Re: Memetic parasitism and "progress": a letter

Ton Maas (
Sat, 8 Nov 1997 08:40:58 +0200

Message-Id: <v03102804b089b77a2ca9@[]>
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Date: Sat, 8 Nov 1997 08:40:58 +0200
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: Memetic parasitism and "progress": a letter

Broce Howlett wrote:
>I have for many years been concerned with the obvious paradox of
>competition v's cooperation. Our western society in particular seems to
>worship the ideal of individual achievement, while the reality is that
>any significant variation from mediocre is treated as abhorrent, even
>anti-social behaviour. The reason for this is quite simple. To quote
>Edward de Bono, "The natural tendency of mind is towards certainty,
>security and arrogance".

In the light of what you said earlier about western society, shouldn't De
Bono's quote say "cultural" instead of "natural"? As far as the mind's
natural tendency is concerned, I am more at ease with Heinz von Foerster's
Law of Cognitive Homeostasis, which states that the brain is constructed in
such a way as to compute a stable reality.

Humans are basically lazy and the hardest work
>is thinking. It is far easier to use one's intelligence to defend a
>prejudice or a pre-conceived idea than to actually examine the idea from
>different perspectives and develop multiple hypothesises. This leads us
>to the entrenched cultural norms (memes?) in organizations that control
>everything from the promotion system to the type of cookies in the lunch
>room. I believe that culture is the major controlling force in any
>organization and that in order to manage change successfully, we have to
>develop tools that will enable us to manipulate culture. I have had
>many people tell me that this is impossible and quite a few accuse me of
>being a few miles right of Adolf Hitler! I maintain that accidental (or
>maybe meme controlled) cultural change is NOT more acceptable that
>ethically and deliberately controlled change processes.

Well, we may not be happy with a specific culture at a specific moment, but
one of the nice things of cultures is that they tend to be conservative and
restrain us from veering too far off course. In biological reproduction
this is taken care of by embryology and a few other neat tricks, but in the
case of memetic reproduction we have to protect ourselves from madness.
Trying to undo or correct culture or replace it with something better, is
often a very tragic mistake, precisely because consciousness offers a
rather limited scope on things. All in all the unconscious may be a much
more reliable guide than is often suggested (skeleton in the closet
perspective) and the same applies to culture.

Ton Maas

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