Re: Sue Blackmore lecture Wednesday 5.15pm London

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue 18 Feb 2003 - 03:53:08 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: Sue Blackmore lecture Wednesday 5.15pm London"

    At 08:19 PM 17/02/03 -0500, you wrote:
    >on 2/17/03 7:23 PM, Keith Henson at wrote:
    > >
    > > Memetics is really *very* simple. People have evolved to be good at
    > > learning. Memes (replicated information) are a large part of what they
    > > learn, clear back to the old stone age. Humans can't learn and pass on
    > > every meme that comes along so memes are in competition for the limited
    > > resource of human brains and time, thus setting up the conditions for
    > > Darwinian differential selection.
    >This is as empty as it is simple. Social learning theory has been around
    >for a long time. Memetics has added nothing to that. The "differential
    >selection" etc. language is just pro forma Darwinian boilerplate. It
    >doesn't bring anything to the explanatory mix. That people can't and don't
    >learn every learnable thing is hardly a new observation. This is no more
    >than old wine in new bottles. The biological language just adds a
    >pseudo-scientific gloss.

    Good models and analogy are really important for making progress in any area of study. Look up what Minsky has to say about the importance of analogy in Society of Mind. Sometimes it really is important to put old concepts in new bottles so you can look at them from a different viewpoint.

    > > Particular memes become more or less common over time because some are
    > > better at getting into new human minds. (Most memes are
    > > helpful--ultimately to the genes of their host--but a few are pathological,
    > > damaging or killing their hosts.) Memes vary (mutate, copy errors) and
    > > because of variation and selection ones better suited to get into human
    > > minds and be passed on further become more common and memes less good at
    > > being passed on become less common over time.
    >More empty boilerplate. You need to say why people prefer some memes over

    Ah, so far memetics is close to epidemiology, more a mathematical abstract understanding of how diseases spread than it is on the details of how a particular bug makes people sick. To get into *why* this meme and not some other one spread well, you have to consider the class of memes involved. A better way to chip rock or make pots or shoes spreads by people seeing that they can spend less overall effort on the new approach than the old one. That's easy to figure out, since the people can use the extra time to hunt more or make more babies.

    The pathological cases, like Jim Jones or Heaven's Gate baffled me for about a decade. You can read the story of how I came to understand how these worked in the paper at, but in short form, cults memes induce large amounts of highly rewarding attention between members. For some people the rewards are on a par with addictive drugs and involve the exact same reward pathways.

    >To simply say that some memes spread further because they're
    >"better at getting into new human minds" doesn't say anything very helpful.
    >That's as useful as saying that water runs down hill because it prefers
    >being at the bottom of hills.
    >Memetics is an intellectual strategy for avoiding the hard business of
    >explaining why people have the preferences they do.

    I think you have to get into evolutionary psychology to answer this class of questions. There are pointers in the reference article.

    >Instead, you just lay
    >it off on the memes.

    My work makes it clear that you have to consider more than memes. The power of memetics is that it brings out the replicating aspect of information in human societies. But besides that viewpoint, you have to consider in addition a person's genes and their mind, shaped by genes, memes and experiences.

    >These magical memes have mystical properties that
    >allow them to sneak into people's minds. It's the memes that do it. The
    >minds are just empty vessels.\

    Computer viruses are another close analogy to memes. Only there we understand how they work right down to the hardware.

    BTW, there is an interesting report on the last major worm to hit the net. In the early stage of the infection it was doubling in about 8.5 seconds. That's faster than human rumors by a considerable margin. One of these days one of these worms my self organize the net into a new configuration before we have any idea of what is going on.

    Keith Henson

    =============================================================== 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 : Tue 18 Feb 2003 - 03:53:18 GMT