Re: _Religion Explained_ by Pascal Boyer

From: Dace (
Date: Wed 11 Jun 2003 - 00:12:54 GMT

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    > From: Keith Henson (
    > At 10:31 AM 09/06/03 -0700, Dace wrote:
    > > > From: Keith Henson <>
    > > > A definition is just that. Not an answer, not an explanation. The
    > > > definition most researchers/writers in the field use is 1) most
    > > > with the common features of genes and computer viruses 2) simple 3)
    > > > leads to predictions that are not (to my knowledge) violated.
    > >
    > >An incorrect definition, no matter how simple, is not only unhelpful but
    > >downright harmful.
    > Please demonstrate with examples how the definition of memes as
    > information is incorrect and fails the similarity test of extracting the
    > significant factors from all the above mentioned replicators.

    Your definition is too broad. Not all durable, replicating information consists of memes. Some of it is just people coming up with ideas and sharing them with each other, and there's no hint of memetic struggle for survival.

    Let's take a look at the following example, from the June 9 edition of Lee Drutman's *Citizen Works' Corporate Reform Weekly*:

    A small but vocal faction in Congress, backed by the powerful high-tech lobby, is trying to keep options unexpensed, despite the fact that the Financial Accounting Standards Board has already said it will require options to be expensed.

    Last week, Reps. David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), members of that minority, used a hearing last week to gain support for their Broad-Based Stock Option Plan Transparency Act (H.R. 1372). Their bill calls for enhanced disclosure of options and a three-year study by the Securities and Exchange, an attempt to delay the expensing of options. Dreier and Eshoo, along with a powerful high-tech lobby, are trying to convince Congress that expensing stock options will hurt entrepreneurship in this country and harm rank-and-file employees.

    But FASB chair Robert Herz wasn't buying it. He said at the hearing that he is still convinced as ever that options should be counted as expenses, and that Congressional intervention "would be in direct conflict with the expressed needs and demands of many investors."

    According to most analyses, an explosion in the use of stock options as executive compensation fueled the recent epidemic of corporate fraud and abuse. The possession of huge quantities of options led many greedy executives to do everything they could (including cook the books) to drive the stock price up so they could cash in while the stock was artificially high.

    Note the use of the word "epidemic" in the final paragraph. Is Drutman some kind of wide-eyed memeticist out to prove that ideas self-replicate in the manner of viruses? No. He uses this term because it's so accurate in describing what actually happened. It *was* like an epidemic. At first it was just a few guys who figured out they could make a lot of money by being paid in stock options, artificially inflating the value of their company's stock, and cashing in on the options. For the people who thought up this scam, it was nothing more than an idea. They conceived it, they shared it with each other, and they went with it despite knowing it was wrong.

    But at some point it "exploded." It ceased to be simply an idea that people shared and began behaving just like an epidemic. Suddenly it was everywhere. Every hot shot corporate executive in the country was in on it. When everyone is doing it, you don't worry so much whether it's right or wrong. You don't have to think about it or get it past your conscience. You just do it.

    For the originators of the scam, it's a choice made voluntarily. But once the stampede is on, you just follow the herd. Instead of working the idea, the idea works you. Instead of passively replicating via human intention, it actively replicates across passive humans.

    Why did so many people buy into this meme, and why are people still trying to protect it despite the trail of wreckage it's left in our economy? We follow harmful memes because ordinarily memes simply serve to immortalize cultural norms. It's the benign nature of memes that allows the virulent ones to bypass our better judgment. It's no different than John Nash believing in his schizophrenic voices because, he alleged, they came from the same source that provided his mathematical inspirations.

    Think of *The Matrix.* We go to the sequal because the first one was so good. Some even believe, the second time around, that they've seen a good movie.

    Ah, the power of memes.


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