The “thinking meme” meme
Person and organism metaphors in Daniel Dennett’s theory of cultural evolution
After a brief flurry of attention following its introduction by Dawkins (1976), the concept of memes has largely disappeared from mainstream social and cognitive science discourse. A significant exception is Dennett’s (1995; 2017) writings on the philosophy of mind. In his most recent book, Dennett (2017) develops what he presents as a comprehensive account of cultural evolution, based on the claims that memes, defined as a “way of behaving (roughly) that can be copied, transmitted, remembered, taught…,” develop through evolutionary processes more or less identical to the processes through which biological organisms and their genes evolve, and that both memes and genes are active agents in their own evolution. Although Dennett presents some very interesting ideas about the co-evolution of culture and human brains, he couches his argument in a system of personification, organism, war, and object metaphors that implicitly assign mental activities including intending, competing, and planning to memes. In this paper I analyze Dennett’s metaphors and argue that they effectively distract attention from the psychological and cultural processes that actually determine whether a behavior pattern (i.e. a meme) is learned, remembered, and reproduced (none of which Dennett acknowledges). I then show how the substance of Dennett’s argument can be rephrased in language that avoids the obfuscating effect of his metaphors. In addition to countering a common metaphor-based misconception in evolution theory, this analysis illustrates the importance of close attention to the entailments of conceptual metaphors used as theoretical arguments.
Keywords: meme, metaphor, Dennett, science communication, evolution theory, cultural evolution
Published online: 08 September 2021
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