Memes... cute cuddly ideas that purr gently when you stroke them. They spread everywhere, uncontrollably. Or is that tribbles? Memes are a fun metaphor - thinking about ideas in terms of evolutionary metaphors is an engaging pastime, and I have indulged in it myself. But it's not science, per se.
I believe that at some point in the future memetics will emerge as a valid scientific or philosophical field (more likely scientific, as the philosophers don't seem particular interested in the notion of memes at the moment) and the purpose of this post is not to discredit memetics. Indeed, at the moment it doesn't actually have an especial degree of credibility, so such an endeavour would be rather fruitless. Rather, the purpose of this post is to explore the issues with memetics, and to discover what this shows us about the volatile borderlands between science and religion.
The underlying concept of memes dates back to 1904 and the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Semon, who coined the word 'mneme' from the Greek word for memory, but it wasn't popularised until much later. The word 'meme' itself was coined by Richard Dawkins with his seminal work with the unfortunate title 'The Selfish Gene' - unfortunate, because it is this idea (this meme, if you prefer) that propagated and not the science contained within the book. "My genes made me do it!" has become a marginally legitimised excuse, thanks in part to the misunderstanding wrapped up in the ill-chosen phrase 'Selfish Gene'. Dawkins' writing on memes was criticised for all manner of reasons, some reasonable, some less so. Not least of these criticisms was the degree to which this stepped outside of science and into fanciful thinking.
The term 'meme' has stuck, though. But what exactly is a meme? There is not much agreement, and this alone is one of the criticisms leveled at memetics.
In casual usage, a meme denotes an idea which includes within it a method for virulent self propagation - like a chain letter which emotionally or otherwise threatens its recipient to transmit it further afield. This casual definition of meme is perfectly usable, and will survive for a considerable period of time, I believe. It's nice to have a word to describe a particularly virulent idea. It's worth noting that the model of ideas as viruses (or language as a virus - the gap between an idea and a word is relatively trivial) predates the word 'meme' by quite a wide margin, and so in this regard the idea inherent in the word 'meme' isn't new - it just traveled much more readily when it could package itself into a single word.
For those hoping for memetics to find its feet, the definition of meme is more commonly the smallest unit of cultural information. For me, this is already problematic in a scientific context. When talking science (and with due reference to Popper and Kuhn), I expect objectivity, testability and falsifiability - in the absence of these things, we're dealing with philosophy or something similar. But wait, let's not be too hasty, as there is indeed something measurable which qualifies (potentially) as the smallest unit of cultural information: a word.
Everything that we think and do is expressible in words in some manner. In the same way that 'meme' is a synonym for 'idea', I believe one can choose to define 'meme' as a synonym for 'word' (although there are other choices, of course). What about ideas for which there is no word? I believe that such ideas are still expressible as words, even if no word has yet been coined. Indeed, the speed at which words which describe ideas that are already known spread (like 'meme' itself) suggests such a model. I don't want to dig too far into this corner, as this will turn into a discussion of philosophy of language. Indeed, I believe that philosophy of language is more useful to us than memetics at the moment, but that's beside the point (and is categorically not an argument against memetics - explore everything! The valuable ideas will survive).
What about non-humans? If dolphins and apes have cultural elements that persist (i.e. they have memes), how can 'word' be used to identify the smallest unit of cultural information in this context? I would answer that dolphins and apes and in fact almost all animals have their own languages, even if those languages are only internal representations (private languages). More than that, however, words are pretty common in the world of animals - even meerkats seem to have words for identifying the nouns they encounter.
This isn't an argument against memetics, of course, merely a suggestion that memetics might end up incorporating or at least bordering upon the science of language. Memetics might end up covering more ground, though. For instance, there are processes that are learned in a manner quite different to language which might be better dealt with on their own terms, assuming we produce a model sufficient to the task.
So what's the problem?
The problem is the inconsistency with which the nascent field of memetics has been treated with respect to other fringe sciences, and the dogmatic religious forces that have organically 'conspired' to label memetics as a "protoscience" when other fields with considerably more rigorous scientific methods are dismissed with the pejorative (and largely ill defined) term "pseudoscience".
