Two early meme papers of historical interest (1a)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 29 Oct 2003 - 01:21:53 GMT

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    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: Some of the early L5 News issues are archived here:

    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 colleagues.

    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
    "true believers."

    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 endorphin sites.

    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 religious meme.

    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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