Birth Of A Notion

It was Richard Dawkins who gave us, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, the idea of the “meme”. The concept, by replicating itself into millions of human minds, has turned out to be a robustly successful meme in its own right — and Professor Dawkins is rightly credited with setting it loose in the wild.

I was surprised, therefore, to see that another Englishman — the Victorian author Samuel Butler — seems to have beaten Dawkins to the punch by a century or so. Yesterday I ran across this quote:

Opinions have vested interests just as men have.

The word “interests” is of particular relevance here, as it shows Mr. Butler taking the “intentional stance” toward ideas themselves. As I’ve stressed often (see here, here and here, for example) it is only by understanding replicators as things that can be seen as having “interests” that we can arrive at naturalistic accounts of intentionality and a Darwinian grounding for the notion of “design“.

I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this connection — a Google search of the quote together with “meme” turned up nothing — but I think Samuel Butler was perhaps the first carrier of the “meme” meme.


  1. Jesse Kaplan says

    A more or less fungible term here is “pathetic fallacy”.

    Posted August 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    I think that’s misleading. Obviously memes don’t have conscious interests, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t consider them from the intentional stance.

    That’s the special thing about replicators, whether they are memes or actual biological life-forms. Even viruses, which are hardly alive, can best be understood from the point of view of their having “interests”.

    Posted August 25, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  3. The meme idea just couldn’t catch on without piggy-backing on the gene idea, which had to wait until the discovery of Mendel’s work along with its verification and integration into Darwinian theory.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted August 25, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    I don’t know… Butler was very interested in evolutionary theory. The idea that opinions (i.e., ideas) are discrete things with interests of their own is a pretty good summary of what memes are.

    Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    I’m not going to devote time or energy to tracking down early examples of the so-called “intentional stance” taken toward concepts, ideas, hopes, fears, etc., etc. — but I’d be very surprised if such metaphors couldn’t be found in ancient texts. After all, some words and phrases just beg to be used.

    Malcolm, if you’re still in the vicinity of Cape Cod, I hope that Irene becomes a bit more irenic before she reaches you. Otherwise, batten down the hatches and prepare for a good blow.

    Posted August 25, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    Yes, still here in the Outer Cape. It’s starting to look like we might be better off here than New York City…

    Posted August 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink
  7. the one eyed man says

    I think you are always better off on Cape Cod than in New York City, regardless of the weather.

    Posted August 25, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink
  8. Tut, tut, Malcolm, I’m surprised at you! Ideas have ‘intentions’ in and of and for themselves seperate from their human carriers?! You are in severe danger of falling for that silly Dawkinsian notion that we humans are merely puppets. I recommend a strict diet of David Stove who had Dawkins ‘sussed’ years ago:

    “Puppetry theories, as I have said, *always* tend to expand, and Dawkins was therefore always likely to re-enact his “discovery” of selfish genes, or to do it again on a bigger scale. Ideally, no doubt, he would have preferred to have just one *super* giant-sized conspiracy, to explain at once biology *and* culture. But not seeing his way to that, he insisted on at least two giant-sized conspiracies, one for biology and one for culture. Genes are not ruthlessly selfish, but Dawkins is certainly ruthlessly demonological. You could put him down anywhere in the world and rely on him to find there, what no one had before, invisible puppet masters manipulating visible puppets. If, in addition, these puppet masters should possess any natural tendency towards self-replication, he would be sure to repeat his absurd though profitable trick of calling them “selfish” on that account.”

    “Against the Idols of the Age”, David Stove, ed. by Roger Kimball

    Posted August 26, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  9. bob koepp says

    The Davids, Duff and Stove, are correct to be wary of unleashed metaphors. Properly controlled, metaphors illuminate. Uncontrolled, they obfuscate.

    Posted August 26, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink
  10. Blimey, Bob, don’t link me with Stove, he was a first-rate philosopher and I’m just a fourth-rate blogger – and that’s on a good day!

    Posted August 26, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says


    I’m not saying that memes, or any other such abstracta — and in this I would go so far as to include even the Platonic abstracta such as numbers — exist independently of human carriers. But that doesn’t mean that within the milieu in which they exist it is meaningless to look at them from an intentional perspective. They are replicating patterns, and of course they require a substrate. But they replicate nonetheless.

    Viruses, for example, can also be understood in this way. Perhaps prions, too.

    Posted August 26, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *