Friday, February 23, 2007

Dennett vs. McGrath in New Orleans, LA

This debate could have been better than it was if only the speakers had been given more of an opportunity for direct cross-examination.  As it was, they only went head-to-head on a few issues, most notably that of the validity of meme theory as a viable paradigm for the social sciences to research.  McGrath manages to sound fairly erudite when talking on such matters, as when he quite cleverly quipped that memetics is not awaiting its Watson and Crick, but rather its Michelson and Morley.  Of course, a thoroughgoing scientist would have to leave both possibilities wide open, but McGrath seems to disregard the former altogether when he peremptorily rejected memetic theory (along with religious unbelief more generally) without first examining its rational foundations.

Dennett (alas) doesn’t fully elucidate the key point at issue here, which is that while some genes and memes may be merely parasitic others are far more symbiotic with their hosts.  Just as we humans cannot live without our inborn intestinal fauna, so also we could not thrive as ultra-social civilizational beings without any number of meme-complexes, such as language, ethics, and law.  However, just as many protozoa are not particularly helpful to human hosts, so also there are ideas which, while spectacularly successful as self-replicators, are not particularly helpful to human minds and bodies (e.g. capital punishment for apostasy, blasphemy, carving deities, etcetera).  Such parasitic ideas as these survive not by conferring survival benefits directly upon their host, but rather by creating strong incentives for memetic replication along with threats of reprisal against those who fail to adopt them. 

McGrath utterly fails to appreciate the distinction between adaptive (symbiotic) memes and maladaptive (parasitic) memes, and thus cannot see how it might be that some memes spread because they are true and useful to their hosts, whereas others will spread merely because they well-designed to do so.  The lesson here is that a little humility goes a long way in allowing one to see the full import of a novel and difficult idea.  Perhaps more importantly, one ought not create straw-man simplifications of one’s opponent’s views and then crow proudly about burning them down.

Overall, though, this was a good exchange between two deep thinkers who manage to keep cordial even as they are lobbing rhetorical barbs.  Not a bad listen.

Overall rating: 3.5 stars

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