Received: by alpheratz.cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk id RAA06356 (8.6.9/5.3[ref firstname.lastname@example.org] for cpm.aca.mmu.ac.uk from email@example.com); Sun, 10 Feb 2002 17:03:05 GMT Message-Id: <firstname.lastname@example.org> X-Sender: email@example.com X-Mailer: QUALCOMM Windows Eudora Version 5.1 Date: Sun, 10 Feb 2002 11:59:27 -0500 To: firstname.lastname@example.org From: Keith Henson <email@example.com> Subject: Memes Meta-Memes and Politics 2 of 3 (1988, updates 2002) In-Reply-To: <160D5CA0-1DCF-11D6-BA5D-003065B9A95A@harvard.edu> Content-Type: text/plain; charset="us-ascii"; format=flowed Sender: firstname.lastname@example.org Precedence: bulk Reply-To: email@example.com
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
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
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
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
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