Memes Meta-Memes and Politics 2 of 3 (1988, updates 2002)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun Feb 10 2002 - 16:59:27 GMT

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    From: Keith Henson <>
    Subject: Memes Meta-Memes and Politics 2 of 3 (1988, updates 2002)
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        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

        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 paint.

        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.

        My next example of a meme at work was clearly harmful, in fact lethal.

        Remember Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple incident? Jones started out
    in his youth infected with a fairly standard version of fundamentalist
    Christianity. Later this belief was replaced with--or mutated into--as
    strange a mix of socialism, Maoist communism, and personal lunacy as you
    are likely to find. Jones first promoted his new beliefs from within the
    organized outer shell of his previous one. He moved those he had
    infected from Indianapolis to Oakland, and than to an isolated patch of
    jungle. Jones and his group kept cycling ideas between the leader and
    his followers. There was little correction from re- ality, and, like a
    wild rumor, the memes got weirder at every cycle. Eventually, these
    beliefs (more accurately the mental structures built or programmed by
    these memes within the minds of Jones and his followers) reached the
    point where they had so much influence over them that their personal
    survival became an insignificant influence.

         The mass suicide was an unusual (and thus newsworthy) episode. But
    history records a number of similar incidents, with similar memetic
    origins. The Children's Crusades of the Middle Ages and the mass
    starvation in the 1850's of the Xhoas in South Africa are typical
    examples. Mass suicide episodes do not seem rational from either a
    memetic or genetic viewpoint. But they make sense as a consequence of
    human susceptibility to beliefs that happen to have fatal outcomes. They
    are close analogs of diseases that overkill their victims--like Dutch elm

        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 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.

        Beside being utilitarian and dangerous, memes can be fun. Fads, such
    as hula hoops or pet rocks can be considered as the behavioral outcome of
    memes. Memetics links the pet rocks fad, the Nazis, drug "epidemics," and
    the problems in Belfast, Beirut, Iran, and Central America. *ALL* result
    from replicating information patterns which lie behind the whole range of
    social movements. This is not to downgrade the effects of population
    pressure, ecological limits, or the marketplace. But while these provide
    substrate and predisposition, the specific form of social response which
    emerges in a crisis depends on memes, either already present or imported,
    and how well they replicate in the pre-existing memetic ecosystem.

         Why do these "replicating information patterns" jump from mind to
    mind, sometimes setting off massive, and occasionally dangerous, social
    movements? Memes that are good at inducing those they infect to spread
    them, and ones that are easy to catch, simply become more common. Since
    this is circular reasoning, I need to restate the question. What, in the
    evolutionary prehistory of our race, has predisposed us to be a substrate
    to memes that can harm us?

        The ability to learn from each other is strongly rooted in our
    evolutionary past. Mammals are generally good at this, primates depend
    on it, and we are the absolute masters of passing information from person
    to person and generation to generation. In fact, the amount of data
    passed on through human culture is much, much greater than the vast
    amount of information we pass on through our genes. We are obligatory
    "informavores," and simply could not live in most of the world without
    vast amounts of information on how to survive there. I am not talking
    just about the need to read The Wall Street Journal if you are in the
    financial business, but the need for a little child to learn (without
    using trial and error!) that cars make streets dangerous places.

    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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