by Mark Anthony Signorelli (March 2010)
In his book The Selfish Gene, noted nihilist Richard Dawkins ushered the faux-concept of memes into the world by declaring it to be a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation,” which is exactly like referring to a unit of literary theory, or a segment of talent, or a yard of affection. Such blatant linguistic hucksterism would be startling from any other man but Dawkins, who, after all, cozened his way into authorial fame by attributing a common psychological state to tiny globs of amino acids, and then swearing up and down that he was doing no such thing. With this man, such chicanery is of a course. Indeed, he is so entirely shameless about the matter that he freely professes to employing a “verbal trick” to illustrate the nature of memes. He will have his “unit of imitation,” in despite of common sense, and he will invoke the laws of science for his justification:
The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe. Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity...Obviously I do not know but, if I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others.
One would like to remind the poor befuddled writer of these lines that those things, the prevalence of which he is attempting to explain – namely, culture and beliefs – cannot possibly come under any biological laws, since they are in no respect alive, in any sense which the word “alive” commonly bears (though this of course will not prevent Dawkins from inventing and insinuating some new definition). Nor, for that matter, can culture and ideas be explicable by the laws of physics, since they are quite obviously not physical entities, lacking as they are in extension and location. But one can hardly state such things without a groan, for by the time we are dwelling on such elementary verities, we no longer feel like we are partaking in a serious dialectical engagement, so much as explaining the ways of the world over the fence to one's six year old neighbor, who is perhaps a touch feeble-minded.
Marvell famously advised that “The same arts that did gain / A power must it maintain,” and, to be sure, the same disreputable arts that inaugurate a fallacy must maintain it in controversy. Having introduced a concept at once ludicrous and dishonest, Dawkins can muster in its favor only such arguments as are similarly ludicrous and dishonest. He instantly starts referring to memes as entities whose existence is perfectly evident and can be taken for granted, and refers to them as wholly empirical entities at that, “a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.” Yet the only empirical evidence he offers is tucked away in an endnote, where he cites the work of a brain scientist at the University of Konstanz who published “a detailed picture of what the neuronal hardware of a meme might look like” (emphasis mine). In other words, he offers no empirical evidence at all. Which fact, one is tempted to conclude, may be due to the unreality of the thing.
When he comes to the matter of delineating one meme from another, he propounds two criteria, one more stupid than the next. He writes:
If a single phrase of Beethoven's ninth symphony is sufficiently distinctive and memorable to be abstracted from the context of the whole symphony, and used as the call-sign of a maddeningly intrusive European broadcasting station, then to that extent it deserves to be called a meme. It has, incidentally, materially diminished my capacity to enjoy the original symphony.
So our first criteria of what constitutes a discreet meme is “that which sticks in the head of Richard Dawkins, and no more.” He continues:
If Darwin's theory can be subdivided into components, such that some people believe component A but not component B, while others believe B but not A, then A and B should be regarded as separate memes. If almost everybody who believes in A also believes in B – if the memes are closely 'linked' to use the genetic term – then it is convenient to lump them together as one meme.
But of course, in even discussing a component A and a component B, Dawkins is assuming the existence of discreet memes, the basis of which is the very thing his argument is meant to explain. So he is simply begging the question.
Nor does he fail to demonstrate what sort of insights are to be expected from men who make their living peering through a microscope and recording what they see, when they start meddling with the humanistic disciplines. “Examples of memes,” he tells us, “are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches,” thus trumpeting to the world the fact that he is capable of making no significant distinction between, say, Kant's theory of the categorical imperative, and a codpiece. And this is proof which he offers repeatedly:
Some memes, like some genes, achieve brilliant short-term success in spreading rapidly, but do not last long in the meme pool. Popular songs and stiletto heels are examples. Others, such as the Jewish religious laws, may continue to propagate themselves for years...
Stiletto heels and Jewish religious laws - the same things, entirely explicable in the same way. There are just no words to sufficiently capture the disdain which any person of serious education feels upon reading such lines.
The hilarious scorn poured on Dawkins and his memes by the Australian philosopher David Stove is entirely deserved:
I try to think of what I, or anyone, could say to him, to help restrain him from going over the edge into absolute madness. But if a man believes that, when he was first taught Pythagoras' Theorem at school, his brain was parasitized by a certain micro-maggot which, 2600 years earlier had parasitized the brain of Pythagoras...what can one say to him, with any hope of effect...One might try saying to Dr. Dawkins: "Look, you are in the phone book, and they print millions of copies of the phone book - right? But now you don't believe, do you, that you are there millions of times over 'in the form of' printed letters, or 'realized in' the chemistry of ink and newsprint?" But I would be so afraid of being told by Dr. Dawkins that he does believe this that I do not think I would have the courage to put the question to him.
