Dan Dennett

Dangerous memes

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How many Creationists do we have in the room? Probably none. I think we're all Darwinians. And yet many Darwinians are anxious, a little uneasy — would like to see some limits on just how far the Darwinism goes. It's all right. You know spiderwebs? Sure, they are products of evolution. The World Wide Web? Not so sure. Beaver dams, yes. Hoover Dam, no. What do they think it is that prevents the products of human ingenuity from being themselves, fruits of the tree of life, and hence, in some sense, obeying evolutionary rules? And yet people are interestingly resistant to the idea of applying evolutionary thinking to thinking — to our thinking.


And so I'm going to talk a little bit about that, keeping in mind that we have a lot on the program here. So you're out in the woods, or you're out in the pasture, and you see this ant crawling up this blade of grass. It climbs up to the top, and it falls, and it climbs, and it falls, and it climbs — trying to stay at the very top of the blade of grass. What is this ant doing? What is this in aid of? What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass? What's in it for the ant? And the answer is: nothing. There's nothing in it for the ant. Well then, why is it doing this? Is it just a fluke? Yeah, it's just a fluke. It's a lancet fluke. It's a little brain worm. It's a parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to continue its life cycle. Salmon swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds, and lancet flukes commandeer a passing ant, crawl into its brain, and drive it up a blade of grass like an all-terrain vehicle. So there's nothing in it for the ant. The ant's brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain, inducing suicidal behavior. Pretty scary.


Well, does anything like that happen with human beings? This is all on behalf of a cause other than one's own genetic fitness, of course. Well, it may already have occurred to you that Islam means "surrender," or "submission of self-interest to the will of Allah." Well, it's ideas — not worms — that hijack our brains. Now, am I saying that a sizable minority of the world's population has had their brain hijacked by parasitic ideas? No, it's worse than that. Most people have. (Laughter) There are a lot of ideas to die for. Freedom, if you're from New Hampshire. (Laughter) Justice. Truth. Communism. Many people have laid down their lives for communism, and many have laid down their lives for capitalism. And many for Catholicism. And many for Islam. These are just a few of the ideas that are to die for. They're infectious.


Yesterday, Amory Lovins spoke about "infectious repititis." It was a term of abuse, in effect. This is unthinking engineering. Well, most of the cultural spread that goes on is not brilliant, new, out-of-the-box thinking. It's "infectious repetitis," and we might as well try to have a theory of what's going on when that happens so that we can understand the conditions of infection. Hosts work hard to spread these ideas to others. I myself am a philosopher, and one of our occupational hazards is that people ask us what the meaning of life is. And you have to have a bumper sticker, you know. You have to have a statement. So, this is mine.


The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it. Most of us — now that the "Me Decade" is well in the past — now we actually do this. One set of ideas or another have simply replaced our biological imperatives in our own lives. This is what our summum bonum is. It's not maximizing the number of grandchildren we have. Now, this is a profound biological effect. It's the subordination of genetic interest to other interests. And no other species does anything at all like it.


Well, how are we going to think about this? It is, on the one hand, a biological effect, and a very large one. Unmistakable. Now, what theories do we want to use to look at this? Well, many theories. But how could something tie them together? The idea of replicating ideas; ideas that replicate by passing from brain to brain. Richard Dawkins, whom you'll be hearing later in the day, invented the term "memes," and put forward the first really clear and vivid version of this idea in his book "The Selfish Gene." Now here am I talking about his idea. Well, you see, it's not his. Yes — he started it. But it's everybody's idea now. And he's not responsible for what I say about memes. I'm responsible for what I say about memes.


Actually, I think we're all responsible for not just the intended effects of our ideas, but for their likely misuses. So it is important, I think, to Richard, and to me, that these ideas not be abused and misused. They're very easy to misuse. That's why they're dangerous. And it's just about a full-time job trying to prevent people who are scared of these ideas from caricaturing them and then running off to one dire purpose or another. So we have to keep plugging away, trying to correct the misapprehensions so that only the benign and useful variants of our ideas continue to spread. But it is a problem. We don't have much time, and I'm going to go over just a little bit of this and cut out, because there's a lot of other things that are going to be said.


