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

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun Feb 10 2002 - 17:20:15 GMT

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    Subject: Memes Meta-Memes and Politics 3 of 3 (1988, updates 2002)
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         Though the evolutionary origins of our susceptibility to memes is
    fairly obvious, it is instructive to examine the actual mechanisms of the
    mind that are engaged when we are infected with a meme.

         Recent research in neurology and artificial intelligence has produced
    a remarkable model of the mind. Minds are beginning to be viewed as
    vast parallel collections of simpler elements, called "agents" or

    [Without detracting from the work of Marvin Minsky, William Calvin has done
    remarkable work right down to the hardware the cortex uses to create
    thoughts and maintain our sense of being. See his web site and especially
    his more recent books on the brain.]

         Memes are information patterns which, like a recipe, guide the
    construction of some agents, or groups of agents. A "walking under
    ladders leads to bad luck" meme has successfully infected someone when it
    has built agents that modify a person's behavior when walking near

        Some mental agents are "wired in". The most obvious ones pull our
    hands back from hot things. Others are not so obvious, but one which has
    considerable study is often called "the inference engine." Split brain
    research has established it to be physically located in the left brain of
    most people, close to or overlapping the speech area. This module seems
    to be the source of inferences that organize the world into a consistent
    whole. The same hardware seems to judge externally presented memes for
    plausibility. This piece of mental hardware is, at the same time, the
    wellspring of advances, and the source of vast error. ----- *The new
    models even offer an explanation for that difficult problem, the origin
    of consciousness. Each agent is too simple to be conscious, but
    consciousness incidentally emerges as a property of the interconnections
    of these agents. In Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky uses the analogy that
    consciousness emerges from non-conscious elements just as the property of
    confinement emerges from six properly arranged boards, none of which (by
    itself) has any property of confinement. (And you thought Ids and Egos
    were complicated.)

         Being able to infer, that is to find new relations in the way the
    world is organized, and being able to learn inferences from others must
    rank among our most useful abilities. Unfortunately, outputs of this
    piece of mental hardware are all too often of National Enquirer quality.
    Unless reined in by hard-to-learn mental skills, this part of our minds
    can lead us into disaster. Experiments detailing the kinds of serious
    errors this mental module makes can be found in Human Inference by
    Nesbitt and Ross and in The Social Brain by Michael Gazzaniga.

        (Sidebar) *****************************************

    Gazzaniga demonstrated the activity of the inference engine module with
    some very clever experiments on split brain patients. By the module
    failing, we can clearly see how it is doing the best it can with
    insufficient data.

         What Gazzaniga did is to present each side of the brain with a simple
    conceptual problem. The left side saw a picture of a claw, and the right
    side saw a picture of a snow scene. A variety of cards was place in
    front of the patient who was asked to pick the card which went with what
    he saw. The correct answer for the left hemisphere was a picture of a
    chicken. For the right half-brain it was a show shovel.

         "After the two pictures are flashed to each half-brain, the subjects
         are required to point to the answers. A typical response is that of
         P.S., who pointed to the chicken with his right hand and the shovel
         with the left. After his response I asked him 'Paul, why did you do
         that?' Paul looked up and without a moment's hesitation said from
         his left hemisphere, 'Oh, that's easy. The chicken claw goes with
         the chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.'

         "Here was the left half-brain having to explain why the left hand was
         pointing to a shovel when the only picture it saw was a claw. The
         left brain is not privy to what the right brain saw because of the
         brain's disconnection. Yet the patents's own body was doing
         something. Why was it doing that? Why was the left hand pointing to
         the shovel? The left-brain's cognitive system needed a theory and
         instantly supplied one that made sense given the information it had
         on this particular task . . . ."

        The inference engine was a milestone in our evolution. It works far
    more often than it fails. But as you can see from the example, the
    inference engines will wring blood from a stone; you can count on its
    finding causal relations whether they exist or not. Worse yet, the
    inference engine probably can't detect when it doesn't have enough data.
    Even if it could, it has no way to tell that to the verbal (conscious)

    (end sidebar) *********************************************

         There are both genetic and memetic controls on the dangerous beliefs
    that arise in this module, though they don't always work. I can't point
    to genes for skepticism but (provided it did not interfere too much with
    necessary learning) this characteristic would be of considerable survival
    advantage. Being entirely uncritical of the memes you are exposed to can
    be a fatal trait, or it can result in reduced (or no) fertility. The
    classic example of a genetically fatal belief is the Shaker religion,
    but intense involvement with a wide variety of memes (or derived social
    movements) statistically results in fewer children. Unlike the Shakers
    (who practiced total abstinence), the Rajneesh cult in Oregon practiced a
    sexual free-for-all. However, they discouraged births--and children--to
    the extreme of sterilizing the barely pubescent children of their
    members. From the meme's viewpoint, the more effort its host puts into
    promoting the meme (living example, proselytizing, etc.) the better.
     From the host gene's viewpoint, memes that reduce fertility are a

    [Of course the other end of the spectrum with an end at "utterly
    uncritical" is to be so skeptical of what you are told that you don't
    believe those who tell you streets are dangerous places to play. So the
    bell curve gets trimmed on both ends.]