No person of even mediocre intellect and disinterested mind can read Dawkins' chapter on memes without feeling these same sensations of contempt. Yet so far was this inauspicious inception of the meme meme from discouraging Dawkins' dutiful Yankee minion, Daniel Dennett (a man of very mediocre intellect, though a mind anything but disinterested), that he mildly reproaches his master for failing to defend the notion of memes in subsequent publications with the full strenuousness that Dennet himself is willing to exert for its vindication. Several chapters in Darwin's Dangerous Idea are devoted to the defense of memes, marked from beginning to end by that hectoring and digressive style which has become Dennett's calling card, and by which he has earned his status as the clown prince of contemporary academic philosophy. So, in a purported disquisition into a "science of memetics," Dennett takes a tangential journey which passes through tales about his grandson, West Side Story, the camouflaged wings of moths, the propensity of scientists to employ acronyms, fictional scenarios of spy-hunting, and a long quote from the physicist Richard Feynman, singing a hymn to the virtues of philosophical materialism. None of this, of course, has the least bearing on Dennett's central issue - or at least what ought to be Dennett's central issue - of whether or not memes actually exist, though, in fairness, these passages do prompt in the reader an admiration for the perseverance of a man who, so evidently stricken with an acute form of Attention Deficit Disorder, still managed to carve out for himself a lucrative career in academe.
Our great philosopher is quite as insouciant about the need to provide empirical evidence for the existence of memes as was Dawkins. From the start, he discourses on memes as though their existence were simply to be taken for granted, in a manner precisely analagous to those old manuals on witch hunting, in which the authors hold forth on the causes of witchery, the varieties of witchery, the proper means of extirpating witchery, without ever questioning whether or no there be such a thing as witchery. In the same way as Dawkins, he insists that biological laws can be applied to non-biological entities. Dennett even employs that same ludicrous imagery of parasitizism popularized by his sociobiological overlord, though in fact, such imagery is not even the most ludicrous that Dennett can dream up:
I don't know about you, but I am not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dungheap in which the larvae of other people's ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational diaspora. It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author and critic.
Actually, by this point in the book, the image of Dennett's brain as a pile of worm-infested shit will strike the reader as remarkably apropos; it would certainly provide an explanation of sorts for the quality of his writing. Nonetheless, one would like to point out - again, quite wearily - that larvae and parasites are things which can be observed and measured, and that if the author wants us to believe that memes are such kinds of entities, possessing the same kinds of properties, then, for God's sake, show them to us! One is reminded of that incident concerning the Ossian poems, of MacPherson's temerity in claiming to have in his possession ancient manuscripts which he refused to make public, and Dr. Johnson's indignant refusal to believe in their reality in the absence of the only sort of evidence which could compel his credulity. If Dawkins and Dennett have evidence of their memes, then produce it for the scrutiny of the world, or else stop insinuating that these things have a real physical existence, or are anything other than a fabricated synonym for the words "idea" or "belief." Can anyone imagine Watson and Crick proposing the double-helix form of DNA in the absence of the evidence provided by Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray diffraction photographs? Can anyone imagine those scientists responding to doubts in the absence of such empirical evidence by dismissing them as the reflexive and even superstitious reticence of "humanist" minds? If such behavior would have been disgracefully and nakedly unscientific in the case of Watson and Crick, how is it any less so in the case of Dawkins and Dennett?
And if such a thing is disgraceful, what word can we find to adequately characterize our illustrious philosopher after he confesses, in a footnote, to citing a quote from Mozart which he knows to be counterfeit, simply because he finds it so congenial to his theory: "I persist in quoting it here, in spite of Kivy's correction, because it not only expresses but exemplifies the thesis that memes, once they exist, are independent of authors and critics alike." What should we say about a man who relies on blatant equivocation and word-play to advance his argument, such as when he writes that "genes are invisible...memes are also invisible..." though of course, genes are invisible only in the sense that they cannot be perceived without the use of advanced instruments, whereas memes are invisible in the sense that they cannot be perceived at all. Or later, when he writes that "as with genes, immortality is more a matter of replication than of the longevity of individual vehicles," which of course is not what the word "immortality" means at all; it is exactly like asserting that freedom is a matter of having a taste for dark chocolate. And what words of obloquy are sufficient to evaluate the following passage:
Dawkins points out that in our explanations we tend to overlook the fundamental fact that 'a cultural trait may have evolved in the way it has simply because it is advantageous to itself.' This is a new way of thinking about ideas, but is it a good way? When we have answered this question, we will know whether or not the meme meme is one we should exploit and replicate.