You might at this point legitimately wonder what on Earth I am talking about...
Firstly, I must address a common trend in Western thinking which is to equate the word 'religion' with the word 'theism'. I believe this relates to the dominance of the three monotheistic religions in this part of the world - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. People form their internal representation of words by observation and experience, and therefore it is not surprising that this has happened. But of course, there are polytheistic religions (lower path Hinduism, neo-Paganism), non-theistic religions (Buddhism, upper-path Hinduism), agnostic religions (Discordianism, formal agnosticism, Zen Buddhism) and atheistic religions (Buddhism in some interpretations, Humanism). Religion is a very broad term.
Einstein believed (as I do) that there need be no fundamental conflict between science and religion. The domain of science (derived knowledge) and the domain of religion (metaphysics and ethics) do not significantly overlap. Science will never be able to offer anything in religion's domain... but of course, some religious people do attempt to perform the reverse operation - letting religion dictate scientific conclusions, in particular creation scientists (theists) and materialistic humanists (atheists). The former, I believe, have very little credibility and are barely worth our concern (besides, they are an excellent source of criticisms which can be used to refine our understanding of evolution). The latter, however, appear to have an inexorable grip over science - and they are guilty of the exact same scientific faux pas as the creation scientists, which is letting their prior beliefs dictate their scientific conclusions.
This leads us neatly back to Dawkins and his original discussion of memes. Almost immediately after introducing the concept of a meme, Dawkins used it to attack religions in a manner that was philosophically infantile and scientifically unsound. Religions, Dawkins argued, were parasitic memes. His belief was that we should cast off religions and adopt the One True Way, the belief that Science trumps God, and that materialistic humanism is the only world view which is Big T True. Had this viewpoint been advanced from a theistic religious viewpoint, his credibility would have been forfeit; but because the religious viewpoint that informed him was materialistic humanism, he only had to defend himself from philosophers who were thankfully waiting in the wings to apply some wisdom. Dawkins' writing since has become less naive.
The definition of a parasite is that it lives at the expense of the host - therefore in declaring religion a 'parasitic meme', Dawkins pre-supposes that religion provides no benefit to the practitioner. But how could any scientist measure this? This was not a scientific statement at all, but a statement of Dawkins' prejudices against theism. At no point does he take an objective viewpoint and include his own religion - materialistic humanism - in the discussion. In short, it was as if Dawkins was saying "my religious beliefs are wonderful, but your religious beliefs are parasites." We should not accept such religious intolerance in anybody, but especially not in a scientist of some esteem.
Notice also that Dawkins was using meme in the casual context of an 'idea virus', not in the more (recent) rigorous definition as a minimal unit of cultural information - since no-one would dispute that religions are cultural information. I personally don't find 'virus' to be an entirely pejorative term. I suspect that viruses are actually the chief agent for introducing genetic novelty - by transferring the more rapidly altering introns DNA fragments (c.f. neutral theory) and 'installing' them as genes (what I have termed the Cut and Paste hypothesis), and therefore have a beneficial role in evolution. The evidence for this includes the virus responsible for mammals having the capacity to give birth to live young and the glycoprotein in antarctic cod which appears to have originated in introns DNA. However, since I rarely present my views in terms of the dominant scientific paradigm, no-one has taken this idea seriously. Not to worry. If it has any merit, someone with more credibility will doubtless explore it. We don't own ideas (or memes, if you prefer) - we merely host them.
This bias towards materialistic humanism is, I believe, the dominant religious paradigm inside science at the moment. In an ideal world, there would be no religious paradigm inside science at all - it would be entirely agnostic. Isn't this the ultimate goal for science, that those employing it will begin each inquiry with no preconceived beliefs?
I see no particular problem with memetics being afforded the status of a "protoscience", recognising that it might one day be a legitimate scientific field. We should also recognise the possibility that it might never be a legitimate scientific field, though - otherwise we cannot claim to be viewing the situation with an agnostic, objective eye.
However, there are a large number of fringe scientific fields which are not afforded this gracious luxury, and are instead attacked as pseudoscience, an ill defined term which appears to mean "this violates my belief system and causes cognitive dissonance which I will alleviate by making it something I can dismiss out of hand".
Let me take one field as an example: parapsychology. Let me preface this part of the discussion by saying I am agnostic about psi (or anomalous information transfer) and related phenomena - I have studied various texts from both sides of the debate and have reached no firm conclusions. I tend to side with the quirky Libertarian intellectual Robert Anton Wilson who observed that every study which set out to prove the existence of psi succeeded in its goal and every study which set out to disprove the existence of psi succeeded in its goal. There are many more studies in the former category than the latter, however.
(I also want to observe that by even mentioning parapsychology I am opening myself up for the same kind of blind religious intolerance as happened when I posted an old essay of mine exploring the topic of evolution. Because to an uncritical eye, it looked like I was a creationist - which I have never been - and therefore I must be resisted and discredited, as many materialistic humanists have greater religious intolerance than most theists.)
Given that there are reports of anomalous information transfer, it would seem reasonable to have a field of science to investigate those reports. It could be that there is some unusual behaviour which is currently inexplicable (but which future models might explain), or it could turn out to be a psychological phenomena with no violation of current scientific models, or it could turn out to reveal flaws in our statistical methods. Either way, there is something to investigate! And yet many scientists dismiss parapsychology as a field entirely. No comfortable label of "protoscience" for parasychology... instead, it is generally dismissed as "pseudoscience".
But how can any genuinely agnostic scientist dismiss any field in advance? To do so is to allow prior beliefs to dictate conclusions. How could it be acceptable to dismiss certain concepts if the prior beliefs are materialistic, but unacceptable to use prior beliefs if they are theistic? I contend that neither is acceptable.
It gets worse. The most examined experiment in parapsychology, the ganzfeld experiment, has received substantial peer review. Indeed, so complete has the scrutiny of this experiment been that it is arguably the most rigorous scientific protocol devised - and still, the conclusion of the experiment apparently remains positive. (The Wikipedia quotes a hit rate of 34% with odds against chance of 45,000 to 1).
But many die-hard Skeptics (and by sceptic with a k and a capital S it is to be understood that we are talking primarily about religious fundamentalists whose religion is materialistic humanism) continued to dispute the experiment, even up to the point of saying (when all other criticisms had been exhausted) that it must be the result of fraud.
If, when peer review and reasonable criticism is exhausted, a scientist is forced to claim fraud to dispute the results, there can be absolutely no doubt that the scientist in question has already made up their mind, and the experimental evidence will not sway them. Such a person is guilty of the exact same errors as a creation scientist - they have let their prior beliefs dictate their conclusions. If the only means to dismiss an experiment is to claim fraud, then science has completely lost its claim to objectivity (if, indeed, it ever had it).
This, then, is the trouble with memes - the field of memetics is subject to far less critical review than other fringe sciences because nothing in the tenets of memetics violates the beliefs of materialistic humanism. It's not that memetics has a problem, but rather that the scientific community has a problem: it would rather attack belief systems it does not share, than focus on the goal of separating the scientific method from prior beliefs - because to do so, materialistic humanists might have to accept that they are just as at risk from having prior beliefs dictate their conclusions as theists. And that, apparently, is unacceptable.
If the goal of memetics is to view culture as an ecology of ideas (or of words) subject to the principles of natural selection, then we should probably conclude that religions are highly evolved ideas, subject as they are to several millennia of natural selection. That the people who practice religions have survived to this day suggests mutual benefit - symbiosis if you will - between religion and its practitioners. Perhaps the ironic end to the alleged war between science and religion will be that memetics might demonstrate that having diverse belief systems is an asset to a culture, and put an end to all attempts by one fundamentalist belief system - theistic or atheistic - to propagate a monoculture of ideas, or beliefs - or, if you prefer, of memes.