Letter About Memes

Every Tom, Dave or Sammy bears a name of Jewish origin, as indeed does every Liz, Jane or Mary. I suppose Susan Blackmore (Meme, Myself, I, New Scientist 13th March 1999) would conclude that Jewish names must be very very good at self-replication.

History tells us that these Anglicised Jewish names arrived as part of a package, the Christian culture of Western Europe being the only model of higher civilisation available to the pagan Anglo-Saxons. Richard Dawkins makes assertions about the spread of religions without bothering to look at the facts. The late-Pagan English did think seriously before concluding that their own creed was obvious nonsense and that the new one must be an improvement.

Western Europe accepted Christianity by the same logic it had over the centuries accepted such middle-eastern products as wheat, sheep, iron-making, rabbits and the alphabet. People saw a way to make a better life for themselves.

The world’s successful creeds and religions are those which encourage forgiveness, kindness and unselfish behaviour. Details of creed and ceremony vary widely and are probably trivial. If you restrain yourself from murdering your neighbour, it hardly matters whether you fear hell-fire or dread being reborn as a rat. The point is, you have acted in the general interest.

Genes, we all agree, are mindless self-replicators. (Though Dawkins has created vast confusion by also calling them selfish; it’s as silly as saying the UV light is brutal or that the AIDS virus is homophobic.) Now there are indeed some mindless self-replicators in human culture, such as the children’s rhymes that persist for centuries because children if a certain age will repeat them perfectly and not try to alter them. But these are rare, and it’s a half-assed view of human culture to try to explain everything in terms of these rarities.

Names nowadays do propagate in a memish fashion. We hardly know nor care what most of them were originally – though I was amused to note that the original meaning of Richard was ‘harsh ruler’, or perhaps ‘Lord of Ruthlessness’. A new form of Nominative Determinism?

Letter to New Scientist, sent in 1999.  I don’t think it was published.

[‘Every Tom, Dick and Harry has one of those’ is an old English saying.  But Dick is of German origin, while Harry is Anglo-Saxon.]

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