Apparently one of the first things dissolved by the "universal acid" of Dennett's Darwinian fanaticism is the law of non-contradiction, since he can so casually, in the space of a mere three sentences, insinuate that memes are at once things which unconsciously manipulate men, and things which are consciously manipulated by men. And after all, what in the world does it mean to say that a "cultural trait" seeks its own advantage? Cultural traits cannot have an advantage, any more than artistic movements can have preferences. Such passages would be a scandal to all standards of academic integrity, were it the case that a single university upholding serious academic standards remained in the western world.
Of course, what makes the absurdity of the whole meme scam so especially delicious is that these two loudmouths, Dawkins and Dennett, have achieved a considerable notoriety over the last several years by parading about their atheism, and maintaining that there is no evidence for a belief in God. In the sense which they attribute to evidence - that is to say, purely empirical evidence - then it is quite obvious that there really is no evidence for this belief, since God is, by the common consent of all sensible persons, an unphysical entity. But then again, no sensible person ascribes a purely empirical significance to the word evidence, or believes that purely empirical evidence is the only type which is rationally compelling. Yet Dawkins and Dennett have propounded the existence of a physical entity, without providing the least shred of empirical evidence, and this is ten-thousand times more superstitious than anything which they ignorantly mock in the doctrines of their religious adversaries. It is a belief, to use the appropriate term of David Stove, that is strictly "demonological," and all arguments based on this belief are, in the words of the great theologian David Bentley Hart, arguments "based on an assonance." Even Michael Ruse, who has made a living for himself apologizing for all of the wilder speculations of Darwinian theorists, has drawn the line at memes, declaring that "one is really just taking regular language and putting it in fancy terms. No new insights. No new predictions." The rest of us then need waste no more time with these charlatans and their fraudulent science; there are no such things as memes, and anybody who believes in their existence is a blithering fool.
So the injunction implied in the title of this essay, to take memes seriously, most certainly does not mean that we ought to take their existence to be a serious proposition. Rather, we ought to seriously consider why Dawkins and Dennett had to resort to such an overtly stupid trick in the first place. Both men are as committed as any men have ever been to advancing the imperialist ambitions of Darwinism over the whole sphere of intellectual activity, including all those disciplines which treat man in his various capacities and practices. Unwilling to explicitly commit to Steven Pinker's ridiculous dictum that "in principle you could explain all behavior without reference to subjective states," they tacitly concede, what all unbiased men take for granted, that men are motivated by beliefs through an enormous range of their behavior, and that therefore no explanation of human behavior is complete which omits the efficacy of belief from its account. In any Darwinian schema, this means minimally that beliefs must be capable of transmission from generation to generation, with the most "fit" beliefs performing that transmission at a higher and higher frequency among the "population" of beliefs. According to the prevalent "evolutionary synthesis," the only available vehicle of transmission for traits are genes; accordingly, beliefs, if their proliferation is to be explicable in Darwinian terms, must be transmitted by genes. But of course, it is arrant nonsense to suggest that beliefs can be carried and transmitted by segments of protein, and this fact must have seemed evident even to minds as fortified against common sense as those of Dawkins and Dennett. Thus, the quixotic expedition into the fairy-land of memes and memetics. Their resort to this fabulism is of enormous consequence, however, since it constitutes an unspoken, unwilling, but altogether unmistakable admission that Darwinian theory, in its exclusively genetic form, can never account for the human propensity to act according to belief, and therefore can never account in any satisfactory manner for human behavior in general.
And this is testimony which needs to be reiterated over and over again, "line upon line, and precept upon precept," because it just so happens that in this matter the great majority of Darwinians do not follow Dawkins and Dennett, and do not show very much enthusiasm for the hocus-pocus of memes. Rather, the vast majority of Darwinians speak and write as though beliefs were transmittable via genes. That is to say, the vast majority of Darwinians subscribe to the conviction that beliefs can be transmitted by segments of protein, which, of course, was the position that was obviously too absurd even for Dawkins and Dennett to embrace! As incredible as it sounds, the transmission of beliefs by memes is actually the less absurd of the two notions, and yet most confessing evolutionists do in fact reject it in favor of gene transmission. So as preposterous and discreditable as were those pages on memes penned by the two Darwinian chieftains, they are sense and lucidity themselves in comparison to the reams of paper devoted to maintaining the pretense that beliefs can be transmitted by segments of protein, which the great mass of Darwinians do in fact churn out year after year.
