A Red Herring of Memetics

Human beings can handle misfortune, but they have a very difficult time dealing with uncertainty, especially uncertainty about the causes of their misfortune. As long as we can see our enemy, know him, and fight him, we can maintain our sanity even without winning. We require but a sliver of control. A faceless enemy, however, one who manages to avoid detection, is positively intolerable to us. We far prefer to simply find a scapegoat and execute him with extreme prejudice than to suffer the unknown without a fight, without any hope of finding control. Thus, we separate things into “good” and “evil” in the hopes of excising the latter from the former, scarcely realizing that they are often two poles of the same structure. We search for Lucifer, some external source of evil, because if the problem lays outside us we can combat it without losing a piece of ourselves. Unfortunately, the sources of evil in human life are most often the very sources of meaning and human flourishing. One would think that scientists, biologists and the like, would appreciate this the best, but quite often they too fall victim to oversimplification in the hopes of identifying some easily curable evil that plagues mankind from without. Richard Dawkins, for example, would have us believe that the worlds’ religions are to a large degree the sources of discord and suffering; that they are “mind parasites” that we are better off eradicating. Though parasites reside within us, they are external sources of suffering that we can rid ourselves of without losing our identities. Though I agree with much of what Dawkins and the other Horsemen are saying, I think that on this point they are exercising a bit of wishful thinking. Moreover, the more their interpretation of memetics undermines religion, the more it undermines meaning in general, which is an unnecessary result of a mature memetics.

Dawkins and others place too great an emphasis on the power of memes, at the expense of glossing over the power that our innate drives or desires have in cultivating or perpetuating those ideas. In an unconsciuos attempt to give us an external enemy to fight, these great thinkers have given us a bit of a red herring to chase while quietly undermining human dignity. If the Four Horsemen had their way we would see a world without religion, but what they fail to anticipate is the cost of the resulting power vacuum created in the memesphere by this mass extinction. They are like pundits from one political party decrying the failures and shortfalls of the other party’s plan, but without replacing that bad plan with a suitable alternative. As Howard Bloom argues in “The Lucifer Principle,” human beings will always need ideas to rally around, memetic superorganisms to service, and metaphysical truths that will rescue human dignity and bring people together for a common purpose. Religions have always been enormously successful vehicles both for cultural integrity and the bolstering of political power. So why do the Horsemen think that destroying religions will somehow undermine the cause of war and other evils? Won’t humanity simply find different, perhaps secular humanistic memes that can be rallied in support of our darker ambitions and impulses? Are these darker impulses not the true “mind parasites,” the true source of evil in the human mind?

The idea of “mind parasites” has been around for a long time; how long I’m not entirely sure, but certainly the idea of “demons” should qualify and place the origins of the idea in distant antiquity. Colin Wilson wrote “The Mind Parasites” in 1967, nine years before Dawkins published “The Selfish Gene.” Oddly enough, Wilson’s science fiction cult-thriller is a more accurate portrayal of the true sources of suffering in human life than Dawkins’ evil memes. Dawkins’ 1976 publication, which coined the term meme and speculated about its powers, told us that genes can (for all intents and purposes, appear to) “pursue” purposes contrary to those of the individual organism. Though he rejects genetic determinism as a “bogey,” his book nonetheless raised the spectre of genetic determinism in the public imagination. What Dawkins failed to denounce as a “bogey” was the sort of psychological or linguistic determinism that his theory of memes implies. Like “selfish genes,” “selfish memes” also appear to “pursue” purposes that can be contrary to those of the individual organism and thus human beings are not the authors of their thoughts, but are mere passive receptors of the products of memetic evolution. This paints a picture of the human being as a blank slate that is easily infected with the cultural mind parasites swimming around the Zeitgeist, and who doesn’t so much “author” or “fashion” new memes as much as he stumbles upon ones that are produced by some random shuffling or association of memes in his brain; memes that were fed to him by his environment. This view is not entirely in error, but begins to devolve into folly when interpreted a certain way. Of course, we are not something over and above our brains, so it is quite impossible that we are the passive recipients of our brains’ randomly assembled products. It is precisely here that the meme meme begins to erroneously threaten us with meaninglessness. I think that Dawkins and other proponents of the meme meme do not think that this threat is real, but they still employ the arguments that form the very foundations of this threat in their attempts to undermine the religious memes. Let’s examine Dawkins’ recent attack on Christianity on Bill Maher’s “Real Time.”

Dawkins explains to Maher that the Judeo-Christian tradition comes from “a tribe of wandering, Middle-Eastern herdsman,” and continues by asking “why would they have any wisdom about the origin of the world?” He goes on to say that this “particular myth is the myth that just by sheer chance happens to have come to our civilization.” It could have just as easily been some other meme-structure, he implies. As far as these religious meme-structures, Dawkins continues, “all you can say” is that “some are more poetic than others.” None of them converge on truth or present any intellectual progress, Dawkins implies. He is trying to combat an argument marshalled by many a Christian, that Christianity must be true on account of its phenomenal success; how could an idea so influential possibly be wrong? Dawkins would respond by saying that Christianity succeeding as it did “by shere chance,” in the same way that the design of the eye succeeded by the shere chance of historical contingency and the laws that govern the environment. These laws are without intention, design, or intelligence, and thus we can view the products of genetic evolution as being the products of arbitrary chance. However, when Dawkins applies this same logic to memetic evolution he makes a very serious error. The “environment” that does the “selection” in the case of genotypes is in deed arbitrary and unthinking, but the “environment” that does the “selection” in the case of memes is anything but arbitrary and unthinking.  In fact, this latter environment is the only thing that we are entirely certain does think, embody intelligence, and harbor intentions!

Many philosophers and biologists would agree that though certain adaptations, such as the eye, are the products of an unthinking, arbitrary process, these adaptations stick around because they are objectively “good tricks” or “strange attractors.” The eye has actually evolved many different times on earth on account of it simply being a damned good trick, one that any evolutionary process on whatever planet would most likely have to stumble upon (many different times). Many of these same people would agree that evolution, though not a “teleological” process ala Hegel, is nonetheless heading “upwards” in design space, albeit with a kind of zig-zagging, “sawtooth” trajectory. However, Dawkins would like to deny this same line of reasoning to memetics. Only the memes of science move upwards in design space towards truth. Christianity didn’t survive because of its truth value, but only because of its virulent and robust design properties, which render it a highly contagious mind parasite. He would like to gloss over the fact that these “robust design properties” were not crafted by unintentional processes the way that biological adaptations are; they are only well-designed insofar as they jive with the impulses and needs of the human mind, which is by definition an intentional process! Dawkins writes that “regarding the differences between memes and genes; these are just different kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates.” True, but that “different media” part is extremely important! Memes are the product of intentional, meaningful, and non-arbitrary environmental parameters. To argue otherwise is a trap.

In an interview with Robert Wright, Robert Pollack spotted this trap and proclaimed that there is “no worse horror of meaninglessness than the trap of memes.” This trap “is a rhetoricians argument to gut meaning from language.” It is “a self-reflective argument that assures that whatever you feel most strongly about is a demonstration of its meaninglessness.” Pollack is quite right that the view of memes forwarded by Dawkins in his attack on Christianity “diminishes humans as ‘carriers’” of these memes, as passive receptors who keep those memes that make them feel good, and discard those that don’t. Thus, humans appear to be ultimately fallible, fickle beyond measure, and tragic victims of the active agents known as memes. Pollack is careful to state that “the mechanism of transmission I accept” but rejects “the meaningless implied by the mechanism being the sufficient explanation of its purpose.”  “Mechanism is not purpose is my faith,” he proclaims. This is remarkably evolutionary when you think about it: it is the very paradigm of the “exaptation,” a process known by evolutionists as the primary source of most phenotypic features. However, I take issue with the bit about “the meaninglessness implied by the mechanism,” for as I stated earlier, the mechanism is not unintentional or devoid of purpose and meaning. The “mechanism” is the human mind, a veritable meaning machine. Gould (as quoted by Dennett) articulates this point nicely: “much of the mutation that happens to memes–how much is not clear–is manifestly directed mutation: ‘memes such as the theory of relativity are not the cumulative product of millions of random (undirected) mutations of some original idea, but each brain in the chain of production added huge dollops of value to the product in a non-random way.” Dawkins glosses over this fact so that he can undermine the meaning of religion; reducing it to the mere arbitrary result of unintentional processes. His attempt to “de-mean” the products of human culture by appeal to an evolutionary analogy is a total red herring. Dawkins would likely be comfortable with the idea that algebra is a “good trick” just like the adaptation of the eye-ball, and that algebra is “true” in the same way that the eye-ball is “truly useful.” However, when he examines other memes, he concludes that they are not only arbitrary in their genesis, but also arbitrary regarding truth. Why isn’t algebra just the arbitrary meme-structure that our culture just happened to inherit from ancient Arab nomads? How come we can discredit Christianity because it sprung from “a tribe of wandering, Middle-Eastern herdsman,” but we can’t discredit algebra if it shared the same genesis? The people who came up with algebra probably practiced leaching and other barbarous medical remedies, so why should we assume that they had any privileged access to the truth? Well, because they were freakin smart people, despite the fact that they had some backwards ideas!

