Re: To Robin, Applied Memetics

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu 01 Sep 2005 - 17:02:41 GMT

  • Next message: Kate Distin: "Re: To Robin, Applied Memetics"

    At 12:04 PM 31/07/05 +0100, Kate wrote:
    >Robin Faichney wrote:
    >>Saturday, July 30, 2005, 2:30:09 PM, Kenneth wrote:


    >>>But maybe it is not so mush due to those planning the attacks than it is to
    >>>the ones trying to describe these things. Maybe you aren 't convinced
    >>>that suicidal memes exist outthere, spread and kill their hosts, all in the
    >>>interest that some could be inspired, plan and are willing to die. A well
    >>>publicised martyrdom can/ will inspire others to die for a deeply loved
    >>Substitute "ideas" for "memes" in that paragraph and you lose nothing.

    Of course not. "Idea" deeply overlaps with "meme" and a replicating or spreading idea *is* a meme. As I have pointed out, the only time an idea is not a meme is if someone thinks of it and never shares the idea with anyone.

    >>>Even psychological/ socio- biological contributions should be in debt
    >>>to the kind of rationalisation that memetics can offer. The sort of meme
    >>>that encourages us to be friendly and kind to our neighbours works
    >>>and gives in the end a biological advantage. But we have learned over
    >>>the years that those memes of being unfriendly and mean offer an alternative
    >>>consideration:- that violence is needed and perhaps is the other side
    >>>of the coin to get in the end an evolutionary stable course.
    >>Here again, that could be reworded to leave out memetics and lose no
    >>significant meaning.
    >>>" Decennia ago Hitler and Stalin murdered millions in the name of their
    >>>political ideal. What a religious extremist sees as his unstoppable way
    >>>to heaven, is for the political extremist his way to Utopia. The tragic of
    >>>extremism is that it stands for a derailment of an ideal. Behind it all
    >>>is a reason which degenerates, a meaning which has become meaningless.
    >>>Somebody's own impressed right becomes an unpenetratable rock and
    >>>is spread over a millions of tongues ' If you are not with us, you are
    >>>against us. Praise the lord and pass the ammunution. ' "
    >>>( B. Noteboom NRC Handelsblad 28/ 07/ 2005
    >>>DM 29/ 07/ 2005)
    >>Where's the memetics in that?

    Memes are a step along the road to war. Memetics describes the process in engineering terms as "gain" i.e., amplification per unit time. It's the same process that makes a microphone-amplifier-speaker squeal.

    (I remember almost 5 decades ago building a tube amplifier out of scrap parts. The microphone had been salvaged from a WWII German field telephone and the vacuum tubes came from a crashed drone aircraft, My father came by and asked what I was doing with this mess of parts strung together on my workbench. When I told him, he moved the microphone over near the speaker. It howled, something I didn't know it would do. And he agreed that it was an amplifier.)

    You have to get into EP to understand why people living in tribal societies evolved a "gain" adjustment for xenophobic memes and what "turns the knob."

    If you do this, you can understand the origin of wars as diverse as the American Civil war and the one that killed 95% of the population on Easter Island. You can understand why the IRA quit being a problem, why the current Islamic terrorist problems will go on for decades and what it would take to end such problems.

    >I'd just like to applaud Robin's consistent use of the question "If you
    >leave out all references to memes in this explanation, what do you
    >lose?" I think this is a huge problem for memetics at a practical level,
    >perhaps the biggest challenge it faces. And I write that as one who is
    >perhaps more of a realist about memes than some others on this list.

    Not to play the "old timer" card too hard, but I have been writing about memes for 20 years now.

    Here is from near the end of MEMETICS AND THE MODULAR-MIND from Analog, AUGUST 1987

         "The vast majority of the memes we pass from person to person or generation to generation are either helpful or at least harmless. It is hard to see that these elements of our culture have a separate identity from us. But a few of these replicating information patterns are clearly dangerous. By being obviously harmful, they are easy to see as a separate class of evolving, parasitic, lifelike forms. A very dangerous group leads to behavior such as the People's Temple suicides, or similar cases that dot our history. The most dangerous class leads to vast killings like that of the Nazis in WW II, the Communists in post-revolutionary Russia, and the Kampuchea self-genocide.

        "The development of memetics provides improved mental tools (models) for thinking about the influences, be they benign, silly, or fatal, that replicating information patterns have on all of us. Here is a source of danger if memetics comes of age and only a few learn to create meme sets of great influence. Here too is liberation for those who can recognize and analyze the memes to which they are exposed. If "the meme about memes" infects enough people, rational social movements might become more common.

    In hindsight I wildly overstated the potential for memetics, not to mention human capacity for "rational." Memetics just isn't a big enough frame to account for why some memes do better at spreading in human populations than others and more particularly why certain classes of memes do better or worse depending on economic conditions.

    A few months later in "Memes Meta-Memes and Politics" I wrote:

    "Consider the "Killing Fields" of Kampuchea. The people who killed close to a third of the population of Kampuchea do not seem to have profited from their efforts much more than [Jim] Jones. In the memetic view of history, ideas of influence are seen as more important than the particular people who hold them. Some memes (for example Nazism) are observed to thrive during periods of economic chaos just as diseases flourish in an undernourished population. Thus it is not much of a surprise that Nazi-related beliefs emerged in the Western farm states during the recent hard times."

    I.e., I was aware of the empirical evidence, but not what caused such memes to thrive.

    >It is just so easy to produce ad hoc explanations of a whole range of
    >cultural phenomena, using memetic language, but the ultimate test of those
    >explanations is Robin's question - and unfortunately the answer all to
    >often is "nothing much". (For me this is the biggest weakness in Aaron
    >Lynch's "Thought Contagion".)

    I agree. Most memetics work has been on the "how" rather than the more important "why" question.

    >Of course this is also a problem for evolutionary theory in biology, and
    >especially for EP, which is an interesting parallel to ponder . . .

    I completely disagree with you on this point. I became aware of EP through
    _Moral Animal_ by Robert Wright and _The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating_ by David Buss about 1995. It was not until late in 1996 that I understood (with the help of Kennita Watson) the deep connection between cults, drugs and the evolved human social reward system. (The process was kicked off 6 months previously by a conversation at a party with a former Scientologist.) Since cult memes (and the resultant cults) are a life and death issue for humans and human societies, this is a subject of considerable importance. (Especially for me! )

    It is my prediction that the EP model will replace the root models in the social "sciences" much the way chemistry replaced alchemy. As a matter of fact, the replacement process is well underway.

    I an hardly the only one who thinks this way. Try here for a random sample.

    > But at least biological evolution is an accepted scientific theory which
    > stands firm on the available evidence - memetics is too new and untested
    > to withstand the impact of too many non-explanations: the cumulative
    > effect will be a feeling that memetics has no explanatory worth.
    >I remain fairly hopeful that it does have explanatory worth, but I don't
    >think we're there yet!

    Memetics does not have explanatory power simply because the frame is too small. You have to understand the meme's host to be able to say much about its life cycle. Trying to look at memes alone is like trying to study the malaria parasite without considering its hosts and vectors.

    Best wishes,

    Keith Henson

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