To be sure, few Darwinians will state such a conviction outright (then again, few Darwinians state any of their convictions outright, or without contradiction and equivocation). What they will claim is heritable via genetic sequences are not beliefs, but varying traits of the structures of the brain and nervous system, which manifest themselves in varying behavioral tendencies. Of course, an explanation of behavior in terms of hormones and synapses is not an explanation of belief-motivated behavior, but of the appearance of belief-motivated behavior; such explanations betray an implicit acquiescence to the Pinker principle, "that in principle you can explain all behavior without reference to subjective states." Here is but one more example of the ambiguity between reality and resemblance which plagues all aspects of Darwinism. The case remains, however, that one may flip almost at random through the pages of any significant sociobiological theorist and discover passage after passage in which the genetic heritability of beliefs is assumed and implied, without any attempt whatsoever to "translate" such assumptions into the language of physiology. Consider some examples.
Let us begin with the oracle himself, Charles Darwin. Of course, he died before Mendel’s work on genetics was broadly publicized, and so was never familiar with genes himself; in fact, the lack of any mechanism of inheritance was seized upon as one of his theory’s great shortcomings by his early critics. Yet Darwin obviously believed that some such mechanism did exist, and no doubt thought that it must be some tangible, bio-chemical mechanism. But it is the conviction that beliefs can be transmitted by such means that is ludicrous. So when he writes in The Descent of Man that “the habit of self-command may, like other habits, be inherited,” he is certainly implying that by some bio-chemical means, a habit of self-command is passed from progenitor to progeny in the course of reproduction. And of course, this is stupid; one does not cultivate a habit of self-command unless one thinks a habit of self-command is worth cultivating; this is a belief, and beliefs simply cannot reside in merely objective matter. Several pages later, Darwin applies similar reasoning to the virtue of courage:
As during the rude times no man can be useful or faithful to his tribe without courage, this quality has universally been placed in the highest rank; and although in civilized countries a good yet timid man may be far more useful to the community than a brave one, we cannot help instinctively honouring the latter above a coward, however benevolent.
An “instinctive” tendency to honor brave men must, on Darwin’s account, be one which is heritable, again, by some bio-chemical means; but, as with self-command, we honor courage because we value it, and there just are no bio-chemical means for the transmission of values. Further on, Darwin writes: “To the instinct of sympathy, as we have already seen, it is primarily due, that we habitually bestow both praise and blame on others…and this instinct no doubt was originally acquired…through natural selection.” Once more, to regard anything as a matter of either praise or blame is to maintain some belief, and to trace that belief to some “instinct of sympathy” is to imply that it is transmittable by bio-chemical means. Which it cannot be.
Darwin’s present day acolytes are in the possession of an enormous mass of genetic theory, which they put to use in constructing arguments of the same variety as those we have seen in Darwin. But of course, the specification of the mechanism of inheritance does not make any less ridiculous the notion that beliefs can be transmitted by bio-chemical means. So, for instance, in his book The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley sums up a discussion of cultural gift-giving practices in the following way:
By creating obligation, the gift is a weapon. But it is only a weapon if there is a sense of obligation in the first place. Gift giving and competetive generosity is not some human invention that shaped our natures; it is a human invention to exploit our pre-existing natures, our innate respect for generosity and disrespect for those who would not share.
Thus, gift-giving practices are shaped by our “innate respect for generosity.” But of course, in the mouth of any Darwinian, “innate” simply means “genetically transmitted.” So what else can this passage possibly imply except that there are genes which bestow a belief upon men, specifically the belief that generosity is admirable and stinginess reproachable? Which implication, obviously, is laughable.
David Sloan Wilson, in attempting to account for the evidently un-Darwinian persistence of democratic institutions among human societies, asserts that “what Boehm and others have shown is that egalitarianism is not a cultural invention that began in ancient Greece, as many have supposed, but is part of our genetic endowment that asserts itself whenever appropriate conditions have been met,” the appropriate biological conditions apparently being several centuries of increased bourgeois prosperity, a literary and philosophical movement of broad influence (preferably situated in France), and the willingness of entire generations to sacrifice their lives, in defiance of all rules of inclusive fitness, for the sake of their principles. But note again that “egalitarianism” is a belief, and Wilson is here explicitly tracing that belief to our “genetic endowment.”
Wilson is quite unabashed about making such links too. Consider the following passage:
Humility, myths, rituals, belief in spirits that approve and punish-these traits are unmistakably human and for most people associated with religion, not evolution. Yet their evolutionary significance immediately becomes clear in the context of hunter-gatherer groups, as mechanisms that suppress fitness differences among individuals within groups, enabling the groups to function as adaptive units.
