Meme and evolutionary psychology

From: Keith Henson (
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 For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sun 22 Dec 2002 - 23:10:16 GMT