So let me just point out: memes are like viruses. That's what Richard said, back in '93. And you might think, "Well, how can that be? I mean, a virus is — you know, it's stuff! What's a meme made of?" Yesterday, Negroponte was talking about viral telecommunications but — what's a virus? A virus is a string of nucleic acid with attitude. (Laughter) That is, there is something about it that tends to make it replicate better than the competition does. And that's what a meme is. It's an information packet with attitude. What's a meme made of? What are bits made of, Mom? Not silicon. They're made of information, and can be carried in any physical medium. What's a word made of? Sometimes when people say, "Do memes exist?" I say, "Well, do words exist? Are they in your ontology?" If they are, words are memes that can be pronounced.


Then there's all the other memes that can't be pronounced. There are different species of memes. Remember the Shakers? Gift to be simple? Simple, beautiful furniture? And, of course, they're basically extinct now. And one of the reasons is that among the creed of Shaker-dom is that one should be celibate. Not just the priests. Everybody. Well, it's not so surprising that they've gone extinct. (Laughter) But in fact that's not why they went extinct. They survived as long as they did at a time when the social safety nets weren't there. And there were lots of widows and orphans, people like that, who needed a foster home. And so they had a ready supply of converts. And they could keep it going. And, in principle, it could've gone on forever, with perfect celibacy on the part of the hosts. The idea being passed on through proselytizing, instead of through the gene line.


So the ideas can live on in spite of the fact that they're not being passed on genetically. A meme can flourish in spite of having a negative impact on genetic fitness. After all, the meme for Shaker-dom was essentially a sterilizing parasite. There are other parasites that do this — which render the host sterile. It's part of their plan. They don't have to have minds to have a plan.


I'm just going to draw your attention to just one of the many implications of the memetic perspective, which I recommend. I've not time to go into more of it. In Jared Diamond's wonderful book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," he talks about how it was germs, more than guns and steel, that conquered the new hemisphere — the Western hemisphere — that conquered the rest of the world. When European explorers and travelers spread out, they brought with them the germs that they had become essentially immune to, that they had learned how to tolerate over hundreds and hundreds of years, thousands of years, of living with domesticated animals who were the sources of those pathogens. And they just wiped out — these pathogens just wiped out the native people, who had no immunity to them at all.


And we're doing it again. We're doing it this time with toxic ideas. Yesterday, a number of people — Nicholas Negroponte and others — spoke about all the wonderful things that are happening when our ideas get spread out, thanks to all the new technology all over the world. And I agree. It is largely wonderful. Largely wonderful. But among all those ideas that inevitably flow out into the whole world thanks to our technology, are a lot of toxic ideas. Now, this has been realized for some time. Sayyid Qutb is one of the founding fathers of fanatical Islam, one of the ideologues that inspired Osama bin Laden. "One has only to glance at its press films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars and broadcasting stations." Memes.


These memes are spreading around the world and they are wiping out whole cultures. They are wiping out languages. They are wiping out traditions and practices. And it's not our fault, anymore than it's our fault when our germs lay waste to people that haven't developed the immunity. We have an immunity to all of the junk that lies around the edges of our culture. We're a free society, so we let pornography and all these things — we shrug them off. They're like a mild cold. They're not a big deal for us. But we should recognize that for many people in the world, they are a big deal. And we should be very alert to this. As we spread our education and our technology, one of the things that we are doing is we're the vectors of memes that are correctly viewed by the hosts of many other memes as a dire threat to their favorite memes — the memes that they are prepared to die for.


Well now, how are we going to tell the good memes from the bad memes? That is not the job of the science of memetics. Memetics is morally neutral. And so it should be. This is not the place for hate and anger. If you've had a friend who's died of AIDS, then you hate HIV. But the way to deal with that is to do science, and understand how it spreads and why in a morally neutral perspective.


Get the facts. Work out the implications. There's plenty of room for moral passion once we've got the facts and can figure out the best thing to do. And, as with germs, the trick is not to try to annihilate them. You will never annihilate the germs. What you can do, however, is foster public health measures and the like that will encourage the evolution of avirulence. That will encourage the spread of relatively benign mutations of the most toxic varieties. That's all the time I have, so thank you very much for your attention.

Starting with the simple tale of an ant, philosopher Dan Dennett unleashes a devastating salvo of ideas, making a powerful case for the existence of memes — concepts that are literally alive.

About the speaker
Dan Dennett · Philosopher, cognitive scientist

Dan Dennett argues that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes.

Dan Dennett argues that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes.