Re: The necessity of mental memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue Jan 22 2002 - 03:40:44 GMT

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    Date: Mon, 21 Jan 2002 22:40:44 -0500
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    Subject: Re: The necessity of mental memes
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    At 05:58 PM 21/01/02 -0500, <>
    >In a message dated 1/21/2002 2:53:54 AM Central Standard Time, Keith Henson
    ><> writes:


    > > I met F.T. Cloak in 1987, same time I first met Richard Dawkins at the
    > > First Artificial Life Conference, coincidentally hosted by friend of mine
    > > from Tucson, Chris Langton. (Chris was an L5 Society volunteer. About
    > > percent of the people at the first A Life conf had been L5 members.)
    >I have heard of that meeting from Cloak. Regrettably, I could not attend.

    It was at best a minor footnote in memetics, though memes did get mentioned
    in "Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition" in the context of
    that conference. (The "druid registration meme, below.)

    >Interesting about all that connection to L5. It will be interesting to see
    >what happens in the coming few decades of computer and cultural evolution,
    >and whether the nastier possibilities out-pace the nicer ones.

    Not if the old L5 crew has anything to do with it! The space colony meme
    took root in people who were predominately upbeat about the future. Many
    of them are in cryonics (which has got to be the most optimistic people in
    the world) and nanotechnology. Nanotechnology can't be expected to solve
    *all* the problem humans have, but it may change them beyond recognition.

    Keith Henson

    [Segment pulled from a paper]

    To illustrate the lifelike quality of memes, here is my story about how a
    meme was introduced to a sub-culture, how it thrived, evolved, and finally
    became extinct.

    When I went to college in 1960, the University of Arizona registration
    material included a punch card for religion. I figured (correctly) that
    they would sort this card out and send it to the 'church of your choice' so
    the churches could send around press gangs on Sunday morning. At the time,
    I was drifting away from the church in which I had been raised. (My
    intellectual and social development had simply become incompatible with
    churches of any kind.) I wasn't expecting this question, hadn't given any
    thought to what I would put down, and was in a hurry to get through the
    lines of registration checkers. I remembered an old SF story that hinged on
    a mystery word, Myob, later explained as an acronym for Mind Your Own
    Business. Why not? I put down MYOB in the religion space, and got away with
    it when they asked me what it meant.

    By the next semester I had thought up a better answer. The high school
    crowd I ran around with had used runes to write silly messages on the
    blackboards, and we actually knew quite a bit about old religions. So I put
    down Druid, and got away with it. In fact, the harried registration
    checkers who asked what was a Druid didn't let me get more than a sentence
    or two into my prerecorded rap about how the Druids had been around a lot
    longer than the upstart Christians.

    It was far too good a prank to keep to myself. Several of my old high
    school buddies were also at the U of A and imitated my "Druid registration
    behavior." After a few semesters, there were hundreds of people doing it,
    and in several mutated forms. Of course, there had to be "Reformed Druids,"
    and that opened a niche for "Orthodox Druids." There were "Southern
    Druids." There were the "Primitive Druids" at one point, and several
    variations on "Church of the nth Druid." One of the best was the "Zen
    Druids." They worshiped trees that may, or may not, have been there. Winner
    for the best take-off was the "Latter Day Druids."

    For modeling, this "replicating information pattern, manifesting as
    behavior of students claiming to be members of a defunct religion" could be
    considered as a fad, a group of fads, or (from the point of view of annoyed
    school administrators) a '60s MOVEMENT. My spies in the University
    administration reported that it peaked in the late '60s with about 20
    percent of the student body claiming (almost all tongue in cheek) to be
    some sort of Druids. This memetic infection was faithfully passed down from
    year to year infecting the incoming students, many of whom thumbed their
    noses in this small way at the administration for the rest of their college
    years. At one point there were three or four rival Druid Student Centers,
    and the Bandersnatch, an off-campus humor newspaper, was published by the
    Druid Free Press.

    University administrators created vast amounts of unnecessary paperwork for
    the students every semester. There was one card that took at least half an
    hour to fill out. They wanted your life history in six point spaces to
    "create accurate publicity about you." I very much doubt that one in a
    thousand of those were ever used. While wasting student time was irrelevant
    to administrators, it was not to the students, and it was easy to get
    annoyed. In a rough biological analogy, this created a niche for a meme
    inducing behavior that got back in a small, safe way at the administrators.

    Once introduced, the "Druid" meme was subject to a large number of small
    variations, mutations if you will, but was still recognizable. My
    introduction of this idea was not particularly original, but most "new"
    memes are just old ones with the serial numbers filed off and a new coat of

    In a very lifelike way, the Druid meme in this subculture grew
    exponentially over several "cycles" exactly the way an epidemic does. When
    the susceptible population was mostly infected it became very much like an
    endemic disease, with only the newcomers catching it. It may have jumped to
    other schools through transfer students, but I have no direct knowledge.

    Did U of A Druids turn into a persistent fad, like illiterate graffiti?
    Sorry to say, but no. In the early seventies some smart people in the
    university administration removed this question from registration for four
    years and interrupted the chain of infection.

    I would have considered my Druid example as entirely harmless, but in the
    mid '70s I met someone in the same city who had made a serious commitment
    to the old religions. I doubt that the memetic infection I introduced had
    much to do with the resurgence of pagan religions in the US, and little if
    anything to do with activity in England, but it certainly gave me pause to
    find someone about to move to a remote place in Iceland where he thought
    the old religions were still being practiced. "Replicating ideas" are
    always changing in the minds of those they infect, and they can mutate
    (sometimes a lot) with every new person they infect. It is hard to predict
    exactly what behavior a particular meme will be inducing next week, because
    you never know how the meme may interact with other memes, or mutate.

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

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