Algebra was created because human beings have brain structures capable of producing it and using it and because they have innate desires that are well served by algebra. This is why viewing algebra as a “mind parasite” that happens to be good, like the normal flora bacteria in our gut, is quite a bit misleading. The meme is not “in control” of the mind in the way that the word “parasite” would imply. In deed, normal flora bacteria are not parasites! They are symbionts. However, I am not so much concerned with how much “control” the memes have versus the brains that they inhabit, but instead want simply to emphasize that however powerful these memes are, they are both created and granted this power by the intelligence of the human mind. They simply cannot be meaningless, even if the mind that created them did so “by accident,” unintentionally, or by some random process of association. The meme “stuck” or popped into consciousness for a reason, and I mean “reason” in the sense of an intention or motive. All of our thoughts are motive-riddled. Dawkins talks about memes as if they have their own purposes, but really they have our purposes as selective pressure, creator, and then vehicle or host. Dawkins is careful to say that he doesn’t actually think that “selfish genes” are actually intentional or thinking in any way, but he is not so careful to articulate the same thing about memes. This is because it is rhetorically expedient for him to place memes in the driver’s seat sometimes; to place their “interests” in juxtaposition to ours. However, a simple counter-example should suck most of the venom from this formulation.

Cheesecake is a meme; a very successful one. Dawkins would have us believe that it survived because it made us feel good, and he is right. Moreover, cheesecake is actually juxtaposed to our purposes of staying alive and all of that. But should we fear the awful “mind parasite” of cheesecake whose insatiable drive to relicate itself in our minds could lead us all to an early burial in a double-wide cemetery plot? Of course not. The meme is not in itself powerful at all. Our innate biological drive for energy-dense foods, however, is very powerful. That drive is what we should be fearing, not the memes that we have intentionally created to satisfy this drive! The same goes for religion. We should fear the innate drives in each of us that perpetuate the religious memes much more than we fear the memes themselves. These memes exist to service human desires and could not survive without doing so.  Examine the following quote from Daniel Dennett and you will see the sleight of hand that renders the meme meme so frightening:

“Minds are in limited supply, and each mind has a limited capacity for memes, and hence there is a considerable competition among memes for entry into as many minds as possible. This competition is the major selective force in the infosphere, and, just as in the biosphere, the challenge has been met with great ingenuity.” “A meme’s prospects depend on its design–not its ‘internal’ design, whatever that might be, but the design it shows in the world, its phenotype, the way it affects things in its environment.”

Where the AIDS virus, for example, owes its success to its genotype, its “internal design,” which includes a capacity to mutate very quickly, the meme owes its success to its “phenotype, the way it affects things in its environment.” That is, it owes its success to the design of its host. I would add that it also owes its genesis to the design of the host! So why are we so afraid of memes if we create them and they only succeed if they make us feel good or otherwise prove their utility? Why would we view them as external threats or “mind parasites?” The answer can be found in Schopenhauer: “There is no absurdity so palpable but that it may be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to inculcate it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity.”  The scary fact is that memes can survive even if they make us feel horrible and guilt-riddled; that human beings can be brainwashed! However, these memes would not survive unless they produced some human good, like granting humanity an immortality project to work on, or unifying a group of people into a distinct culture. But the memes are not the true parasites. The truth is more like the following statement from Arthur Schopenhauer: “The brain may be regarded as a kind of parasite of the organism, a pensioner, as it were, who dwells with the body.” It is the mind and its various drives and desires that is the real parasite, the real source of those memes which can promote destructive behavior, like terrorism, anorexia, or Kamikaze strikes. We shouldn’t be fearing the meme of anorexia, if this behavior even requires a meme in order to be motivated into action, but should fear instead those innate drives that impel human beings to such destructive actions. Unfortunately, these drives are the same drives that grant us a sense of meaning and satisfaction in life! We would prefer that these external parasites, the memes, were the culprit, the cause of anorexia, but in reality it is the desire to be loved, the desire to love, the desire to be admired and respected, the desire to be perfect! Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn expresses this dilemma best: “if only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Perhaps you would protest that some twisted societal norm, some meme, is necessary for the production of anorexic behavior: a meme that says “you must be skinny to be loved.” Because it is easier to address this meme than to address the ontological motives of Agape and Eros, we speak of the meme as the driver of the disorder, the link in the causal chain most easily severed. But is it? Once someone gets a diagnosis of having the anorexia-meme parasite and told of its destructive affects, we should expect it to disappear, right? Because we only keep memes around that make us feel good, right? So why doesn’t it go away that easily? “Well, because society keeps it alive,” one might respond. But why does society keep it around? Is it some innate part of the “skinny=love” meme? Some omnipotent feature that forces us to keep this illusion alive? Of course not. It survives because there is some biological reality to it, a reality that is not just the result of some twisted, random evolution of memes. Though anorexia is a “software” problem, it is nonetheless produced and sustained by our mental “hardware,” which is just as capable of sustaining other deleterious “software” even if we somehow find an antidote for the anorexia-meme. Perhaps we would defeat the “skinny=love” meme only to be infected with the “more-cushin-for-the-pushin” meme! The point is, we should be more worried about the fact that humans will suffer anything to service some of their ontological motives, and scarier still, they are still more willing to have others suffer anything for them.

It is a red herring to indict the memes as the ultimate cause of human suffering because our minds and their memes are not  competing for different ends. If two drunk men who cannot hold themselves up alone manage to lean on each other and walk back to their hotel, it doesn’t matter if one drunk dude is stronger and providing more locomotion—they are both necessary (but not sufficient) to the end, and the strong one is not “in control,” because he is not competing for control. In a tug-of-war the notion of “which is in more control” makes sense, but the mind and its memes are not competing: they are like two drunk guys leaning on each other to get somewhere…the same somewhere. Dennett adds that “it cannot be ‘memes versus us,’ because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The ‘independent’ mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth.” He continues, “It is no accident that the memes that replicate tend to be good for us, not for our biological fitness…but for whatever it is we hold dear. And never forget the crucial point: the facts about whatever we hold dear–our highest values–are themselves very much a product of the memes that have spread most successfully.” Though this is true, Dennett quickly qualifies this statement with the following: “Biology puts some constraints on what we could value.” There is the crux of it. Though our highest values aren’t independent of our memes, our memes are not independent of our deepest values! It is our deepest values, those constrained by our biology, that are the real culprits. After this explanation, it should be easier to spot the fallacious move in Dawkins thinking. Dawkins writes that “A suicidal meme can spread, as when a dramatic and well-publicized martyrdom inspires others to die for a deeply loved cause, and this in turn inspires others to die, and so on.” But is it the meme, or the “deeply loved cause” that we should be worried about? Dawkins seems to suggest that all we need to do is discredit the meme, discredit religious dogma and the such, and we will have solved the problem.

Dennett tells us that “We should note that the memes for normative concepts–for ought and good and truth and beauty–are among the most entrenched denizens of our minds.” Could this be because they are part of the very fabric of our minds? Could they be part of our “universal grammar,” as indispensable to thinking as the innate, a priori categories of space, time, and causality with which the mind instinctively organizes the world? Do we not have an experience, a feeling, or a gestalt of “beauty” before we form some concept or meme of “the beautiful?” If so, then it is entirely misleading to say that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, as a meme, “infects” the minds of those who hear it. The minds who hear it lean on the 9th symphony to go where they already wanted to go! The meme is not controlling them, but is cooperating with their deepest desires, conforming to their biological reality, not the other way around!

Dawkins real problem is the proverbial “god hole,” not the various round and square memetic pegs that are jammed into it. Disabuse humanity of one or two ill-fitting pegs and he will simply invent new ones. The competition does occur at the symbolic or computation level (memes do compete), but only as proxy competitors for deeper motivational conflicts that already exist in the human psyche. The real competition takes place at the level of “the will” or the set of ontological motives. Similarly, it is not the individual choices possible in a given decision that “do battle,” but their effects vis-a-vis one’s motives. They only “do battle” as proxies. When the ontological motives do not conflict, neither do the possible actions conflict. If I don’t care about my health and I love ice cream, the “health” and “ice cream” choices don’t conflict anymore than the “health” and “ice cream” memes compete! However, it seems like certain memes do conflict by definition, like “love” and “hate.” Something about their formal properties are antithetical. Faith and Empiricism could be another example. Though these memes do conflict by definition, they only “do battle” on occasions when two opposed motives “do battle.” Memes are tools of war, not their causes. SCUD missiles and Patriot missiles are by definition nemeses: one was created to counteract the other exclusively. However, they never “do battle” by themselves but are only wheeled out in times of geopolitical conflict. Dawkins is suggesting that decommissioning the weapons will help us avoid the war, but he fails to realize that people will just fight with less refined weapons, or invent new ones if none are to be found. A virus, just a string of RNA, will replicate with certainty once placed inside a suitable organism, but a meme will only stick if the “peg” fits the “hole,” like the “monotheism” meme fit the “god hole.” Thus, if there are no holes for a meme to fit into, its dead in the water. That is the extent of a memes “power” over us.  We should be trying to address the holes, not just the pegs!

Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” is a particularly egregious example of the dangerous, misleading, demeaning use of the meme meme. I agree with nearly everything Bloom says in the book, even his explication of the causal role of the meme. However, most of his statements concerning memes are equally if not more true if they are turned entirely on their heads. Take the following examples:

“Memes stretch their tendrils through the fabric of each human brain, driving us to coagulate in the cooperative masses of family, tribe, and nation.” This should read: “Humans, who strongly desire cooperative family life and the creation of tribes and nations, stretch their memetic tendrils as far into the memesphere as they can in order to further these innate ends.”

“Little did he realize it, but the bearded writer was simply the tool of fragmentary memes. Those ideas had been floating in the zeitgeist, waiting for a receptive human mind to come along and function as an enzyme functions in human metabolism–splicing together molecules destined for each other.” This should read: “Though he didn’t realize it, the bearded writer ‘s mind was innately receptive to a certain idea, and was fortuitous enough to be alive at a time when two readily accessible ideas, which were well suited structurally for combination, entered his mind, where he combined them to his delight.”

“At its birth, the new ideological meme was vulnerable and powerless. The only small batch of matter over which it had any control was the body and mind of Karl Marx.” This should read: “Karl Marx was the only person who could wield the power of this new ideological meme.”

“And the Puritan meme had used violent battle and the dark impulses of the animal brain to radically increase its sway.” This should read: “The dark impulses of the animal brain used the Puritan meme to justify violent battle.”

“He became possessed by a new idea.” This should read: “He possessed a new idea.”

“They were welded into a social body by a meme.” This should read: “They used a useful meme to weld themselves into a social body.”

“At the center of each society is an imperious master–the meme.” This should read: “Each society utilizes powerful memes that activate in each citizen deeply held values that are the imperious masters of society.”

Of course, Bloom does not actually believe that we are all automatons, meat-puppets being run by memes–this is just an expedient means of getting his point across. He is using the “courting-controversy-wins-an-audience” meme to further his ends. He doesn’t actually think that memes can think or plan. “No, memes do not plot their conquests. They do not have to,” he tell us. It is just useful to speak as if they did. This is easy enough to see in many of his other comments on memes:

“Memes fan out across the planet carried by vigorously scheming hosts. These humans–out for idealism, gain, guts, or glory–spread the meme.” These “vigorously scheming hosts” who are driven by “idealism, gain, guts, or glory” are obviously not senseless, unintelligent pawns of scheming memes.

“The commands of the Hebrew God were the same as those that primal instincts had delivered to the rats. What sounded like the voice of the Most High was actually the whispering of the animal brian.” “The mammal and reptile brains seemed totally in control of Oliver Cromwell’s mind. Eventually those animal puppet masters would prove useful in the service of the meme.” Bloom is clear here that the mammal and reptile brains are the “puppet masters,” and I am simply arguing that it is slightly more truthful to say that the memes were in their service more than the other way around. Bloom would likely have no disagreement with that. He doesn’t think that Hindus, for example, were mysteriously infected by a “dont-kill-cows” meme that has since restructured their society to fit its selfish ambitions. He explains that “Indians survive by using the cows’ dung as fuel, their traction to pull plows, and their milk to feed children. Killing the cows would make agriculture impossible, heating unheard of, and milk unavailable. The worship of the sacred cow works because it keeps alive the creatures on which the Indian economy is based.” “Pictures of the invisible world can have wild inaccuracies, but every view that flourishes does so because it solves at least one major problem.” It is that major problem that we must address with regards to religion, not the pictures of the invisible world. We must realize that when great thinkers like Bloom make the following kinds of statements, they are not seriously undermining the meaning of our thoughts or our minds, but just grasping for linguistic tools that are capable of properly tilling our minds so as to receive his intended meaning:

“Memes have an ultimate ambition: taking vast chunks of the world into their possession and restructuring it according to their form.”

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30 Responses to A Red Herring of Memetics

  1. Jeff, it seems that if we shift the analysis from the pegs to the holes then we discover several irreconcilable “difficulties” with the human creature. First of all we have to recognize that selection can occur on many levels and that often these levels conflict. Just as the selfish gene “seeks” to advance its own survival, so too does the organism, and the tribe, and the society. The possibility of a martyr dying for his cause cannot be eliminated unless we eliminate that possibility that competition may occur at the societal level and needs of the society may not always correspond with the needs of the individual. Likewise, within the brain of a single individual we have some drives that say “do A at the expense of B” while other drives push the individual to do the opposite.

    This situation is likely compounded by the biological/ecological need for moderation. The energy dense cheesecake is more precious than gold to someone who is starving but potentially deadly to someone living in fast food nation. Thus competing drives cannot be avoided as they push us towards the appropriate degree of moderation.

    Finally, we must contend with the stickiness of successful strategies. Dawkins and others fail to put their arguments in appropriate historical context. Evolution, whether genetic or memetic, is a process limited to the adjacent possible. A society is no more able to evolve directly from monotheism to relativity, skipping intervening steps, than can a prehistoric lizard evolve directly into a human. The intervening steps are necessary and those intervening steps take hold because they are successful in some way. A more tactful approach than simply discrediting previously successful strategies would be to address them in appropriate historical context and explain why new possibilities (new memes) have now made the old memes obsolete. Rather than obscuring the past success of religion, acknowledge it and explain why new strategies will surpass its success…

  2. Stefan King says:

    This post has saved me a lot of work. I have some notes on how it’s hard to make strong claims about the relationship between the replicator and the carrier, and I hoped to get around writing about post about that. Now I don’t need to anymore.

  3. Stefan, there is no compliment that I would prefer more than the kind you pay me here. I am very excited that you found this post useful, despite its length.

    Though the meme is a good tool for thinking about certain things, it is essentially a metaphor and becomes deeply misleading whenever this fact is lost sight of. The metaphor isn’t a problem per se, its just never taken seriously enough! Making the comparison between replicating ideas and replicating genes is all good and well, but people like Dawkins stop at the genetic sophistication of the virus for some reason, as when he decries certain religions as mind viruses. If you take the “meme” metaphor a little more seriously, you will have to admit of many different levels of genetic organization, just as in the animal kingdom. Christianity seems much more like a massive genotype like that of the T-Rex, not the simple virus. But the same Red Herring pointed out above can also be applied to giant meme-complexes or memetic super-organisms in the form of the Zeitgeist fallacy or “moving spirit fallacy,” which I came across in Roger Scruton’s work:

    “The problem lies with the concept of the Zeitgeist, which in Hegel is connected with a subtle theory of temporal processes and the ‘objectification’ of the collective spirit. In the hands of less subtle thinkers this idea of the ‘spirit of the time’ was vulgarized into a rhetorical weapon with which to justify innovation in every sphere, and to rationalize a wholesale repudiation of the past. It is the root conception in the philosophy of progress, and has had an impact on the political and intellectual life of the modern world quite out of proportion to its plausibility. And it gives rise to an interesting fallacy….
    I call this fallacy the ‘moving spirit’ fallacy: the fallacy of assimilating all that is happening in the world that you inhabit, your own projects included, to the ‘spirit of the times.’ You commit the moving spirit fallacy every time you see the free actions of living individuals as the necessary consequence of the times in which they live. This is a fallacy not only because it denies human freedom. It is a fallacy for two further reasons. First, because it applies a method for making sense of the past to the present and the future. Secondly, because it applies an understanding of progress derived form science to the generality of human culture.”

    He elaborates on this beautifully in “The Uses of Pessimism: and the Dangers of False Hope”

  4. Pingback: Fashionable Nonsense Pt 1: Memes « Think On These Things

  5. tmtyler says:

    Slavery was once in vogue – and cannibalism before that. Culture (memes) actually make a big difference. Memetic engineering has substantial potential for remoulding and improving society – or for making it worse.

    • tmtyler: thanks for your reply. I am struggling with this topic and I really appreciate the feedback. I too believe in the power of ideas, in the power of culture, and so forth, but I don’t think that ideas operate the way that memetics describes. Take cannibalism, for example. Chimpanzee war parties routinely kill and eat other chimpanzees from a rival troupe. Has the chimpanzee zeitgeist fashioned the cannibalism meme and placed it in “vogue”? Obviously not. We came from chimpanzees quite recently and thus the source of human cannibalism cannot be ascribed to a rogue meme that forces people to eat each other so that it can propagate. My whole point is that memes that “catch on” do so only by latching onto the true sources of human behavior: human nature. In deed, scientific, humanistic, and skeptical memes are far more powerful than their fanciful theological counterparts, but yet the former have hardly made a dent in the latter. Why is this so if the “design features” of memes account for their success or failure to propagate?

      As a side note, I just noticed that Dawkins contradicts himself. Christianity cannot survive both “by sheer chance” and because of the innate design properties of the “Christianity-memeplex.” He’s gotta make up his mind.

      • tmtyler says:

        By contrast, I am a meme enthusiast – and have written a book on the topic.

