Civil War Memory and “Memes”

Posted on April 3, 2009 by

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This might seem a little over the top, but I thought it would be something “different” to consider in terms of Civil War memory. I actually ran across this several months ago. For whatever reason, it slipped my mind until I ran across it again in my research last night. Though the book that I cite holds information of value to my research and thesis, the meme has nothing to do with it. Incidentally, nothing that I read showed that anyone made a connection between “memes” and Civil War Memory… I made the connection. That said, however, I’m certainly not sold on the idea (nor do I think in harmony with Dawkins’ ideology). If nothing else, it’s just  intriguing to consider.

So, what is a “meme?” According to a note in the book First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (page 260)…

A meme is an idea that is passed on from one human generation to another. It is the cultural equivalent of a gene, the basic element of biological inheritance. The term was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins speculates that human beings have an adaptive mechanism that other species don’t have. In addition to genetic inheritance with its possibilities and limitations, humans, says Dawkins, can pass their ideas from one generation to the next.

Examples of memes might include the idea of God; the importance of the individual as opposed to group importance; the belief that the environment can to some extent be controlled; or that technologies can create an electronically interconnected world community. Today, the word is sometimes applied ironically to ideas, deemed to be of passing value. Dawkins himself described such short-lived ideas as memes that would have a short life in the meme pool.

As the Wikipedia entry for Dawkins points out, there are critics of Dawkins’ theory (incidentally, I disabled all of the links in the following block quote that show-up in the Wikipedia page; to see the full body of text with links, see the above-referenced link to the Wikipedia page for Richard Dawkins)…

Critics of Dawkins’ approach suggest that taking the gene as the unit of selection − of a single event in which an individual either succeeds or fails to reproduce − is misleading, but that the gene could be better described as a unit of evolution − of the long-term changes in allele frequencies in a population.[35] In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains that he is using George C. Williams’ definition of the gene as “that which segregates and recombines with appreciable frequency”.[36] Another common objection is that genes cannot survive alone, but must cooperate to build an individual, and therefore cannot be an independent “unit”.[37] In The Extended Phenotype, Dawkins suggests that because of genetic recombination and sexual reproduction, from an individual gene’s viewpoint all other genes are part of the environment to which it is adapted.

Advocates for higher levels of selection such as Richard Lewontin, David Sloan Wilson, and Elliot Sober suggest that there are many phenomena (including altruism) that gene-based selection cannot satisfactorily explain. The philosopher Mary Midgley, with whom Dawkins has intermittently debated since the late 1970s,[38][39] has criticised gene selection, memetics and sociobiology as being excessively reductionist.[40]

So, when we experience, through interaction with others, embeded philosophies or ideas about the Civil War, and maybe “memory” of the Civil War, are we, in fact encountering memes? Like I said, I’m not sold on this, but it would be interesting to see the theory tested as part of a cultural study (not to mention how the test results would be validated… though I can’t see how they could be).

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