Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dawkins and the Fallacy of the Meme

If you've been following this blog, then you'll probably have gathered that I hold Richard Dawkins in pretty high regard. After all, he's one of the people who has made it to my "Some people I admire..." corner. The reason is that he generally presents well-reasoned arguments supported by fact. I think this is why his argument for the gene's eye view of evolution is so strong. It is a strength derived from simplicity.

Genes propagate which are successful at surviving and reproducing. The twin pressures of survival and reproduction vary depending on the demands of the physical environment, the consumable resources available, and the level of competition between varying phenotypes for those resources. The genes--inherent in the genetic combinations embodied by the "gene machines" which carry them--are propagated in direct correlation to how well that body is adapted to the demands on its reproductive and survival capacity. Due to the imperfection of the reproduction process of genes and the cumulative effect of evolutionary pressures over time, diverse species come into existence. This is the essence of our modern understanding of evolution. Having reached this point, I can see how it would be tempting to drive the Darwinian argument even further. I mean once we have established the social behavior of animals as attributable to their genetic make-up and Darwinian pressures not only on their genetics but on their learned behaviors, then I can see how it may become difficult to draw the line on where Darwin ends and psychology begins.

It is at this murky middle ground that Dawkins introduced the idea of the meme. His argument runs that just as genes are units of genetic information which guide how a being is constructed, memes are units of conceptual information, ideas. He holds that evolutionary pressures apply to memes in a way similar to the way in which they apply to genes. This is basically proposing that ideas battle for survival in the same way as genes do. Ideas compete to be propagated by receptive brains.

The error in this analogy should be glaringly obvious and it frankly surprised me when I saw it wedged into his latest book, The God Delusion. I could understand the nature of the thought experiment when it was first introduced in The Selfish Gene back in the 70s. It seemed a playful hypothesis the intent of which was to illustrate how a Darwinian system could apply to other things than genes. Taken as a simple illustration or an analogy I suppose it's harmless enough. But put forth as a serious concept of how ideas come to be in our heads, it is blatantly irresponsible.

The force which eliminates faulty combinations of genes, or gene complexes, is death. The inability to sustain life sufficiently to procreate means that that collection of genes isn't passed on. If a gene complex is arranged such as it is ineffective at procreating it also fails to continue. Death and disfigurement are brutal adjudicators of whether a gene survives or not. The root of how they evolve is in their imperfect reproduction. But the measure by which inefficient genes are eliminated is death.

So, the basic fallacy of memes lies in this. Whereas genes require no conscious adjudicator to evolve, their ability to survive or not is purely decided by the factual constraints of their existence, memes require a conscious adjudicator to reproduce, modify, and also to be negated.
Dawkins vision of the meme paints us as passive receptacles for our ideas just as we are passive receptacles of our genes. The fault should be readily apparent. Whereas I have absolutely nothing I can do about the genes that I have in my body, I actively choose which ideas I adhere to, which ones I bother to propagate, and which ideas I reject and fight against. I choose this. This "I" is my consciousness. And even if this I is reducible to deterministic parts, the self-referential capacity of people's minds to modify and monitor their own internal content is not something which should be passed over so lightly or surrendered so readily as the argument for memes would have us do.

This self-referential capacity is what grants us the power to monitor our ideas, to select them by standards that we set ourselves. That is why it matters little what instincts and genetic persuasions are embedded in our genes. We have the power to choose the ideas, the beliefs, the ideologies we desire to pursue. We have the power to do this, because we are self-referential and self-modifying beings. We, in short, have the power to rise above our genetic limitations. This is what most prominently sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Memes also differ from genes in that memes are non-verifiable. You cannot isolate a meme. You can't test for it. You can't even define it. How much of an idea is a meme? Dawkins tries to cover this by broadening the concept to cover "meme-plexes" Well, this makes as little sense as memes. We arrive at the same question. What is a memeplex? How can you isolate it? How do you even begin to define what one would be in reality? As a scientifically unverifiable concept, it is strange that it should be introduced by an author who has a reputation for scientific rigor.

There is perhaps one possible circumstance under which the meme theory of the propagation of ideas may have some merit. And that would be to describe the manner in which ideas come to be in people who either do not have the ability or lack the capacity to be self-referential or self-modifying, if such people truly do exist. Children , perhaps, could be considered to be in this state and that is a good argument for having special rules to protect them from abuses of their burgeoning conceptual system. For everyone else, the acceptance and survival of ideas is something which is actively decided.

Even as is the case with bad ideas that we held prior to receiving some new piece of information or being introduced to some new perspective that we hadn't been previously aware of, we make a choice as to whether to continue holding our prior belief or to discard it in favor of something new. Yes, this can be traumatic, especially the more deeply held and fundamental the belief in question. But it is done on a regular basis by people every day. The whole long history of science is a documentation of this process. Things which were not known before, were discovered. Answers were actively sought and explanations obtained.

To render the whole history of human thought as a passive process inacted on our brains by some vague undefined process of memes entering our brains without our consent and potentially reworking our mental processes, is to spit in the face of every scientist who has ever contributed to the advance of knowledge, to every person who has ever attempted to advance our comprehension of morality.

In short, it annihilates the very concept of morality. Something which becomes less surprising as one continues reading the God Delusion to see Dawkins' argument for evolutionary morality. He does not waste much time before referring to Kant to back up his claims that altruism is somehow an evolutionary imperative. Something which is ironically diametrically opposed to his entire argument for the gene's eye view of evolutionary theory.