        Memes do not *have* to be engineered. There are engineered memes, domesticated memes and wild memes – much as there are engineered genes, domesticated genes and wild genes.

        Yes, memes exploit DNA-coded traits, but behaviour is a product of DNA-coded traits, and culture and the environment. Culture *does* play an important role – one that makes the difference between cave men and
        modern humans. No one can claim that human behaviour all boils down to human nature – it’s nature + environment & culture.

        The success or failure of memes to propagate arises from the interaction between memes and their hosts. It isn’t *just* down to the design features of memes. The situation is similar to a virus and its host. Success isn’t *just* down to the properties of the virus – the host’s immune system plays a role in determining the outcome for the virus. Similarly there’s a memetic immune system (scepticism, incredulity, etc.) that rejects dud memes, and its role is quite important.

  6. Doesn’t the fact that memes can be engineered and domesticated undermined the analogy with viruses? We just happen to catch a virus…but we design, engineer, and domesticate ideas…intentionally! And furthermore, it is our intentions and desires that the “wild memes” are latching onto…so shouldn’t we be far more worried about these intentions and desires inherent to human nature than whatever wild memes happen to attach to them? I have responded to some further points on the thread for the more recent blog post: https://thinkonthesethingstoo.wordpress.com/2011/11/04/fashionable-nonsense-pt-1-memes/#comment-133

    Thanks again tmtyler. Btw, found your channel on youtube as well as your website. Looking forward to digesting it all.

    • tmtyler says:

      There are genetically engineered viruses these days – particularly retroviruses. That doesn’t seem like too much of a difference between the cultural and organic domains any more. It is an area where DNA genes are playing catch-up. 100 years ago, lack of genetic engineering would have been a real difefrence between the organic and cultural realms

      These realms do have *some* differences. E.g. computer RAM is much easier to write to than DNA – and in culture, mutations take place inside minds, rather than inside cells. The point is that there’s an underlying theory (evolution) that applies to both realms and explains a lot of what happens in both of them.

      The darker side of human nature is indeed a concern, but it is difficult to change it directly. Social engineers have instead focused on spreading positive memes via education – reasoning that it is better to focus on the areas where their efforts can make a difference.

      • Yes, there are genetically engineered viruses today…but nobody is “catching” them! My point was that we accidentally “catch” viruses, but whenever we “catch” a meme our intentions are involved. This is true even in the extreme case of religious indoctrination. Though in some sense it is a matter of chance which religion one is indoctrinated with in childhood, it is NOT a matter of chance that it catches on or sticks around. It sticks around because we WANT it to! This desire is why we cultivate the meme, indulge it, etc. It is from a desire that the meme was born in the first place (notice all religions service the same panoply of desires)! Thus I see the analogy with catching a virus as being entirely untenable. If someone claims that they “caught” a religious meme and that this is why they believed in god for thirty years, they are just plain lying to themselves. They did not catch this meme like they caught last years flu: they wanted it on some level. Before they were of age to make a rational choice, and thus bear responsibility for holding their beliefs, they still WANTED those beliefs…making their will the active agent, not the memes.

  7. tmtyler says:

    The idea that nobody it catching engineered biological viruses YET strikes me as a pretty esoteric difference between the biological and cultural realms. There are such differences – but: so what: the point is that there are more than enough similarities to require the use of a general theory (essentially Darwinial evolution) to underlie organic and cultural change.

    Re: It sticks around because we WANT it to!

    Or – in the case of catchy songs – because someone else wanted it to.
    Or – in the case of chain letters there is no human beneficiary – and they exist because they evolved to survive.

    Re: Thus I see the analogy with catching a virus as being entirely untenable.

    …but that is silly. Memes are like viral DNA in that they spread from person to person, obey the rules of epidemiology, and sometimes are bad for their host and battle against host immune systems. There are persistent memetic infections that mirror persistent viral infections – and so on. Sure there are *some* differences: for instance, viruses have a protein coat – but it would be *pointless* to trumpet that as “defeating the analogy” between memes and viruses – that is not the point of the link in the first place.

    Re: If someone claims that they “caught” a religious meme and that this is why they believed in god for thirty years, they are just plain lying to themselves. They did not catch this meme like they caught last years flu: they wanted it on some level.

    So: you “wanted” the advertising logos on your clothes “at some level”? Did you want the irritating adverts in the TV shows “at some level”? How about that catchy song? There are actually plenty of *memes* that are just plain unwanted by their hosts – and some of them even go to clinics to get professional help in ridding themselves of them – just like with viruses.

    • Re: It sticks around because we WANT it to!
      In the case of a catchy song, of course part of you likes the song! Its catchy! Perhaps another part of you dislikes part of the song, or dislikes the kind of people who typically like that music, or whatever…but this doesn’t change the fact that part of you likes it! The same goes for advertising logos on your cloths, TV adverts, and every other example you bring up. If you claim that NO part of you wants these things, you are not being honest with yourself. It is just passing the buck to claim that you “caught” these things and have no responsibility towards your subsequent inclinations. To be clear, there are NO memes that are completely unwanted by their host. We need to be extremely precise with our language here. If I like calorie-rich food and I like Big Macs, but I don’t like the sluggish feeling I have after eating one, or the fat that I gain, it is just plain wrong to claim that “I don’t like Big Macs” or to claim that “I wish I didn’t like Big Macs.” You don’t like feeling sluggish and being fat and you wish that you didn’t experience this conflict of interests! If you could eat Big Macs without being sluggish and fat, you would do so; meaning you DO like Bic Macs.

      There is quite simply NO meme out there that fails to further one of its hosts interests…NONE! If there ever was one, the host forgot it immediately or it died with him and his Darwin Award. On the other hand, there is virtually NO virus out there that DOES further the interests of its host. Thus, I don’t think that the two should be compared like this. Take religion. Nobody could tenably make the claim that religion serves NO human interests or that it does NO good whatsoever. The fact that it does considerable harm does not make it analogous to a virus. This is like comparing Big Macs to cyanide. True, eating nothing but Big Macs will shorten your life expectancy, as with cyanide, but then again Big Macs will also keep you alive for the first 40 years, unlike cyanide! Huge difference!

      Chain letters: of course there is a beneficiary. The dude who started the chain letter got to feel less lonely and slightly important, as if his existence made some kind of impact on the world. To suggest that the chain letter idea “got a hold of him” and forced him to compose it and send it along is like suggesting that the hammer is really swinging the carpenter around!

      • tmtyler says:

        Re: If you claim that NO part of you wants these things, you are not being honest with yourself.

        I don’t think so. Adverts *really are* bad for their recipients. They don’t want them consciously, or unconsciously, and if given the opportunity, they hit “mute” or “fast forward”. These adverts exist, not because they benefit those who are exposed to them, but because they benefit those who produced them.

        Re: There is quite simply NO meme out there that fails to further one of its hosts interests…NONE!

        Some pretty uniformly bad memes include: the (incorrect) idea that glass flows downhill and the incorerct idea that vaccinations cause autism.

        Smoking and obesity memes are pretty uniformly deleterious. They are – from the perspective of 99% of the population – bad memes. Thus: weight watchers clinics.

        Re: On the other hand, there is virtually NO virus out there that DOES further the interests of its host.

        Not really. Pox parties illustrate how viruses can benefit their hosts. The Seneca Valley virus only attacks cancerous tumors. Even nastier things – like anthrax – have been used to help some small fraction of those who transmit it around the planet.

        Re: The fact that [religion] does considerable harm does not make it analogous to a virus.

        Often those who compare memes to viruses are not even making a point about whether they are deleterious. The intended point is that they are non-human entities that spread like “plages” from one person to the next through close contact and have interests that are not aligned with their hosts. Epidemiology has more advanced models and terminology that the science of mutualisms – for example, there’s no mutualism version of the “epidemic threshold”. So: epidemiological models and metaphors are used *even* for agents which have positive effects overall.

        Religion looks quite positive to me. Thus we see articles like: Blackmore’s “Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind”.

        Re: Chain letters: of course there is a beneficiary. The dude who started the chain letter got to feel less lonely and slightly important, as if his existence made some kind of impact on the world.

        You are saying the composers *benefitted*? They were wasting their time composing chain letters! Chain letters are pretty close to being purely deleterious, IMO. That is especially true long after their creation.

  8. Re: Adverts
    True, if given the opportunity, we usually hit mute or FFWD. But we don’t want to watch these things because we know we are being manipulated, that a real part of us is being appealed to, and so we would rather not feel any internal conflict. When I get a bad pop song stuck in my head I try to eradicate it as soon as possible because I hate acknowledging the fact that part of me actually likes the damned thing! If a commercial is on and it isn’t even vaguely appealing I don’t even feel compelled to hit mute, b/c it stands no chance of replicating in my brain. Furthermore, how many ads-memes get replicated by viewers (the ones that didn’t hit mute)? Few to none. So much for the power of memes. True, the ads-memes exist not b/c they benefit the viewer, but instead the producer, but they DO benefit somebody! Otherwise they wouldn’t be around. Moreover, these ads allow all of these viewers to enjoy their favorite program…so the ads are benefiting them too, and sticking around for precisely this reason!

