Re: Looking for a name

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu 08 Apr 2004 - 03:08:23 GMT

  • Next message: derek gatherer: "Re: Looking for a name"

    Almost a year ago ( May 19, 2003) I mentioned a story by Charles Sheffield. Dr. Sheffield was a scientist and an author of science fiction.

    "In one of Charles Sheffield's stories (sorry can't remember which one) he included page-long description of a race that was subject to periodic destructive meme plagues. When the population built up to a critical level, a meme inducing them to kill each other would spread. The spasm of killing would reduce their numbers back to a very small population.

    "I think humans are subject to something similar to Sheffield's imaginary aliens. There are sound evolutionary reasons to believe this psychological trait has roots all the way back to our common ancestor with the chimpanzees.

    "The organized killing of one chimpanzee group by another would seem to be meme based . . . . " (My goodness, I didn't realize I had been talking about this for a *year*.)

    I was in a library recently and found what I had been looking for last year. The story is _Divergence_ 1991. This is more like two and a half pages but since there hasn't been much traffic on the list lately, I figured it was worth posting for amusement. It is 6.8k so should fit in one chunk.

    Page 48


    Distribution: The Varnian cladeworld, Evarnor, orbits an F-type star near the center of the ellipsoidal gas cloud known in the Fourth Alliance as the Swan of Hercules. The cloud lies approximately 1 70 light-years from Sol, in a direction bisecting the angle between the galactic normal and the vector to the galactic center.

    Varnians spread from their original home via sublight-speed ships to thirteen other planets prior to their discovery by human explorers. All fourteen of these Varnian worlds lie within or on the boundaries of the Swan of Hercules.

    Subsequent to that first discovery (in E. 1983, by the members of the Dmitriev Ark), small groups of Varnians have been spread by human contact throughout the Fourth Alliance and the Cecropia Federation. Spiral-arm regulations prohibit the formation of any colony of Varnians in excess of four thousand members, except on Evarnor itself or on one of the original thirteen Varnian colony worlds. Despite Varnian petition, this edict is judged unlikely to change in the foreseeable future (see Culture, below).

    The population of Varnians throughout the spiral arm is estimated at 220 million. Although in no danger of extinction, they represent one of the rarer intelligences of the region.

    Physical Characteristics: The Varnians are versatile metamorphs, capable of extensive physical transformation. Since Evarnor is a low-temperature planet, close to the limit for oxygen breathers, the Varnians who live there adopt in repose a spherical configuration that maximizes heat conservation. They extrude variable-width pseudopods as required, but they rarely deviate far from the overall spheroid.

    Varnians in warmer environments are less constrained in appearance. In the presence of members of another species they will often mimic their main features, from the basic elements of endoskeleton, limb structure, and epidermal appearance, to such refinements as eye color, hair follicles, and behavioral patterns. There are no known limits to such mimicry t"Don't judge a Varman by the warmth of her smile").

    History: The Varnian story appears as a constant battle with racial insanity. If any species points up the distinction between intelligence and rational behavior, this is it. Archeological records, obtained by human and Cecropian workers, show that Varnian civilization went through at least five sudden and total extinctions, with subsequent slow returns from barbarism. Each collapse occurred without warning, following along stable period of peaceful development. The estimated cycle time has been as short as forty thousand years (Second Eclipse) and as long as seven hundred thousand (Fourth Eclipse).

    The loss of all but scanty records of those five disasters makes reconstruction of past events difficult; however, the spread of Varnian civilization across fourteen planets of twelve suns during three different eras proves that an advanced technology was achieved in at least those cycles.

    The continuous written history of the Varnians can be traced back for twenty-two thousand years, to the time of the beginning of the Sixth Emergence.

    Culture: Today's Varnian civilization is tranquil, unambitious, and apparently stable. It has been so for thirty thousand years, with no sign of an impending sixth species-wide disaster. However, the Per'nathon-Magreeu symbiote (PM) suggested in E. 2731 that this is no cause for complacency. It was PM's analysis of Varnian culture that finally led to the restriction on colony size to four thousand members anywhere beyond the original fourteen Varnian worlds.

    PM, in a systematic analysis of Varnian languages, noted that although there are over 140 semantic groups, languages, and local dialects in use among Varnians, none of those possesses a word meaning cynicism, self-criticism, or skepticism. They also pointed out that the basic collapse of Varnian civilization took place only on Evarnor, with the failure of other colonies arising from their material dependence on the cladeworld. In addition, the several different collapses do not all appear to have arisen for the same reason. Finally, PM remarked that the autopsies of Varnian brains reveal no meme-inhibitor complex.

    PM concluded that the Varnian collapses were a resonance phenomenon, the consequence of positive feedback among large Varnian groups. Lacking the necessary faculty of reasoned skepticism, the Varnians are uniquely vulnerable to negative memetic influences. Destructive memes, spreading unchecked through the whole population, feed on themselves, to the point where individual Varnians become incapable of rational thought. The memetic plagues are terminated only by a civilization's collapse, with the associated loss of rapid communication among large groups.

    PM set the absolute lower limit of interacting Varnians for such a phenomenon at twenty thousand participants. The onset of instability will not normally be seen until the number of individuals involved is in the millions. The present maximum value of four thousand for general colony size is extremely conservative.

    -From the Universal Species Catalog (Subclass: Sapients).

    Searching on "Charles Sheffield" meme OR memetics turns up a number of pages but nothing jumped out as something else he did on the subject.

    There is an obit giving a lot of detail about Dr. Sheffield life here:รข

    " . . . born in England and graduated from Cambridge University's St. John's College with double first-class honors in mathematics and physics. He received a doctorate in theoretical physics from American University in Washington."

    Interesting guy.

    Keith Henson

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