust
might depend on stamping out
the socio biologists

yes the socio bio types
like bobby trivers
use stupid logic tricks
and make claims exceedingly beyond
the writ of these mechanical toys
i find that harmless enough
if held at arms length
exactly as signifigant
as the sterile "theorems "
of us econ cons


The difference, Owen, is that nobody believes the economists. But it's amazing how many people cherish a fideistic conviction that it's all written in the genes -- inequality in particular.

Al Schumann:

The "evolutionary psychologists" are, if not the worst of the lot, then certainly the most fatuous. An ev-psych analysis of their shuck suggests a cuckoo strategy—brood parastism. They freeload on biologists in order to propagate. The poor things have to do it. They're obligate freeloaders. It's imprinted on their genes.


Amazing how many species of cuckoos there are. Clearly a sound strategy. They're almost as numerous as 'studies' departments.


Al and father write so cleverly
you could forget to carve up their phrases
into units
and extract the raw memes inside each units shell
of course if these units are illusaionary products of pre existent paradigms in the carvers head
who knows what bloody morbib impact such analysis really has
the final work product of
the quixote hallucination endemic
to all platonic-atomic scientists
may well be purely mortifying

the dialecticquantum
escapes thru the improbalities but not impossibilities
of alocational existence

think superposition and
"i am sparticus ..i am sparticus " gigs


" inequality in particular. "

i find that off shoot
entirely non troubling to the dialectic that
makes it look like a prat fall

i'm in back ground
a johnny edwards guy
so to me
"why not a bad roll of the genes most times "

ya box cards and crap outs are rare

but say only six elevens in a row
predestinate one of us as able
to ignite
into lights on to the hideous mass
of the most of us

so what ??

suits me fine
if it has surely proved exceedingly troublesome
in its carnal consequence over the millenia

i see limitless possibility
in the flow of new generations
and the part no matter how glowing
as no more then darkness
yes nothing
without the necessary whole

the distinction between born equal and equally free and independent
so dear to the deplorable john adams
and other such post calvinist
lovers of predestinate meme-shines
only more deeply enforces
the imperative of mob justice


Questions for the He-Man socio-bio-haters club here:
What the hell? Religion vs. theoretical biology - you're on the wingnut side?
You are to deny the effects of hunter-gatherer existence upon us hairy-knuckled descendents?
Al and MJS seem in a stained-glass vestry of their own, and I don't get the rituals. Dawkins is "horrible, horrible," in their eyes, for the precise crimes of what again? Defiling their grandmothers?

Al Schumann:

That's the wrong dichotomy. Sociobiology is a collection of Just So stories, with a veneer of sociology and biology, but no serious inquiry. The rhetoric that comes out of ignores, among many important things, the origins of cellular life—symbiosis, no "selfish" genes involved—and the influence of the environment on genes themselves. You could get a good roll of the genetic dice and still wind up being born in a toxic catastrophe. The successful strategies posited and chewed over in sociobiology are highly contingent. Social outcome by and large depends on being born to the right parents.

Wingnut religion can pass as religion, I suppose, although it too is a collection of self-congratulatory Just So stories. The sermons in the wealthy wingnut churches have no spirit of inquiry. They're crude pandering, with a dollop of sanctimony. The focus is on emotional gratification. There's no struggle to understand the sublime and divine.

Peter Ward:

Steven Rose gives Dawkins' biology a good debunking in Lifelines. There's also a satisfying youtube debate out there-I don't have the means to easily link as I'm posting from a phone but it should googleable).


It's amazing how many on the left cherish the misconception that evolutionary psychology means "it's all written in the genes". They're incapable of understanding Dawkins et al because they're too busy defending their ideological convictions about human behavior against the scary straw man they've constructed.


Dawkins is always quite careful to 'caveat' -- as Al Haig might have said -- that he's not a genetic determinist. And of course every halfway informed person acknowledges, for the record, that the expression of the genome is greatly dependent on environment. It's really a question of emphasis, and of feeding a vulgar genetic determinism which really does have a huge grip on the public imagination, and deeply reactionary implications.

Owen's point about the dissimilarity of innate endowments is similarly uncontroversial as stated. But sociobiology goes well beyond that and seeks -- actively *seeks*, which gives the game away -- to find a basis for actually existing human institutions in the genome. Now of course there is no actual empirical evidence for any such claim; but people love to hear it, and of course the people who love to hear it most are, strangely enough, the people who benefit the most from those actually existing institutions.


