Susan Blackmore's TED Talk: Response Part I

I am going to respond to Susan Blackmore's TED talk by highlighting several excerpts at a time over a period of several days. Feel free to leave your own reactions to what she has to say or to my analysis. (If you want to go back and check out the context, times are in parentheses.)

(:18) Cultural evolution is a dangerous child for any species to let loose on its planet. By the time you realize what's happening, the child is a toddler, up and causing havoc, and it's too late to put it back. We humans are Earth's Pandoran species.

Note that culture and its evolution are for Blackmore alien to the human person. Culture stands outside of or alongside whatever source or identity it has in the human being. Culture is not something that flows perpetually out of what it means to be human.

To a certain extent, I agree with Blackmore that culture does come to stand "outside of" the experience of being human. We speak this way whenever we talk about a culture apart the sum of human actions. Culture is more than the sum of its parts.

I would even agree that culture is one of the forces that shapes our understanding of what it means to be human. Consider language, religion, education, ceremony -- these all undoubtedly contribute to our self-understanding in essential ways. In fact, I would probably go so far as to say that culture and a sense of what it means to be human are mutually dependant upon one another.

But it seems to me that where Blackmore is going with this is quite different (something that becomes clear later). She is making culture (and its memes) essentially independent of any foundational understanding of the human person.

At the end of the day (all just accommodations to the force of this explanation in accounting for things like ties, Wii bowling, the popularity of the movie Titanic and the bowl haircuts of the 80s aside), this vision is incompatible with a Christian vision that asserts a relationship between a creator God and his image bearing creatures. At the end of the day, I think we have to retain a vision of culture that flows out of our image bearing nature.

In her admittedly powerful account, Blackmore leaves us no room to think of humanity except as a system which serves as a biological and mimetic replicator that has become the environment for other biological and non-biological replicators.

At what cost?

(1:22) [with picture] The best idea anybody ever had.

Just a note: Consider the revelatory imagery of the picture that accompanies this. You think signs and symbols are not important to us anymore?

(1:46) The idea was so simple and yet it explains all design in the universe. I would say not just biological design but all of the design that we think of as human design. It's all just the same thing happening.

Here again is that radical leveling. The simplicity of her vision is brilliant - perhaps even more brilliant than the physicalism upon which it is based. This is the part of her talk that makes her world view capable of stability. It is both simple and universally applicable.

Stay tuned.



The essential point is that Susan Blackmore's coming from a standpoint which says "There is no God", and working backwards from that proposition. She's casting around in her religion for analogues that explain culture, and she's discovered Dawkins, and done her best to translate one set of observations in one sphere to another sphere. The theory which works for genes doesn't explain the facts of culture though.

In an atheistic interpretation of culture, it makes sense to look for ways in which human interactions are nothing more than a concatenation of undirected happenstances. This is why, for her, culture is "dangerous" but not "beautiful". She is a mocker, not an appreciator.

The "meme" she picks on - the folded toilet paper - is not even an example of something which evinces lack of purpose in design, however, but just the opposite. The people who do this thing do it for reasons.

For Susan to claim that the mechanism of directionless evolution is enough to explain changes in culture, she must ignore several things.

For example,

1) The ways that people feel about culture,
2) the manifold responses cultural realities evoke, and
3) the desires people have to generate, shape and participate in cultural experiences.

These three examples have this in common - they all make more sense in a hermeneutic that sees them within a theistic framework, as expressions of or searchings for transcendence, meaning and purpose.

Free will has seen to it that cultures are not susceptible to evolution in the same ways that genes are. Her equation of the two is assertive but not reasoned. My dog has four legs, and my cat has four legs, but my dog is not a cat.

Culture is not some exogenous variable. It is intrinsic, because people are made in God's image for community, to love and be loved. I think your analysis is spot on.

Jeff said...

Control is in illusion, sometimes constructed rather convincingly,like when it attempts to harness our lack of it.

Paul said...

I would find this more convincing if her thesis weren't the plot of "The Matrix".

JPB said...

Except that the Matrix is far more engaged in the human situation and project than her world view!

I think what she's talking about is more the philosophical world view that would underlie the plot of the matrix. (Though the movie itself is more Buddhist than anything.)

Paul said...

One big criticism I have of Blackmore's talk is her insistence that culture must be viewed only from the perspective of memes/temes. She suggests that cultural ideas and artifacts spread not because we want to spread them, but because they latch onto us like parasites or symbiotes and spread themselves. She states this point of view most clearly when she says that "we just think" that we made the internet and our machines to improve our communications and quality of life, but in reality "the temes are making us do it".

At first glance, the "temes make us do it" interpretation seems to be inconsistent with personal choice, since it suggests we are forced to build the internet by this independent external "meme/teme" agent. But Blackmore doesn't really mean that literally; she says that when she talks about memes "trying to get copied" it's just a shorthand for "if they can get copied they will." Memes only "can" get copied if a human wants to copy them for some reason. So really, memes only get copied if a human wants to copy them. The internet only gets built if people want to build it.

From this example, we see there are two different ways to describe the spreading of a meme. One is a meme-centered, human-external model where you say that the memes exploit human psychology to spread themselves; another is a psychologically-centered, human-internal model where the memes spread because people want to spread and receive them.

I think both models are accurate, useful, and mutually consistent. Blackmore has no reason to say that the internal model is wrong and the external one is right. They're both correct. So I don't think there's any real inconsistency with Christianity, unless you think that the existence of an external model for human behavior negates free choice (which I don't).