Thursday, April 9, 2015

An Exterminator vs. A Rodentologist

Susan Blackmore is a mildly effective publicist for the concept of memes.  She is certainly skilled at stirring up controversy about the topic with the next generation of scholars.

As a memeticist, my heartfelt apologies go out to her audience at the Oxford Royale Academy summer program of 2014 . 
Ms. Blackmore is perhaps a snapshot of what meme theory once was (or still is) to some, but she is not a viable representative of the discipline which is emerging.

She pontificates against metaphysical beliefs, waging war against "irrationality" while failing to lay a firm foundation for her scientific discipline.  She is an engaging speaker and the economic realities of modern life act as a selective pressure for her to limit her vision and customize her presentations to an anti-theist audience.  (No doubt if I were more fiscally "rational", I should do the same.)

The difference between Susan Blackmore and a Memeticist is the same distance between an exterminator and a rodentologist.  Both are passionate about their subject, but the first chooses a very narrow, reactionary approach towards their subject: the only good rat is a dead rat.  A zoologist on the other hand recognizes the resource conflicts created by the close proximity of human and rat populations.  They examine how artificial urban environments have shaped the evolution of rattus rattus into the massive and territorial urban legend of city transit systems.  The rodentologist studies diseases which afflict her subjects even though she may harbor concerns about their ability to vector diseases to humans.

Similarly a memeticist must have some curiosity and tolerance for her subjects.  Understanding interactions and evolutionary contexts, she refrains from blanket judgements and incendiary remarks.  Inquiry, understanding and reflective appreciation trump gut reactions because they often lead to more appropriate solutions.

Blackmore makes two critical errors: She dismisses "irrational" memes and provides blanket approval to "rational" ones.  Both reactions bypass the careful examination and articulation required of any academic study. 

Memetics is in desperate need of new minds to move it into the 21st Century.  Those who have passionately defended ancient belief systems and glean what they can from fields we have abandoned may offer insights which non-believers cannot perceive from a distance.  

The failures of Western development clearly illustrate we cannot eradicate every bacterium, pull every weed and exterminate every last rattlesnake.  We are learning we need a balance of bacteria to develop our immunity and maintain our health, that weeds are simply exceptionally adapted plants and processed venom (anti-venom) is the most effective cure for a snakebite.

Blackmore is not a memeticist.  Do not let her diatribes dissuade you from pursuing this emerging discipline.  Her fears over "irrationality", insecurities about the appeal of "rationality" and near-certainty of an impending apocalypse leads to the same fanatic desperation observed in all absolute and inflexible world-views.  She is only one person.  Memetics is so much more.

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