Memes Meta-Memes and Politics 1 of 3 (1988, updates 2002)

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                               Memes Meta-Memes and Politics

                                    By H. Keith Henson

         "For philosophically committed people, politics is primarily a
    contest over public policy. The measure is not what people, but what
    ideas win."
                                                      --Morton C. Blackwell

        "If you would understand politics, study evolution first."
                                                      --H. T. Watcher

        Richard Dawkins, perhaps the foremost evolutionary biologist of our
    times, starts Chapter 5 of his recent book, The Blind Watchmaker with
    "It's raining DNA outside." He goes on to describe a willow tree that is
    shedding fluffy seeds far and wide across the landscape. The paragraph
    ends: "The whole performance, cotton wool, catkins, tree and all is in
    aid of one thing and one thing only, the spreading of DNA around the
    countryside. Not just any DNA, but DNA whose coded characters spell out
    specific instructions for building willow trees that will shed a new
    generation of downy seeds. Those fluffy specks are, literally, spreading
    instructions for making themselves. They are there because their
    ancestors succeeded in doing the same. It is raining instructions out
    there; it's raining programs; it's raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading
    algorithms. That's not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn't be
    any plainer if it were raining floppy disks."

    [Not to detract from Dawkins, but as I have dug deeper into the subject,
    Dawkins himself recognized William Hamilton as more of an original
    thinker. For certain though, Dawkins made the work of Hamilton, William,
    Trivers and a host of other players available to ordinary people with his
    popular works.]

        The paradigm of life as the propagation of genetic information and of
    Darwinian evolution as resulting from the selective survival generation
    after generation of some part of that information is an outgrowth of the
    computer age. This paradigm has led to a number of remarkable advances in
    evolutionary biology. For example, seemingly "altruistic" behavior of
    worker bees is now understood as a consequence of the improved survival
    of the "selfish" DNA they share with the queen. About a decade ago in
    the mind of the same Dr. Dawkins this line of thinking led to a new way
    to view the spread and persistence of the ideas that make up human

        The new study is called memetics after "meme" (which rhymes with
    cream). "Meme" is a coined word from a Greek root for memory, and
    purposefully similar to "gene." Dawkins devoted the last chapter of his
    earlier book, The Selfish Gene, to defining memes and discussing the
    survival of these replicating information patterns within the meme-pool
    (roughly culture). "Meme" is close to "idea," but not all ideas are
    memes. An idea which fails to propagate beyond the person who first
    thinks of it is not a meme. "Beliefs," especially organized and promoted
    beliefs, are memes, or, depending on how you think about them,
    cooperating groups of memes. I will use memes, ideas, replicating
    information patterns, and beliefs as similar terms in this article.

        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 behavior.

        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 meta-memes)
                       Organisms (groups form ecosystems)
                 DNA (informational though embedded in material)
             molecules material
      sub atomic

        Once the informational boundary is crossed, biological models of
    replication 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

    [This article was originally written for Reason, a Libertarian magazine. A
    few years earlier I wrote Star Laws for them. Between the time I talked to
    the editor about it and the time I sent the article in, there was a change
    in management and the article was rejected. ("Star Laws Arel" will find
    this article in Google Groups if you want to read it.)]

    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.

        Study of these concepts may provide insight into why some ideas are
    more attractive than others and into what "rational" and "objective"
    mean. Much of the recent progress in understanding evolution came from a
    viewpoint shift: biologists started looking at the world from the
    viewpoint of genes. Because genes influence their own survival (via
    causal loops) the ones we observe seem as if they were "striving" to be
    represented by more copies in the next generation. Memes too seem to
    "strive." Of course, this is metaphor, since neither genes nor memes are
    conscious. In the process of making more copies of themselves in human
    minds memes sometimes work at cross purposes with human genes. At least
    three different and conflicting viewpoints for determining "rational" and
    "objective" exist: from the viewpoint of the genes a person carries, from
    the viewpoint of the memes they carry (or are infected with) and from
    their conscious mind, shaped by both genes and memes.

          Memes and humans have co-evolved. Pre-human minds were, like
    current human minds, the substrate for memes. Pre-human minds were the
    memetic equivalent of the "primal soup" in which genetic life started.
    Replicating information patterns such as the ones which built mental
    structures for chipping rock or (much later) controlling fire improved
    the survival of certain human genes. These genes in turn built bodies and
    minds able to learn and pass on the memes.

         The result was a double positive feedback cycle where memes for
    survival- enhancing behavior and genes for mental hardware able to learn
    and pass along memes were both favored. The combination is so successful
    that human beings and their complex cultures inhabit the largest
    ecological range on the planet (at least for animals of our size).

    [I have since accepted William Calvin's view that cold weather projectile
    hunting was the major factor forcing the human brain to enlarge. Humans
    chipped rock into hand axes--clear evidence of rock chipping and hunting
    memes--for a million years before they controlled *fire*!]

        Any ecological success becomes a fertile ground for parasites. The
    environment of the cell nucleus with its raw materials and enzyme systems
    for replicating DNA/RNA is hijacked by viruses. Likewise, the
    human/memetic system is beset by biological and memetic parasites.
    Successful parasites (that is the ones which don't kill off their host)
    evolve into mutualistic symbionts. The host also evolves to be resistant
    to parasites. I think both genetic and memetic responses to parasitic
    memes can be recognized.

        Parasitic memes have been strongly selected to fit the strange quirks
    that developed in human mental systems as they evolved. For example, the
    ability to plan into the future confers a strong survival advantage,
    especially since the introduction of farming. But being able to think
    about the future (and past) generates troubling problems when this
    ability is applied to questions such as where-was-I-before-birth or
    where-will-I-go-after-death. The attractiveness of religious belief
    systems largely stems from providing "plausible" answers to questions
    that would not be asked except for the hyperdevelopment of this mental

        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.

    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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