Fleeting Memes

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a breakthrough text in biology. The book illustrates evolution from the point-of-view of a “gene,” essentially a self-interested replicator. To illustrate the concept of cultural evolution, Dawkins coined the term “meme,” meaning a small piece of coherent, transmittable culture, “replicated” through the minds of human beings.

The term “meme” has exploded into popular consciousness in the last decade thanks to global culture. Now memes are emailed and re-tweeted, referenced by late night talk show hosts and news anchors, and generally replicated in a huge number of minds at astounding rates (“Gangnam Style” already had over one billion views by the time I saw it).

The internet is the perfect petri dish for these replicators because the breadth and speed with which memes are broadcast exceeds anything in history. One of the consequences of this is that a “meme” is now seen, like much on the internet, as ephemeral.

As Dawkins pointed out in a later version of The Selfish Gene, the word “meme” has itself proved to be a good meme because of its survival and replication into popular consciousness. The gene/meme metaphor is apt too, since like genes, memes replicate and adapt, and the memes that find a “best fit” for their environment continue to replicate successfully.

(Take the “Grumpy Cat” meme as an example. This is a photo or video of a cat with a face that looks grumpy. Thirty years ago, a photo like this might be shown to relatives, and a good laugh would be had, and there it would end. But now the whole world gets to see it and adapt it for any situation where a grumpy cat face might get a laugh. The meme is so popular that unbelievably, the cat has a movie deal.)

I recently wrote a short science fiction story in which the personalities of the recently deceased were uploaded into a machine, and I used the term “meme-ify,” a take on mummify, as in a form of preservation. I was surprised to receive the story note that “meme” now connotes something less than permanent, almost discardable, the exact opposite of what I intended.

Whatever your views on Jesus, I submit one of his most impressive accomplishments was to “meme-ify” himself in his final moments. He gave up his physical life and transformed himself into a meme. We can now transmit the mystery of Christ to another mind by simply showing them a crucifix, and this meme has persisted for two thousand years.

It’s this sort of permanent “meme-ification” that I was going for, but it seems like the internet has mutated the intended meaning of the word to suit itself. I suppose it’s just natural selection at work; multitudes of fleeting memes are a best-fit for the internet. For the sake of my story, I’d like to use Dawkins’ intended meaning, but I think the new meaning might have reached a critical popularity.

Homo sapiens can’t give birth to Australopithecus. I suppose I’ll have to forgo the elegance of “meme” and come up with another way to say it. Is the old meaning extinct? What does “meme” mean to you?

Free Debate

Last year I read Free Will by Sam Harris. The book impressed me as a concise demolition of folk psychology’s casual (lazy) assumptions about free will, written with straightforward language and a direct approach. I had a few issues with the book, and as an exercise wrote a “Devil’s Advocate” critique in which I used the last vestiges of the dualism I inherited from growing up with church and Catholic school.

Shortly after I read Free Will, I read Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett. The latter struck me as beautifully written, philosophically and scientifically strong, and it razed my already crumbling Cartesian Theater. I remember thinking distinctly that I’d like to read Dennett’s take on Harris’ book, as Free Will openly challenges Dennett’s stance on the issue.

Monday I was happily informed through social media that this has happened. Sam Harris has posted Dennett’s rebuttal here. The rebuttal is a bit long, a bit thorough, and, to my thinking, imperfect, but I highly recommend both Free Will and Dennett’s take on it. Because what’s more fun than sitting at home reading philosophy?

Why should you read Harris’ opinion that free will is an illusion, then read Dennett’s opinion that Harris is wrong? It might seem a bit of a waste on the surface; if neither has the whole answer, what do we gain from these essays? We get a glimpse into a dialogue between two intelligent minds, and dialogue is the reason books like Free Will should be written in the first place.

Newton’s theories of space and time held sway for a couple hundred years until they were shown to be wrong by Einstein. But there could have been no “Einstein” if not for the foundations laid by Newton. Without Newton’s boldness, his willingness to put opinion to paper and publish it, science might have remained a stagnant morass of religious dogma and superstition. Even as Einstein was proving those theories wrong, he was standing on Newton’s shoulders (and the shoulders of many more recent scientists and philosophers).

