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Taking Memes Seriously

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In his book The Selfish Gene, noted nihilist Richard Dawkins ushered the faux-concept of memes into the world by declaring it to be a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation,”[1] which is exactly like referring to a unit of literary theory, or a segment of talent, or a yard of affection. Such blatant linguistic hucksterism would be startling from any other man but Dawkins, who, after all, cozened his way into authorial fame by attributing a common psychological state to tiny globs of amino acids, and then swearing up and down that he was doing no such thing. With this man, such chicanery is of a course. Indeed, he is so entirely shameless about the matter that he freely professes to employing a “verbal trick”[2] to illustrate the nature of memes. He will have his “unit of imitation,” in despite of common sense, and he will invoke the laws of science for his justification:

The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe. Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity...Obviously I do not know but, if I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others.[3]

One would like to remind the poor befuddled writer of these lines that those things, the prevalence of which he is attempting to explain – namely, culture and beliefs – cannot possibly come under any biological laws, since they are in no respect alive, in any sense which the word “alive” commonly bears (though this of course will not prevent Dawkins from inventing and insinuating some new definition). Nor, for that matter, can culture and ideas be explicable by the laws of physics, since they are quite obviously not physical entities, lacking as they are in extension and location. But one can hardly state such things without a groan, for by the time we are dwelling on such elementary verities, we no longer feel like we are partaking in a serious dialectical engagement, so much as explaining the ways of the world over the fence to one's six year old neighbor, who is perhaps a touch feeble-minded.
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"Mark Signorelli teaches English Literature at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, NJ. He has published poetry in the Evansville Review and the Mahwah Review."



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