    Re: uniformly bad memes
    I can sympathize with this position Tim, but it isn’t this clear cut. The vaccination-causes-autism-meme, for example, gives a bunch of parents an illusory sense of control and hope…THAT is why it sticks around…not some quirk in its internal logic. I’ll happily grant you that they would be better off without this meme, ceterus paribus, but this is not the same thing as the meme having NO benefits, NO upside, or otherwise infecting them without in so doing also satisfying one or more of their desires. It has no other way in except through these desires!

    Re: smoking and obesity memes
    There is no smoking or obesity meme. Again, kittens come to my rescue. Keep putting food out for your cat and it will get obese too. Has it been infected with the obesity meme? Calorie-rich food IS objectively good for you and thus our natural, instinctive drive to find it. What does this have to do with memes? There are, of course, memes associated with smoking or obesity. The smoking-is-harmless-meme, for example, has been shot down by rigorous scientific means, and yet this didn’t impact smokers a whole lot. So much for the power of memes. The smoking-is-bad-for-me-meme is just not doing battle with the I-like-smoking-meme…this is not how it works. Your desire for health is competing with your desire for an oral fixation that relieves stress, and losing. Memes, if anything, are the little missiles that these desires fire at each other in their power struggle.

    Re: viruses
    A few counterexamples hardly makes a dent in my point. We have domesticated some lions, but this doesn’t make true the statement “lions are harmless, docile creatures.” There is no argument here…99.999% of viruses are bad for their hosts…the good ones are vanishingly few and most likely engineered by humans. On the other hand, 99.999% of memes are helpful or harmless to their hosts. Thus, a comparison between viruses and memes seems misdirected. Cyanide is harmless to some forms of bacteria, but that hardly eclipses the fact that it kills damned near everything else!

    Re: epidemiological models and metaphors
    Thats all fine and good to use these models and metaphors for good memes also…as long as we are admitting that they are just metaphors! But Dawkins, Bloom, and others are not using the virus bit metaphorically… and it is there statements I am attacking in my posts.

    Re: chain letters
    The chain letter writers might not be bright enough to enjoy a discussion like this one, but perhaps they get as much joy out of composing chain letters as we do discussing their stupidity. Perhaps they think that our discussion is a “waste of time.” But if chain letters are such powerful memes, how come I have never forwarded one? In fact, I don’t have any friends that forward them. If I ever did, it would be because it gave me a little smile or something and so I’d pass it along so as to give someone else a little smile. What does this have to do with the internal logic of the chain-letter meme?

  9. tmtyler says:

    Re: True, the ads-memes exist not b/c they benefit the viewer, but instead the producer, but they DO benefit somebody! Otherwise they wouldn’t be around.

    That’s precisely the logic that memetics denies. It is true that most memes benefit somebody, but one of the central insights of memetcics is that memes can still survive without benefitting anybody – by benefitting themselves.

    Chain letters are probably one of the best examples. They are pretty-much 100% screw-up. Urban legends occasionally benefit people, but mostly spread despite being uniformly bad. The “Rip Nelson Mandela” Twitter hoax helped practically nobody.

    You point out that memes commonly appeal to base desires like sex and indignation to appeal to people on some level. That is known as the “bait” in memetics. In fact, bait is used by parasites in the biological world too. Some examples: A nematode (Myrmeconema neotropicum) makes ants swell and appear to be juicy red berries so that they are consumed by the nematode’s next host. Leucochloridium paradoxum infects snails and makes their eye stalks mimic caterpillars in order to attract their next host, a bird. Cucumber mosaic virus makes infected plants smell sweet to aphids – who are attracted, feast and then spread the virus to uninfected plants.

    Re: There is no smoking or obesity meme.

    There are smoking or obesity memes. That is why we have an obesity epidemic! It is an epidemic of obesity memes!

    Re: Again, kittens come to my rescue. Keep putting food out for your cat and it will get obese too. Has it been infected with the obesity meme?

    No, but you may have been, if you watch catfood adverts.

    Re: Calorie-rich food IS objectively good for you and thus our natural, instinctive drive to find it. What does this have to do with memes?

    Fat cats are the largely product of memes associated with cat food advertisement, cat food manufacture and cat domestication. Back before there were many memes, most cats were much more skinny. Fat cats in the modern world are largely the product of memes.

    Re: There are, of course, memes associated with smoking or obesity. The smoking-is-harmless-meme, for example, has been shot down by rigorous scientific means, and yet this didn’t impact smokers a whole lot. So much for the power of memes. The smoking-is-bad-for-me-meme is just not doing battle with the I-like-smoking-meme…this is not how it works.

    The memes in question are smoking advertisements, smoking marketing, the portrayal of smoking in the media and memes associated with health and fitness. Smoking memes get passed on behind bike sheds. Smoking is a cultural phenomenon – so it is all about memes – and the same goes for obesity.

    Re: On the other hand, 99.999% of memes are helpful or harmless to their hosts.

    No way. Think of all the memes that are used for the manipulation of others via marketing and advertising. Think of the world’s computer game addicts, its smokers, its alcoholics, its obese contingent. Your figure is not remotely realistic.

    I don’t normally call memes viruses. I call them memes. Virus can be distracting terminology, because memes are on average beneficial, while viruses are, or average deleterious.

    *However*, the use of epidemiological models and metaphors is still important in memetics. Epidemiology has better terminology and the more advanced models, compared to the study of mutualisms. So: mind viruses, viral marketing, viral videos, etc. are not going anywhere soon.

    Re: Thats all fine and good to use these models and metaphors for good memes also…as long as we are admitting that they are just metaphors! But Dawkins, Bloom, and others are not using the virus bit metaphorically… and it is there statements I am attacking in my posts.

    Not very much in memetics is intended metaphor or analogy, at least not by me. The idea is that memes *literally* are symbionts (parasites and mutualists). That memetic entities are literally alive, literally evolve, and are literally subject to natural selection. Analogies and metaphors are the wrong way to look at the situation, IMO. I endorse the “When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain” – at least in the case of deleterious memes. Of course I agree that, if we are talking about a memetic mutualist, the terminology of parasitism is no longer appropriate.

  10. Re: That’s precisely the logic that memetics denies.
    But its not a “logic;” these are facts. Ads allow viewers to enjoy their programs: Benefit! And the ads directly benefit their makers. So we have yet to come up with a single example of something that fails to benefit anybody, especially its creator. You seem to be accomplishing this by simply denying any kind of symbolic utility or emotional pleasure as “benefits,” and instead counting only DNA-goals as such. Show me one meme that has survived only by benefiting itself and not a single person. The examples you list are hedged first by “probably,” then “pretty-much,” then “mostly,” then “practically.” None are unequivocal. A hoax or a chain letter was INTENTIONALLY designed to be rather useless to most of its recipients…that forms part of the basis for the thrill that the designer is getting from the enterprise. If you write off “thrills” as not being “benefits,” then you could just as well claim that roller coasters use people to build themselves and keep on running though they benefit no human beings!

    Re: bait
    I liked this point. I didn’t know any of the fine examples you bring up…very interesting. I suppose my only rejoinder is that memes HAVE TO HAVE bait, whereas most other parasites don’t. As you put it, the central claim of memetics is that memes DONT’T have to have bait…that they can survive and replicate thought benefiting nobody; attaching to no desires. But again…not a single example has convincingly been presented of this.

    Re: There is no smoking or obesity meme.
    I will grant you that the proliferation of advertisements that appeal to our natural appetites affects the obesity epidemic. I think the actual availability of these foods has much more to do with it. Obviously, our natural appetites are an even bigger contributor. But bigger still is the desire to alleviate anxiety or spiritual emptiness. The fast food companies are filling a void, but you seem to be thinking that they have CREATED this void with their advertisements. They haven’t. I could go into all of the reasons why we feel spiritually empty…but you know them already. I might add that one of those reasons, I fear, is a view of the human being and his consciousness as a passive epiphenomenon, which memetics seems to be flirting with quite unabashedly.

    Again, culture does not equal memes…this is just a convenient way to write off the human element of culture. Yes, smoking “memes” (ie “smoking-is-cool-meme”) get passed on behind bike sheds, but why? B/c of the internal design properties of this meme? Of course not. They are passed on because of the charisma of the initiator, and the human being’s longing for an initiation rite/rite of induction, etc. Moreover, you seem to be overlooking the fact that cigarrettes are not “cool” b/c of media portrayal: they actually ARE cool. What I mean is that nicotine binds to the acetylcholine receptor, lowers your anxiety and makes you feel, well…”cool.” This is just an objective fact: cigarettes affect your mood. I can’t believe that this fact seems inconsequential to you…that its all about the cleverly designed (or evolved) memes. Why haven’t the anti-smoking and anti-drug ads worked then? What about the bans on cig ads and the lobbying to get cigs out of movies? None of this has had any effect whatsoever on smoking statistics and yet you would claim that our smoking habits are caused by memes? Seems pretty thin.

