Mark Reads ‘The Science of Discworld II’: Chapters 29 & 30

In the twenty-ninth and thirtieth chapters of The Science of Discworld II, the wizards get William Shakespeare on the right track, and we learn about MEMES! Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld. 

You know, purely because I think this conversation will be a lot of fun, but I have a question: Would this count as fanfiction? Would it count as real-person fanfiction? Is the fact that it is published explicitly for profit the one reason that disqualifies it as fanfic, despite that it qualifies in every other aspect? Seriously, it’s the writers taking their love of an existing person—William Shakespeare, in this case—and crafting a new story out of the facts of his life. Is this further muddled by the fact that the authors are all integrating his story within another fictional world?

It’s an interesting topic to me because… well, the obvious reason being that I’ve been involved in fan studies, fanwork, and the like for a long, long time. (Seriously, next year will be the TEN year anniversary of Mark Does Stuff, which is an absurd thought, but that’s my life??? TEN YEARS OF THIS, Y’ALL.) I don’t think it’s a stretch to call all three authors “fans” of Shakespeare, but does that constitute this piece as a fanwork? My gut says it’s far more complicated than that, but still: a fun thing to think about, no?

Anyway, I am really pleased at the way these two chapters basically address how stories are often (perhaps always) in conversation with one another. That’s what happens in the Discworld chapter, first of all, since the wizards unknowingly influence many of the things that appear in Shakespeare’s work. (And I’m of the mind that Shakespeare would have found the Hedgehog Song to be a riotous adventure.) But in the Roundworld chapter, the notion of storytelling is taken a step further than that. Throughout The Science of Discworld II, we’ve learned about the purpose of stories in human evolution and how this separates us from other creatures who do not tell stories like we do. That’s summarized here, but there’s an addition to it: the concept of a meme. I will remain delighted that this is one of the few things that I knew about before reading this book; not long after I’d become an atheist, I was recommended Dawkins’s work, and I devoured it. (It worked for me then, but I’ve since found Dawkins to be… well, he’s A Lot, and he is Very White. That seems to be the case with most of the big names in the atheist movement, unfortunately, and it’s why I don’t really interact with the community at-large anymore.) So, I knew about the genetic context for memes long ago, and the social application of memes has generally made a ton of sense to me because I knew about Dawkins’s work. 

Obviously, memes have massively changed in a lot of ways—they most likely permeate all our lives here on the Internet—but it’s kind of comforting to know that they existed long, long before the idea of the Internet even existed. You can see them etched onto ruins and buildings in Greece and in Rome and all over the world. The Egyptians had memes, plenty of religions had them or were them (or were at least memetic in nature), and I kind of love the idea that the world has changed a lot, but also not changed at all. 

I do think that in a general sense, religion is a meme, but so are many other things, so I didn’t find that statement to be particularly wrong or offensive. I’m curious, though, and I kind of want to read Is God a VIrus? because I want to know more about the memetic nature of organized religion. How would you quantify a religion that is evangelical in nature? What about one where proselytizing is encouraged or mandated? How does that affect the notion of religion being a meme? Because that makes me think certain religions are intentional memes, rather than just simply appearing to be them. Of course, I have a very personal stake in that kind of idea; my mother definitely used storytelling to pass on moral lessons to me. Her belief system was definitely a coadapted meme complex in that sense, since these various memes were tied together in a collective body of belief. One that was deeply contradictory, I should note, so I have anecdotal and personal evidence that aligns with what Blackmore and the authors speak of at the end of the chapter. More often than not, it was vital that my parents spread the “meme” of their religion to me rather than help me, and they did choose that over being good to me. But that’s within a specific context, and I don’t believe it applies to every scenario within an organized religion. 

Still, I did not expect to talk about the science of memes while reading this book. I LOVED IT.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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