Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Meme, schmeme

Dont you just love it when scientists and philosophers get snarky? The most famous snarky scientist is Richard Dawkins, who, his insipid The God Delusion nothwithstanding, can otherwise be sharp, witty, and entertaining when speaking live. Must be the accent. Someone who can out-snark Dawkins is the philosopher and professor of mathematics David Berlinski. I would pay to see these two go at it in a debate on evolutionary theory or religion.

Add anthropologist Greg Downey to that list. In this post in the Neuroanthropology blogsite, he eviscerates memetics. He does so by first establishing his Darwinist credentials, then he lets them have it (them in this case being Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett).
Finally, I resent the argument that Dennett makes, that all those who resist memetics are ‘anti-Darwinist’ or afraid of the implications of Darwin’s ideas. I’m more than comfortable with Darwin’s contribution to evolutionary theory, especially natural selection, and I think his works (not just Origin of Species) were remarkable, but I don’t adhere to ‘Darwinism’ as if it were a scholastic faith.

It’s not ‘Darwinism’ that I support, like it’s a cult or a form of thought that I must follow religiously; I believe that ‘Darwinism’ is only useful in that it is a theory that provides hypotheses to be tested, a powerful explanatory framework that explains some (though not all) phenomena. That is, when Dennett argues that some people are insufficiently Darwinist because they don’t want to apply ‘Darwinism’ to the world-wide web or Hoover Dam, I feel like he’s treating ‘Darwinism’ as a one-size-fits-all ΓΌber-explanation. That’s not science — that’s a cult. In fact, most people who study evolution argue that there a LOT of things that must be added to ‘Darwinism’ to get modern evolutionary theory (like, say, ooooh, genes…).

Emphasis in the original. Im not the biggest fan of evolutionary psychology, having called it a font of science fiction once, but I admit the reason I think it's a crock is probably because how it is popularized in the media as some sort of theory of anything. (Why do men like blondes? Evolution. Why do men like brunettes? Evolution. That sort of thing.) But thank God for scientists who can save the science from the cranks.


cvj said...

A few years ago, i tried to read Berlinski's A Tour of the Calculus, one of the worst books i've read.

I don't know quite what to make of the concept of memes, i.e. whether it's just a poor analogy of genes or whether it is something that can stand on its own.

Jego said...

I havent read any of his books but his interviews are hilarious. You should try John Derbyshire's Prime Obsession. It's about the Riemann hypothesis. He walks you through it step-by-step with some history and anecdotes thrown in. The math can get difficult, but it's an interesting book. The math made me dizzy though.

cvj said...

Jeg, thanks for the book recommendation! My friend told me about the Riemann hypothesis two weeks ago. Perhaps that is the book she was reading.