Re: Machiavellian Memes

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 25 Sep 1997 13:34:57 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 25 Sep 1997 13:34:57 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes
In-Reply-To: <>


Good to hear from you again!


>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).=20
>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.

I should hasten to point out that it is not because of any meme to gene
subordination that the above parentally propagating memes spread. Memes c=
also spread through mechanisms that harm the propagation of genes. Here i=
an example excerpted from a recent letter I sent to the editor of Skeptic=

"...A good example is the belief that you need to find a romantic partner
of a "compatible" astrological sign. This notion causes singles who have =
to raise the subject of astrological sign compatibility with each new
potential partner, in order to determine compatibility. So the idea
exploits human mating drives to get itself retransmitted. It is a "sexual=
transmitted belief," implicitly telling some hosts, to send, in effect, 4
or 12 copies of this idea to potential partners before accepting anyone f=
further dating. That includes people who are manipulated to retransmit ev=
if spreading the word is not their specific motive for doing so.=20

Resembling a paperless chain letter in some ways, the thought contagion
also behaves in humans much as a computer virus behaves in computers.
Though it does not erase it=92s hosts=92 memory, it can make it harder to=
a partner deemed "compatible" by arbitrarily narrowing the field. So like=
sexually transmitted microorganism, astrology ideas parasitize human mati=
for their own reproduction..."

>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!)?

One of the most unfortunate ideas to emerge from people investigating
genetic factors in human psychology is the idea that the gene's point of
view is the one to use for a culturally retransmitted moral system. This
idea is itself too newfangled to be the direct product of ancient genetic
adaptations. One problem I have with this idea is that=20
it seems to embody the popular myth that genetic evolution works in an ev=
upward direction. Yet if I show that a gene that causes mild cognitive
impairment results in more children, few would argue that our moral syste=
should give this gene still further advantage.=20

A second problem with genocentric morality is that it further politicizes
science, potentially lowering the quality of research. If you take the
opinion that "the gene's moral perspective is correct," then you become
motivated to assert that your own culturally transmitted moral tenets are
actually genetically based. As fashionable as this may be, it has an
irrationalizing infuence on science.

>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 ...

I have seen this competitor sabotage argument advanced with remarkable
carelessness by those who should know better. It seems especially popular
with people who want to advance a dark, authoritarian, and pro-status quo
(conservative) moral system, though many others have joined in. The
carelessness comes in the form of extremely frequent failures to consider
kin selection and inclusive fitness for genes supposedly favoring the
spread of harmful memes from parent to child or among close relatives. Wh=
would be the genetic advantage of passing down a meme that impairs
reproduction by your own children or siblings? The carelessness I've seen
is in failure to even consider this matter. That's not to say that
competitor sabotage does not exist as a memetic phenomenon, but I caution
against taking the gene/meme argument uncritically just because the
argument sounds cynical.

>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.

The politicians and bishops preach much of what they preach because they
know it is what their audiences already want to hear. Preaching family
values is an unstated job requirement for many of them, and they do it to
save their necks even if they do not privately believe a word of what the=
are saying. Well done preaching raises their income and status enough to
give exceptional opportunities and temptations for extramarital affairs,
which the disingenuous preachers seize upon instantly. The surplus
temptations also lead even sincere preachers to "sin," for which they are
branded hypocrites all the same. The genetic competitor sabotage argument
is an "enriched" interpretation of the phenomenon. It may also be advance=
at times by those who wish to say that hypocritical preaching is morally
correct because of the gene's point of view.


--Aaron Lynch

How Belief Spreads Through Society
The New Science of Memes
Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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