Just a reprise of my Good Friday up to 2 p.m.—while my memory is still fresh. This includes a felid, lunch, and coffee and conversation with Dan Dennett.
First, I am staying with old friends, and they have a 13-year-old cat named Garcia. He is is diffident towards strangers, including me, but it let me pet it this morning, so I got at least a bit of a cat fix. Garcia et moi:
Upon the recommendation of my hosts’ daughter, I decided to have lunch at a humble but excellent place in Davis Square, Somerville, just a few steps from the Davis Square CTA stop. It’s called the Amsterdam Falafel Shop, and gets nearly unanimous rave reviews:
There are only three items on the menu besides drinks: two falafal sandwiches on pita bread—small (3 falafel balls) and large (5 balls)—or a four-ball plate for those who go gluten-free. The falafel is great, but the bonus is their free “toppings bar,” where you can load you sandwich with any or all of 19 toppings, including baba ganoush, hummus, chopped lettuce and tomato, onion, yogurt, pickled beets, grilled eggplant, pickled turnips, and so on. To do that, they recommend squashing the falafel-filled pita till it’s flat, then opening it and piling the garnishes atop the smashed pita. Here’s what you get: everything is fresh and delicious.
They also have Belgian style fries, which you can dip into six different sauces that you squirt into small plastic cups. I chose peanut sauce and Dutch mayo:
Loaded pita and a paper cone of fries. This was an ample and tasty lunch:
After lunch I repaired across the street to the well known Diesel Cafe, described widely as a “hipster cafe” (I’ve only recently learned what a hipster is, and now know that I don’t want to be one!). There I met Uncle Dan, who had an hour and a half to spare before he met a journalist who wanted to talk to him about—wait for it—free will.
It’s always a treat to talk to Dan, even if we disagree about things like free will and the value of memes. We chatted a while about those memes, and I asked Dan what the advantage was to conceive of “bits of culture” as “Darwin-like memes” rather than simply studying how and why they spread without the meme-ish overlay. I also asked him to give me one example of a cultural change whose spread can be better understood by using the concept of memes rather than other ways of studying cultural transmission.
He said the main advantage of “memetics” was that one could adopt a Darwinian point of view when studying culture. I asked him why that was superior to just studying why things spread culturally, since the reasons for that spread are so varied, involving compulsion, mere imitation, usefulness, and the psychological propensities of humans. The reasons for spread of memetic traits, I think, are so varied that they differ profoundly and incompatibly with the spread of “genetic” traits via natural selection, which has only one pathway: a trait spreads when it enhances the number of copies of the genes that produce it. In other words, you can reverse-engineer a Darwinian trait by studying how it affects reproduction, but you could never do that with “memetic” traits like music, words, the use of forks, and so on. Each one spreads by a unique pathway, compelled by unique forces.
I proffered the recent adoption of the word “like” in American language, as in “So I, like, went to the store to get something to eat, but it was, like, so crowded that it was a real hassle shopping, and I, like, just decided to bag it and go home.” I argued that saying “like” spread because it was a meme is just a tautology, and didn’t explain why it was so infectious. Dan responded that words like “like” used in that way are equivalent to viruses that are infectious, and that is a quasi-Darwinian process. But to me that explains little: what we want to know is why people so quickly started peppering their sentences with the meaningless spacer “like.” What does saying it’s a “meme”, even an infectious one, add to our knowledge?
I’m still not convinced that the idea of memes, or the field of its study (memetics) is a significant advance in understanding human culture, though I’m willing to be convinced if someone shows me how the idea of memes helps us understand some cultural changes better than any alternative explanations.
Dan showed me the new expanded edition of his book with Linda LaScola, Caught in the Pulpit, which recounts the stories of preachers who no longer believe but are either still preaching, or are leaving or have left the church. This is what developed into The Clergy Project, a communications network in which nonbelieving clergy can talk to each other online and exchange stories and ideas. Dan and Linda were involved in starting that, but have no access to the exchanges among clergy (which now number in the hundreds), for those are confidential.
Nevertheless, the book tells the story of some of these clergy (anonymously, of course), and the expanded edition has an introduction by Richard Dawkins, a new final chapter summing up the authors’ conclusions from their work with preachers, more stories from apostate clergy as well as updates on their lives, and a reprint of the authors’ 2010 paper, “Preachers who are not believers.”
I got an autographed copy of the new edition, which will be published by Pitchstone on May 1. It’s well worth reading. Here’s Dan showing it off:
Dan mentioned that he had a new paper in Scientific American with Deb Roy, “Our transparent future” (behind a paywall) which begins with a new theory by University of Oxford Zoologist Andrew Parker that the Cambrian Explosion resulted from an increase in the clarity of seawater, which led to the evolution of eyes, and that to the advent of arms races. When your enemy can see you and find you, and you your enemy, all of a sudden there’s the impetus for all kinds of adaptations like armor, better vision on both sides, faster movement and better evasive tactics, on so on. I haven’t read Parker’s theory but it’s a clever one.
At any rate, Dan and Roy’s paper is about how something like this is happening on the Internet, which has suddenly lifted the veil around many institutions and bits of data that were once clouded in secrecy, and this new transparency, they say, will transform society. Dan used the examples of Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange making government secrets suddenly available to the whole world. I immediately thought of religion, and how, for example, the secret theology of Scientology, including its ludicrous scenarios about Xenu and thetans, is now easily found on Wikipeda: you no longer have to pay $30,000 to discover these stupid secrets. And that, I think, has helped lay Scientology low, for it’s no longer nearly as powerful as it used to be. Dan and I agreed that this new transparency will help spread knowledge about the malfeasance and folly of religion, and will, in the end, help erode faith in our world.
Although the Dennett and Roy paper is behind Sci. Am.’s paywall (ironic for a paper on transparency), he sent me an -ecopy, and I think he’ll post it on his website. I can make it available to people for free, I think, when I return to Chicago in 6 days, so if you want it send me an email with “want Dennett and Roy paper” as the header.
That brought up the subject of the world’s changing religious climate as revealed in the Pew Study I discussed this morning. Dan had also read that study, and said we shouldn’t be so frightened by the spread of Islam, for Muslims, at least in the West, will be forced to abandon their more invidious practices when exposed to other cultures. I’m not so sure about that, as Muslims in the West often band together in insular communities designed to stave off the influence of their non-Muslim neighbors. But Dan said that at least some of them will abandon the stricter tenets of Islam, and I agree with that, for all it takes is one! Nevertheless, it will be a dangerous and thing to do, and Dan said that such a change will necessarily involve bloodshed and sacrifice.
He also added, and I agree heartily, that one thing that would end a lot of the oppressive aspects of Islam would be if Muslim women were to band together, practice civil disobedience, and call for more opportunity and equality. That, too, will be highly dangerous for the pioneers. But, recounting how exposure to Nancy Drew novels had helped catalyze Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s departure from Islam, Dan thought that we should try to expose Muslim girls to more books showing them that they are capable of far more things than wearing veils, having children, and serving Allah and their husbands. Such a tactic might be instrumental in eroding the more oppressive aspects of Islam. Extremist Muslims know the danger of this, which is why they throw acid on Muslim girls trying to go to school.
So perhaps we should find a way to flood Muslim girls with such literature, letting them know they can far exceed what their faith demands. But at the very least, and this is my own view, we should be supporting the work of ex-Muslim feminists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maryam Namazie, who are trying to get this message out, and who have far more credibility than a pair of Old White Male Academics.