Just A Fluke

A fluke (or flounder) is a kind of flat, bottom-feeding fish that is, according to lore, so easily caught that one may bait it with the most rudimentary tackle or technique. (In Gunther Grass’s The Flounder, the titular fish jumps right into the fisherman’s arms). Over time, the fluke’s disregard for the angler’s lack of competency loaned its name to a type of billiard shot, by which a shooter, having no good options, sinks a billiard ball by improbable or near-random means. Without trying, in the usual sense. Eventually the term took on the meaning, common today, of a happy accident, unrepeatable and beholden only to the undisclosed vagaries of chance.

A fluke is also a type of small, flat, parasitic worm, one variety of which, the lancet liver fluke, has been employed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett to illustrate his theory of “memes,” an improbable, near-random hypothesis that Dennett has had the happy accident of getting many otherwise intelligent people to subscribe to. The lancet fluke spends its adult life cycle in the liver of sheep and cattle. It gets inside these creatures by first getting itself incubated inside a type of snail, and then by hitchhiking aboard a species of common black ant that feeds on the snail’s slime trail. Some of these flukes then make residence near a ganglia of nerve cells, where it is proposed they are now able to–somehow–alter the ant’s behavior so that it spends the cool, dewy portions of the day perched high atop blades of grass, instead of going about its normal business at a safer remove from the teeth and gums of grazing livestock. Ants thusly hijacked by flukes are called, in the literature, “zombie ants.”


A “meme” (a fancy word for “idea” originally coined by biologist Richard Dawkins) is supposed to be similarly parasitic, spurring its host (a human mind) to behave, zombie-like, in ways diverging from rational self-interest. Deviation or distraction from such self-interest under the influence of memes may lead, the theory goes, to fantastic cultural achievements, such as cathedrals and sonatas and elaborate cuisines. Or, it may lead to tragic cultural afflictions; harmful ideologies and superstitions. In either case the critical detail is that the minds hosting these memes are not free to consciously accept or reject them; rather memes are “selected” by Nature itself, on the basis of their effectiveness, according to Darwinian logic. The phenomenon of the meme-parasite is thus enlisted to explain all manner of apparently irrational behavior, and to prise open the beliefs that purportedly underlie them.

I want to limit myself now to this question: If meme theory were true, if there were such things as discrete, mappable gene-like memes colonizing our minds, how could we tell? How can we know that our thoughts and values, whatever they may be, are really our thoughts and values, and not the duplicitous effect of some kind of parasitic infection? How can we effectively protect ourselves from “bad” memes, when the whole strategy of bad memes is to appear to be good?

To explore the answer, I interrogate our parasitized ant. What might the perception of a zombie ant be as it dutifully climbs a blade of grass to await mastication? How might she understand her strange and deviant mission? Would she, for example, feel guilty for abandoning the important tasks of the hive, but remain impelled to climb the grass-stalk all the same by some quasi-instinctual engine–like a gambling addict skulking shame-faced to the casino? Or might she feel something like glory in fulfilling a higher purpose than was selected for the normal members of the community, much as a human martyr might feel?

The ant remains mute, but in any case, we who observe the ant’s attempts at self-reflection and rationalization, privy as we are to the true reason for its climb–a hijacked nervous system–would have to call such reflections pointless, since the very apparatus of reflection has been usurped by an outside agent with plans of its own.

I don’t imagine meme advocates would have any problem with this thought fable, as far as it goes. Dan Dennett, in his 2006 book on the etiology of belief, Breaking The Spell, acknowledges that many religious people go seemingly freely and gladly toward fates that strike outside observers as absurd, just as the zombie ant seems to do. The trouble arises when we exit the metaphor and ask, in the case of humanity in general, who is equipped to act as the “outside” observer? Who has the perspective to say definitively that any of us is or is not foolishly pursuing an absurd fate? Having analogized human belief about our own motives to the poor, deluded zombie ant, on what foundation can we say we truly understand any of our thoughts or actions at all?

Dennett’s answer is that rational inquiry and the scientific method can evaluate various beliefs and behaviors and demonstrate which ones are left wanting. His entire project in Breaking the Spell is an appeal to open up allegedly “sacred” beliefs and practices to scientific investigation, so we can know if they make any sense or not, or have any good in them at all, rather than relying on custom or faith, which are far more prone to self-deception.

But here the knot tightens. In his earlier books, such as Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), and Freedom Evolves (2003), Dennett has proposed that the mechanism underlying both genes and memes–natural selection–is a “universal acid” that corrodes through everything. Anything which purports to operate by some other process is, in Dennett’s coinage, a “skyhook”” a clunky and unnecessary explanationa deus ex machina. If rational inquiry is to break the bonds of blind belief–which according to meme theory is the product of a process so universal it melts away all competing explanations–then how are we to explain the faculty of reason? It must be either that it is, on the one hand, somehow impervious to the corrosiveness of natural selection, making it just another “skyhook,” or, on the other hand, itself a product of natural selection, making it, at least potentially, just another meme, with nothing to privilege it above any belief, delusional or otherwise.

Given how self-evident it seems to us that reason itself is a powerful instrument of truth, the idea that examined, reasoned, and empirically tested beliefs are no less reliably true than those born of custom or superstition strikes us as absurd, but meme theory permits no other conclusion. If the zombie ant’s faculties of perceptions and reflection cannot be trusted on the grounds that they permit no examination of its actual compulsions, than how can ours? How are we to know that our sacred values of truth, reason, inquiry and democracy (which Dennett hopes will supersede the old sacred values of faith, tradition and “belief in belief”) aren’t themselves “bad memes,” serving interests antagonistic to our own? How do we know that free and critical inquiry, free from fetters and taboo, is not our own seemingly purposeful climb up the blade of grass? Against what do we test our sense that rationality is … rational? How could we know for sure that our most prized and cherished ideas, values, theories and methodologies are not just flukes?


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