Various atheist blogs recently drew attention to British intellectual Susan Blackmore’s account of giving a lecture at an Oxford-based institution that “hosts groups of several hundred 17-18 year-olds for two weeks of classes”. She was speaking about memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins to refer to ideas whose tendency to spread among human minds is analogous to the tendency of genes to spread among bodies as a result of natural selection – a meme has to be well adapted, in the sense of being attractive to humans, in order to flourish. Blackmore has thought extensively about memes and devoted an entire book (The Meme Machine) to them, so she was eminently well qualified to speak on the subject. She also tried to tailor the lecture to her audience:
I was told they were of 45 nationalities and I assumed many different religions. So I prepared my lecture carefully. I tried it out the day before on my husband’s grandson, a bright mixed-race 16 year-old from Paris, and added pictures of the latest craze for ‘Fatkini posts’ and more videos, including my favourite Gangnam Style parody (Python style), but I wasn’t going to avoid the topic of religious memes – religions are an example, par excellence, of memeplexes that use wicked tricks to ensure their own survival. I simply made sure that my slides included many religions and didn’t single one out.
Unfortunately, despite her scrupulous efforts, it all went a bit wrong.
Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.
By the time she finished her lecture, she was down to less than half of her original audience, and she understandably indulged in some melancholy reflections as she went on her way afterwards.
Walking miserably up the High Street I felt profoundly depressed at the state of the world. I could cheer myself with the thought that I’d learned something. I learned that Islam has yet another nasty meme-trick to offer – when you are offended put your hands over your ears and run away. This would be funny if it weren’t so serious. These bright, but ignorant, young people must be among the more enlightened of their contemporaries since their parents have been able and willing to send them on this course to learn something new. If even they cannot face dissent, or think for themselves, what hope is there for the rest? And what can I do?
Reading Blackmore’s piece, I found it hard to avoid a certain sense that I was hearing from a well-meaning progressive type who’d been unceremoniously “mugged by reality”, as the saying goes. Her preparations ticked a series of boxes that would probably appeal to any fashionable educator in the English-speaking world: attention to diversity, openness to pop culture, equal treatment of a wide range of religious traditions. And yet, the bunches of young people who walked out of her lecture simply weren’t happy to have Blackmore take jabs at their particular faith, no matter how careful she was to jab a few others as well. From her perspective, she was being fair, enlightened and egalitarian. From theirs, she was being blasphemous. I suppose the interaction could be described as a collision between two mutually incompatible memeplexes, each with some evolved weapons and defences against the other. Blackmore’s memeplex actually didn’t do so badly, in that some “brave believers” in the audience stayed afterwards to talk to her and a few of their more skeptical peers. She at least succeeded in persuading them to engage.
Playing with the language and perspective of memetics can be fun, but I’ve never been terribly enthralled with the concept. It seems to me that the word “meme” is basically an unnecessary synonym of “idea”, and that the propagation and selection of memes is so different from that of genes that any analogy between the two is more amusing than illuminating. Minds actively work on and attempt to improve “memes” in a manner that has no real parallel in genetics, and “memes” can be disseminated far more freely than genes. However, I haven’t yet given Susan Blackmore the chance to change my mind, in that I’ve never read The Meme Machine or attended one of her lectures. If an opportunity to do the latter arises, I certainly won’t walk out before the end, even though by staying I may run the risk that Blackmore’s own memeplex will overwhelm my defences and colonize my helpless brain.