        Many memes take the shortcut and spread from person to person. Others
    spread in concert with the host genes, promoting fertility. Several
    religious memes fall into this category: Hutterite beliefs spread
    exclusively with the genes of the believers. Mormon memes take both
    routes--both are long term success stories. (Though ecological limits or
    social upheavals will eventually stop exponential growth in these cases.)

        There are other defenses against the uncritical acceptance of
    potentially dangerous memes. Most common is the trait of rejecting all
    newfangled ideas, where "newfangled" is usually defined as any to which
    one has not been exposed before puberty. Societies have similar defenses
    against new ideas. There are also powerful meta-memes, that is, memes
    used to judge other memes. Of these, the scientific method is perhaps
    the most effective. Logic is another system by which memes can be
    tested, at least for consistency.

        In historical times a meta-meme of tolerance (especially religious
    tolerance) has emerged in western culture. This is a remarkable event,
    since memes inducing tolerance to other memes would be expected to lose
    in the competition for mind space to memes which induce intolerance to
    other beliefs. Within small, isolated social groups, this is still the

         But in larger cultural ecosystems, when traders come with obnoxious
    ideas and customs, but desirable goods, at least limited tolerance is a
    requirement if any trading is to be done. There were many other factors
    in the development of modern western tolerance such as the Renaissance
    and the indecisive religious wars that swept back and forth across
    Europe. Still, the advantage of trading goods may have been the primary
    force at work in the memetic ecosystem which caused many belief systems
    to adopt a tolerant-toward-other-beliefs component. Cooperative behavior
    is known to spontaneously emerge from groups (even groups at war) when
    certain conditions are present. Free trade may be similarly linked to the
    emergence of the meta-meme of tolerance, and in turn to the
    respectability of free thought. Testing these speculations would require
    rating the trade/tolerance of many groups and seeing if there is (or was)

        With respect to the USSR, trade and tolerance are both at a low level.
    Historically trade was a much smaller part of the economy during the time
    the rest of Europe was undergoing the Renaissance. The recent attempts
    to introduce tolerance to other modes of economic systems in the USSR
    have more than a superficial similarity to the Catholic church finally
    deciding to live with the Protestants. A modern-day Renaissance in the
    USSR may be based on the free exchange of information through computers
    and free(r) trade.

    [Remember I wrote this in 19881]

         China presents a classic case of innovative memes spreading from the
    ports. Until England intervened and opened a weak China the rulers tried
    to quarantine dangerous foreigners and their infectious ideas near the
    ports. To this day the most productive parts of China are where
    capitalist/free market memes spread from the seaports. It may be that
    homogeneous, closed groups without the influence of outsiders reinforce
    their belief systems into the ground, burning heretics and stagnating
    economically, until they are forced to open their ports.

         A full analysis may eventually determine that tolerance, innovation,
    combating cultural and economic stagnation are *all* dependent on free

    [Similar idea can be found in the later chapers of Origin of Virtue by Matt

         Memes and trade are coupled the other way as well. The feedback loop
    for many memes is closed through goods made for the marketplace. Better
    ideas for how to make shoes, or computers, or (you name it) spread best
    when they are tested in the marketplace. Closing the ports (currently a
    popular idea in Silicon Valley) to either ideas or goods is a memetic
    disaster. Bad products and bad ideas are weeded by market place

         Study of ecosystems usually leads to a great deal of appreciation of
    the complexity that has been worked into them through evolution. Our
    actively evolving memetic ecosystem (culture) has been shaped over many
    centuries by the rise and fall of the replicating information patterns
    which have come down to us. These memes that make up our culture are
    essentially living entities. They struggle against each other for space
    in minds and lives, they are continually evolving. New memes arise in
    human mental modules, old memes mutate, and many become confined to
    books. The ferment is most noticeable on the edge of new scientific
    knowledge, pop culture, and the ever shifting of ascendant political
    ideas. Western culture is as complicated as a rain forest, and deserves
    no less respect, admiration, understanding, and care.

         The vast majority of the memes we pass from person to person or
    generation to generation are either helpful or at least harmless. It is
    hard to see that these elements of our culture have a separate identity
    from us. But a few of these replicating information patterns are clearly
    dangerous. By being obviously harmful, they are easy to see as a separate
    class of evolving, parasitic, lifelike forms. A very dangerous group
    leads to behavior such as the People's Temple suicides, or similar cases
    that dot our history. The most dangerous class leads to vast killings
    like that of the Nazis in WW II, the Communists in post-revolutionary
    Russia, and the Kampuchea self-genocide.

        The development of memetics provides improved mental tools (models)
    for thinking about the influences, be they benign, silly, or fatal, that
    replicating information patterns have on all of us. Here is a source of
    danger if memetics comes of age and only a few learn to create meme sets
    of great influence. Here too is liberation for those who can recognize
    and analyze the memes to which they are exposed. If "the meme about
    memes" infects enough people, rational social movements might become more


    The author gratefully acknowledges ideas and editorial assistance from
    Arel Lucas.

    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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