    Re: fat cats
    Fat cats have nothing to do with advertisements and everything do with lonely, bored, love-starved people! Oh, and the cat’s natural desire for calorie-rich food. Is it your contention that loneliness, isolation, and existential angst are memes as well? These people are displacing/projecting their maternal instincts onto animals and it doesn’t matter what kind of ad they see, how well it is designed, etc…they are gonna keep stuffing that cat regardless!

    Re: computer game addicts
    Once again, computer games don’t do much for your DNA or its replication, and this addiction can get in the way of a fulfilling life and all of that, but it is preposterous to suggest that even these “addicts” are not getting something out of it. They are relieving anxiety! If they didn’t do it that way they would have to turn to booze, or drugs, or chasing tail, or whatever. Would you claim that sex addicts are getting nothing out of SEX?!? Is the “sex-meme” or “sex-is-my-raison-d’etra-meme” taking these people over and leaving them with nothing in return?

    Re: Not very much in memetics is intended metaphor or analogy, at least not by me. The idea is that memes *literally* are symbionts (parasites and mutualists). That memetic entities are literally alive, literally evolve, and are literally subject to natural selection.

    Then why would Bloom’s quotes be egregious personification? I suppose I should read your other post before asking that question. Before doing so, however, I must make an observation: this view of memes as living things is really not that far from pre-modern peoples view of ideas and representations: that they are real spiritual entities with a will of their own. Memetics starts to look like a new version of sympathetic magic, voodoo, etc. Those people REALLY believed in the power of memes! Seriously though, how can information be alive on anybody’s definition? The information encoded in DNA is NOT alive. It cannot metabolize, reproduce, etc. How can the “hammer-meme” be literally alive? A hydrogen atom contains “information:” is it alive?

  11. tmtyler says:

    Re: So we have yet to come up with a single example of something that fails to benefit anybody, especially its creator.

    You are doing a different form of accounting to me. You are counting the rush of adrenaline a gamer experiences as a “benefit”. That sort of thing is not normally counted as a benefit in biology. A “benefit” is usually something that lets you leave more offspring.

    Failing to benefit *anybody* is a demanding target that most viruses fail to meet. I gave the example of anthrax, which even some humans make money off. Other humans benefit from their relationship with the AIDS virus – and so on. We should not hold deleterious memes to more demanding standards than we hold regular organic viruses to.

    Re: As you put it, the central claim of memetics is that memes DONT’T have to have bait…

    Not really. In fact, “bait” is a standard component in the regular analysis of meme anatomy. I expect there are a *few* memes which don’t use bait. Perhaps some forms of subliminal advertising that attempt to saturate their host’s environment with adverts mostly dispense with bait. However, most – nearly all – memes *do* seem to use some form of bait to help attract attention to themselves.

    Re: I will grant you that the proliferation of advertisements that appeal to our natural appetites affects the obesity epidemic. I think the actual availability of these foods has much more to do with it.

    That is also the result of memes, I might add. Agricultural, transportation, storage, pesticide, herbicide and preservative related memes.

    Re: Again, culture does not equal memes…this is just a convenient way to write off the human element of culture.

    It depends on how you define the term “meme”. Since I have memes being the heritable information underlying culture, all cultural persistence is due to memes, just as a matter of definition.

    I wouldn’t quite equate culture with memes, since, with many definitions of culture it also includes many meme products.

    Re: cigarettes affect your mood. I can’t believe that this fact seems inconsequential to you…that its all about the cleverly designed (or evolved) memes.

    Without memes there would *be* no cigarettes. There would be no cigarettes making machines, no paper, and precious little fire. Chimpanzees don’t smoke cigarettes. Cigarettes are a memetic phenomenon.

    Re: Fat cats have nothing to do with advertisements and everything do with lonely, bored, love-starved people! Oh, and the cat’s natural desire for calorie-rich food. Is it your contention that loneliness, isolation, and existential angst are memes as well?

    You are missing out the cheap convenient food availability facilitated by those agricultural, transportation and storage-related memes.

    Re: Once again, computer games don’t do much for your DNA or its replication, and this addiction can get in the way of a fulfilling life and all of that, but it is preposterous to suggest that even these “addicts” are not getting something out of it. They are relieving anxiety!

    So, sure: I am not particularly opposed to your thesis that hosts are *usually* receiving a reward on *some* level – even as their reporoductive potential is being being screwed by whatever nasty memes they are addicted to.

    Some memes do have wholly negative effects on *some* of the people they influence, though – with no reward at all. I get exposed to street preacher memes, for instance. I am not interested in them, they do nothing for me but cause irritation, but they still reach my brain. I get exposed because I want to walk where the street preachers hang out.

    Re: Before doing so, however, I must make an observation: this view of memes as living things is really not that far from pre-modern peoples view of ideas and representations: that they are real spiritual entities with a will of their own. Memetics starts to look like a new version of sympathetic magic, voodoo, etc.

    That’s exactly right!! Memetics brings back the concept of possession. Our ancestors used to think people were possessed by evil spirits. Now science can affirm such beliefs – possession is not far from the truth – people actually are infected with bad memes. Memetics also brings back exorcism, making the concept seem almost respectable. Deprogramming is a modern form of exorcism which aims at eliminating undesirable memes.

    Re: Seriously though, how can information be alive on anybody’s definition?

    Well, if you have life as that which persists via copying, then things become quite a bit more lively. If you additionally require some evidence of cumulative adaptation, then culture still remains alive. That is the kind of conception of life which classifies cultural phenomenon as being alive. This is close to Eors Szathmary – in “The Origins of Life”, p.3: “An alternative is to define as living any population of entities posessing those properties that are needed if the population is to evolve by natural selection.”

  12. Re: accounting differences
    This is the crux of the matter then. The thing that memetics seems to overlook, ironically, is the “Robot’s Rebellion.” That is, humans have figured out how to enjoy the benefits of its biological drives without satisfying the demands of the underlying genes. We screw for fun! Now, as you note, this is horrible for “reproductive potential,” and thus, on your view, quite useless. But why on earth would we do our accounting this way and completely leave out the intererests of the now liberated human person? The point is that even though the DNA interests are not being fulfilled, the DNA-interest-mechanisms (reward sensations, “thrills,” etc) ARE still in effect! They have become the persons interests. You are setting up a false dilemma with genes versus memes because there is an intermediary: human people! Human people are having a blast screwing for fun…THEIR interests are being served at the expense of their genes interests. But you want to write off all such behavior as governed by memes! Well, its the “sexual-revolution-meme” you might reply, or the “contraceptive-pill-meme.”

    Re: Failing to benefit *anybody* is a demanding target that most viruses fail to meet.
    No, you are not being precise here. My claim was that CATCHING such a virus never serves the hosts interests. The AIDS pharmaceutical companies are NOT profiting from AIDS…AIDS is not handing them a paycheck…AIDS PATIENTS are! These companies are profiting from AIDS patients, not aids. We need to be precise here. When a doc comes home and tell his wife that “three heart attacks just bought us a new vacation home,” you will agree he is speaking metaphorically, yes?

    More importantly, though, let’s examine the street preacher example. You are making a living (writing books, etc) railing against such people, so how can you claim that you have no interest in what that preacher says, or that his memes don’t benefit you? Again, they wouldn’t stick in your brain if they didn’t have a connection to your interests. Even if you are just venting steam…taking out some anger on these people, you still must admit that you care…that their memes benefit you (according to my accounting). And this benefit explains why they would stick around in your head. You enjoy mounting arguments against such memes! So of course they will stick around. But this still doesn’t give us an example of a meme that fails to satisfy one of its hosts interests.

    Re: Without memes there would *be* no cigarettes. Chimpanzees don’t smoke.
    This is abusing a counter-factual. This is like me saying that there would be no cigarettes without genes either (which is also true, but doesn’t prove anything). Or, similarly, chimps don’t dance, so dancing is a meme. No..not exactly…the dancing instinct could have evolved after the chimps.

    Re: spirit possession
    I think you are misunderstanding the experience of pre-literate societies. They didn’t have conscious “thoughts” that they confused for realities out there: they had psychological projections that they confused for objective realities “out there” instead of understanding them as being objective realities about the person “in here.” A psychological projection is more like an instinct than a conscious thought. You hold that instincts are not memes. Thus, pre-literate societies were not infected with memes: they were experiencing projections which they rationalized to form memes. Do you get what I’m saying? The projections happened first, then the rationalizations! So whatever rationalizations they came up with, these were SLAVES to the projections that they were protecting. When someone experiences an altered state of consciousness, this is not a meme! It is these states that underly religious experience, not memes! The memes are just there to rationalize that experience. They are in the service of such experiences! This is perhaps where memetic engineering might do some good: create better rationalizations (memes) of these experiences…explanations that lead to fewer poor judgments, etc. But memeticists seem to think that religion is JUST some bad memes, instead of realizing that there are non-memetic experiences driving these things. Memes DO NOT produce religious experiences. Religious experiences never fail to produce memes.
    A bower bird is not in a situation of spiritual possession when it builds a nest: it is following an instinct that just happens to look a whole lot like a meme. Yes?

