Re: Words and memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu Feb 07 2002 - 21:43:38 GMT

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    From: Keith Henson <>
    Subject: Re: Words and memes
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    At 07:25 AM 07/02/02 -0900, "Philip Jonkers" <>




    > > At the other end of this spectrum, you have memes that spread by inducing
    > > people to go out and do glassy eyed recruiting. Memes like Heaven's Gate
    > > or Moonies spread by directly inducing behavior of no value to the host
    > > rather than indirectly by being darned useful to the host.
    >Indeed such memes obviously do not have actual real value but they do
    >pretend to do so. They give the meme hosts delusions of grandeur
    >(scientology) and
    >eternal afterlife (conventional religions). Such memes advertise fitness
    >increments when in actual fact of course they can't live up to that claim.

    Well stated. Of course this lead into my current main interest which is
    why human have evolved to be susceptible to memes that do them or their
    potential for reproductive success so much damage.

    > > >In order for this to occur, the words must involve some kind of
    > > >interpretation ("bacon is evil") and not a mere statement of fact ("bacon
    > > >is in the fridge"). If it's merely factual, the repetition of the
    > > >statement can be accounted for according to normal, intentional use of
    > > >language.
    > > Good way to put it. You can't call everything a meme or it becomes a
    > > useless word.
    >Why not? It's just that some memes carry more meaning or are more successful
    >than others. Memes are the building blocks of culture. If you omit some
    >you are ignorant of the full evolution of culture.
    >If you can't call everything memes where do you draw the line between meme
    >and non-meme.

    I am an engineer by training and inclination. Philosophical hair splitting
    annoys me when there are most serious problems to be solved.

    I see no point in calling a stone a meme, though the learned practice of
    carrying stones and throwing them at predators may have saved parts of your
    genome thousand of times over in the remote past.

    I also see no point in arguing about how large or small a unit has to be to
    be a meme. Picking up an accent could be considered a meme, but it is not
    a particularly useful classification. The annoying phrase "you know" which
    clutters the speech of many people is a meme as well as many similar
    phrases, "fact of the matter" "let me put it this way" and others.

    Annoying as these are, they server a communication function, inhibiting
    communication from another side while the speaker is evolving a sequence of
    words to speak. This is interesting to examine in the context of Calvin's
    work on how sentences are run through several evolution passes before being

    On the large end is a symphony a meme? A book? Does it matter? I don't
    think so. Our concern, if we are concerned about the future of our
    species, is with predators and pathogens.

    In articles and lectures I point out that the vast majority of memes are
    cultural elements that are either useful to us (and our genes) or at least
    not harmful. This is analogous to the biological world around
    us. Microorganisms make cheese and decompose leaf litter. Useful,
    interesting, but not something of massive concern. (Unless, of course,
    they quit working!)

    On the other hand, anthrax, smallpox and avian derived flu *are* deadly
    pathogens. We are rightly concerned about them.

    We should be concerned with the pathological memes, cults and related
    social movements. Look at what the Pot Pol mutation off of the communist
    meme did in Cambodia!

    Understanding that the religious wars in Europe were meme driven and given
    all the grief Nazism, Communism, and now splinters off Islam have caused
    and are now causing, the study of memes and more important *why* we are
    susceptible to memes like these should be a major topic of research,
    particularly modeling, with the output guiding public policy.

    It is not.

    Some of this can be attributed to the slow spread of some classes of memes.

    "As early as 1843, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes advocated handwashing to
    prevent childbed fever . . . .

    "In the late 1840's, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis . . . . The mortality rate in
    his maternity wards eventually dropped to less than one percent.

    "Despite the remarkable results, Semmelweis's colleagues greeted his
    findings with hostility. He eventually resigned his position. Later, he had
    similar dramatic results with handwashing in another maternity clinic, but
    to no avail. Ironically Semmelweis died in 1865 of puerperal sepsis, with
    his views still largely ridiculed.

    "In the 1870's in France, one hospital was called the House of Crime
    because of the alarming number of new mothers dying of childbed fever
    within its confines. In 1879, at a seminar at the Academy of Medicine in
    Paris, a noted speaker stood at the podium and cast doubt on the spread of
    disease through the hands. An outraged member of the audience felt
    compelled to protest. He shouted at the speaker: "The thing that kills
    women with [childbirth fever] you doctors that carry deadly microbes
    from sick women to healthy ones." That man was Louis Pasteur. Pasteur, of
    course, contributed to the germ theory of disease (whereas the founder to
    this theory was Robert Koch). He was a tireless advocate of hygiene, but
    his efforts too were initially met with skepticism. Skepticism, however,
    was not the only problem facing advocates of hygiene.

