Sometimes scientists seem obliged to ask silly and deceitful-sounding questions. We must keep in mind that real scientists have spent the better part of a decade or longer going to school to learn to ask those irritating questions, and argue for and against what seem like idiotic viewpoints, however much they may remind us of certain seven year old children. Those questions are part of a ritual that belongs to a necessary ongoing process as a series of events they must perform whenever new subject matter has been presented to their midst. Once they have determined for themselves if it is important enough to bother, then rid themselves of all the ghosts that might rise up from hidden closets to bite them, and beaten the bushes free of all the goblins they suspect to be hidden there, they can then get on to more important matters. Memetics, being somewhat new, is still undergoing that process.
For science to develop memes about memes, they must undergo a process that, because it may be seen as self-referencing, could become particularly hazardous. They could screw it up with one brief statement that would take a hundred years to get undone. Look at what happened to hedonism just because Epicurus, more than 2000 years ago, lacked the concepts found in modern medicine and biology, and so failed to assemble a complete and cogent picture. This could be one of the most important topics to undergo scientific scrutiny since the inception of evolution, and has stirred up its share of quiet, almost surreptitious controversy. It could increase our understanding of how our minds work. A growing number of books and papers have been published but, still, very few members of the public-at-large have ever heard anything about memes or memetics.
Of those who have, a large percentage feel threatened and defensive. I recall reading a page on the Internet that a person purporting to be a Buddhist had written, describing Buddhism as being ‘not a meme’ because Buddhists do not proselytize and coerce others into joining their ranks or go to wars against members of other religions. I appreciated his statements, and have enjoyed the pleasant company I have shared with Buddhists in my lifetime. Still, Buddhism is a imemeplex (as Susan Blackmore named packets of memes, or meme-complexes) that, because it does not so deeply incite emotions, is simply less viral than other religious beliefs. Proselytization or not, people still accredit information about it, and adopt it if it fits their needs along with memes already hosted.
In spite of Susan Blackmore’s effort to discredit the idea of contagious memes, being viral is not necessarily a bad trait. It is, in fact, a one-word description of memes that have become effective at the act of replication, which is what memes do. Memes become contagious, or they die out. They have no choice in the matter. Memes become viral because they attract humans to ‘catch’ them, and so, good or bad, they must appeal to human nature to succeed, or learn to ride in a passive way on the backs of other memes. Our heads get full of them, both symbiotic and parasitic, because most are contagious to someone.
In their efforts to justify and limit memetics to the notion of acquiring them only by obvious acts of imitation, previous writers appear to have gone out of their ways to nullify the value of innovation in the generation of memes. Surely we cannot disagree they are passed on by imitation, but where do they come from? The argument so far has allowed mutated mistakes or trial and error to be responsible for the creation of all new memes, and saying the large brains we possess were developed because we needed them only for the complicated processes involved in doing imitations. Most of us are not good imitators.
Most of evolution has advanced not in a smooth flow like imitation/mutation would exhibit, these people are quick to alert us, but in wide plateaus with unexpected changes. Why should the evolution of memetics be different from the rest of existence? I will acknowledge we build upon all that has gone before, and use the tools we already possess for the purpose of making new kinds of tools, but have none of these people ever set down in a quiet place to do the pondering required for an act of innovation? Does living in an ivory loft so insulate one from the vagaries most of us face in life that they do not know how much easier simple imitation is, than to come up with an original solution to a difficulty one is facing?-to ask the question, “How do I deal with this?” and contrive a unique answer derived from what we already know? Protected people may never have experienced that process and realized the joy that accompanies its success. My diplomas are written in the lines formed on my tired bare hands, exactly the way of most common folks with whom I’ve worked. Few of us would trade lives with any of those who devalue ours, when their pronouncements seem to so strongly indicate their humdrum lack of real experiences. C’mon, people, liven up!
Blackmore pointed out that making tools by trial and error is not an easy undertaking, and that people could be taught the various required tasks. So, who was the first teacher?-an innovator? Someone had to figure them all out at the beginning, even if one step at a time: Would not the first person to cogitate relationships and realize the possibilities of designing and forming a stone tool be the one using the most brain power? It would seem apparent at first blush, but the argument will be that he or she merely imitated stones found in nature that worked to perform a task. Okay, then: Who had the brain power?-the first one to observe how to make a certain stone perform a task, even if by accident?-or those who first learned the tasks required to make copies?-or those to whom they taught their innovative new skills? How about those doing advanced work that required tools in the first place? This may seem like nit-picking, but I have a point to make that involves the evolution of events and processes, and I want you to be able to come back here and pick out the steps involved in the origination of memes and see that they are a natural occurrence and a necessary step that evolution must take as a “blind” force working toward its apparent goal.
If humanity can accept memes as a product of nature, that would have no effect on reality beyond our understanding of it and how humanity would then treat it. Seeing a god as an invisible component of reality might prompt development of a science-based religion that could put a whole new face on humanity’s destructive mistreatment of our home planet, our fellow creatures, and each other.