Memetics basics

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 17 Dec 2003 - 03:44:41 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "The capture of Eric Drexler's nanotechnology memes."

    At 02:14 PM 15/12/03 +0000, Vincent Campbell wrote:


    >Still, if you insist:
    > Memetics is a theory of culture that suggests that the transmission
    >of culture is subject to evolutionary forces acting on units of culture
    >which are called memes. Significant disagreement arises around exactly
    >what constitutes a meme, although there are two main camps- one that regards
    >memes as ideas, beliefs and other mental/conceptual states of mind, the
    >other that regards memes as external cultural practices, behaviours and/or
    >artefacts. There are variations on these including people, like Joe
    >incidentally, who argue that memes both of these things.

    Hmm. No room for memes being abstract information? (That, of course, has to be encoded in matter, a brain, paper, object, etc.)


    > Again, when the list is on topic, this is another major area of
    >debate with plenty of people on the list past and present very skeptical as
    >to its benefits as a model of cultural transmission.

    You have to wonder why they are here. :-)

    >One possible argument
    >is that it potentially takes away the notion that culture is either a)
    >ultimately determined by evolutionary pyschology, i.e. that cultural trends
    >can only be understood in terms of adaptation to environment, and therefore
    >are largely unconscious processes, or b) entirely a product of conscious
    >choice, a social construction under people's total control. A) falls down
    >with cultural trends that are apparently non-adaptive, and b) falls down
    >when trends are contradictory, irrational or evidentally detrimental to

    Any room in here for a view that memes and genes both exist in a complex ecosystem? Predator and prey models? Parasitic to mutualistic symbiote? That genes build minds able to learn useful memes that are then parasitized by less useful even dangerous memes?


    > What about having your own values challenged? Are you open to that,
    >or if the thought of alternate value-systems frightens you, are you only
    >looking to have your prejudices confirmed, or only for an outlet to express
    >your prejudices? This is the other sense of informed I meant- informed as
    >to the nature of true discussion and critical thinking necessary to further
    >knowledge and understanding in a topic. This isn't always easy in mailing
    >lists, BBS' or chat-rooms unless there is collective effort to prevent
    >flaming, trolling and topic drift, and so far for the most part this list
    >has worked really well in these regards, particularly the first two. Topic
    >drift often occurs, but Joe's stuff is taking the piss.

    Agreed and that's a shame. Because if memetics is useful at all, it should be useful for understanding current trends. The current events and what led up to them in the last 50 years or more should be under intense discussion *in terms of memes and their hosts.*

    *Long* ago (1987) I wrote:

          Science fiction aside, we don't have a science of social prediction. Until recently, we haven't even had much in the way of theories. Our continual surprise at the development of cults, religions, wars, fads, and other social movements is a notable exception to the steady progress humans have made in building better models of our environment. When you consider the suffering associated with some social movements, our lack of good models must he considered a major deficiency.

          A successful theory of the development of social movements will have to provide a unifying theory for events that make up much of the evening news. It will have to discover common features that lie behind the diverse trends causing problems in Nicaragua, South Africa, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East. . . . The theory should be able to predict the conditions under which Turkey will be subverted by a fundamentalist version of Islam similar to that which led to so much grief in Iran.

          A tall order! But an emerging field of study, _memetics_, holds just such promise. Sometimes thought of as "germ theory applied to ideas," memetics is an outgrowth of evolutionary biology. It provides models where social movements are seen as side effects of infectious ideas that spread among people in a way mathematically identical to the way epidemic disease spreads. . . . At a deeper level, research in neuroscience and artificial intelligence is starting to develop an understanding of why we are susceptible to
    "infectious information," both the benign and the deadly.


    Keith Henson

    PS. Would I have had more influence on the course of memetics if I had a PhD? Seeing *Dr.* Eric Drexler's frustration in where nanotechnology is going, I doubt it. :-)

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