“[A}ny hypothesis, however absurd, may be useful in science, if it enables a discoverer to conceive things in a new way; but … when it has served this purpose by luck, it is likely to become an obstacle to further advance.” – Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy

It takes guts to point out what you think are mistakes and sloppy thinking in the work of a professional, especially one that is a friend. But Dennett speaks his mind and isn’t worried about Harris’ feelings because this is what intellectual adults do. They make rational arguments, arguments that come from science and sound philosophy. They are not arguing emotionally, and you can be sure since Harris posted the rebuttal on his own website that he respects the man behind it and thinks the rebuttal worthy of our time, even if it is expressly intent on showing Harris is wrong.

Why does this behavior seem strange to me? Because so many outspoken debaters fail at it. Deepak Chopra, for example, debates publicly about God but quickly gets emotional and degrades himself by hurling ad hominem attacks, like this muddled thing he co-authored about Sam Harris. This confused article says nothing of significance, continually attacks Harris, and yet is couched as a sort of moral high road for sloppy thinkers who hold onto beliefs despite evidence.

Some scientific figures like Richard Dawkins think some debates can be a bad idea. Dawkins posted this article on his website admonishing Bill Nye the Science Guy for debating evolution with Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum (what items this “museum” contains, I do not know). Dawkins thinks these debates give undo credence to propositions that are not falsifiable and lack real evidence.

But this free will debate is completely justified, and I’m excited to read Harris’ response. Dialogues like these enrich our understanding, and though Harris and Dennett share many beliefs, they are two very distinct minds with distinct styles of argument. Neither is liable to make a proposition without either empirical evidence or a strong philosophical argument.

I don’t think this dialogue will resolve the issue once and for all. Certainly neither side will convince everyone in the world if scientists can’t even convince creationists of evolution. But if the debate causes us to question our own beliefs, maybe even shed some of our lazy assumptions, it will have done the us good.

Islamophobia vs. Homophobia

Maybe you’ve seen this Fox News interview with Reza Aslan that’s getting hype in the media. I’m pretty sure you can’t honestly call this “journalism” or a “debate”, but it was fairly enlightening. The issue is supposed to be Aslan’s new book Zealot, a biography of Jesus Christ. But Fox’s Lauren Green carefully avoids the content of the book to focus on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.

If I were the host of a news program and I was getting prepared for a live discussion about a book, I would consider reading the book. That sort of prep isn’t for Green. Strangely, though she obviously hasn’t read the book, she seems to have read pages and pages of negative criticism about Zealot, all of which focus on the fact that Aslan is a Muslim.

Aslan seems shocked and rightfully incredulous, and keeps coming back to the fact that he is a professional, a professor of religions with a PhD who has spent his last twenty years fascinated by Jesus, studying historical and scholarly accounts to form an opinion. If Aslan comes off as wide-eyed and self-righteous in this video, I understand why. Being faced with divisive interviewers should be shocking, even if it is Fox.

Lauren Green seems to feel his faith should bear more weight in this “debate” than the content of his work (which I have not read). It’s as though she unconsciously assumes (or was told to assume) that since Aslan is a Muslim, he must be promoting a ‘Muslim’ agenda and sporting a ‘Muslim’ opinion on Jesus.

The beautiful irony is that Green’s obsession with his faith betrays her own religious agenda. She is attacking him not as a “fair and balanced” news person, but as an “anti-Muslim”. Frankly, she comes off like a religious bully, stomping her feet and saying “stay in your own yard”.

It might seem fair and balanced to call her actions “Islamophobic”, since she fails to articulate any rational arguments against Islam while denouncing Aslan’s authority because of his faith. But as is often the case with Fox News, I sense that Green is just doing her job, doing what she was told to do with this particular guest.

