Dennett’s FBtBaB: Chapter Eleven

I continue my series of short comments on Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back. These comments are mainly written for an online forum, in which undergraduate students of Professor Dennett post. Each time I raise a point about one chapter. This time I comment on chapter eleven.

Are Dollars Memes?

At the start of chapter 11 Professor Dennett engages in some easy going ontology. The main question is whether memes exist and to address it Professor Dennett rehearses his general position on things being real. One case he pays attention to are dollars, and he ends up asserting that “[d]ollars are real; they just aren’t what you might think they are.” (p. 223)

This discussion made me wonder whether, perhaps, dollars are memes, just like words are according to the previous chapters. There are, unsurprisingly, some problems with this proposal.

Are dollars reproducing themselves? I am aware that if I invest a dollar carefully I might get back more of them, but that i not the kind of reproduction we need for memes. It is not the right kind of reproduction because it does not introduce any variety. There are more dollars, but each one of them is a dollar.

Dollars change, however, in some ways. For example, they went from being backed by a gold standard to fiat money or they might go from being stored as cash to being stored electronically. Let’s look at these two changes more closely.

The one change, the change from gold standard to fiat money, is on the level of the kind dollar. All dollars went from gold backed to not gold backed at the same time. The other change is at the level of the storage medium of dollars. Dollars get from cash to electronically stored token by token.

I am willing to consider that there is some evolutionary process here. Gold backed currencies might be selected against or cash might be selected against. I find it harder to make out what exactly are the memes here. After all selection seems to go on here at various levels. Is the whole currency dollar a meme? The cash storage medium? The tokens? All of them? Is each dollar in my pocket embedded in a large system of dollar memes?

Perhaps there are answers to these questions, but all I want to suggest is that applying the theory of memes to a candidate case is not straightforward at all. The level of abstraction at which Professor Dennett is working might hide some of the complexity in applying his theory.