  13. tmtyler says:

    Re: Human people are having a blast screwing for fun…THEIR interests are being served at the expense of their genes interests. But you want to write off all such behavior as governed by memes! Well, its the “sexual-revolution-meme” you might reply, or the “contraceptive-pill-meme.”

    OK, so, yes. In *many* of the cases where humans behave in a manner that is maladaptive for their genes, memes are responsible.

    With condoms, contraceptive pills, these things are technological – and technology is culture and so has a memetic basis – so the link with memes is obvious.

    The other big effect of memes is that they have radically transformed the planet. As a result, we live in an environment which is wildly different from the one most of our ancestors inhabited. As a result, many of the DNA-coded actions that use to result in increased reproductive success are now maladaptive. Hoarding energy in fat supplies is no longer very beneficial for our genes, for example.

    I would not claim that *most* cases of humans failing to benefit their genes are caused by memes. Humans are also attacked by organic pathogens, and they cause many people to fail to reproduce. Then there are developmental problems and accidents, that also cause humans to fail to reproduce.

    Re: My claim was that CATCHING such a virus never serves the hosts interests.

    What: *never*? How about those who insure against such things – and then get a fat paycheck? How about those who happen to fall in love with their nurses? Some people have literally said: “AIDS is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Frankly, I don’t see how you can back up your claim.

    Re: More importantly, though, let’s examine the street preacher example. You are making a living (writing books, etc) railing against such people, so how can you claim that you have no interest in what that preacher says, or that his memes don’t benefit you?

    Right. There are many other examples of memes that people just want to turn off, though. The neighbour’s radio blaring out when you are sunbathing. The daft music you are forces to listen to in some stores. The irritating animated GIFs on web pages – and so on. Many memes are
    just not in your interest.

    Re: But this still doesn’t give us an example of a meme that fails to satisfy one of its hosts interests.

    It’s a demanding request – since to make the case convincingly I would need to track down every host of some meme and show that none of their interests were satisfied. So: I think we have to go back to organic viruses. Can you give an example of an organic virus (or other organic pathogen) that hasn’t satisfied one of its hosts interests?

    Re: Thus, pre-literate societies were not infected with memes: they were experiencing projections which they rationalized to form memes.

    Literacy is an advanced form of cultural transmission, though! Long before written memes came spoken memes, gestural memes, and tool-making memes.

    Re: But memeticists seem to think that religion is JUST some bad memes, instead of realizing that there are non-memetic experiences driving these things. Memes DO NOT produce religious experiences. Religious experiences never fail to produce memes.

    OK. So – don’t include me in this. Much religion is based on experiences of transcendant otherness. Actually, I don’t think there is anyone denies the existence of religious experiences. We all know about the “god spot”. Dawkins even had his “god spot” magnetically stimulated once – in the name of science.

    Re: A bower bird is not in a situation of spiritual possession when it builds a nest: it is following an instinct that just happens to look a whole lot like a meme. Yes?

    Actually, no. Apparently scientists think bower bird nest building is partly culturally transmitted. For example: “Do bowerbirds exhibit cultures?” by Joah R. Madden says: “I suggest that, despite a paucity of data in comparison with primate studies, it could be argued that bowerbirds may be considered to fulfil the same criteria on which we base our use of the term culture when applied to our close relatives, the great apes.” – and here is Jared Diamond in “Bower Building and Decoration by the Bowerbird Amblyornis inornatus”: “I suggest that bower style is partly learned, and that geographic variation in bower style may depend upon culturally transmitted behavior, analogous to geographic variation in bird song dialects.”

  14. Re: My claim was that CATCHING such a virus never serves the hosts interests.
    What: *never*? How about those who insure against such things – and then get a fat paycheck? How about those who happen to fall in love with their nurses? Some people have literally said: “AIDS is the best thing that ever happened to me.” Frankly, I don’t see how you can back up your claim.

    None of these are examples of a host catching a virus and directly benefiting from that virus. What about the virus is making the patient fall in love with his nurse? What AIDS patient ever said that it was the best thing that ever happened to him? Regardless, even if people have literally said “AIDS is the best thing that ever happened to me,” they do not mean this literally. Though families often rally to support a sick member, such support would not be necessary without the sickness, so you cannot claim that the sickness helped the sick person in this way. If I create a problem and then solve some of the symptoms of that SAME problem, you cannot say that my originally creating the problem helped the situation. Two steps back, one step forward is not a recipe for progress. This goes for the insurance case as well. To get that “fat check” one had to put in a ton of money. But all of this misses my point. You admit that catching a virus has vanishingly few benefits whereas on average catching a meme is beneficial. This alone should undermine the virus analogy. Moreover, as you admit in the other post, “bait” is always involved; so the person is always complicit in a meme-infection, whereas they are never complicit in a virus-infection. Yet Dawkins is cool with suggesting that all memes “parasitize” minds. This word just does not fit with the “simbiosis” that is actually taking place here.

    Re: Right. There are many other examples of memes that people just want to turn off, though. The neighbour’s radio blaring out when you are sunbathing. The daft music you are forces to listen to in some stores. The irritating animated GIFs on web pages – and so on. Many memes are just not in your interest.

    But these memes are not being replicated in your scull. Moreover, you are not really giving examples of memes here. Loud noises are not memes. If I am annoyed with any blaring noise, what does this have to do with memes? If the meme has no “bait” that I have an interest in taking, then it simply doesn’t get replicated…so no mind viruses!

    Re: Can you give an example of an organic virus (or other organic pathogen) that hasn’t satisfied one of its hosts interests?

    Um, perhaps I am misunderstanding you. I can’t think of a single thing that an organic virus DOES do that satisfies a host interest. So, in answer to your question: EVERY VIRUS. AIDS, for example, thwarts all of its host’s interests—it does not satisfy any of its hosts intersts.

    Re: Literacy is an advanced form of cultural transmission, though! Long before written memes came spoken memes, gestural memes, and tool-making memes.

    Fine. My point was that before such advanced forms of cultural transmission there were non-memetic “projections.” A kitten playing with a leaf is an example of an instinctual projection: a behavior (attacking/hunting) is instinctively being projected onto an inanimate object! Early humans too experienced such projections, which just have nothing to do with memes! You make no room in your theory for such projections, though they are the dominant influence on art and culture! Furthermore, long before spoken memes came instinctual calls; long before gestural memes came instinctual gestures; and long before tool-making memes there were tool-making instincts (termite homes, certain bird nests, etc). If all of these things existed without memes, then we should perhaps resist statements that claim that all cultural phenomenon “come down to memes.”

  15. tmtyler says:

    Re: You admit that catching a virus has vanishingly few benefits whereas on average catching a meme is beneficial.

    Sure.

    Re: This alone should undermine the virus analogy.

    Indeed. A bit more technically memes are symbionts – *usually* either pathogens, mutualists, or commensalists – though with memetic hitchhiking other relationships are possible: competitors, amensalists, etc.

    Re: Moreover, as you admit in the other post, “bait” is always involved; so the person is always complicit in a meme-infection, whereas they are never complicit in a virus-infection.

    Normally, “bait” does not mean the host is “complicit” – just that they are attracted. Organic viruses use bait too. Think about STDs. There, the viruses often use genitalia as bait.

    Yet Dawkins is cool with suggesting that all memes “parasitize” minds. This word just does not fit with the “simbiosis” that is actually taking place here.

    Where? Dawkins makes a distinction between good and bad memes – and usually only calls the bad ones “viral”. For example, in “Viruses of the Mind” (1991) Dawkins identifies religious memes as being “viral” and scientific ones as not being “viral”, writing:

    “Is Science a Virus? No. Not unless all computer programs are viruses. Good, useful programs spread because people evaluate them, recommend them and pass them on. Computer viruses spread solely because they embody the coded instructions: “Spread me.” Scientific ideas, like all memes, are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious. They are exacting, well-honed rules, and they do not favor pointless self-serving behavior.”

    Re: If I am annoyed with any blaring noise, what does this have to do with memes? If the meme has no “bait” that I have an interest in taking, then it simply doesn’t get replicated…so no mind viruses!

    That’s not true. Just because you are not interested, it doesn’t mean others will feel the same way. For *me* the street preacher is irritating noise, but *others* may feel differently – and *they* might still relpicate the message.

    Re: I can’t think of a single thing that an organic virus DOES do that satisfies a host interest. So, in answer to your question: EVERY VIRUS. AIDS, for example, thwarts all of its host’s interests—it does not satisfy any of its hosts intersts.

    So: lots of hosts like taking time off work – and viruses let them do that. Lots of hosts like lying down and resting – and viruses let them do that. To carry on with the discussion, it would be helpful if you could find a virus that never satisfies any of its hosts desires or interests. Or *maybe* climb down and agree that this is an unreasonably high standard to try and hold deleterious memes to.

    Re: A kitten playing with a leaf is an example of an instinctual projection: a behavior (attacking/hunting) is instinctively being projected onto an inanimate object! Early humans too experienced such projections, which just have nothing to do with memes! You make no room in your theory for such projections, though they are the dominant influence on art and culture!

    I am fine with instincts influencing meme mutation and transmission. Instincts are part of the environment in which many memes spend most of their time: the human mind.