To a Darwinian, any sort of “mechanism” with “evolutionary significance” must be traceable to the genes. So Wilson is here asserting rather explicitly that belief – specifically, the “belief in spirits that approve and punish”- is an effect of the genes.
Few authors so casually toss about assumptions concerning the link between genes and belief as Robert Wright. Nothing less could be expected from a man who straight-facedly assures us that we receive counsel from our genes:
What's puzzling at first is the intensity that righteous indignation reaches. It can start feuds that dwarf the alleged offense, sometimes causing the death of the indignant. Why would genes counsel us to take even a slight risk of death for something as intangible as “honor”?
It was written somewhere “blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,” which may as well be updated to “blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the Darwinians,” but who but Wright would think to suggest “blessed is that man that walketh not in the counsel of his genes.” Regardless of such metaphorical freaks as this, “righteous indignation” implies a concept of righteousness, and this is something that our genes just cannot “counsel” into us, yea, though they had beheld as many generations as Nestor.
Once a man has convinced himself that he is receiving advice from his genes, there is of course no reason why he should not conjure up all sorts of admonitions they might warble into our subconscious:
A gene that says, or at least whispers, “Be nice to children if you've had a fair amount of sex with their mothers,” will do better than a gene that says, “Steal food from children even if you were having regular sex with their mothers months before birth.
After such inane passages as this, it really takes very little audacity for Wright to nakedly assert the link between beliefs and genes:
Altruism, compassion, empathy, love, conscience, the sense of justice – all of these things, the things that hold society together, the things that allow our species to think so highly of itself, can now confidently be said to have a firm genetic basis.
You see how its done; a little linguistic juggling is all it takes. One simply refers to justice as a “sense,” though everybody recognizes that it is a concept, and our beliefs regarding justice can be placed on a similar genetic basis as the other senses of sight, hearing, etc. Then one can confidently assert a genetic link for a host of traits generally motivated by a concept of justice: fidelity (“If a woman's 'fidelity gene'...shapes her behavior in a way that helps get copies of itself into future generations in large numbers, then that gene will be definition flourish), chastity (“Though a young woman was encouraged to have an active sex life, her advances would be frowned on if too overt and common...is there any reason to believe this norm was anything other than a culturally mediated reflection of deeper genetic logic?”), and love itself (“Natural selection has also, during that time, been inclining men and women to love each other - or at least, to 'love' each other, with the meaning of that word varying greatly...) Indeed, one can broadly maintain the genetic origins for the totality of our beliefs (“It is amazing that a process as amoral and crassly pragmatic as natural selection could design a mental organ that makes us feel as if we're in touch with higher truths).
Anyone who understands the full implications of that “as if” in the last quote from Wright can perceive what these men are up to in ascribing men's beliefs to a genetic cause; they are clearly impugning the reality of the beliefs themselves. As would fully be expected, then, from the Darwinian cultists, the beliefs which they are most assiduous in tracing to the genes are religious beliefs, since these are the beliefs they are most desirous to impugn. Whole books have been devoted to the project of drawing the connection between our genes and our religious beliefs, all of them bearing a subtext – and a quite unsubtle subtext, at that – of suspicion towards those very beliefs. Thus E.O. Wilson: “This mythopoeic drive can be harnessed to learning and the rational search for human progress if we finally concede that scientific materialism is itself a mythology defined in the noble sense....If religion, including the dogmatic secular ideologies, can be systematically analyzed and explained as a product of the brain's evolution, its power as an external source of morality will be gone forever.”  For our purposes, it is sufficient to note that nearly every page of those books must imply the genetic basis of religious belief. And this, of course, is scarcely less ridiculous than assigning a genetic basis to any other sort of belief.
By far, the most common and central connection between genes and belief drawn by the sociobiologists is in the application of game-theory to the biological realm. The so-called Prisoner's Dilemna game presents a scenario in which two “players” are given the choice to cooperate with their opponent, for the hope of a small reward, or act aggressively towards their opponent, with the potential for both a large reward and a large punishment. Over the years, academic practitioners of game theory (and was there ever a phrase which so perfectly captured the frivolity of modern academia) have discovered that the optimal strategy for winning this game is something called Tit-for-tat, whereby each player simply exercises the option last exercised by his opponent in the previous round, cooperating if his opponent just cooperated, or defecting if his opponent just defected. Darwinists speculate that if this is a strategy which maximizes one's chances of survival, then it would have been favored by selective forces throughout evolutionary history, and therefore will be discernible in the behavior of present day species. Consequently, their books are loaded with examples of animal behavior which seem to mimic the Tit-for-tat strategy; a typical example comes from Ridley:
When two sticklebacks inspect a predator together, they move forward in a series of short spurts, one fish taking the initiative and risk each time. If the pike moves, both dash back again. Milinski argued that this was a series of small prisoner's dilemnas, each fish having to offer the “cooperative” gesture of the next move forward, or take the “defector's” option of letting the other fish go ahead alone.