I checked out the video of that allegedly "horrible, horrible man," and I don't think I was looking at a Pope, at Rick Warren, at Tony Blair, at Michael Shermer - two men were talking amiably, no support for the Unseen Hand or Kathryn Sebelius arising from their cordial professorialisms, so the neural circuits that are located within my head are clicking as usual - move along, nothing to fear.
Religion, on the other hand, is just a waste product. I understand it's the backdrop for some fine church organs and stately windows, but as for the rest of its noxious duties, why not cancel the tax breaks?


" actively *seeks*, which gives the game away "

agreed whole heartedly
but alas i see our side straining as well

i note joe joe seems to mis take the grounds of this debate

it is at the fronteer of discourse
strictly secular even materialist
on both sides
my point
skinner was a target of these early innate-ists

what really is at stake here ??
the church had 2 millenia over the theologians version of this debate

acute minds that at best
decided to call it a mystery

obviously for us dialecticians
we sense deep fundemental contradictions at work here

pelagian or augustinian

the social construction of "human being"
can swallow any degree
of pre wiring or non pre wiring
a chaotic intricacy
that hardly amounts to the neo tabula rasa
orwell feared
and ole B F worshipped
i have a conviction at some level
brain washers couldn't robotize me
but that hardly catapaults me into mr wilson's arms

Al Schumann:
It's amazing how many on the left cherish the misconception that evolutionary psychology means "it's all written in the genes".

I think ev-psych has proponents who are slightly more sophisticated than that. They reach for a psychology of human behaviors, perceptions, institutions etc. that are rooted in the evolution of the species. Or at any rate in their understanding of the evolution of the species. Some of it is superficially appealing—e.g. xenophilia keeps the gene pool fresh. It's nice as far as it goes. But it's still a Just So story.

As for the rest of your comment, I think your monkey brain resorts to poo flinging in an effort to attract mates.

no not cryptic davidly ....crypt like
Is that "No, not cryptic, davidly" or "No not cryptic-davidly (as in cryptic, like davidly"??

Be it the former, thanks for the lesson, be it the latter, then it must be a compliment, coming from the master.

And, look, I know I am out of my league here, but my comment near the top of this section was - what is that Latin phrase for "that which was to be proven"? mjosefw came right along with it with:
What the hell? Religion vs. theoretical biology - you're on the wingnut side?

And all this talk of "whichever dichotomy" one's barking up seems, to me, to lend support to two wanting paths of inquiry. But since I'm already over my head, I sure as hell ain't gonna suggest an alternative devoid of crypticism.



just so story versus myth
that would be a nice sewt of rankings and distinctions

i think one can keep following back in time
the evolutionary bouncing ball
long enough and it just becomes
another word for nature's historical determinism
a a priori schematic that opts out of axiomatizing

which unlike just so stories
never ties it all up
in a satisfactory way

with evolution as your paradigm
at some point back there you get
one of these sort of stage direction

" act one:
"in the beginning was the ..."

and that set of initial conditions laid out in third person omnipotent
simply remains an un caused given
as shamefully self exposing
of a concealed positivism
as the axiom of choice
is of a concealed indeterminacy

"we hold these givens to be in evidence
if not in any sense self evident "


"I'm already over my head"

no no no
stay under lad

hold your breath and swim around some

we're all submerged in an alien element here

the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth
is a hazardous environment for a hu-brain
it lacks the readily appropriated oxygen
of falsehood
one finds up there in plein air


Sociobio "just so" stories *are* myth -- of a cheap Brummagem kind, with a reactionary agenda. If you're going to go for myth, go for the good stuff. And pick something that at least cuts both ways.


So much going on in this thread. I'll try to categorize:

1. Dawkins vs. religion: mjosefw wins this argument at 5:47. MJS is holding Dawkins to a standard he refuses to bring to bear on the superstitious trolls he's attacking. That being said, yes, nothing Dawkins has to say about religion is worth reading. He's not a philosopher, he's a biologist.

2. Dawkins as an evo-psych fabulist: I've never read anything by Dawkins in which he commits the cardinal sins of evo-psych determinism. Everything I've read by him in this arena is well supported and disclaimed appropriately. Perhaps I've missed the books where he goes off the rails into Steve Pinker just-so-story territory... any links?

3. Dawkins and "memes": The Selfish Gene is a careful and fascinating piece of scholarship. The last chapter is a bit of a lark, with Dawkins musing on a way of looking at the world where human beings are pawns being manipulated by two orthogonal sets of "selfish replicators": genes and "memes", which is to say cultural artifacts that propagate themselves blindly in a process analogous to the genetic reproduction he has spent the rest of the book exploring. It's amusing and interesting, but not sufficient basis for -- nor intended to be -- a rigorous, scientific description of observable phenomena. Given those caveats, I think the "meme" idea is useful within its very tight limits and not beyond.

