Over at TED talks, philosopher Daniel Dennett talks about Memes. What are memes, you say? Imagine a parasite overtaking your brain. Now this parasite makes you do things, not for your benefit, but for the parasite’s benefit. For example, rabies. Although rabies isn’t a parasite, it’s a good analogy. Rabies enters your body and it causes you to want to bite things more often–particularly living mammals. Why? It’s not to your benefit. It’s so that the disease of rabies can continue to spread and you are just a host.
Memes are parasitic ideas. Dennett uses fundamentalist Islam as an example. These people have an idea and these ideas take over the brain so that people commit suicide. But wait a minute, suicide doesn’t help you biologically speaking. So why commit suicide? It’s so that the Meme can propagate and spread. The word has a similar alliteration with “gene.” Genes, as you know, propagate themselves by sexual or asexual reproduction. That’s how they spread. Memes propagate themselves by spreading ideas. Think of a song that’s stuck in your head. You whistle it, and then people around you have that song stuck in your head. That song is a meme and your whistling is spreading that idea. Language is another example. In fact, all ideas are memes.
I have some reservations about the concept of memes. I would like to ask Dennett two questions:
- Isn’t this just a form of dualism?
- Where is free will in this since we have no control over our ideas?
Nevertheless, I think it’s a very interesting idea and this video explains it well, although this video mainly talks about how some memes can be toxic such as fundamentalism.