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Monday, October 7, 2013


If Richard Dawkins is the father of Memetics, Susan Blackmore is the mother.  Her book The Meme Machine laid a foundation for meme theory, demonstrating how neuroscience and social science converge in the transmission of ideas.

Towards the end of her book Blackmore writes a well-developed critique of the Western memeplex of the 'self'.  The construction of Chapters 17 & 18 lead readers to examine this particular memeplex instead of a deeper analysis of memeplex origins, context and cultural saturation. 
Blackmore offers a counter-weight to our all-pervasive Western self-plex by introducing her readers to the Eastern non-self-memeplex.  She highlights how the non-self-memeplex is more in line with neuroscience and how it is a beneficial memeplex to her.  Thus a reader could easily interpret it as a plug for Buddhist philosophy, crossing the line from scientific text to religious tract.

Blackmore may not have intended this.  She may have simply wished to offer an insight and a cultural critique to an idea Westerners take for granted.  But the impression still stands.  It ends as a self-help text.

In the East, the non-self-plex has been as pervasive as the self-plex in the West.  Both shored up feudalism.  Both provided a core idea through which high-control groups (monasteries, ashrams, convents) could effectively recruit and retain life-long devotees.  Both have adapted to and support urban, capitalist societies.

It is not the particular memeplex ('self' or 'non-self') that is intrinsically beneficial or detrimental.  It is the saturation level and how the memeplex interacts with other memes that produce results we label "good", "bad" or "neutral". 

In an earlier chapter Blackmore highlights how celibacy is a product of memeplexes controlling biological drives.  One could add:  "free-love" is another memeplex incompatible with our biological drives.  For that matter, life-long one-partner monogamy seems to be the same. 

Just as a "free-love" man could adopt a "celibacy" memeplex, a "celibacy" man could adopt a "free love" memeplex.  These would be equally complex transformations. [I have my bets on the celibate man and the free-love man adopting the "marriage" memeplex instead.]

Returning to Dawkins: the magnificent-mental-beast throws a second ringer into the mix.  He responds to the prolific memeplex of "God" and all its terrible complications with the declaration "there is no God". 

Now, one could conduct a thought experiment imagining a society devoid of an idea of this society therefore wholly just, non-violent, and verdant?  Of course not.  It would couch its practices (especially structural violence) in scientific or "rational" terms.  And one could not dispute that structure without meriting the label "irrational".  In such a case an activist may invent or adopt the concept of a higher-power, superseding rationality, to justify calls for reform. [I will argue later that this is precisely the predicament we are in.]

This is not to say Blackmore or Dawkins are short sighted.  They are indeed visionaries.  The presentations of their memetic speculations and other ideas they champion have complicated the general perception of memetics.   It is not solely their responsibility.  It is the result of a world-wide meme pool interacting with their prolific ideas. 

Cultural "givens" (memeplexes dominating a society) have the ability to abbreviate communication (saving energy), restrict thoughts (saving time) and manipulate actions (acomplishing tasks beyond an individual's capacity).

Therefore an effective methodology for memetics needs to address the saturation and concentration of dominant & competing memeplexes as much as it needs to address the unique ideas and structure of individual memeplexes. 

Continue to In The Beginning Was The Word

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