From: Keith Henson (email@example.com)
Date: Sun 22 Dec 2002 - 23:07:18 GMT
For those who need an introduction, memes are replicating
information patterns--ideas you can pass on. With a few exceptions, they
exist in the context of human carriers and their artifacts. Richard
Dawkins invented the word and discussed the concept and its consequences in
the last chapter of The Selfish Gene (1976). Memes, like genes, are in a
Darwinian survival contest, in the case of memes for the limited space in
human brains--brains that have evolved to be receptive to memes. The
information that is passed from person to person and from generation to
generation is the primary factor that gives humans a competitive advantage
over other animals. A modern example of the power of memes is that human
children do not have to learn that streets are dangerous places by
potentially fatal trial and error. You only have to consider the relative
number of cats and dogs killed on the streets to the number of human
children with similar fatal encounters to see the value of the
look-both-ways-before-you cross meme.
In the aggregate, memes constitute human culture. Most of them
are of the rock-chipping/shoemaking/vehicle-avoiding kind--they provide
clear benefits to those who host them, i.e., learn behaviours or
information. They are passed from generation to generation because of the
benefits (ultimately to the genes of their hosts) they provide.
But a whole class of memes have no obvious replication
drivers. Memes of this class, which includes religions, cults and social
movements such as Nazism and communism, have induced humans to some of the
most spectacular events in history, including mass suicides, wars,
migrations, crusades, and other forms of large-scale social unrest. These
memes often induce humans to activities that seriously damage or destroy
their hosts' potential for reproductive success. The classic example is
the nearly extinct Shakers--whose meme set completely forbids sex. A more
recent example is the gonad-clipping Heaven's Gate cult.
While inducing such behaviour makes sense from the meme's viewpoint
(diverting host time and energy toward propagating the meme and away from bearing and caring for children) it makes no sense when considered from the gene's viewpoint for a susceptibility to this class of sometimes-fatal memes to have evolved.
Why are (at least some) humans highly susceptible?
(To be continued)
PS, If the Heaven's Gate comment is not obvious, put in "Heaven's gate
castration" in Google.
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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