The conclusion to be drawn is obvious:
just as rational individuals should adopt strategies like those predicted by game theory as the least worst in any circumstances, so natural selection should design animals to behave instinctively with similar strategies.
And this allusion to the strategic propensities of the genes is a general feature of sociobiology; so for instance, Wright speaks “the stratagems of the genes.”
But of course, a strategy is a type of belief, a contingent belief we might call it, which takes the form “if I perform x, then probability dictates that y may be the resulting state of affairs.” So there is just no way to speak of “the stratagems of the genes” without insinuating the capacity of genes to instill beliefs in us, which – need it be said again – is a fantastic lark. There is even evidence that the Darwinists themselves sense the silliness of their position at times:
It may seem absurd to look at fish, expecting to find sophisticated game theorists, but there is, in fact, no requirement in the theory that the fish understand what it is doing. Reciprocity can evolve in an entirely unconscious automaton, provided it interacts repeatedly with other automata in a situation that resembles a prisoner's dilemna...Working out the strategy is the job not of the fish itself, but of evolution, which can then program it into the fish.
Well, yes, it is absurd to ascribe a knack for strategizing to each denizen of the piscine realm, but it is about a million times more absurd to attribute such a talent to something called “evolution,” since at least the fish are things in the world, whereas evolution is just a general concept. One marvels at what sort of prolonged deformation a man's intellect must endure before he is able to speak and write in this manner. But if the assertion means anything, it obviously means that there are some genes which incline an organism more towards adopting the Tit-for-tat strategy, some genes which incline it less. And this is clearly ludicrous. As was indicated earlier, there is, on the part of the Darwinists, behind all such attributions of strategy or belief to the genes, an implicit promise of a physiological “translation,” an account of the specific physiological variations influenced by genes, which then manifest in behavioral tendencies. So what would be the “translation” for the Tit-for-tat strategy? There is considerable evidence that a man's level of aggression is influenced by the genes which control the production of testosterone, but of course the strategy calls for selective aggression, alternated with selective gentleness; how can both of these traits be transmitted together by the genes when they are, according to the Darwinists' own theory, but mutually exclusive alleles at the same locus of the DNA? And what about the foresight and capacity for impassive calculation required of the strategy? Is there a particular brain structure that correlates to an increased capacity for both of these things? And is there any reason to suppose that the genes for these traits would unexceptionally combine with the genes for the proper levels of aggression and gentleness, such that they would all together form a unit of transmission, to be selected by that great tactician, evolution? The issue is not whether the fish, or the genes, are conscious of the strategy they are enacting, as Ridley irrelevantly worries, but just how such a strategy could be said to exist “in” the genes at all, for on their theory, the strategy must be carried “in” the genes in some manner. And this is true of whatever “strategy” we wish to assign to the genes; so Dawkins writes of the evolutionarily stable strategy: “To write the strategy out as a set of simple instructions in English is just a convenient way for us to think about it. By some unspecified mechanism, the animal behaves as if he were following instructions.” Undoubtedly, that “unspecified mechanism” lies languidly beneath the same gum-drop tree as his memes, far-off in the same dream-land. It is simply inconceivable. Philip Kitcher exposed the fallacy of strategizing genes over two decades ago:
The reply to the more general argument is that there is no reason to accept the picture of the evolutionary process as one in which animals and humans are equipped with fine-tuned mechanisms for identifying the actions that would maximize their inclusive fitness and for behaving accordingly. Pop sociobiology has no reason to prefer that picture to the rival view on which evolution equips us with certain cognitive capacities and basic propensities, which combine in the social environments that we experience to produce the beliefs, desires, and intentions that we normally attribute to ourselves. Thus there is no evidence to lead us away from the natural idea that, given the traits with which evolution has equipped us, we are able to set ourselves personal goals and to perform actions that detract from our inclusive fitness. It is possible to take the evolution of Homo sapiens seriously and yet to deny that natural selection has fashioned dispositions to behavior that lead us always (or almost always) to maximize our inclusive fitness.
