Cat, noms, and and a chinwag with Uncle Dan

April 3, 2015 • 2:53 pm

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:

Garcia: I’ve just kissed a cat named Garcia.

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.

73 thoughts on “Cat, noms, and and a chinwag with Uncle Dan

  1. So, you never got around to discussing free will? I was reading fast to get to the arm wrestling. It never came. 😎

  2. The idea of memes is indeed pretty tautological and limited, but it does have some uses.

    For example, why do religions tend to say that believing in God is virtuous? Afterall, Seattle is further North than Mexico City, but believing that to be true is not in itself a virtuous act.

    The difference is that the belief about Seattle derives from evidence. The belief about God does not, so spreads, or otherwise, purely on its own appeal.

    If you couple the idea that “god exists” with “believing so is virtuous”, then the combination will spread far better than the former alone, since adding the second will lead people to promote for former much more.

    Hence, religions that flourish are ones that regard mere belief as virtuous.

    The above may all be pretty obvious, but it is one example of the meme concept being useful.

    1. For example, why do religions tend to say that believing in God is virtuous?

      In addition to the analysis you offer…it must be noted that the primary function for all gods throughout history has been to serve as fictional literary devices, characters whose sole purpose is to amplify the voices of the storytellers.

      The gods have great and impressive powers, perhaps even unimaginable in their extent. And with such power comes commensurate authority. But we never get to hear the gods themselves speak…save through the voices of their duly-authorized agents, the priests. So the priests can make up whatever shit they like and say that the gods told them to…and you don’t want to risk upsetting the gods, now do you?

      All that hinges on people actually believing that the gods are real and that they really did and said what the priests are reporting. So, of course, the most important thing the gods ever said…is to trust the priests.

      Just like any other confidence scam, of course; faith is the engine that powers them all.



      1. And that is why the only unforgivable sin is to deny the Holy Spirit. The earliest Christians derived their revelations and thus their influence from the Holy Spirit, so anyone who said it didn’t exist was a huge threat to them and condemned out of hand and forever. You could deny Christ (three times even), but not the Holy Spirit. Without an acceptance of the Spirit the whole thing fell apart.

        1. I hadn’t thought to apply it to the unforgivable sin before…but you’re absolutely spot on. Makes perfect sense and blindingly obvious in hindsight.


    2. I always regarded the “meme” idea as a place holder, for a future more rigorous investigation of “social contagion” – another metaphor. Alas, a lot of discussions of memetics just appeal to “intuitive” notions of catchiness and leave it at that. Investigations of how and when catchiness works would be very handy – and an interesting psychological counterpart to the belief revision literature.

  3. Baba ganoush is so good! I just realized it has been a year since I ate a Falafel with some on it.

    1. There’s a restaurant in town, Haji Baba, that is one of the better Middle Eastern restaurants I’ve eaten at…and by far the cheapest. Their babaganouj is one of my favorites.

      I’ve heard it’s not that difficult a dish to make, though I’ve never tried to make it. Probably just as well, as I’d be sure to inhale the entire batch as soon as it was done….


      1. Inhale is the proper word here. To make Babaghanouj you start by roasting an eggplant till the skin burns black. It takes a really good kitchen fan or you can do like I do and go outside to the barbecue. The inside goes all gooey and you add the flavourings to that. There are all kinds of variations at this point. The first one I made was like hummus but with the roasted eggplant instead of chickpeas.
        My daughter told me that falafel is called that because it tastes so good that you eat too much and afterwards you go ‘Oooh, I falafel’

      2. “I’ve heard it’s not that difficult a dish to make, though I’ve never tried to make it.”
        Yeah, it’s fairly simple. And it tastes really good – just so long as you properly blend the eggplant.

  4. Glad you enjoyed a cup of coffee with Uncle Dan! I’d love for a chance to the same — and especially, of course, for the opportunity to have a go at it, hammer and tongs, over the 56/100% we disagree on, instantly glossing over the other 99 44/100% in which we’re in perfect agreement.

    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.

    I think Richard had a brilliant idea in recognizing the quasi-Darwinian nature of cultural evolution…and I think everybody else is stretching the poor metaphor well past its breaking limit.

