Re: Words and memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Fri Feb 08 2002 - 20:20:09 GMT

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    From: Keith Henson <>
    Subject: Re: Words and memes
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    At 07:31 PM 07/02/02 -0500, Ray Recchia <>
    >At 04:43 PM 2/7/2002 -0500, Keith Henson wrote:


    >>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.
    >No offense but I think these are exactly the topics we need to avoid at
    >the moment.

    I presume you are not talking about the very slow spread of memes about
    germs causing disease and the need for hygiene to combat infectious
    disease. There really is a question about why some memes such as this one
    spread so slowly.

    >First of all I don't want a developing memetics to become the science of
    >religion bashing and of everyone using it as a tool to support their
    >political beliefs.

    Can you locate a single instance where I have used memetics to bash

    >One man's parasite is another man's thoughtful insight. One man's
    >terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. I am an atheist myself but I
    >have a couple of nuns in the family and the high school teacher who had
    >the most influence on me when I was growing up was a fundamentalist
    >Christian. I have too much respect for these people to assume that their
    >beliefs are just parasites and it frankly upsets me when people engage in
    >that kind of simplification.

    *Far* from it! Sure looking back you can see that the religions for which
    we have decent records started as parasitic cults, being extremely hard on
    the people and sometimes on their genes (Shakers being the classic
    example.) But if a religious meme survives say 12 generations the meme has
    usually evolved to be a helpful symbiote (or died out like the Shakers).

    William Hamilton, whose paper on "the genetical evolution of social
    behaviour" (1964) became the most cited paper in all science, considered
    religions to be an example of this kind of evolution. The quote is here:

    My work has also speculated that religious memes may have compensated for
    some of the disadvantages of humans getting too damn smart for their own
    good, an idea also considered by Marvin Minsky. (And the expansion of the
    brain was most likely driven by the need to projectile hunt at ever longer
    distances--William Calvin.) If nothing else, well aged religions might be
    protective to keeping a person from being sucked into something lethal.

    >After reading Joseph Campbell's works I can see that religions play very
    >important roles in society independent of the truth of their premises.

    My view too--as above. See my papers on this topic.

    >This fledgling field of study hasn't received a lot of public criticism
    >because it is presently too low on the radar screen, but if it does pick
    >up some momentum a few controversial over generalizations made here will
    >end up biting us in the ass.

    Can you explain how you think this could happen?

    >I think we need to stick to safer topics. Many of the characteristics
    >that you use to describe religion and political beliefs can also be used
    >to characterize practices in the business world. People in those fields
    >would be much more likely to welcome our insights. The kind of hooks that
    >religion and political beliefs use are consciously chosen by advertisers
    >to sell products. If we start there and develop some sound reasoning maybe
    >we can start looking at political and religious issues.

    Right now there are extremely serious meme driven problems. I am a
    political exile because a meme driven cult is extorting its way into
    controlling the levers of power in the US.

    >One place that I think we can start is by developing a taxonomy of memetic
    >devices. John Wilkin's post of February 5 on apoptosis is a very good
    >example. Certain memes only exist as temporary staging devices for more
    >complex memes. If we can work in that sort of vein and characterize memes
    >in terms of symbiosis, predation, and competition we can get beyond this
    >stupid bickering about what is and isn't a meme.

    I don't think apoptosis is really significant in memes, but I can give you
    a hypothetical example. The meme "teach me to two others and then commit
    suicide." With respect to humans (and their genes) memes lie on a line
    between predation (parasites) and helpful symbiotes. I don't think you can
    make a model that includes memes being directly predatory on each other,
    though competition for limited numbers of human brains may amount to about
    the same thing.

    But the really interesting edge of expanding knowledge is *why* we have the
    evolved-in psychological traits that make us susceptible to "catching"
    memes that screw up our potential for reproductive success. Shakers again
    for an example, but consider the 'nad clipping Heaven's Gate crew for an
    example of memes predating at the expense of genes. Or nuns and priests.

    Because of historical accidents where I was at a convergence of events, I
    have identified two mechanisms based in evolutionary psychology that memes
    use to "take over" human minds. One is capture-bonding, what happened to
    Patty Hearst and millions of our ancestors. The other, attention-rewards,
    takes advantage of the same reward pathway captured by drug abuse.

    >>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]"
    >>Keith Henson
    >In terms of modelling I have been looking at the fitness landscape concept
    >as developed by Stuart Kauffman, Manfred Eigen and company. I think that
    >there are some core concepts there that might have some broad
    >applicability to memetics. For example when Joe talks about the
    >universality of the multiplication tables we might think of that in terms
    >of a very sharp fitness peak. When we talk about everyone having their
    >own version of meme the quasi-species concept of Manfred Eigen and the
    >notion of epistatic interaction among evolutionary elements might be useful.

    I know these models, they were not what I was thinking about. What I am
    looking for is predictive "urban dynamics" models for the development of
    meme driven wild social movements of the al-Qaeda type. We probably have
    enough historical data to set the coefficients. These would include wealth
    per capita, distribution of wealth, the rate of change of wealth per
    capita, and the number of later born children (See Born to Rebel by
    Solloway). I fear that such a model will predict disaster in Saudi Arabia,
    Israel and other places we don't know about. Tweaking the model inputs my
    show us how to prevent disaster.

    Keith Henson

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