“Memes,” for example, spread or “reproduce” in a way that has some parallels with the spread of genes, but no meme—no idea or cultural image–contains a molecular mechanism adapted by natural selection to replicate itself. Ideas and cultural images are themselves inert. They are “replicated” only by serving as stimuli for psychological processes eventuating in symbolic activity that stimulates other psychological processes. The differences in causal mechanisms between molecular replication and this “memetic” process are subtle but fundamental.
In an essay “Evolutionary Psychology and Literature” forthcoming in the Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, edited by David Buss (Wiley), we can see why a blogger’s work is never done: memes need to be established over and over; they can never be taken for granted.
Shall we contemplate, for example, the meme whose policies led to seventy years of disaster in Russia but are mourned by Hobsbawm. Of course, those particular memes seem to have the staying power of Rasputin: dead, we hoped, and then we listen to Chavez or Mugabe. But, of course, they appeal to desires we understand; we have seen, however, these are not the best methods to satisfy our needs, especially for community.
But this gets away from Joseph Carroll’s cautionary note to his fellows. Most of us will see it as a truism but it is also a warning against the tendency of all of us, ethnobiologists are no exception, to get carried away. While the success of memes may depend, in part, on our biology, they are not, of course, biological.
Carroll’s introductory context:
Evolutionary analogists take natural selection as a model for a process that applies to other phenomenal domains. Instances include Donald Campbell’s idea that all intellectual creativity can be conceived as a form of random variation and selective retention (1988); Thomas Kuhn’s notion that scientific disciplines speciate or branch into distinct and “incommensurable” species of knowledge (1991); Richard Dawkins’ theory of “memes” (1976, 1982); and Rabkin’s and Simon’s idea that cultural creations “evolve in the same way as do biological organisms, that is, as complex adaptive systems that succeed or fail according to their fitness to their environment” (2001, p. 45). All these theories mistake an analogy for a causal process.