RE: Tyuranny of the replicators

Robin Wood (
Tue, 10 Jun 1997 17:38:39 +0100

From: Robin Wood <>
To: "''" <>
Subject: RE: Tyuranny of the replicators
Date: Tue, 10 Jun 1997 17:38:39 +0100

In support of If & the ability to not be the "victim" of memes

If is right- we are not slaves to memes. Both Dennett and Dawkins are
very "right wing" on this matter, just as sociobiologists were in the
eighties with regard to genetic determinism. So, those folks who sent
millions to the gas chambers in WW2 were simply meme slaves, and
therefore carry no criminal guilt or liability? No- mankind is
conscious, and responsible for its actions. This is the basis of our
social contract, and the legal and political institutions we operate

Cognitive science is demonstrating how consciousness arises from the
interaction of specialised processors in global workspace (Baars- even
Dennett is glowing about this theory!). Our minds are an emergent
phenomenon which produce brainwave patterns as a by-product of the
complex electro-magnetic fields generated by the neural networks in
our brains. Like all quantum phenomena, these fields exhibit the
uncertainty principle, and produce "random" effects as well as
coherent effects. Neuro biofeedback computers and research demonstrate
that we can actually take control of our brain states, just as
meditation is used to clear the mind of thought.

To conceive of the cognitive and social worlds as dominated by passive
objects of the left brain semantic network (words/mental models) and
patterns created in the right brain visual net (images and
concepts/patterns) is to misunderstand cognitive science and social
processes, which are self-organising and emergent. Memes are simply
one part of the complex equation, just as genes are not much good
without cells. To regard as memes as in control is to make a level
error- each level from the genes upwards in our body is an emergent
system with its own unique properties, which are not predictable at
the level of the components making up that whole. This is also the
fundamental lesson of complexity theory and the new sciences.

One does not have to resort to Dennett's skyhooks and creationism to
explain the emergent properties of each level of the neuro-biological
system- these systems simply work according to their own principles
and produce emergent, unpredictable effects quite often. We can also
therefore bring such emergence about consciously, and not remain
slaves to "deterministic processes". The simple fact that we can
select between billions of potential streams of consciousness second
by second is an illustration of the power of the mind and evolution.
It is precisely this choice which produces a Gandhi, a Picasso, an
Einstein or a Joyce.

While we are at it, the term memes applied to everything from books to
words to slogans to fads to worldviews is not helpful- it does not
make useful distinctions and leads to errors of generalisation and
mechanistic thinking. May I suggest that we adopt a new vocabulary
which makes meaningful distinctions and doesn't just lump everything
into one big bucket? There is certainly no evidence to suggest that
the patterns generated by the process of cognition are exact replicas
of the objects or subjects perceived. In fact, just the opposite-
cognition is an imperfect process which is built bottom up from some
incredibly complex processes, and many errors are made along the way.
This is why so much of our mental processing is devoted to error
correction. Our cognitive immune system is also very healthy- we are
hypothesis generators and testers, and look for evidence to support
the claims of advertisers, salesmen and politicians. Given the level
of cynicism of the current generation, it is hard to see how "memes"
can spread at all, and when they do, they are immediately morphed to
suit the acquiror.

I like Dan Dennett, but following him slavishly is not helpful- that
would be just as silly as believing everything Penrose says in the
"Emperor's New Mind" and "Shadows of the Mind".

Dr Robin Wood
Managing Director
Genetic Systems Ltd

-----Original Message-----
From: Dr I Price []
Sent: 10 June 1997 10:14
Subject: Tyuranny of the replicators

Replying to Nick

>IP Dr Price sums up the argument very well, but I feel makes the
classic Dawkins error in the next bit ...

>For me the power of the concept of meme is that it gives us for
>once a chance of choosing not to be victims of "the tyranny of
>the selfish replicator"

NR What chance? By our own argument 'we' are effectively 'slaves'
to our selfish memes and genes. Dawkins started this problem in
the Selfish Gene, where he suggests that we can somehow throw off
the yoke of the selfish replicators through understanding how
they act -- but what he perhaps neglected to mention was that it
was the tyranny of his selfish memes that prompted him to suggest
that. There is no 'us' to throw off the memes, yet many of like
to think that there is; Thus is the power of (what Dennett calls)
the benign user illusion. Even if memes were to entirely
overthrow the interests of the genes (and that is a debate in
itself), then we would still be 'victims of "the tyranny of the
selfish replicator"'; only this time its memes rather than genes
that are 'pulling the strings'.

Perhaps I've misunderstood what you meant?<

OK this touches on free will versus determinism, Lamarkism and other
bouncing around on this list but let me try and amplify. I do feel
to grant individuals, and organisations, some ability to choose: to
question whether in taking a certain action, seeing an issue a certain
or believing a certain position they are acting 'consciously' [and yes
I am
dimly aware of the arguments the term raises]. We are all easily
thrown by
existing 'mental models' to perceive a certain situation a certain
Different results can be generated if/when we 'slow down' a little
enquire into what assumptions are driving us to a particular
There are many exponents of different disciplines of doing it working
fields such as counselling/ therapy and the one I know better
organisational development. The ones which made the biggest impact on
own development were Chris Argyris through his work on what he terms
and double loop learning and Peter Senge and associates who
popularised the
meme of 'mental models' through their work on organisational

At a collective level 'mental models' [known by various names]
underpin the
taken for granted unwritten codes and rules which exist in any form
organisation. Organisations are discovering various ways of
questioning and
interrupting these, and discovering that to be a critical element for
survival in the selection process of the free market.

To give some examples anorexia, a memetically transmitted disease, can
cured as can a similar disease known as corporate anorexia
and more cost cutting to the point of corporate extinction]. Richard
Pascall whose 1989 book 'Managing on the Edge' got close to the
view of an organisation refers to the work of management as 'making
breaking paradigms' [in essence memetic engineering]. He goes on to
that the problem is that 90% of management efforts are devoted to
"squeezing more out of the existing paradigm and its killing us".

Whether this is'true free will' [whatever that means] or replacement
of one
set of memes by another is an interesting philosophical/ scientific/
academic point however in practice it seems to me that we posess much
power to interfere in our memetic inheritance than in our genetic one,
certainly more than any other species. I find this an encouraging
It may even mean that by understanding more about memetics we can
avoid the
worst side-effects of runaway memetic evolution.

If Price
Active Personal Learning, Guildford UK

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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)