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What I'm reading

February 22nd, 2004

The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2000 Years by Bernard Lewis. Among much useful information, this book contains the interesting snippet that the name Palestine was imposed by the Romans after crushing the Jewish revolt of about 70CE and referred to the long-departed Philistines, and the claim that the first state religion, incorporating heresy hunts, persecution of unbelievers and so on, was Zoroastrianism in Persia.

I’m also rereading Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins. I agree with Dawkins on a lot on the issues he disputes with, for example, Stephen Jay Gould. Nevertheless, and particularly in relation to human society, he reminds me of those economists who have been so dazzled by their exposure to the powers of the market mechanism that they are unwilling to recognise either defects in the mechanism or the possibility that many phenomena are better explained in other ways. The most obvious example, in Dawkins’ case, is the attempt to model the development of culture in terms of memes. As with, for example, public choice theory or the economics of the family, there’s enough going for the idea that it can’t be demolished in a sentence. But, again as with these examples, and depending on way in which it is applied, it either:

  • explains only relatively trivial instances of cultural evolution, like jokes and catchphrases
  • is rendered vacuous through the use of redifinitions that render the theory irrefutable, for example by making ‘memes’ synonymous with ‘ideas’; or
  • provides an account of important phenomena that is obviously wrong, for example by failing to observe that political ideologies like, say, Marxism or political sociobiology owe more to conscious design than to selection and recombination

The relative absence of this kind of stuff is one reason I prefer Climbing Mount Improbable to much of Dawkins’ other work.

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  1. February 22nd, 2004 at 16:43 | #1

    I must say I don’t have an awful lot of use for atheist fundamentalists like Richard Dawkins. Evangelising against conventional religions strikes me as being about as bad as evangelising in favour of them; the purpose is the winning of converts, and I object to either party actively trying to win me over. While I tend more to Dawkins’ side than otherwise in the great religious debate, were he to knock on my door at nine in the morning trying to sell me his selfish gene theory I’d give him as short shrift as I would to a Jehovah’s Witness trying to palm God off onto me.

  2. Kinnich Gatsky
    February 22nd, 2004 at 20:00 | #2

    Richard Dawkins is never going to turn up on your doorstep James, isn’t that the important point? Certainly not at nine in the morning anyway.

  3. February 22nd, 2004 at 20:55 | #3

    He damn well better not. I also object to being awoken at nine in the morning for any reason :)

  4. February 22nd, 2004 at 21:48 | #4

    I don’t know the subject at hand, but my instinct with Lewis is always to double check his history.

  5. James Farrell
    February 22nd, 2004 at 21:58 | #5

    I’m not sufficiently trained in biology to adjudicate Dawkins versus Gould, and I remain open to the possibility that Dawkins is misleading, metaphysical, naive or whatever. But I was fascinated by the accounts in the book of eyes, wings, webs and figs. Even if most of the stories turn out to be wrong in detail, the point is they show how these things might in principle have evolved, and allow one to break free once and for all from the ‘argument from personal increduilty’. Surely this is the point to make about CMI rather than using it as an occasion for another attack on memes, which, as far I recall, don’t even get a mention in the book.

    As for the evangelical atheism, more power to his arm. James Russell reminds me of people who, when they see a gay couple holding hands, say they’ve got nothing against homosexuality, they just don’t like having it down rammed down their throats.

  6. February 22nd, 2004 at 22:45 | #6

    Memes may well be a deadend and underdeveloped but an *evolutionary* or appropriately reductionist approach to examining the development of human culture isn’t – see Henry Plotkin’s The imagined world made real which critiques memes but also attempts to offer a constructive alternative. As for James’ comments, it’s akin to asserting moral equivalence between the Taliban and the Church of England. Dawkin’s Selfish Gene isn’t even mostly about genes or an attack on religion but is mostly a popularisation of the ideas of mathematical biologist William Hamilton, which are interesting in their own sake, irrespective of its implications for trivial stuff like religion. If James doesn’t want to hear about them that’s fine but they’re in no way comparable to the blatherings of Jehovah’s Witnesses of the equivalent of get rich quick schemes in the netherworld.

  7. February 22nd, 2004 at 22:48 | #7

    Correction – meant to type “Dawkin’s Selfish Gene isn’t even mostly about *memes*”
    Also the link to a review of “Imagined world made real” is here

  8. February 23rd, 2004 at 09:02 | #8

    from my understanding of memes (i’ve read selfish gene and various papers) dawkins doesnt think memes work like genes, with recombination and selection.

    the point he wants to make is that ideas exist in a competitive landscape, and widespread ideas are not necessarily the truest ones, they are mostly the ones that are good at propagating…

    thus, non-trivial things like religion can be understood very well as memes. christianity, for example, is very succesful and converting new brains. furthermore, its a good example of an idea that has evolved to become better and converting new people and covering its own inconsistencies. making suicide a sin for a religion which promises heaven was a necessary early step. other evolved sections are explaining how the trinity works, selecting a canon (in third or fourth century) etcetera.

    whether or not these initial changes were made conciously or not is irrelevant. the idea still lives or dies not on its truthhood, but on its ability to propogate. (although for we enlightened atheists we eventually do reject it based on its truthhood…)

  9. February 23rd, 2004 at 18:54 | #9

    On “James Russell reminds me of people who, when they see a gay couple holding hands, say they’ve got nothing against homosexuality, they just don’t like having it down rammed down their throats.” – I personally don’t like seeing heterosexual public displays of affection (very unBritish), so I feel I am not exercising double standards at all when I object to newspaper articles that claim that homosexuals should be allowed public displays of affection; I don’t see why they should either.

  10. Phil O’Reilly
    February 23rd, 2004 at 19:51 | #10

    I treat “memes” with suspicion – this is a concept in search of of a substantive validity that has been lacking to date. How is this an improvement on regular expressions meaning the same thing. Such as culture, ideas, models and so on. Love Dawkins though, as am complete atheist – sorry, I mean bright.

  11. Phil O’Reilly
    February 23rd, 2004 at 20:02 | #11

    By the way there is still a community of philistines in the region. Several thousand perhaps? They adhere to the five books of Moses known as the Pentecheuch and still sacrifice near jerusalem somewhere. Source – National Geographic article of a couple of years ago. If the bible is to be believed they aren’t bad people at all.

  12. Phil O’Reilly
    February 23rd, 2004 at 20:26 | #12

    Scrub the last post I meant samaritans

  13. February 23rd, 2004 at 20:32 | #13

    No Phil, the Philistines came to Australia, if two hundred years of desperate and mind-boggled smartarses are to be believed.

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