    It’s a great observation that there are, indeed, a good number of similarities in the two processes…but, lacking an actual genetic material and descent with modification and common ancestry and all the rest, you really can’t even begin to apply the same techniques to understanding culture.

    In other words, they’re going the worng direction.

    What would be much more exciting…would be to try to figure out a good way of generalizing lower-case-e evolution even further such that you had a single theory that explained both Darwinian Natural Selection and memetic cultural evolution. And I think it’s the physicists who’re specializing in thermodynamics making the most interesting strides on that front. Because, if you had such an overarching theory, then you can get into the really interesting bits of having the tools necessary to compare the different directions each takes as a result of the different forces driving each.


    1. “…and I think everybody else is stretching the poor metaphor well past its breaking limit.”

      You pretty much summed up my view with that sentence. I find the study of how ideas come into being (it’s generally a “mutation” of a previous idea) and then survive or die in given cultural environment fascinating. And think the metaphor is appropriate up to that point. But, genes build phenotypes. If we extend the metaphor, memes would have to build, I don’t know, “phemotypes” (if that word catches on, I want everyone to remember they saw it here first)? What would that even look like? Additionally, if I understand the basic biology (if I am wrong somebody help me out), gene transfer can occasionally happen between species, but it is relatively rare. Meme transfer between phemotypes (however they happen to be defined), would be occurring almost constantly.

      1. I think Richard Dawkins called “phemotypes” — the “extended phenotype” in his book by the same name. So memes do build phemotypes but are called extended phenotypes.

        1. Well, there goes my originality. It’s been years since I read that book. Apparently, the phemotype meme was dormant in me until an environmental factor caused it to be expressed (maybe the metaphor can go further). But, if I remember correctly, and it’s quite possible I don’t (I loaned my copy of the book to a friend and never got it back), Dawkins compared things like hermit crab shells and human automobiles. But, the thing is, all hermit crabs (at least as far as I know) seek out shells to protect themselves. We could in theory walk that trait back to a genetic component that gave it a survival advantage. Maybe, we could do the same thing for cars (possibly a tool-making correlation). But, I don’t think that can be done for something like art or music. Maybe I haven’t thought about it enough, but the fact that I’ll pop in a Bob Dylan album and my neighbor will be listening to Travis Tritt, does that make us different phemotypes? I’m Democrat and he’s a Republican, I like Dali and he prefers Picasso, where does the line get drawn?

  5. …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… Muslims in the West often band together in insular communities designed to stave off the influence of their non-Muslim neighbors.

    I think it’s going to be a lot harder to “band together in insular communities” once the internet becomes easier and easier to access, and harder and harder to block.

    I’m reading a book right now about North Korea (Without You There Is No Us)in which an American teacher is trying to slowly, subtly, and surreptitiously introduce North Korean university students to the facts concerning the internet (among other things.)Apparently there is a bastardized, heavily moderated, and highly truncated national version called the “intranet” over there and even the elite sons of the elite leaders have been taught that this is all there is.

    North Korea is even today an outlier… and it can’t possibly continue to maintain this level of lies and secrecy in the upcoming decades. Muslim parents are also fighting a losing battle. The enemy isn’t so much a different culture as information itself — as well as friendships. And the more ties one has to online communities — even if it’s only games and fan pages — the weaker the ties to tradition and tribe.

    1. Americans who know muslims are more likely to like them.

      Friendships do make a difference. A huge difference. My experiences in science and academia are very international. The ties made to other cultures is tremendous. Not that I had any prejudices, relationships tend to soften preconceptions, allay fears, and generate empathy. The standard we need to all reach for: There Are No Others, Just Us.

    2. Thanks for the little review of Without You There Is No Us. If you haven’t yet read it, I highly recommend Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy.

      1. I can also thoroughly recommend the book ‘The aquariums of Pyongyang’. A very disturbing account of life in the Norths gulags.
        NK is now being flooded with these cheap Chinese DVD players that also play from USB sticks and other memory cards. They are small enough to be easily hidden when the government spies come knocking and most commonly people will have a government DVD in the player but be watching a South Korean soap opera or news and be able to quickly remove the memory device and say they were just watching the DVD.
        They’re no longer popular in China and are cheap enough for more and more North Koreans to afford.

