Ana Viseu on Sun, 7 May 2000 19:20:20 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> It's not me it's my genes, or is it my memes?

It's not me it's my genes, or is it my memes?

In 1976 Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, in which he lays the
argument that genes replicate, not because that is what is good for us, but
rather because it is what is good for them.  Then, came genetics and DNA,
the source of life. And with genetics we discovered that most of who we
are--at a biological level--is in the hands of our genes. Put simply, genes
are "any hereditary information" and when combined they form DNA. It is the
structure of the DNA that makes each of us be the way we are.

Research in the area of genetics has been in the order of the day for some
time now and most of us are familiar with some aspects of it. But, in one
of the courses I took during last term (on education of all things) I was
surprised to hear about the 'anger gene'.  Apparently, science has found
that anger is caused by a gene.  The conclusion being that if your
3-year-old is prone to bad temper and distress, you should beware because
it may last forever.  However, you can also be relieved, it's not your
fault.  It's his/her genes.

Dawkins also points out that genes are not the only type of replicators,
there are also the memes [1].  Memes, just like genes, are composed of
information, but of a different sort.  Memes live in the infosphere, the
place where cultural evolution takes place [2].  Memes stand to culture, as
genes to biology.  That is, they are the cause and drive of cultural
evolution.  Let's see how it works.  Memes are ideas that replicate
themselves by jumping from brain to brain.  Urban myths--such as the woman
drying up the cat in the microwave--are examples of memetic replication.
The other characteristic of memes is that are 'selfish' (just like genes),
that is, their main interest is to replicate themselves, independent of the
goodness or badness to their hosts.  For example, the idea of 'drinking
'till you drop' is common among university freshmen.  However, this idea
clearly endangers their studies.  Finally, the argument is that there are
far more memes than brains, and thus, "[w]henever there is any spare
thinking capacity memes will come along and use it up"[3].

Not everything thing is a meme. In principle, first person experiences are
not memes.  However, the pervasiveness of memes is so great that it is
impossible to distinguish between what is, and what isn't a meme.  In the
end, "[memes] are the very stuff of our minds.  Our memes is who we are"[4].

Thus, from now, whenever necessary, you should use the greatest excuse of
all: "It's not me!  It's my genes and my memes!"

But, on a more serious level, what are the real implications of such a
(dangerous) approach to the world?

The first, and already stated above, is the de-responsibilization that
comes along with such a view.  If not we but the memes themselves are
responsible for their replication then who is the accountable actor: the
individual, or the meme?

The second, and as important, is the increasing de-humanization of our
environment (and of ourselves).  By de-humanization I mean the loss of the
sense of the "whole".  By constantly dividing the person into small
independent units, the meaning of personhood is lost.  As Steven Talbott
puts it--in the field of medicine--by paying so much attention to the genes
in the microscope we seem to have lost the patient [5].

This leads directly into the third point, that of the reduction to
information.  If we are but our genes and memes, and these are composed of
information, then it follows that we are also information.  In a talk given
at the McLuhan Program Paul Levinson stated that the digital divide is not
between those who have access and those who don't, but rather between that
which can be digitized and that which can't.  Well, if we are nothing but
information then we can certainly be assembled and reassembled at will.  In
a way its a reversal of the hopes expressed some years ago about new
technologies.  Back then the hope was that new technologies with their
networking features, would reconnect us to ourselves, and thus enhance the
human in us.  Apparently, however, it is us who become more and more
digital, and virtually expressed in a language of 1s and 0s.  It is us who
become a social prosthesis for the virtual.

The supremacy of information is certainly not new.  We have all heard that
we live in an information society, where information is the main asset.
But, in order for information to become knowledge--that is for information
to be of any use--it needs to be interpreted.  This implies, that
information can never be neutral it contains meaning.  Well, the same for
our memes.  Dennett argues that "what is preserved and transmitted in
cultural evolution is information--in a media-neutral, language neutral
sense" [6].  But neither language nor the media can ever be neutral, the
simple fact that I write these lines giving them a 'public shape' radically
changes their content.

If this is true, then the idea of memes fighting with memes for the sake of
memes sounds implausible.  The fact of the matter is that what gives
meaning to information is the fact that we are not isolated individuals but
rather social beings who live in communities with certain social practices
and dynamics.  We are not (and should not be) passive receivers of these
practices, but rather active (re)producers and, this activity implicates
choice and responsibility.

[1] For more information see Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, (1999) and
Daniel Dennett, Darwin's dangerous idea, (1991).  Blackmore represents the
'strong meme' stand, for her just about everything can, and should, be
explained by memetic logic.  Blackmore advocates that we, ourselves are
nothing but a memeplex (a group of coadapted memes) to which she gives the
name of selfplex.  Thus, all our expressions of individuality are indeed a
victory of a successful meme.  Dennett stands for a 'softer meme' version.  
[2] Dennett, p.  347 
[3] Blackmore, p.  41 
[4] Ibid, p.  22; see also Dennett, pp.  367-368.  
[5] Talbott, lecture at CFP 2000.  See also his book (1995).  
[6] Dennett, pp.  353-354

Tudo vale a pena se a alma nao e pequena.

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