Memetics, genetics, evolution and scientism

Chris Hedges is an intelligent man, but even an intelligent man must understand what he’s talking about. All very well to criticize scientism, but let’s get the science right. Example: he claims memetics is nonsense:

Ideas do not replicate like genes. Ideas are snuffed out or forgotten, often for centuries. Ideas that prevail are often not the best ideas but more often ideas backed by power.

If Hedges knew more about genetic evolution, he would know that genes are “snuffed out” (selected against, even to the point of elimination from the population) and “forgotten” (latent) in fairly direct analogies. And genes that prevail are not “best”; that is not what fitness properly means in modern evolutionary theory at all. He’s confusing it with assumptions behind eugenics and outdated evolutionary theory. “Fitness” actually means whatever is replicated and survives for any reason, and genes do not directly correspond to phenotypical expression, anyway. Genetic “success” is typically circumstantial based on environmental factors or chance and not in any overall sense “superior,” just like his point about power ‘cheating’ if you will to push ideas. That is remarkably analogous to natural selection.

Dawkins (inventor of the concept of “memes”) wins that one.

Hedges doesn’t seem to have a grasp on the fact that the smarter evolutionary-atheists, at least—like Dawkins and Dennett—understand that in science, evolution not only isn’t teleological, like Social Darwinism, the mechanisms aren’t deterministic (genetics isn’t, for one example). Thus, Hedges’ drawing a direct line from their supposed determinism in science to asserting false determinism in the complex social realm severely hampers what could have been a useful column on scientism. Many other criticisms are possible, but they certainly didn’t bring a habit of determinism from science into social thought, because they don’t believe in that kind of selection in the science.

Hedges’ understanding of the science is too primitive to do justice to the important points about scientism—that there are things for which science (or particular subsets of scientific methods or conceptualization) was not designed. These points have been more elegantly made by social scientists and social philosophers who believe in a different kind of science for complex, interconnected social realms. Hayek is one example, as is Mises, both Austrian economists.

Read more on faith and scientism in my essay Our Resource of Dreams and Deceits: Strategies for Practical Metaphysics in Past, Present, and Future:

Many have deceived themselves into vainly grasping for the perfection of science as a centrality in life. But in their scientism they subvert their own science — the process of learning which may yield more apparent facts, but will never provide values. Such dispositions must be held deep within our body-minds in conjunction with superficial semantics. The epistemology of scientific methods will never yield a reason to insist on atheism, for example, yet many rationalizers claim just that, unwilling to own up to their own hostility toward theism as the explanation for their assertion. Nor can logic argue against any physiologically predisposed tenet of hopelessness. If secular “rationalists” indeed feel some deep optimistic humanism, it rests on some faith of instinct within the body-mind, in strength, in health, in self-expression which attracts them to scientific means, subjects and aesthetics.

Even properly understood as a tool, science requires its own contexts of assumptions, and its own framework of faith for its practices (including tenets such as an understandable universe and experimental reproducibility). Throughout its past application as a tool (including the introduction of rigor into theology) science has called beliefs and values into question — which means it freed us from many primitive superstitions and misunderstandings incorporated within our consciousness, rendering them implausible. At the same time it left us stripped of many old moorings as well as tethers, to find we need new and more carefully considered ideas. For this enormity, it should have our respect, not our overestimation.


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