    "In 1910, Josephine Baker, M.D. started a program to teach hygiene to child
    care providers in New York. Thirty physicians sent a petition to the Mayor
    protesting that "it was ruining medical practice by...keeping babies well." "

    (End quote; go read it, and more on this topic)

    Like the doctors who would not accept handwashing, even the most
    knowledgeable of the anti cult people are not inclined to accept the
    concepts of memetics and evolutionary psychology that lie behind our
    vulnerability to the mad social movements caused by predatory memes. See
    for example, Combatting Cult Mind Control by Steven Hassan and

    “The US Intelligence community, the US military and the US State and new
    Home defense departments have failed America and the World Community by
    neglecting to pay attention to the root causes of Terrorism. John Walker
    Lindh the "American Taliban" is the embarrassing proof of this failure…

    ”It does not make sense to Americans that John Walker Lindh should be found
    amongst the Taliban and, seemingly, willing to take up arms against fellow
    Americans. Unless he is seen in the more probable and logical context that
    he is a victim of modern mind control and cult techniques. At which point
    he becomes a shining example of what destructive powers a religious cult
    using mind control can bring to bear on a fellow citizen.

    ”The American public well knows how mind control cults can turn members
    into martyrs, like with Jonestown and Hale Bop, or how cults can turn
    members into terrorists, as in the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks in the
    Tokyo subways.

    ”The Al-Qaida terrorist network is, at its core, a religious cult that is
    also manufacturing mind controlled cult martyrs and terrorists. These
    terrorists and martyrs have become of a similar mind to those people that
    played out the tragedies in Jonestown, Hale Bop and in the Aum Shinrikyo
    attacks and, not much different to the religious martyrs now turning Israel
    into a living hell.”

    (End quote)

    Using the search function on FACTnet for meme and memetics comes up empty.

    Nazism/communism caused far more deaths this century than the plague did in
    the 14th century. We understand what caused plague, even at the leadership
    level. But the world's leadership has no clue as to what are the root
    causes Aum Shinrikyo or bin Laden's cult. Mind control is a good label to
    hang on it, but without understanding why “mind control” works it may be
    like advocating handwashing before Koch and Pasteur.

    Is the trial of John Walker Lindh going to be used to educate people on the
    subjects of memes and why we are vulnerable or is it going to be primates
    continuing to play social games without the least insight into what is
    killing them?

    Models, I want models! Predictive models, evolutionary psychology based
    social dynamics models. And experiments on those models before we take
    steps that seem right but only cause more problems later. (Dr. Jay Forrester--who made a fortune from
    patents on core memory)

    “ . . . complex systems cause and effect are often not closely related in
    either time or space. The structure of a complex system is not a simple
    feedback loop where one system state dominates the behavior. The complex
    system has a multiplicity of interacting feedback loops. Its internal rates
    of flow are controlled by nonlinear relationships. The complex system is of
    high order, meaning that there are many system states (or levels). It
    usually contains positive-feedback loops describing growth processes as
    well as negative, goal-seeking loops. In the complex system the cause of a
    difficulty may lie far back in time from the symptoms, or in a completely
    different and remote part of the system. In fact, causes are usually found,
    not in prior events, but in the structure and policies of the system.

    “To make matters still worse, the complex system is even more deceptive
    than merely hiding causes. In the complex system, when we look for a cause
    near in time and space to a symptom, we usually find what appears to be a
    plausible cause. But it is usually not the cause. The complex system
    presents apparent causes that are in fact coincident symptoms. The high
    degree of time correlation between variables in complex systems can lead us
    to make cause-and-effect associations between variables that are simply
    moving together as part of the total dynamic behavior of the system.
    Conditioned by our training in simple systems, we apply the same intuition
    to complex systems and are led into error. As a result we treat symptoms,
    not causes. The outcome lies between ineffective and detrimental. [p.p. 8-9]”

    I admit to identifying with Semmelweis and Pasteur. Please excuse the ranting.

    Keith Henson

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