Machiavellian Memes

N Rose (
Thu, 25 Sep 1997 15:25:53 +0000

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 1997 15:25:53 +0000
From: N Rose <>
Subject: Machiavellian Memes

I've been away from this discussion list for a while, and so I'm
hopelessly out of touch with the current debates. I'll just
pitch in with a topic and see if anyone else finds it worth
commenting on.

As part of my first year PhD on memes I've been reviewing a lot
of sociobiological and cultural evolutionary material. There
have been a number of prominent works on cultural evolution
which, although close to meme theory, appear to pull short of it.
Notable examples are Boyd and Richerson; Cavalli-Sforza and
Feldman; Lumsden and Wilson; and Durham.

One of the main areas where these writers appear to move away
from memetic explanations is over the notion of cultural
independance from genes. Some writers (e.g. Durham) see cultural
and genetic evolution inexorably linked (thus; co-evolution),
others see cultural evolution as fundamentally limited by natural
selection acting upon genes (e.g. Lumsden and Wilson's
'epi-genetic rules').

How 'independant' is this second replicator from the first? We
can guess that at some time or other that the ability to share
cultural information bestowed a biological advantage to humans
(thus the population filled up with people who could share
cultural information). At what point and in what ways did
culture become independant of the genes? Can memes which use
brains ever be said to have an independant 'ultimate function'
(i.e. the survival and propogation of memes rather than genes).

One of the most obvious examples of memetic independance from
genes is that memes can lead to bio-maladaptive behaviours: i.e.
cultural practices which actually reduce the survival and
reproduction ability of the biological organism.

Many of the examples used by Aaron Lynch in Thought Contagion
appear to support the notion the co-evolution argument. The
examples of the Amish promoting greater numbers of children,
masterbation taboo, breast fetishes, etc all serve the ultimate
function of both replicators. They allow the propogation of the
organism's genes (through increasing their children), and the
organism's memes (through the enculturation of those children).
Thus for many readers used to 'classical' socio-biological
arguments it would seem odd, from examples such as these, to
suggest that the function of culture is the survival and
propogation of culture - rather than the survival and propogation
of genes.

One argument for independance of memes is that culture can
sometimes appears to reduce the chances of biological survival or
propogation. Chastity, the use of contraception, the
encouragement of continuing in education over having children,
are all examples where cultural pursuits appear to directly
interfere with biological imperatives. Are these the best
evidence (at least anecdotally) that memes have their own
'ultimate function' of survival and reproduction seperate from

Much of the discussion regarding mind viruses appears to take
this view. Dawkins speaks of the tremendous waste in energy and
resources in religious activity (e.g. Viruses of the Mind; in
Dennett and his Critics). Mind viruses have no regard for our
biological needs, but instead exploit the biological organism for
their own propogation. This idea dates back to Cloak (1975) who
describes elements of culture propogating through the system more
like bacteria or viruses than the organism's own genome.

However, it appears to me (at least) that religions are getting a
bit of an unfair hearing. It seems odd that religions get such a
bad press in the literature and that the rest of Western Ideology
does not. Given that in the most literate, richest and most
industialised nations the birth rate is falling (even negative in
some counties) - could we not say that the cultural activities of
"encouraging education for all", "promoting contraception", etc
are perhaps the viruses (certainly from the gene's POV)? Is
Western society in the grip of a terrible mind virus which is
diverting energy away from the biological imperative (having
children) towards cultural ones (becoming educated, making money,
being happy!)?

In biology the greatest competition comes from members of the
same species. Humans compete far more with each other than we do
with any other animal. We compete for the same kinds of living
space, the same kinds of resources, for mates, for status by
which we might obtain a mate, etc.

Perhaps these 'viruses' of the mind are simply a machiavellian
level of competion between biological organisms. By giving you a
meme which reduces your biological advantage I can relatively
increase my advantage. If your off spending all your time and
energy in cultural pursuits (which don't advance your genes) and
I'm not; then my genes are more likely to get passed on and
survive. Perhaps we in the west (who believe in the unlimited
value of education, use contraception, etc) are simply biological
suckers ...

It wouldn't be impossible to spot, perhaps. The 'do as I say and
not as I do' rule is the one that would be used by anyone trying
to pass on machiavellian memes. Perhaps politicans who preach on
about family values (meanwhile having a love child with their
secretary), or bishops who preach chastity to their priests
(while having a secret affair), are good examples of this.

Nick Rose

**check out UK Memes Central**

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