Islamophobia is a real phenomenon, no doubt. In North America after the turn of the millennium, we were flash flooded with talk of jihad while news organizations juxtaposed the image of Osama bin Laden with the fall of the World Trade Center. The images ran for weeks and still pop up today. Naturally this implanted a sense of dread through all of TV-watching, white, Christian America about anyone with a beard and turban. Unfortunately there are actual Islamic fanatics out there who aren’t helping the problem.

Since most Muslims do not kill innocent people, it’s easy to see why social persecution can lead to claims of Islamophobia. Usually the group called “Islamophobes” are outraged at the label. The word has nasty connotations, implying intolerance and racism. Hopefully when a heavy claim like that is laid, it’s done consciously.

When Richard Dawkins criticizes Islam and poses legitimate rational questions about the fundaments of the religion, it’s clear that he doesn’t like the religion, but that doesn’t make him Islamophobic. He uses reason to look at the religion and posit why some of these beliefs seem harmful and negative, so we should not be using Islamophobia to describe him. It is one thing to have arachnophobia and run screaming from a harmless daddy long legs. It is another thing altogether to know the risks of poisonous spider bites and take steps to protect yourself when you’re camping in the Amazon.

A phobia is by definition an irrational fear of something. A good test for a phobia is to ask “What real-world effects am I afraid will result from this thing I fear?” and “Can I justify this fear with reason?”

Some Islamic fundamentalists do kill “infidels”. That’s a real problem that should be analyzed on a rational level without throwing the term “Islamophobia” around. But the term has been widely used to shut down conversations and to smear those who question Islam. In this respect, “antisemite” has been used in a similar way.

Because lives are lost to fanatical adherence to certain Islamic doctrines, it’s easy to see where fear of Islam comes from. The lines get somewhat fuzzier when we deal with “homophobia”. What exactly is at risk by giving gay people the same rights as straight people?

The “defense of marriage” argument is a sham built on a huge pile of ancient Christian doctrines. Fervent defense of ideals without much real-world consequence are a waste of energy. If there were truly a separation of church and state, gay marriage would not be a legal question. The sacrosanctity of marriage needn’t have anything to do with faith. And besides, Christian marriages can be terrible end in divorce just like marriages of all other belief-systems.

Health risks and sexually transmitted diseases are a weak argument against homosexuality. If health risks are a good enough reason to argue against homosexuality, certainly tobacco use should illicit a much bigger reaction. The same goes for the use of cars or prescription drugs, yet I rarely see moral arguments against those behaviors.

Mormon science fiction author Orson Scott Card, an open advocate of anti-GLBT views, recently made a statement asking moviegoers to be tolerant of his homophobic views and refuse to boycott his movie Ender’s Game. While his views don’t appear as a factor in Ender’s Game (the book, at least), he, or more likely his studio, are afraid people will be prejudice against the movie based simply on Card’s prejudices. This is another great irony, and you can read this funny but sober piece on it here in The Onion.

What about homosexuality is really worthy of fear?

Perhaps one could argue that children with both male and female parents have more balanced childhoods and so gay people should not have kids. But such a statement should be supportable by sociological, psychological or psychiatric facts. Obviously I haven’t done this research because I don’t care to defend that opinion. It is ludicrous, of course, as many straight people make bad parents but we cannot make that illegal. The balancing act of a child’s development has to do with many more factors than the genders and preferences of the parents.

One might argue that gay people inhabit a different moral landscape. Living in a neighborhood of gay people for years, I can admit to observing a general level of hedonism on the weekends, a shade above what I see in straight society. And while there may be marginally riskier behaviors in gay society, that doesn’t justify hatred or fear. But more importantly, the true party animals up at all hours in The Village are generally not the ones trying to raise kids.

Because there are no obvious grave threats to life and well being on account of homosexuality, to what do I attribute people’s disdain for it? It makes sense to me that disdain and intolerance of homosexuality is produced by a deep, irrational fear of people different from “normal”.

While I find all phobias distasteful, I do like accurate, clear language. For this reason, I have the very awkward duty to declare homosexuality the winner in this Battle Of Unrelated Things. Homophobia accurately describes those behaviors it speaks about, while too often I see Islamophobia misused in an attempt to stop conversations about real problems.

Here, watch this to celebrate!