  6. Lebanese take-away just opened down the road from me. Their falafel, miam, miam, as the French-speaking Lebanese would say.

    Re: Dan Dennett’s optimism about invidious Islamic practices attenuating due to their being exposed to other cultures e.g. in Britain. I’m sceptical.

    All of this is anecdotal. BUT. Since large-scale Pakistani and Indian immigration into Britain since, say, the late 60s/early 70s, I see, in Birmingham, with its large immigrant population, an intensification of the cultural differences among immigrant Muslims.

    20 years ago, it was extremely rare to see a Brummie Muslim woman dressed in a burqa. Now it is common. On the other hand it is much more common to see an Asian woman dressed in western style. The centre has not held.

    By way of illustration, I used to pick my daughters up at primary school, where parents would gather to discuss. In the school foyer were photos of the school governors, teachers, local council reps, parents etc. 2 of the reps. were Muslim women photographed in burqas. Completely unrecognizable and indistinguishable from the 7 other be-burquaed Muslim women waiting in the playground for their kids. A more absurd example of local accountability I cannot think of.

    In my experience, British Islam has wandered to the extremes. There are many more British women Muslims who are now more oppressed by their religion and their men than there were in the 70s and 80s.

    There are evidently far more Muslim men in Britain who approve of the burqa than there was 30 years ago. And if these men think that is a reasonable way for their women to dress, what else do they think? The range of possibilities is not good.

    In this I regret to say that Dan Dennett may be looking on the bright side. x

  7. Meme came be vague, like paradigm, but it’s meaning is understood, generally, even if it can be repulsive at times, like how researchers use ‘low-hanging fruit’…I know what it means, it just seems so pedestrian.

    Dan is surely always company…and what food!

    In college I was inundated by the feminist mantra: ‘What have dead white European males given us?’. That’s possibly something to debate…let’s not forget that most Muslim girls have no idea who dead white European males are let alone know enough to debate their importance.

    Until all women of the planet are granted equal access to education some of them will remain chattel to the monstrous whims of benighted men.

  8. The general problem with memes, I think, is that the analogy with genes that gave the concept so much power power (genes – over time – program themselves to be better replicators) doesn’t really work well in understanding memes. Adopting the meme’s-eye POV doesn’t work the same way as a gene’s-eye POV because there are more pressing factors like the agency of individuals (that makes memes more Lamarkian than Darwinian).

    1. Pinker’s objections to mimetics:
      “1.Memetics has never taken off;
      2.We don’t have a science of memetics;
      3.Mutations in evolution have to be “blind”;
      4.Cultural evolution has intelligent design, and so doesn’t need evolution;
      4.If cultural evolution depends on Lamarckian evolution, that gives it no power;
      5.If memes are like parasites, words lack adaptations to defeat host immune systems – and so would be rejected.”

      These objections do not seem convincing to me. The first two merely indicate the field is very young, not that it’s useless.

      The next three are simply wrong; mutations don’t HAVE to be random, they just are in biology, but not culture. Intelligent design and evolution are not mutually exclusive, and even if you don’t need evolution, that doesn’t mean you won’t get it. Read Dan’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, evolution is everywhere. Lamarkian evolution is not powerless, it just doesn’t happen in biology, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen in culture. Lamarkian evolution is by its nature more powerful than Darwinian, because mutations are guided by need. Biology can’t do this but culture can.

      The final one is also incorrect. Single words are not memes. Memes, like genes are a combination of smaller units and like viruses they do come with adaptations to help them defeat our sceptical immune systems. Ideas such as faith being a good thing, and reason being satanic, are designed to stop people thinking too much about the nonsense they are being asked to believe. They help bizarre beliefs past the brain’s defenses.

      I am afraid that Stephen Pinker’s (of whom I am a great fan) objections to mimetics show a lack of understanding of both evolution and mimetics.