The game-theoretical paradigm has become so central to the Darwinian project of explaining away altruism under the farcically paradoxical label of “reciprocal altruism” that it may fairly be called one of the pillars of their theory, though, as can be seen, the whole thing is but subterfuge and nonsense. Nonetheless, the above quote from Kitcher hints at the way the sociobiologists gain a measure of plausibility for their project of linking beliefs to genetic influences. If one is willing to make that link as tenuous and inefficacious as possible, then indeed one can fairly maintain the genetic origins of our beliefs. After all, genes do certainly shape our brain structure; we use our brains to think, and when we think, we often form beliefs. Hence, genes shape our beliefs. This is precisely the form of argument employed by Edward O. Wilson: “Culture is created by the communal mind, and each mind in turn is the product of the genetically structured human brain. Genes and culture are therefore inseverably linked.” But such a line of reasoning is about as relevant and persuasive as arguing that because genes shape the anatomical structure of our feet, the Confederate soldiers under Pickett's command at Gettysburg were compelled by their genes to take to their feet under the withering fire of the entrenched Union forces. Obviously, genes help shape the sort of physical creatures we are, but the sort of physical creatures we are possess the capacity to act according to conscious beliefs, which are adopted in the absence of all genetic efficacy.
The thoughts – such as they are – of Edward O. Wilson on this matter are highly revelatory. Having put away the bug collection with which he amused himself in his youth, he has taken, in the years of his “grand climacteric,” to pronouncing on all questions ethical and metaphysical, with – it must be admitted – quite dubious results. He finds himself perplexed as to the vehicle of transmission for beliefs, on one hand espousing a search for the “unit of culture” - which, need it be said, is as meaningless a phrase as Dawkins' “unit of imitation” - and awarding the palm for that “discovery” to Dawkins and his memes, while on the other hand, referring endlessly to “gene-culture coevolution,” which obviously implies the efficacy of genes in the role of “idea-transmitor.” To be sure, Wilson quite strenuously denies that he advocates this latter position, but in such a blatantly self-contradictory manner that one wonders whether even he believes what he was written:
How can anyone presume to speak of a gene that prescribes culture? The answer is that no serious scientist ever has. The web of causal events comprising gene-culture coevolution is more complicated- and immensely more interesting. Thousands of genes prescribe the brain, the sensory system, and all the other physiological processes that interact with the physical and social environment to produce the holistic properties of mind and culture. Through natural selection, the environment ultimately selects which genes will do the prescribing.
No “serious scientist” would ever propose that genes prescribe culture, and yet, via physiology and natural selection, “genes will do the prescribing?” Were there no editors in the offices of Knopf capable of burnishing the poor entomologist's musings with even the semblance of coherence? What difference does it make how many intermediate causes one wishes to assign to the process? If one is asserting that genes prescribe culture, one is asserting that genes prescribe culture. Wilson is certainly correct to imply that this suggestion is ludicrous, but he is as false as an author can be when he tells us that no one is suggesting such a thing, for every page of his is covered with references to “gene-culture coevolution,” which obviously suggests some sort of causal relationship between culture and genes. One would almost be tempted to suspect Wilson of a measure of intellectual dishonesty here, if we weren't aware that he is, after all, a Harvard professor and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.
But whether as a product of genes, or of memes, or of pixie-dust, Wilson is convinced that there is such a thing as “cultural evolution,” which is somehow analogous to biological evolution – subject to being studied with the same methodology, and discussed in the same terms. This, despite the fact that he openly acknowledges that culture is shaped in a manner entirely foreign to biological evolution: “Lamarckism has been entirely discounted as the basis of biological evolution, but of course it is precisely what happens in the case of cultural evolution.” So if a process unfolds in a “Lamarckian” way, it is not evolution, not in the scientific sense, and the persistent use of the term “evolution” as applied to culture is then merely a deceptive trick to imply an identity where none exists. All that these phenomena share in common is the same word, but used in two entirely different senses; it is exactly like saying that the gravity of a Buddhist monk can be properly understood through Einstein's equations. Indeed, were one to flip through the pages of all the Darwinians – and what a horrid scenario is that! - and replace the phrase “cultural evolution” with “cultural development” or “cultural change,” the entire argumentative force of the Darwinians' cultural theories would dissipate in an instant. Organisms change in one way, cultures in an entirely different way, and there is simply no one methodology which can generate an explanation of both forms of change.
And after all, what follows from a conviction that beliefs reside in the genes? Quite obviously, eugenics. Our genes are inalienable to us, and if our beliefs were genetically caused, then they too would be inalienable. So if I discover a society of men, or some segment of society, who hold a particularly pernicious dogma, then of course, on the Darwinian account, I will consider rhetorical means of persuasion to be perfectly futile; the only recourse left to defeat the dogma is the destruction of those genes – with their host organisms - which are alleged to cause it. So it is the least surprising thing in the world to find that Wilson's defense of “cultural evolution” culminates in a call for a eugenic program:
The genes of the Sisyphean combinations are probably spread throughout populations. For this reason alone, we are justified in considering the preservation of the entire gene pool as a contingent primary value until such time as an almost unimaginably greater knowledge of human heredity provides us with the option of a democratically contrived eugenics.