They are barely beginning to understand epigenetics, and yet we have SocioDarwinBiology and EvAesopPsych pretending it doesn't exist, to say nothing of the accompanying constant confusion of correlation/contribution with single-factor causation.

In any event, here's a question: Can anybody name a single "finding" from SB/EP that is anything more than an amusing, possibly true anecdote? What contribution have these endeavors ever made, other than as entertainment?

Al Schumann:

That brings some damn good clarity, MD. I don't object to good-humored entertainment posing as answers and inquiry, provided it's not passed off as definitive. Make-believe can be fun and a good mental exercise.


There's nothing good-humored about Dawkins; he really thinks that something called 'science' has The Answers. Or will have them, next week at the latest.

One really hates to wake up in bed with Karl Popper, but he did make a good point about evolutionary theory. No sensible person doubts that it's true, in a big-picture sense, but it's quite unusual for it to give an evolutionary explanation of anything very specific that's capable of being supported or refuted by actual evidence.

It's a little like Marxism that way. Both are immensely valuable, indispensable even, but evolutionary theory doesn't explain why the peacock has a gaudy tail and thrushes don't, any more than Marxism explains why the US invaded Iraq.

Trying to push a big-picture theory down into the specific traits of a given species -- like H. sapiens -- is like trying to study the Coriolis effect in your bathtub.

Yet of course one knows Marxists -- sometimes people who have been Marxists for decades -- who still expect something called 'Marxism' to explain everything. So perhaps one needs to cut the Dawkinsonians some slack -- poor superstitious creatures that they are.


Censoring ideas you don't agree with? The hypocrisy at this site really is off the charts.

Chuckles the Bozo:

The Selfish Gene is a careful and fascinating piece of scholarship.

The standards of the modern era are pitiful and non-discriminatory, but at least they let idiots feel informed, and fantasists feel expert.

Al Schumann:
Censoring ideas you don't agree with? The hypocrisy at this site really is off the charts.

Yes, that's exactly what happened. The blog writers got together and decided your ideas were too powerful to be allowed expression. There's no hypocrisy involved, however. SMBIVA is strongly in favor of censorship, which is why you found it so easy to post a complaint about being censored.


I can't improve on Al's magisterial irony, so I'll drop back to literality. I almost never remove a comment from this site; haven't done so in years. There are very extreme circumstances in which I will do it, so never say never. But certainly anonymous has not been the victim of any censorship on my part. I suspect a performance error on his or her part in following that brain-dead anti-spam measure we have here.


To equate atheist admiration of Dawkins with the "superstitions" of religious dopes is nonsense. While I admit to being way behind on the science curve, I grant it primacy, as Alex Rosenberg so deftly advances in his argument-ending "The Atheist Guide to Reality." No, "science" does not have all The Answers, but its answers the ones that remain and are in place as we stumble around this mortal coil.
What else is there to adduce physical reality? The bleatings of Bach? Your corner grocer's animadversions? New age folderol from Charles Eisenstein? Religious musings from our criminal Ivies?

Al Schumann:

Sociobiology isn't science. It meets none of the criteria. The way it's carried out stands in direct opposition to science. If you're attempting to adduce anything at all with it, you're worse than the flat earthers. They, at least, won't be taken seriously. No one is going to advocate policy based on flat earth theories. But they will line up eagerly for the junk science and misanthropy of sociobiology.

While I still can't think of a single example of somebody taking an SB/EP story and making it the basis for a distinct intervention in the world, I do think Al is onto something when he says its does still have an effect. Somehow, it serves as an excuse for a policy of doing nothing to alter present trends. "Who are we to mess with evolution?," seems to be the overall suggestion of the fable-making. Social Darwinism without the embarrassing old starting claims?

Personally, I don't really hate Dawkins's efforts to go straight against religion. I'm not a fan of his style, and also wonder if he isn't overselling the point a bit, but I much prefer him in this mode to his gene-ocentric one.

While I admit to being way behind on the science curve, I grant it primacy
Maybe the two things are not unrelated? Thinking of 'science' as a belief system (rather than a practice) misunderstands science. Of course sociobiology is in fact a belief system and consequently bears no resemblance whatsoever to science.
Al Schumann:

Fromm's demolition of the Stanford Prison thing might help convey the points MJS and MD have made. There's a good chunk of that on the web.

It covers familiar ground. Zimbardo attempted to prove a thesis, not test it. He ignored relevant, high quality data. He left out important results. He broke with the improved , in vivo standard of conducting experimentation in his field. What he did, in short, was not meaningful science. It was junk. What's worse, it received enough acclaim to become part of the canon and the conclusions form the basis for misanthropic ideology.

