This was the e-mail sent to me:
I really liked your review [of Denis Dutton's "Art Instinct"] and it was so convincing I decided not to buy the book, even as I was poised to do so. However the book's title alone sparked a cascade of useful thoughts.
Since you're familiar with Stephen Pinker and ideas about evolution, I guess you must also be familiar with Richard Dawkins. But maybe you don't know about a wonderful book inspired by Dawkins: "The Meme Machine" by Susan Blackmore, with an introduction by Dawkins. Dr. Blackmore takes Dawkins' meme concept and runs with it. I found it to be a novel and delightfully argued theory of how ideas (including commercial jingles, fashion styles, catch phrases and religions) spread and evolve in a Darwinian manner. There are other books and articles about the meme concept, but hers is the only one I found convincing and revelatory.
Here was my response:
Thanks very much for the very kind words about my review. In honesty, it is an interesting book even though I find its ideas a bit rough. While I don't reccomend its ideas, the book is quite an interesting read.
Yes, I am definitely familiar with Pinker, Dawkins and Blackmore. To be honest, I am not very attracted to the idea of the meme (or the meme of the meme?). The reason is that it doesn't "explain" much of anything. Anything that the invocation of a meme can explain - why songs are catchy, why we can't stop thinking about that movie line, etc - can be juust as easily, and less problematically, explained by invoking the concept of "ideas." Yes, the meme is much more materialistic and therefore scientific seeming, but it doesn't expain much at all.
I am not sure we know nearly enough about neuroscience to explain ideas, their origin, and why sometimes they "pop up" without us wanting them to, but my suspicion is that we will find that the reality is much more pedestrian than the meme: ideas occur because of certain combinations of neurons firing between synapses, and sometimes, these firings occur without conscious will on our part.
My biggest problem with the idea of "memes" is that they do not make sense in several ways. (a) They don't really account for creativity and novelty; (b) they don't make sense given our strong intutions that we control our thoughts (rather than thoughts just "happening" to our passive brains; and (c) for such a physicalistic theory, the meme does not appear to have any physical nature as a thing (like the gene).
I am always amazed that the idea of memes has any credence at all. It seems that the only thing it really has going for it is that it is materialistic in nature (thus appealing to very hardcore materialists), and that it makes sense out of the phenomenon we sometimes have about thoughts "popping into" our heads without us willing them to.
When discussing memes with others, I am always amazed that defenders of memetics naturally assume that I am not a materialist, and must be a mind/body dualist, because of my rejection of memes. It just seeems quite natural to me that while the material brain gives rise to our inner life, it does not need "mind viruses" to infect it from the outside, but creates thoughts solely from the inside.
I guess time will tell if this idea has any staying power. My guess is that it will be gone within a decade as neuroscience gets a bit older.