What he insists on calling "reciprocal altruism" may just as easily be labeled "natural capitalism" for it has the same net effect and apparently the same motivations as any parties which would come to work together for mutual advantage. He makes the subsequent logical misstep of sliding between definitions of altruism. He starts with "reciprocal altruism" something which arises out of different creatures developing symbiotic relationships in response to evolutionary pressures and then proceeds to equate this with moral altruism, the belief that it is good to sacrifice oneself to strangers. Cooperation between friends and family which has obvious survival benefits cannot be directly connected to anonymously altruistic behavior. And in order to explain this away, Dawkins says that this is perhaps due to a misfiring of the altruistic protocol in our genes.

This could, perhaps, have saved him from stumbling into the trap he'd set for himself, but he repeatedly marches into the morass of claiming how much better altruism is than selfish pursuits and how science and all creation back him up on it. Unfortunately for Dawkins, his argument for altruism is bound entirely to his careful merging of definitions and a kind of lexical sleight of hand. Despite the word "altruism" being used in two ways, there is absolutely no similarity between observed "reciprocal altruism" as perceived in the biological world and "moral altruism" as promoted by Kant and company. This connection is false, and if an argument is to be made for it, it must be made explicit. I do not accept at face value that altruism is "good". This is simply a clever way to try and avoid justifying the claim.

The unfortunate thing is that this casts a shadow over the entire book. One that I thoroughly enjoyed until I started getting into where Dawkins starts grasping for moral straws from evolutionary science. His arguments against religion are succinct, logical, and damning. Theists will have a hard time convincing anyone who has read this book of the existence of God. And I wager that it will be an encouragement to many others to renounce their belief as irrational.

That is why I cannot understand why he had to try to foist this arbitrary Kantian nihilism into another perfectly salient critique of religion. The only possibility that comes to mind is that he has an ideological agenda apart from that of removing religiosity from its dominating hold on people's lives. Just like Sam Harris had to squeeze in an arbitrary assertion for the legitimacy of torture into his End of Faith, so too has Dawkins had to try and squeeze in an argument for moral altruism into a book on the same subject and with the same goal.

What baffles the imagination is that the issue of severing our subservience to religion is too important to risk in harnessing it to pet political and ideological pursuits especially those which effectively harness the morality of most organized religions and swallows them whole without question. Altruism is the morality of the religious. And religion cannot be swayed effectively until the proponents of reason learn to reject altruism as axiomatic of good. As long as the moral high-ground is effectively surrendered to the institution if not the literal word of religion, then all we can expect is a replay of the tragedies of the 2oth century as many critics rightly point out.

The reason why Dawkins, Harris et all cannot effectively combat the criticism of Stalin, Hitler, Zedong, etc, as being atheists is because they are all inherently committed to the idea that altruism is the moral ideal. Religious institutions are often committed to expressing the same values that they are proposing as being good. Their argument is that the literal teachings of religions are usually brutal, incoherent, and incompatible with modern society, which is true. They handicap their arguments because they don't want to accept the alternative to altruism, which would be objectivist rational self-interest.

They could easily repel the accusations that Stalin, Mao, and Polpot were all atheists. They could do this by pointing out that yes, they were atheists but their brutality was not a factor of their atheism. It was a factor of their altruism and the altruistic systems which they were manipulating. They were thrust into power because of movements that cried for sacrifice for the common good. They were revolutionaries seeking to establish a collectivist utopia on earth, and the sick thing is that they succeeded. Apologists come afterwards to say that well, that's not really how socialism is supposed to work. But the dedication to an altruistic moral ideal is the only unifying explanation that can be used to condemn both the horrors of religious authority and the horrors of secular collectivist authority.

Avoiding this argument leaves proponents of atheism in the much weakened position of claiming that religions are brutal because of their ideas, but that the brutality of atheist regimes stems from their leaders. It is obvious that the brutality stems from the ideas on both sides. The thing that Dawkins does not accept is that the true terror is one that is deeper than religion, it is rooted in altruism. Altruism is the death cult. Altruism is the cause greater than oneself that all can be sacrificed for. Altruism is the greater good for whom Jihad is deemed necessary. If only Dawkins would shift his arguments just a bit deeper and aim at the heart of the problem, then his arguments would be stronger and the cause of atheism would be greatly furthered. Unfortunately, he still chooses to cling to the morality of Christian tradition, even having renounced Christian fables. And the choice he leaves us with ends up not to be that much of a choice after all.


Anonymous said...

I like your argument, and I think you are quite right... unfortunatly you do not understand the very similar flaw in your own argument. Is it not true that by argueing against altruism because it causes harm, you are being altruistic? It is the same fallacy Neiztche falls into. If you really desire rational self interest, why are you trying to teach others to beleive what you beleive to be the truth?

stefan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
American Anti-theist said...

Not at all. I argue against altruism because it does direct harm to me personally and to those I know and love personally. It wrecks the economy, destroys jobs, creates poverty and starvation. If I hope to minimize the impact of these disasters on my own life, it behooves me to do what I can to fight these ideas for my own sake. By standing my ground against these ideas, I am making no sacrifice and potentially gaining great value. I can wholly say that publicly rejecting altruism is the most selfish thing I could possibly do.