From: Keith Henson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Wed 29 Oct 2003 - 01:21:53 GMT
Someone asked me to scan the second of these and it went through the
scanner with so few errors that I put the first one through as well. These
are the very first published works of mine on memetics. It has been long
enough and the originals are hard enough to find that it makes sense to put
them up as documents of historical interest. The first had photographs,
the second one had tables that I didn't reproduce. If someone really wants
them, I could make .jpgs. You can find our more than you would want to
know about the Society
here: http://hiwaay.net/~hal5/HAL5/L5-history.shtml. Some of the early L5
News issues are archived here: http://www.l5news.org/L5news1975.htm
Memes, L5 and the Religion of the Space Colonies
L5 News September 1985
by H. Keith Henson
"In inducing their own replication, memes are conceptually related to genes
that influence the bodies in which they reside. "
"Perhaps insight into the space colony meme and its quasi-religious nature
may help to bring about space colonies in less than the hundred years NASA
would take. "
Dr. O'Neill, in leading the children of technology into space, has often
been compared to Moses. Indeed, L5 has annual conclaves, a biannual
pilgrimage to Princeton, regular meetings; it has even been accused of
being a cult. Is it possible that L5 is drifting in the direction of
becoming a religion? If so, the Society has a long way to go before it
becomes a religion. For one thing, it would have to change its IRS code!
And yet, it does have features in common with some religions.
To explain and measure these features, we need to digress a long way and
discuss memes. Meme theory, or memetics, is a particularly powerful way of
viewing the interplay between humans and ideas. In its potential to reduce
human misery, it may be rank with discovery of microbes by Pasteur and his
The word "meme," sounding like something out of Lewis Carroll and rhyming
with cream, was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his
book, The Selfish Gene. The last chapter was titled "Memes, the New
Replicators," and some of this material has been given wide circulation in
Douglas Hofstader's "Metamagical Themas" column in the January 1983 issue
of Scientific American and in his recent book of the same name.
Memes are information patterns that--among other things--influence an
organism containing them to pass the meme on to other brains. It is
technically correct to speak of being "infected" with an idea. People are
not the only creatures that pass memes around. Birds and whales are known
to pass along complex songs. Memes like genes are units of indefinite size,
not a specific number of bits or base pairs.
In inducing their own replication, memes are conceptually related to genes
that influence the bodies in which they reside, directly or indirectly, to
replicate the genes. "Your" genes, incidentally, are not the only ones that
influence your behavior. Consider the fact that a lowly cold virus turns
you into an atomizer for propagating itself by activating the sneeze
reflex. An even more impressive example of one organism's behavior being
influenced by another's genes is the case of an ant brainworm that cycles
between ants and sheep. It causes the ants it infects to climb up a grass
stem and wait there for a sheep to eat them.
Sometimes "your" memes can have this much influence. We need a name for
victims that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own
survival becomes inconsequential. "Memeoids" is my suggestion. You see lots
of these people on the evening news from such places as Belfast or Beirut.
Less extreme cases haunt the airports with signs about feeding Jane Fonda
to the whales.
The information patterns in brains representing songs, concepts about the
supernatural, and ways to make sulfuric acid or shoes are memes. These
examples differ greatly in how, and how strongly, they influence the brains
they possess to propagate the meme.
Note the inversion. Like cats, memes have as good a claim to owning us as
we do to owning them. In cases where we don't realize what they are, they
may have a better claim. Unlike cats they are not aware. Despite the use of
the language of purpose (words such as "influence") in discussing them, a
meme is no more aware than a virus. Memes--including this "meme about
memes"--that people feel compelled to write or talk about become more
common just as genes in cold viruses which irritate noses become more
common through sneezes.
Genes spend most of their existence replicating, but once in a while they
mutate or recombine. Something similar happens to memes, and new memes
emerge. To use a familiar example, the space colony meme developed from the
combination of many previous ideas and concepts in the minds of Dr. O'Neill
and his students in the late Sixties. As memes go, it has been relatively
harmless (no known fatalities, though several have lost fortunes) to the
Memes and genes have evolved together for at least the last million years,
so we have some defenses against the more dangerous ones to which we are
exposed. But like the ever-changing influenza virus, newly mutated memes
swapping back and forth in a group can be deadly. A recent example where
some people had their defenses fail lethally was in the cult that Jim Jones
moved to Guyana. Jones, as you remember, fared no better than the rest of
the victims of "his" meme.
I could easily fill a book with examples of memes associated with horrible
events such as the infectious madness that swept Cambodia, resulting in the
death of at least a third of the population. Indeed, it is possible to make
a strong case that competing memes such as the "master race" meme were the
ultimate, though unaware, protagonists of WW II. Dangerous memes or
"information disease" are at the root of many, if not most, of the world's current conflicts. Germ theory hasn't ended sickness, and memetics may not end wars, but further development along these lines may lead to an understanding of why groups of people get into wars.
What mechanism makes people susceptible to memes, benign and harmful alike?
We can postulate that memes have mental receptor sites in the mind similar
to chemical receptor sites on a cell. On cells these sites are "locks" to
which certain molecular "keys" fit. For a given site, there may be several
possible keys--some normal internal hormones and some external chemicals.
The "fit" quality of these keys differs over many orders of magnitude. For
example, insulin (a large molecule) is not known to fit the small endorphin
site at all, while opium derivatives make hard-to-dislodge connections to
The analogy should be expected, like most analogies, to break down at some
point. For example, memes should be less selective than molecules since
they all compete to some extent for an organism's attention. Memes, like
molecules, should be expected to modify the shape of the mental structures
into which they fit and, in turn, may create places for additional memes to
fit. The learning process may eventually be viewed as a piling up of memes
starting on some close-to-hardware mental foundation.
Molecular biologists investigate receptor sites on cells indirectly by
determining which molecules fit sites well enough to displace each other
since a "lock" can hold only one "key" at a time. With less precision, we
can apply similar techniques to investigating possible meme receptor sites.
An obvious--though no doubt controversial--meme receptor site to examine by
this method would be one for a religious meme. We can take
self-identification of Catholics or Southern Baptist as evidence of
possessing--or being possessed by--clearly religious memes that exclude
each other from the proposed receptor site. Cases of a person claiming
simultaneous membership in both organizations are rare indeed, but
conversions from one to the other, while uncommon, do happen. This suggests
that there are a variety of functionally equivalent religious memes that
can occupy a religious meme receptor site (RMRS) in a person's mental space.
Just as molecular biologists can measure the competition or exclusion among
the various molecules that bind to receptor sites, we can measure the
competition for meme receptor sites among memes.
One way to measure this competition for the RMRS is to determine how much
possession of a particular meme reduces the probability (compared to the
general population) of an individual having this site occupied by something
that is clearly a religious meme. Belonging to a religious organization can
be taken as evidence for a person's RMRS probably being filled with a
To take an arbitrary (and to my knowledge untested) example, I would be
surprised to find that membership on a bowling team had any influence on
claimed membership in a religion.
On the other hand, membership in the communist party must reduce the
probability of being in *any* religious organization by 90% or more. While
this does not make communism a religion, it indicates that the communist
meme competes strongly for the religious meme receptor site. (This, of
course, is not a new observation.)
(continued next post)
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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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