        1. But what are these ‘defenses’ of the brain that you talk about? In what do they consist? I confess I find the idea of some sort of pristine brain that would, if left alone or if its ‘defenses’ worked properly, proceed along purely and admirably rational lines really rather ridiculous (I recall in this connexion a book by Pinker about blank slates). But the brain (or mind) is surely not like that, and such defenses as it may have are in no way comparable to the defenses against disease & parasites possessed by the body. The defenses the mind has against pernicious or not particularly pernicious rot are in many cases learned…; certainly, innate intelligence may make one less likely to accept rot, but as we can see from history many people of the highest intelligence have been able to believe in any number of impossible things both before and after breakfast.

          1. That is a good new word: mimetics: “The study of mimes mimicking each other”.

            Or to weit it up a bit “the study of copy-cat mimes”

          2. Not new! Here’s Merriam Webster’s definition:

            1 : imitative. 2 : relating to, characterized by, or exhibiting mimicry

          3. I couldn’t quite tell by your comment if you knew this, but just in case. In his book The Blank Slate Pinker lays out the case for why the “Blank Slate” hypothesis is wrong. Actually, he pretty much stomps its guts out.

      1. Agree with every word, Marella.

        The point of ‘memes’ is that, insofar as ideas are replicated by copying and imitation, their survival and propagation depend on the extent to which their effects (on people) tend to cause survival and propagation of the ideas, not the people. Having successful genes might sometimes be bad for you; holding successful ideas can be just as unhealthy and (moreover) unwise.

  9. While the 634 member clergyproject is private, there is a related public blog: Rational Doubt: the Clergy Project Blog, moderated by Linda LaScola.
    Saw Judge Judy at her cruelest a few days ago. She asked a 17 year old to start over, and testify without saying “like” every sentence. He could not do it! He would come to a total stop, and when he tried to resume, out it would come again. It was painful to watch.

  10. What a great day Prof CC! I’m so jealous.

    BTW, in case you read this and this happens to be a “noms” post, I have a selfish request for some tips:

    The foodie half of our family, my younger son and I, are taking a trip to New Orleans.
    I’m “determined” to try some of their great cuisine. 😉

    Is there a “don’t miss it” place or two for noms that you would recommend Jerry? (If you’ve been there that is, and I seem to remember something on New Orleans on WEIT).

    If anyone else has a suggestion I’m all ears.


  11. I have to admit that Amsterdam is not the first place I think of for top-notch falafel.

    Regarding memetics, it seems to me that it would be difficult to make sense of the spread of things like teen fashions, pop music acts, trendy smartphone apps, and the like without invoking some notion of competition for mindshare, with the winners inspiring imitators and knockoffs that spark a new round of competition. In such cases, the meme concept is not so much an approach to studying such things as a conclusion drawn from the evidence.

    I also think it’s a bit of an oversimplification to say that natural selection has only one pathway. Yes, enhancing gene frequencies is the bottom line, but there are myriad ways that phenotypes can be varied to accomplish that. So I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that memes propagate in too many ways to be compatible with Darwinism. Gene frequencies are certainly easier to measure, and genetic evolution therefore easier to demonstrate; I’ll grant you that.

    Perhaps what you’re getting at is that the fidelity of meme propagation is too low (or if you prefer, the mutation rate is too high) for Darwinian selection to apply. That’s a reasonable objection, and one that I don’t think has been adequately answered by meme enthusiasts.

  12. ‘I proffered the recent adoption of the word “like” in American language…’

    That’s been around, like, forever.

    “Meme” is, I think, a useful construct, providing a shorthand description for a phenomenon (which, as you point out, likely encompasses a host of underlying phenomena).

    Such constructs sometimes turn out to have an underlying reality, including an independent physical existence (as was the case with “genes”). Sometimes not, eluding specification and identification, remaining purely descriptive (as is the case with “IQ” or, better yet, “g factor”).

    Such constructs can inhibit as well as promote understanding. A problem arises when people (including at times researchers) think that because they know the name of a phenomenon they understand something about it, such as its cause or causes (its “etiology,” in medical terminology). They don’t — they are confusing the label with the underlying phenomenon, mistaking the map for the territory itself.

    Hell, I can be as guilty of this as the next punter.

    1. Seems to me that “an independent physical existence” is itself a rather fuzzy concept. To use your own example, a gene has more to do with the information encoded than with the (often discontiguous) collection of atoms that encode it.

