Re: Words and memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sat Feb 09 2002 - 08:22:27 GMT

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    From: Keith Henson <>
    Subject: Re: Words and memes
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    At 08:09 PM 08/02/02 -0900, "Philip Jonkers" <>
    > > >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
    > > >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.
    > > No offense but I think these are exactly the topics we need to avoid at
    > > moment. 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. 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. After reading Joseph
    > > Campbell's works I can see that religions play very important roles in
    > > society independent of the truth of their premises. 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.

    I dawned on me that I had made a similar statement way back in 1987 in the
    popular article I wrote for Analog: MEMETICS AND THE MODULAR-MIND. I dug
    it up and found this 5 paragraphs into the article.

    "As useful as these models may be, they are not without the potential to
    seriously affect our cherished institutions. A good understanding of the
    mechanisms of our minds and the dynamics that underlie the spread and
    persistence of any social or political movement has the potential to
    forever alter the way we think about all other social movements, including
    those of our own culture, religions, and nation. When viewed from the
    perspective of tolerance that has been developing in Western culture since
    the Renaissance, the changes in outlook seem to be positive, but it would
    not surprise me to find memetics condemned from the pulpit even more than
    evolution has been."

    >We all have religious people around us, in fact as far as I know I am the
    >only atheist in the family! Although I understand that religion was useful
    >as a
    >social glue in the old days, today, with increased communication, global
    >cooperation, and mixing of ethnic groups I think religion is the major
    >obstacle to achieve global peace and harmony and ultimately global unity.
    >identifies and emphasizes the irrational tenets of religions.
    >Religions spread intergroup intolerance and fascist sentiments. Memetics can
    >help to paralize these nasty human traits by jettisoning religions and
    >welcoming humanism.

    Well, that's a nice idea. Let's take a look at it. Try

    Toward the bottom you will find humanists in the US at 29k for 1990 and 49k
    for 2001. The numbers are not very accurate since they were based on about
    14 people in the sample in 1990 and 13 in the survey of 2001 (which was
    half the size). For simplicity's sake, let's say they were doubling ever
    10 years and starting with a base of 50k.

    2000 50k
    2010 100k
    2020 200k
    2030 400k
    2040 800k
    2050 1.6 M
    2060 3.2 M
    2070 6.4 M

    That seems like a reasonable size to have about the same level of political
    influence as the Mormons.

    2080 12.8 M
    2090 25.6 M
    2100 51.2 M

    Which bring you up to about the level of influence the Catholics have in
    the US.

    I think you might be better off to try spreading the meta meme of tolerance.

    This is from an article of mine in 1988.


        The study of memetics takes the old saw about ideas having a life of their
    own seriously and applies what we know about ecosystems, evolution, and
    epidemiology to study the spread and persistence of ideas in cultures. If you
    come to understand memetics, I expect your view of politics, religions, and
    related social movements to be changed in much the same way the germ theory of
    disease changed the attitude of the medical profession about epidemics.
    Memetics provides rational explanations for a lot of seemingly irrational human

        A meme survives in the world because people pass it on to other people,
    either vertically to the next generation, or horizontally to our fellows. This
    process is analogous to the way willow genes cause willow trees to spread them,
    or perhaps closer to the way cold viruses make us sneeze and spread them.

        Collections of organisms make up ecosystems. Human culture is a vast
    collection of memes, a memetic ecosystem. The diagram below is in terms of
    increasing complexity.

                              Memes (groups form culture, stabilized by
                         Organisms (groups form ecosystems)
                   DNA (informational though embedded in material)
               molecules material
        sub atomic

        Once the informational boundary is crossed, biological models of
    and survival become applicable. Most of the memes that make up human culture
    are of the shoemaking kind. A rationale for the spread and persistence of
    these ideas/skills seems obvious: they aid the survival of people who in turn
    teach the same ideas and skills to the next generation.

        But a good fraction of the memes that make up human culture fall into the
    categories of political, philosophical, or religious. A rationale for the
    spread and persistence for these memes is a much deeper problem. The spread of
    some memes of these classes at the expense of others is of intense concern to
    many readers of Reason. If we are to be effective at judging ideas and
    promoting the spread of ones we think are more rational, it would be useful to
    understand how memes come about, how they use people to spread, and why the
    self-interest of the people who spread a meme and the meme's "interest" are not
    always the same.


    The whole article is 30k and I my thinking has moved on from some of the
    things I said in that article. Still, if there is no objection I may post
    it in 3-4 pieces.

    Keith Henson

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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