RE: Machiavellian Memes

Aaron Lynch (
Tue, 30 Sep 1997 15:13:11 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 30 Sep 1997 15:13:11 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: RE: Machiavellian Memes
In-Reply-To: <>


>Great! Lots of interesting comments. Let me come back on a few
>of them.
>1) Who's side do we take?
>I think Aaron raised this one - and quite rightly pointed out
>that 'we' should not necessarily side with our genetic interests
>over our memetic ones. I agree. My comments about the
>biologically maladaptive properties of things like contraception
>etc were not intended as prescriptive. As someone who encourages
>the use of contraception, favours continuing my education rather
>than having children, (I smoke for crying out loud!), etc - I am
>obviously NOT suggesting that we 'should' avoid biologically
>maladaptive behaviours - but perhaps be aware that the behaviours
>we are undertaking are possibly biologically maladaptive.

Actually, I did recognize that your post was meant to raise interesting
topics for discussion rather than promulgate a personal morality!

>2) Viruses, parasites, and THE analogy
>I was using virus and parasite in very particular ways. A virus
>being a meme which predominently spreads horizontally (i.e. to
>non-kin) - regardless of it's effects upon the host organism.=20
>Perhaps 'bacteria' are a better analogy for what I mean - they
>can be 'good' for the organism or 'bad', but they are not part of
>the genome and do not propogate through the same 'bottle neck' as
>the host's genes.
>A meme which spreads predominently vertically (Like Amish beliefs
>- if you take Aaron's example) is hardly a true virus. I would
>say that memes which vertically propogate are almost certainly
>co-operating with the interests of the genes. This is Durham's
>'Co-evolution' position, for instance.
>A 'parasite' is a difficult analogy, unless you take the gene's
>POV. Otherwise what is being parasitised?? Something which uses
>a biological host to effect it's own propogation, whilst damaging
>or reducing the ability of that biological host to
>survive/reproduce - is a parasite.

I caution against leaving the false impression that Amish memes spread
because they have evolved some kind of "wonderful harmony" with host gene=
For instance, the Amish, like the rest of us, have genes that generate se=
drives starting in childhood. Yet Amish morality (when obeyed) calls for
abstinence until marriage. One could argue too, that our genes carry an
evolved preference for easy versus hard ways of getting a task done, but
that this genetic preference is also repressed by memes. In other words,
there are definite clashes between the anciently evolved mechanisms of
genetic adaptation and recently evolved memetic mechanisms. It is very
difficult, in the Amish case, assert that memes have merely adapted to th=
dictates of the genes, or that memes have evolved to "co-operate" with
genes. (Unless you use a rather forced meaning of "co-operate.") Genes
don't have "interests" per se. (The term again reminds me of genetic
fundamentalist morality.) But genes do have adaptations. What you can say
is that the memes further the propagation of the genes, even while clashi=
with the specific adaptations of those genes.

Moreover, even as Amish memes favor the reproduction of Amish people, you
cannot easily determine whether those memes favor or obstruct reproductio=
of specific genes. Do you know whether the memes favor or harm the
competitive reproduction of genes favoring above average adolescent sex
drives? Is it possible that people who have certain high-sex drive
genotypes are at a reproductive disadvantage in Amish society? If so, do
the memes parasitize some of the genes involved? If you want to refer to
parasitism of genes rather than of organisms, why should you consider
parasitism with respect to THE genes instead of particular genes?

When biologists state that "the gene is the unit of selection," they are
stating, in colloquial terms, that "the gene" is the strongest abstractio=
with which to analyze biological evolution. This does not mean that
"organism" is somehow a useless abstraction. I don't recognize a rule tha=
says you should never consider "organisms," "people," "genetic
adaptations," "minds," or "societies" as possibly being "parasitized," in=
general sense of the term. But I agree that which of these abstractions i=
in use frequently determines whether you will call a particular meme
"parasitic" or not. For this reason, I suspect that we should not conside=
designating memes as "parasitic" or not as a central scientific project i=
memetics. Analyzing the mechanisms of propagation can proceed without suc=

Biology too has its complications regarding parasites, hyperparasites, et=
Are bacteriophages parasites? What if they kill cholera? What if they kil=
benign E. Coli in your gut? (Interesting phenomenon: consider the delta
virus, a virus=92s virus! It includes itself inside the Hepatitis B virus=
rendering Hepatitis "B" more deadly.)

[Snip point 3 on self-centered selectionism. This your response Brodie's
thinking, which differs from my own.]

>4) A problem for theory?
>As memeticists we make a bold claim (some of us). The claim is
>that culture performs one independant ultinmate function ... the
>survival and reproduction of culture. "X was successful because
>X was a good replicator". The question is ... does it really?=20
>Or is it's ultimate function the survival and reproduction of
>genes. Is culture a tool/weapon (cheers Alex!) which we have
>used and still use to obtain a biological advantage over our
>chief competitors (other people)?
>If machiavellian (no intentionality intended - like 'selfish')
>memes exist (i.e. we use bio-maladaptive culture to compete with
>each other) then how can we (as theorists and experimentalists)
>decide whether memes provide for their own ultimate function - or
>are merely slaves to genes (even if unruly slaves).

You might, in turn, ask whether the "ultimate function" of genes is not
really the dissipation of heat into the cosmos. Replicators all have thei=
material substrates, and these are major determinants of adaptation. You
can declare that genes are slaves to atoms, for instance, but this does n=
throw out all the useful insights gained with genetic evolution theory.
Declaring that memes are slaves to genes might at first seem equally devo=
of import, except that there is a school of thought that actually has gen=
determining all of culture by unrealistically direct mechanisms.


--Aaron Lynch

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

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