More recently, the late Stephen Gould repeatedly demolished Pinker, pointing out—among other things— that a psychology based on evolutionary theory requires an understanding of the growth of the theory. You can't just pick what suits your thesis and toss the rest aside.

Chuckles the Bozo:

Thinking of 'science' as a belief system (rather than a practice) misunderstands science.

Not really.

Science undergoes paradigm shifts where prior "truths" are seen to be mere beliefs, often unfounded or founded in superstition, mistaken assumption, or plain misunderstanding of the physical world.

Popper v Kuhn is all about this.

Al Schumann:

Science as an institution definitely partakes of that. The paradigm shifts are the politics of science. There are sunk costs to be defended, funding to protect, careers to be preserved and egos as fragile as they are big. Consensus can be compelling when bucking it means a nasty dose of socially constructed reality.

Chuckles the Bozo:



One has dimly heard of this guy Kuhn, somewhere.

Of course 'science' is an institution as well as a practice; and even qua practice, it has a -- what's the word -- dialectical character.

But then of course the same could be said for religion. Quite a can of worms here.

Al Schumann:

Amongst those worms, I spotted one that really bothers the friends of science. It's the authoritarians effort to give their willfully stupid assertions of faith equal or greater standing than a disciplined process of inquiry into the natural world.


Is there any such thing as a 'disciplined process of inquiry', Al? Or is that (as I suspect) a contradiction in terms -- if it's disciplined, it isn't inquiry?

Experimentation and research are fairly hard work, of course, and one needs to get up early in the morning and put in a full day to be any good at them. But is that the kind of 'discipline' you meant?

Method depends on the subject matter and the current state of knowledge.

Al Schumann:

In this context, experimentation and research describe part of what I'm getting at much better than disciplined. Though the other part, especially as a contradiction in terms, is a felicitous description. There's something antinomian to the more strident schools of atheism: rigorous disbelief is their cornerstone of salvation.


I posted the same comment twice on consecutive days, the second time getting a "held for moderation" message. When neither comment appeared I posted the comment above assuming it'd at least be read by whoever blocked the others. Letting it through was a nice touch.


It's always religion on the brain when high-minded sniffling types set about to tut-tut over those pesky hardass atheists:
"the more strident schools of atheism: rigorous disbelief is their cornerstone of salvation."

"Salvation," of course, is a ten-bit theosophic word - nobody on the other side of the river knows what the hell it refers to, but if you mean some atheists think being an atheist is number one on the hit list, when it definitely is, but then must be accompanied, as Alex Rosenberg - read the book, pals - says, it leads straight to the hardest of the hard cores: nihilism, of the nice kind.
I understand that this debate was really about "Just So" claims from sociobiology, and though I am enjoying "Sex at Dawn," a great out-of-nowhere socio-biologic "bestseller," I do get that there is a dearth of real, fermion-level evidence for the field, which is why I'm a dabbler.

It's akin to the James Randi operation, this Dawkinsian atheism. By being so strident and grandiose, and by coining identity-badges like "brights" and "skeptics," these campaigners encourage their fans to gloat and revel -- and remain transfixed -- by a conclusion more perceptive or less personally coerced souls might have made in about 5th grade.

Dumping God is a precursor, and not always even a necessary one.


Wow, what a mess. I'm seeing empiricism equated with scientism, rigorous evolutionary theory being equated with just-so-story evopsych, and criticism of superstitious barbarism equated with, well, superstitious barbarism. I mean, I used to beat the new-age Tom Kuhn drum along with the best of them, but this is just a whole new level of voodoo here in this comment thread.

Here's a quick probe to see if there's anyone here who actually disagrees with my last post out of something other than gross ignorance:

What specific claims or arguments made in The Selfish Gene are in error? Also: do you have any idea what the book is about? (Hint: it's not about sociobiology, or about humans at all. In fact, the whole point of the book is to propose a shift in thinking about selective pressures, away from the organism or species level, to the gene level. But you know that, right? Please tell me you know that.)


I know that. I read the book. Some time ago, admittedly, when it first came out.

Chuckles the Bozo:

Sadly there is no evidence whatever that genes propagate behaviors. There is only theory. And the theory is well-loved by those self-satisfied "highbrows" who hate religion -- they praise Dicky D because he parades his atheism, and this gives the soi dissant religio-hater a chance to identify with a Popular Theorist whose intellectual horsepower is assumed to be superior to most of humanity.

Greatness by affiliation, in other words.

And this is no substitute for rigor, nor for objectivity.

Dicky D is a fine exemplar of confirmation bias, but you won't hear that from Reputable Theorists in Science because instead of practicing science they are playing at politics.

Once again -- Copernicus!

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