Re: Words and memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue Feb 12 2002 - 04:10:35 GMT

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    Date: Mon, 11 Feb 2002 23:10:35 -0500
    From: Keith Henson <>
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    At 10:59 AM 11/02/02 -0500, Wade wrote:


    >Another instance of the Hari Seldon psychohistory mystique.

    Since you mention Hari . . . . You can see the rest of the article by going
    into google groups, use original in subject, and Keith Henson as
    author. Keith


    H. Keith Henson, Feb. 1997


    AUGUST 1987

    {Lead-in by Stanley Schmidt}

          In his Foundation stories, Isaac Asimov proposed a future science
    called "psychohistory," in which the collective behavior of human
    populations could be predicted with high precision. In our time, the
    social sciences are often viewed as sharply different from the
    physical sciences because they cannot do much predicting. Is this an
    inherent limitation on the social sciences, or might it be possible to
    put them on a truly predictive basis by means that have not been
    formulated yet? There are a number of lines of research suggesting
    that it might. One of them is based on the "meme": a concept created
    by analogy with the gene and describing an entity supposed to behave
    in a somewhat similar way.

          H. Keith Henson was one of the founders, and the first president
    of the L5 Society, which has since become part of the National Space
    Society. He describes himself as a carrier for several highly
    infectious memes relating to space colonies, nanotechnolaay, personal
    computers, and cult-watching.


          SCIENCE fiction writers do not always manage to stay ahead of
    science. One significant concept showed up in the scientific
    literature 13 years before Charles Sheffield and Arthur Clarke
    simultaneously wrote stories that incorporated the "Skyhook" or
    "Beanstalk." But in projecting a science of social prediction, SF
    writers have been far ahead of the scientists. Isaac Asimov based the
    entire Foundation series on "Psychohistory." Robert Heinlein
    developed the theme of predicting social movement in his Future
    History stories, especially in Revolt in 2100, Methuselah's Children,
    and in the unwritten saga of Reverend Nehemiah Scudder.*

       [ * "First Prophet," President of the United States, destroyer of
       its Constitution, and founder of the Theocracy. If this makes you
       vaguely uncomfortable, it is probably because you have been reading
       about fundamentalist preacher/presidential candidate Pat Robertson.
       As the Ayatollah Khomeini recently demonstrated, fundamentalist
       religion and politics can make a nasty mix.]

          Science fiction aside, we don't have a science of social
    prediction. Until recently, we haven't even had much in the way of
    theories. Our continual surprise at the development of cults,
    religions, wars, fads, and other social movements is a notable
    exception to the steady progress humans have made in building better
    models of our environment. When you consider the suffering associated
    with some social movements, our lack of good models must he considered
    a major deficiency.

          A successful theory of the development of social movements will
    have to provide a unifying theory for events that make up much of the
    evening news. It will have to discover common features that lie
    behind the diverse trends causing problems in Nicaragua, South Africa,
    Northern Ireland, and the Middle East. A good theory should be able
    to evaluate the danger or lack of danger from the LaRouche
    organization, whose accidental win in the Democratic primary forced
    Adlai Stevenson III to run as an independent in the Illinois
    governor's race. (This cult more recently made the news when the FBI
    raided its offices in the wake of alleged massive credit card frauds.)
    It should be able to produce a plausible model for the breakup of the
    Rajneesh cult (whose Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh accumulated 93 Rolls
    Royces before abandoning his Oregon community). The theory should be
    able to predict the conditions under which Turkey will be subverted by
    a fundamentalist version of Islam similar to that which led to so much
    grief in Iran.

          A tall order! But an emerging field of study, _memetics_, holds
    just such promise. Sometimes thought of as "germ theory applied to
    ideas," memetics is an outgrowth of evolutionary biology. It provides
    models where social movements are seen as side effects of infectious
    ideas that spread among people in a way mathematically identical to
    the way epidemic disease spreads. It has been noticed, for example,
    that use rates for various drugs, most recently "crack," have closely
    followed epidemic-like curves that seem to be as oblivious to the
    efforts of authorities as the Black Death was in 1348. At a deeper
    level, research in neuroscience and artificial intelligence is
    starting to develop an understanding of why we are susceptible to
    "infectious information," both the benign and the deadly.


    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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