Re: Blue tie

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Fri 12 Dec 2003 - 00:32:30 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Memetic engineers and leaders."

    At 03:28 PM 08/12/03 -0800, Ted wrote:

    > > From: Keith Henson <>


    > > Memes and ideas are both patterns of information. Memes are patterns of
    > > information, elements of culture, that are replicated and because of that,
    > > subject to Darwinian evolution--mutation, selection, extinction and so
    > > on.
    >Ideas are subject to human intelligence. Memes follow a more natural,
    >Darwinian path.

    I don't see the distinction. Perhaps you could provide an example illustrating the difference.

    > > I think what you are mixing in here is the mutualistic to parasitic range
    > > of memes.
    >A meme is a habit of thought or behavior which is shared rather than
    >personal. That's really all it is. A habit perpetuates itself under its
    >own momentum without the need for individuals to continually re-evaluate it
    >on its merits.

    I really don't understand this last sentence. You seem to be contrasting memes-habits with something that does need continual re-evaluation. Example?

    >You simply think or behave the way you always have before.
    >It doesn't matter whether the habit is helpful or harmful. What makes it a
    >meme is that it's cultural rather than personal.

    If "cultural" mean widely shared pattern of information that you learned from others in some way, and "personal" means an information pattern you have not shared I think we are in agreement. And I have long argued that memes range from helpful to harmful.

    >That said, pathological memes are useful to memetic studies for the same
    >reason that brain pathologies are useful to neuroscientists. The aberrant
    >can tell us a lot about what is normal. That a particular behavior spreads
    >through a population doesn't tell us it's a meme if it happens to be useful
    >and therefore can be explained according to human reason.

    I see a continuum along the harmful to helpful axis. Further, it is situational. As an example, consider the meme of playing some card game. In moderation it may gain you useful social contacts, perhaps with the opposite sex and is therefore useful. In the extreme, you play so much that you fail to make a living and starve or fail to reproduce. Is card playing a meme in some cases (harmful) and not in others where it is helpful? I just can't logically deal with categories that shift this way.

    >However, if a
    >belief or behavior is clearly pathological, then we can't ascribe it to
    >human agency and must recognize that it spreads under its own agency, i.e.
    >that it self-replicates rather than passively replicating.

    I also have a hard time ascribing something like "agency" to a meme. Memes are just information. They have to be loaded into a brain/mind to have real world effects. Same thing with a virus powder, or a listing of one. It has no effect at all till it gets into a cell and "exploits" an environment rich in the chemicals and molecular machines needed to make copies of itself. I have exactly the same problem with computer viruses. I don't less of a problem with ascribing "agency" to a cell infected with a virus, a computer with a computer virus or a human taking excitedly to you about this experience he just had of staying up all night and how you should come with him next time he goes so you can enjoy being abused at a Landmark/Forum meeting.

    >For instance, in *Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness
    >in the Modern Era,* Edward Shorter discusses, among other things, the early
    >19th century fad-diagnosis of "spinal irritation." Doctors believed that
    >irritation to the spine could cause peripheral motor problems such as
    >paralysis. Over the years, reports of paralysis began to increase, mostly
    >among women. Shorter explains that women were more suggestible in regard to
    >psychosomatic paralysis because Victorian social arrangements denied them
    >careers and independence. They were, in effect, socially immobilized. The
    >paralysis meme spread among women by exploiting their sense of social
    >paralysis, which they unconsciously manifested in their bodies. It's not as
    >if they consciously decided to make a political statement about their social
    >condition by pretending to be paralyzed. So the agency is clearly in the
    >behavior itself-- and therefore memetic-- rather than the person.

    I don't know how much credence to put in what sounds like a Freudian explanation. It might be right but it just doesn't feel right in EP terms. As a similar example, the various eating disorders that have cropped up in recent decades are thought by some to be memetic in origin.


    > > Memes under the term "culturegens" was a legitimate field of study at
    > > least a decade before Dawkins give the same concept a catchy name.
    >Memetics remains a "cult" science outside the mainstream. And there it
    >shall stay until it stops trying to airbrush people out of the picture by
    >reducing cultures to memes (or to "culturgens" or whatever).

    Cult or not, I don't see how you could get such a view of memetics. No matter where you look along the mutualistic symbiote to harmful parasite spectrum, the host (and ecological) interaction is paramount in such studies. I can't see any way to avoid taking an ecosystem view of memes interacting with people (hosts), the host genes and other memes, both inside the local culture and outside it. Then you have the external environment where I have recently been making the case that looming privation sets up the conditions for xenophobic memes (leading toward war) to thrive.


    > > No, because you use meme where you want to consider evolution/replication
    > > about the information pattern under discussion, idea when you
    > > don't. Examples: "I have an idea, let's do face painting at the kid's
    > > birthday party." "The meme of face painting came from nowhere to become a
    > > part of the culture of childhood in the last two decades."
    >Then face painting is a meme and not an idea. It was an idea when it was
    >created, but once it "caught on," it became a meme.

    I don't see anything wrong with face painting being both. It is an idea as when someone picks that activity out of many possibilities for a birthday party and a meme because face painting has become part of the cultural tradition surrounding birthday parties. ("Given the ages of the kid's friends, would pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey or face painting be a better idea?")

    English is full of words pointing to the same thing that differ depending on context. The animal is a cow when being milked and beef when it gets sent to the slaughterhouse.

    Keith Henson

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