Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Problem and Potential of Memetics

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Problem and Potential of Memetics

Article excerpt

Memetics, in kinship with evolutionary psychology, has arisen as a relatively new Darwinian approach to understanding language, culture, and the human mind, where memes exist as cultural and mental replicators analogous to genes. In its extreme versions, memetics purports to give a total explanation for the origin, grounding, and functioning of cultural and mental events, yet ironically, memetics is rife with conceptual problems and utterly lacking in empirical support. Nevertheless, in spite of the serious technical issues and the unconvincing over-extension of the idea, modest versions of the theory might potentially enlighten our understanding of cultural transmission and the reproductive success of certain ideas. Furthermore and most importantly, since radical memetics presents an aggressive, increasingly popular, and absolutely materialistic conception of human nature that is vociferously anti-theistic, Christian scholars who wish to understand and critique pivotal academic and cultural trends will benef it from understanding the problems and potentials of memetics.

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With the recent emergence of Darwinian approaches to virtually every possible academic discipline, evolutionists have proclaimed this the Age of Universal Darwinism. Riding this trend, concerning the study of culture and mind, one Darwinian approach, called memetics, employs the concept of "memes" as cultural and psychological replicators analogous to genes--the biological replicators. Memetics, therefore, is in a sense Darwinian social psychology; however, despite the number of bright memeticists, their bold rhetoric of scientific arrival, and any explanatory potential memetics may possess, it faces numerous theoretical and empirical dilemmas before it can attain true scientific status. These technical problems, some of which are discussed in this paper, may appear superficially insignificant at first glance. However, in relation to an expansive list of disciplines, including linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, and theology, memeticists have made far-reaching claims that impinge upon such vital concerns as the origin of human language, the meaning of personhood, and the grounding and validity of theistic epistemology--as opposed to materialistic epistemology. Put bluntly, in the very words of their more moderate colleagues, some evolutionists are "hyper-Darwinian" (Gould, 2001) "missionaries..." placing "little value on empirical evidence ..." who wish to explain the world and convert it to the "eternal principle of natural selection" (Nelkin, 2001). Therefore, considering the important issues at stake, Christian scholars and anyone desiring to comprehend and critique pivotal academic and cultural trends, will benefit from understanding the challenge that memetics poses to a theistic worldview as well as the limited potential it may have for understanding the psychology that underpins ideational transmission and related processes of cultural change.

Although the idea of memetics has been around for about 25 years and has attained a certain wide recognition in academic circles, a strong consensus is still lacking regarding its actual status as science. Moreover, it remains to be seen what real contribution memetics can make to our knowledge of the universes of culture and mind; two subjects that it has especially claimed to illumine. Aunger (2001) says that scholarly opinion regarding whether memetics can become a real science of culture ranges from enthusiasm to disdain. Ironically, my opinion of memetics encompasses both of these feelings, and in this paper, after providing a background critique on basic memetics and its more radical incarnations, I will focus in depth on three problem areas and one area of potential regarding memetics. These areas include aspects of memetics that are: (a) ill-defined, (b) misguided and misinformed, (c) unhelpful and unscientific, and (d) potentially helpful in understanding language, mind, and culture. …

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