Setting out from absurdity and incoherence, Wilson arrives in quick time at outright villainy. And this, from a man we are constantly reminded is one of the great lights of the Darwinian school.
Stephen Jay Gould, himself a considerable luminary in the Darwinian universe during his day, parted from his confrères on the notion of cultural evolution and gene-transmitted beliefs. He perceived that cultural development occurs in the total absence of any correlative evolutionary development:
We have no evidence that the modal form of human bodies or brains has changed at all in the past 100,000 years...And yet, fifteen thousand years ago, no human social grouping had produced anything that would conform with our standard definition of civilization...Everything that we have accomplished in the unmeasurable geological moment of the last ten thousand years...has been built upon the capacities of an unaltered brain. Clearly, cultural change can vastly outstrip the maximal rate of natural Darwinian evolution.
He too perceived that cultural development necessarily assumes the transmission of acquired characteristics, which is strictly forbidden in modern evolutionary theory:
But cultural change, on a radical other hand, is potentially Lamarckian in basic mechanism. Any cultural knowledge acquired in one generation can be directly passed to the next by what we call, in a most noble word, education...This uniquely and distinctively Lamarckian style of human cultural inheritance gives our technological history a directional and cumulative character that no natural Darwinian evolution can possess.
On account of such considerations, then, Gould was led to dismiss the whole notion of cultural evolution, and the link between genes and beliefs which such a notion necessarily implies:
human cultural change is an entirely distinct process operating under radically different principles that do allow for the strong possibility of a driven trend to what we may legitimately call “progress”...In this sense, I deeply regret that common usage refers to the history of our artifacts and social organizations as “cultural evolution.” Using the same term – evolution – for both natural and cultural history obfuscates far more than it enlightens...The common designation of “evolution” then leads to one of the most frequent and portentous errors in our analysis of human life and history – the overly reductionist assumption that the Darwinian natural paradigm will fully encompass our social and technological history as well.
Reading such passages, one begins to understand why Gould is the single most vilified person in the pages of the sociobiologists, more so even than the creationists and ID advocates upon which they customarily pour their abundant stores of bile and venom. Indeed, it is not hard to recognize that their extraordinary bitterness towards Gould stems from the fact that they cannot simply write off him and his opinions with sneers of “superstitious” and “anti-science,” which constitute approximately ninety percent of their rhetorical apparatus. Yet reading such passages also, one cannot help being struck by the evident sensibility of Gould's position, in comparison to which the sociobiologists' tales of belief-shaping genes appears as what they are – sheer lunacy.
But the point is that we need not cite the testimony of Kitcher or Gould against sociobiology; we need not cite any of its adversaries at all. We need simply appeal to the two great authorities of sociobiology, Dawkins and Dennett, and their unconscious admission – in the form of their meme reveries - that beliefs, and the cultural developments driven by beliefs, cannot be adequately explained by Darwinian theory. And anyone who dips into the pages of their brethren - who do wildly and futilely pursue such explanations - will find ample confirmation for the truth of this confession.
Dawkins, Richard The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976) 192.
Stove, David Darwinian Fairytales (New York: Encounter Books, 1995) 194-195.
Dennett, Daniel Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995) 361.
Ruse, Michael Charles Darwin (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008) 281.
See minute 51 at the following: http://meaningoflife.tv/video.php?speaker=pinker&topic=complete
Darwin, Charles The Descent of Man (New York: Penguin Books, 2004) 140.
Ridley, Matt, The Origins of Virtue (New York: Viking, 1996) 123.
Wilson, David Sloan, Evolution for Everyone (New York: Delacorte Press, 2007) 159.
Wright, Robert, The Moral Animal (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) 205.
See David Sloan Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral and Robert Wright's The Evolution of God; Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell is the memetic alternative to these genetic yarns.
Wilson, E.O. On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978) 200-201.
Kitcher, Philip, Vaulting Ambition (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987) 402.
Wilson, E.O. Consilience (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1998), 127.
Wilson, Edward O. 1998, 134.
Wilson, E.O. 1978, 137.
Wilson, E.O. 1978, 79.
Wilson, E.O. 1978, 198.
Gould, Stephen Jay, Full House (New York: Harmony Books, 1996) 220.
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