Science fiction roots of memetics (was Words and memes)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed Feb 13 2002 - 04:19:37 GMT

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    At 05:52 PM 12/02/02 -0500, Wade wrote:
    >Hi Lawrence DeBivort -
    > >Was
    > >the Foundation structure the closest we might come to finding an answer to
    > >these issues? I don't know, and would very much welcome your thoughts on
    > >this.

    Hey guys! Foundation was a *story device.* Neither Seldon nor Asimov
    developed "psycho history" or anything close to it. There was another
    author, Flynn, I think, whose stories more recently had a well developed
    science of memetics guiding history. That too was a literary device.

    Heinlein in Mathuselah's Children (Good lord, it originally came out in
    1941!) both discussed "psychometrics" or at least its practitioners are
    called "psychometricians. He also used "social psychodynamics" and in
    another place Slayton Ford referrers to them as "psychographers."

    Heinlein mentioned in passing what I think is a fundamental problem. Today
    would say social dynamics is chaotic, that is the state of the system in
    the future depends critically on the initial conditions. The discussion in
    the first 15 pages of the book goes into detail about how the protagonists
    were led astray in their analysis. Then in describing the problem they
    faced, the psychometrician says:

    " . . . There is a similar tendency on the part of the short-lived to envy
    the long-lived. We assumed that this expected reaction would be of no
    social importance in most people once it was made clear that we owe our
    peculiarity to our genes-no fault nor virtue of our own, just good luck in
    our ancestry.

    "This was mere wishful thinking. By hindsight it is easy to see that
    correct application of mathematical analysis to the data would have given a
    different answer, would have spotlighted the false analogy. I do not defend
    the misjudgment, no defense is possible. We were led astray by our hopes.

    "What actually happened was this: we showed our shortlived cousins the
    greatest boon it is possible for a man to imagine . . . then we told them
    it could never be theirs. This faced them with an unsolvable dilemma. They
    have rejected the unbearable facts, they refuse to believe us. Their envy
    now turns to hate, with an emotional conviction that we are depriving them
    of their rights . . . deliberately, maliciously.

    "That rising hate has now swelled into a flood which threatens the welfare
    and even the lines of all our revealed brethren . . . and which is
    potentially as dangerous to the rest of us. The danger is very great and
    very pressing." He sat down abruptly.

    They took it calmly, with the unhurried habit of years. Presently a female
    delegate stood up. "Eve Barstow, for the Cooper Family. Ralph Schultz, I am
    a hundred and nineteen years old, older, I believe, than you are. I do not
    have your talent for mathematics and human behavior but I have known a lot
    of people. Human beings are inherently good and gentle and kind. Oh, they
    have their weaknesses but most of them are decent enough if you give them
    half a chance. I cannot believe that they would hate me and destroy me
    simply because I have lived a long time. What have you to go on? You admit
    one mistake-why not two?"

    Schultz looked at her soberly and smoothed his kilt. "You're right, Eve. I
    could easily be wrong again. That's the trouble with psychology; it is a
    subject so terribly complex, so many unknowns, such involved relationships,
    that our best efforts sometimes look silly in the bleak light of later
    facts." He stood up again, faced the others, and again spoke with flat
    authority. "But I am not making a long-range prediction this time; I am
    talking about facts, no guesses, not wishful thinking-and with those facts
    a prediction so short-range that it is like predicting that an egg will
    break when you see it already on its way to the floor. But Eve is right . .
    ... as far as she went. Individuals are kind and decent . . . as individuals
    and to other individuals. Eve is in no danger from her neighhors and
    friends, and I am in do danger from mine. But she is in danger from my
    neighbors and friends and I from hers. Mass psychology is not simply a
    summation of individual psychologies; that is a prime theorem of social
    psychodynamics--not just my opinion no exception has ever been found to
    this theorem. It is the social mass-action rule, the mob-hysteria law,
    known and used by militia political, and religious leaders, by advertising
    men and prophets and propagandists, by rabble rousers and actors and gang
    leaders, for generations before it was formulated in mathematical symbols.
    It works. It is working now.

    "My colleagues and I began to suspect that a mob-hysteria trend was
    building up against us several years ago. We did not bring our suspicions
    to the council for action because we could not prove anything. What we
    observed then could have been simply the mutterings of the crackpot
    minority present even the healthiest society. The trend was at first so
    minor that we could not be sure it existed, for all social trends are
    intermixed with other social trends, snarled together like plate of
    spaghetti-worse than that, for it takes an abstract topological space of
    many dimensions (ten or twelve are not uncommon and hardly adequate) to
    describe mathematically the interplay of social forces. I cannot
    overemphasize the complexity of the problem.

    "So we waited and worried. and tried statistical sampling setting up our
    statistical universes with great care.

    "By the time we were sure, it was almost too late. Sociopsychological
    trends grow or die by a `yeast growth' law complex power law. We continued
    to hope that other favorable factors would reverse the trend-Nelson's work
    symbiotics, our own contributions to geriatrics, the great public interest
    in the opening of the Jovian satellites to human migration. Any major
    break-through offering longer life and greater hope to the short-lived
    could end the smouldering resentment against us.

    "Instead the smouldering has burst into flame, into an controlled forest
    fire. As nearly as we can measure it, rate has doubled in the past
    thirty-seven days and the rate itself is accelerated. I can't guess how far
    or how fast it will go-and that's why we asked for this emergency sew,
    Because we can expect trouble at any moment." He sat do. hard, looking tired.

    (Almost 2 pages brought to you by the marvels of OCR)

    The book form I have came out in 1958. Isaac Asimov's foundation was
    published in 1951.

    I found a wealth of related material on this subject while I was trying to
    get a handle on how much Heinlein revised Mathuselah's Children for the
    book. I will put it on a followup posting because this one is long enough!


    >May we live in interesting times.

    Heh heh. Keith

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