      Does genetic relatedness have an independent physical existence? It’s quantifiable, but is it physical, or merely conceptual?

      Things get even murkier when we get into mental events. All such have a physical basis — every thought corresponds to some pattern of neural activity — but there often seems to be a reluctance to grant this class of events the same degree of “physical reality” as, say, genetic events. Behavior, we’re told, is determined by “the laws of physics” or by “genes and environment”, not by imagination and intentions.

      So I wonder to what extent attitudes might shift in the next 20 or 30 years (say), as advances in neuroscience elucidate the physical basis of thought and allow us to decode the neural patterns that implement it. Perhaps the idea of memes as analogous to genes will be obvious and uncontroversial when we can actually point to them on a brain map.

      1. I think some of the murkiness comes from discussing phenomena at varying levels of abstraction, some of them not very well constrained.

        We agree, I believe, that all intellection — all mental activity of any kind — supervenes on a neural substrate. Does that mean that the id, ego, and superego could ever be said to have an independent physical reality?

        I recognize that Freud is much in disfavor these days, especially among neuroscientists — so far as he even registers among them anymore. (I’m certainly no Freudian, not by any means, though I continue to use some of his concepts as thinking tools in certain situations.) But let’s assume for the sake of argument that his concepts — I’ll use the aforementioned, but you could substitute others — precisely mirror onto the human psyche. Even then, could we ever say that id, ego, and superego are more than constructs? I don’t expect we would ever find them to have a “physical existence” (and I agree with your point that that expression can be more slippery than it seems) in the same way “genes” do.

        Some constructs, like genes, are found to have a physical correlate; some seem destined to remain hypothetical — they may be placeholders for something else (perhaps an array of something elses), or they may, like “intervening variables,” essentially be black boxes standing in for what we don’t know (perhaps just concepts at such an abstraction level that they are useful for analysis and discussion, but not amenable to productive scientific investigation on their own).

  13. What a Great Friday:
    Garcia, falafels, and Uncle Dan!!

    Love “I just kissed a cat named Garcia.”

  14. I expect memetics is a sterile pursuit. The spread of ideas has very little in common with the spread of genes. There is a lot of interesting psychology research on why some ideas stick and why others do not, but I’ve never seen anything particularly interesting within the “meme” framework.

    Nonetheless, I think the word “meme” is here to stay. I hear this word being used now by people who have no idea where the word comes from. I think it’s detached from it’s origins and now has a life of it’s own. As a bit of language, I think it is a useful word, especially so in the age of the internet when viral ideas arise, spread, and die out in such rapid succession. It’s useful to have a word for “an idea that catches and spreads, often quickly”. The “I can haz hamburger” meme, for example. If we didn’t have “meme” as a label for that sort of thing we’d have to coin some other term for it. I’m happy with “meme” as a colloquial term, so long as it’s not thought to represent any actual science.

    1. But suppose people were to do some actual science on the social and psychological mechanisms by which ideas catch on and spread quickly. What terminology should those scientists use for their objects of study, if not the useful word “meme”?

  15. A good video that sums up many good ideas about memes. CGP Grey’s “This Video Will Make You Angry”, which he released recently. I’ve seen other good ideas in that regard, like seeing terrorism that breeds counterattacks as part of the same replicating system, like parasites that go through different life-cycles.

  16. “Meme” is useful if only to provide a name for all those picture/text things we see on Facebook.

    1. It strikes me as ironic when I see god-soaked “friends” on FB writing about “memes” (exclusively in the narrow context of those “picture/text things”, of course).

      If they only knew…

      1. Indeed. I had the opportunity, once, of informing a Dawkins-basher (who loved to speak about memes) where the concept originated. One of life’s small pleasures.

  17. “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.”

    I recommend Anne of Green Gables

        1. I think my childhood heroes were Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman. I particularly liked the Bionic Woman because she was often in situations where some men were dissing her and she’d kick their asses and they’d be all perplexed and say “but you looked so skinny”. 😀

  18. 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.

    Hmmm, I knew broadly of Parker’s belief in the importance of a vision-predation arms race in the Cambrian explosion, but this twist about changes in sea clarity seems novel.
    I’ll drop you a mail.

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