Thursday, May 1, 2008

Raisins and Memes

I'm back from visiting my elderly mother, who is afflicted with severe arthritis. She is on several medications for this, including Tylenol and a low dose of steroids, but they only help so much. Now she's discovered a new "cure:" every day you eat nine golden raisins soaked in gin.

Why golden? Why nine? Why gin? Mama has no answers for these things, but she says, "I heard about this from three separate people and two said it helped."

At least twenty years ago Richard Dawkins proposed the concept of "memes," idea-fragments that, like genes, propogate by spreading from person to person, which is their sole reason for existence. Some thrive, some die out, some mutate. The golden-raisins-with-gin is a meme, whose spreading has nothing to do with science, truth, or results. I can't, of course, convince my mother of this (or of anything else, ever). But, on the other hand, she enjoys the gin.


Mike Flynn said...

I used to be quite intrigued by "memes," but have more lately realized that they add nothing to understanding of thought or communincation. They are purely imaginary entities (proposed by a materialist!) When Dawkins says that "memes... like genes, propagate by spreading from person to person, which is their sole reason for existence," he is saying nothing intelligible. The idea that calling ideas "memes" says anything about ideas is not a good idea. But the notion that spreading from person to person is "their sole reason for existence" is just bad metaphysics. "Their" sole reason? "Memes" have "reasons"? How can an abstract idea have reasons?

Also, the idea of "units" of thought analogous to genes is silly. Thought does not have "units" any more than ocean currents have "units." Thought is not built up atomistically from reductionist units.

Mary Midgley thoroughly trashed "memes" in her book The Myths We Live By. She has some comments on them here:

Nancy Kress said...

That's good information, Mike -- thanks for the memes! :)

James A. Ritchie said...

The placebo effect is very real, so never discourage it. If your mother believes a tonic of golden raisins and gin helps, it may well help.

As for memes, they say a lot about people, whatever their value in metaphysics.

gus said...

Here is a great article on the Placebo Effect I found in the Atlantic i just have to figure out how to get it to work on myself.

BuffySquirrel said...

First forget you read the article!