    Re: Furthermore, long before spoken memes came instinctual calls; long before gestural memes came instinctual gestures; and long before tool-making memes there were tool-making instincts (termite homes, certain bird nests, etc). If all of these things existed without memes, then we should perhaps resist statements that claim that all cultural phenomenon “come down to memes.”

    So – that is down to how you define culture. By most biological definitions, most termite homes and most bird nests are not cultural phenomena. Culture is often *defined* as consisting of socially transmitted behaviours – so things coded for in DNA simply do not qualify.

    You quite often complain that DNA genes are not being properly counted in cultural phenomena. This is part of the reason why: culture is often defined so as not to include DNA genes.

  16. Re: Normally, “bait” does not mean the host is “complicit” – just that they are attracted. Organic viruses use bait too. Think about STDs. There, the viruses often use genitalia as bait.

    Normally, “bait” doesn’t mean the host is complicit…but shouldn’t it! After all, you just gave me a great example of an organic viral infection in which the host is complicit! I think we can both agree that these cases are vanishingly few, but I’ll grant you the STD example. (This is not an example of a virus that fulfills any host interest, mind you.) The human person is an accessory to any meme infestation or any meme transmission. If you remember it, repeated it, or its stuck in your head, then you have to admit your complicity!

    Re: Yet Dawkins is cool with suggesting that all memes “parasitize” minds. This word just does not fit with the “simbiosis” that is actually taking place here.

    Where?

    Actually you gave met his quote from The Selfish Gene: “should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain”. If he makes a distinction between good memes and bad memes later he is just covering his tracks. He is obviously making the distinction to discredit religion. Look at his terminology:

    “Is Science a Virus? No. Not unless all computer programs are viruses. Good, useful programs spread because people evaluate them, recommend them and pass them on. Computer viruses spread solely because they embody the coded instructions: “Spread me.” Scientific ideas, like all memes, are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious. They are exacting, well-honed rules, and they do not favor pointless self-serving behavior.”

    You and I have agreed that religions fulfill a panoply of host interests; that they are not entirely deleterious. Thus, they spread for more than the simple reason that they “embody the coded instructions: ‘Spread me.'” This is a rather “capricious” and “arbitrary” reading of religion. You and I have agreed that religious experiences reliably influence religion. This is the “selective force” that scrutinizes religious doctrine! And it is something that is not arbitrary or capricious. Religious ideas are a poetic description of the environment in which memes propagate (the human mind). This environment can change due to the installation of certain memes (ie Julian Jaynes breakdown of the bicameral mind), but it is not arbitrary or capricious!

    Re: That’s not true. Just because you are not interested, it doesn’t mean others will feel the same way. For *me* the street preacher is irritating noise, but *others* may feel differently – and *they* might still replicate the message.

    Only if they take the bait! (axiom 1)

    Re: So: lots of hosts like taking time off work – and viruses let them do that. Lots of hosts like lying down and resting – and viruses let them do that. To carry on with the discussion, it would be helpful if you could find a virus that never satisfies any of its hosts desires or interests. Or *maybe* climb down and agree that this is an unreasonably high standard to try and hold deleterious memes to.

    I still think this is rather thin. I like eating food, but that doesn’t mean that my interests are being served by someone tying me up and forcing ten pounds of oat meal down my throat! Hosts like taking time off work–not being forced from their job because they cannot perform it anymore (or do any of the things that they would enjoy doing with time off from work!). Lots of hosts like lying down and resting but no host likes being forcibly confined to a bed or forcibly being rendered unconscious. I like sleeping, but it does not serve this interest if somebody shoots me in the head and lets me sleep forever!

    Re: I am fine with instincts influencing meme mutation and transmission. Instincts are part of the environment in which many memes spend most of their time: the human mind.

    Excellent! Then we have solid grounds for differentiating between “culture” and “memes.” Culture includes the instinctual/archetypal material that makes up the greater part of the memes environment. So however we define culture, it is never going to just “come down to memes.” However we define the human individual, it is not just going to “come down to memes.” However we define religion, it will not just “come down to memes.” This provides the foundation upon which I am launching an attack on various strong claims for the power of memes and for using anthropomorphic terminology that leaves out the individual’s interests and DNA interests. Look at all of the quotes that I end my blog post with. Do they seem reasonable given the agreements we have come to in the above discussion? A couple examples:

    “At its birth, the new ideological meme was vulnerable and powerless. The only small batch of matter over which it had any control was the body and mind of Karl Marx.”

    “Little did he realize it, but the bearded writer was simply the tool of fragmentary memes. Those ideas had been floating in the zeitgeist, waiting for a receptive human mind to come along and function as an enzyme functions in human metabolism–splicing together molecules destined for each other.”

    As you agreed, most memes are symbiotic with their hosts. Thus, the meme and the DNA or vehicle-interests are not separate, discrete entities, but are fused together. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that the memes “control” ANYTHING. The memes are tools! Tools don’t control their makers. They can influence the maker, but only if they are going in the same direction that the maker wants to go! Seriously…”the bearded writer was simply the tool of fragmentary memes”? There is no difference vis a vis absurdity between this statement and one saying that hammers swing people around.

  17. Tim Tyler says:

    Normally, “bait” doesn’t mean the host is complicit…but shouldn’t it!

    Sex acts as “bait” in STDs. However the new host may be unaware of the existing host’s STD – in which case “complicit” is not the right word. Only in the cases where they are aware, but dive in anyway – does the term “complicit” seem appropriate.

    Re: Actually you gave met his quote from The Selfish Gene: “should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain”.

    That is *actually* a quotation attributed to Nicholas Humphries, though. It *does* appear to be describing all memes as parasites (which is pretty misleading). However, it’s a small quote, and maybe deleterious memes was part of the context at the time. I think Nicholas Humphries should probably get the benefit of the doubt here. As I explained, in his “Virus of the Mind” article, Dawkins actively draws a distinction between beneficial and deleterious memes and he applies the term “virus of the mind” *only* to the deleterious ones.

    Re: I still think this is rather thin. I like eating food, but that doesn’t mean that my interests are being served by someone tying me up and forcing ten pounds of oat meal down my throat!

    Sure: that’s part of why it is more orthodox to look at the *overall* interests of the host, and see if the net effect of the meme is deleterious or beneficial. If one gets into the question of whether “some” interest is satisfied then that’s very often true – both with deleterious memes *and* with organic viruses.

    Re: So however we define culture, it is never going to just “come down to memes.”

    Well, some *do* define culture so it is just heritable information – i.e. just memes. For example, here is a pure information-theory definition of culture: “culture is information that is acquired from other individuals via social transmission mechanisms such as imitation, teaching, or language” [Mesoudi (2011) Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences. p. 2]. As I have mentioned, I don’t agree that that is a good definition. However, nobody thinks that culture is not *influenced* by DNA and environment. Obviously it is. Thinking otherwise would be simply bonkers.

    Re: As you agreed, most memes are symbiotic with their hosts. Thus, the meme and the DNA or vehicle-interests are not separate, discrete entities, but are fused together.

    Symbiosis is not necessarily close. Humans have symbiotic relationships with gut bacteria (close mutualism), strawberries (distant mutualism), bedbugs (distant parasitism) and HIV (close parasitism). Symbiosis does not *necessarily* mean that symbiont and host have a very intimate relationship – or that their interests are aligned.

    Re: The memes are tools! Tools don’t control their makers.

    Many are tools – but some are not really anyone’s tools – and that’s part of the point. Many urban legends and chain letters have broken free of any initial designers and evolve in the wild. Some false rumours were never really tools in the first place. Some memes are created by accident. Most memes spread by rewarding those that spread them with some kind of social capital – but some viral hoaxes backfire on those that spread them and make them look stupid. Sometimes there’s a hoaxer manipulating them from behind the scenes – but sometimes there isn’t. Memes do manipulate and use their hosts. Often they are deliberately engineered to do so by some agent – but sometimes they are not – and they have just evolved.

    Re: The memes are tools! Tools don’t control their makers. They can influence the maker, but only if they are going in the same direction that the maker wants to go!

    So: there’s *no* chance of the hammer maker hitting their thumb? Of the virus leaking out by accident? What, not *ever*?

    • Re: Sex acts as “bait” in STDs. However the new host may be unaware of the existing host’s STD – in which case “complicit” is not the right word.

      I disagree. HPV, for example, can lay dormant and there is no test for men…so anytime a woman sleeps with a guy she is “complicit” in that she has to accept the risks. If you don’t get your partner checked out or demand medical documentation, then you are complicit. A skydiver doesn’t know for certain whether his parachute will open, but in my book he is complicit if it doesn’t–he knew the risks.

      Re: If one gets into the question of whether “some” interest is satisfied then that’s very often true – both with deleterious memes *and* with organic viruses.

      It remains to be demonstrated whether organic viruses satisfy “some” interest, even loosely. I don’t buy the “I wanted to rest a while anyway, so this Polio virus is A-Okay” line. This is not a matter of “broad interests” versus “narrow,” or whatever…organic viruses just don’t help people. The whole meme-virus metaphor is a total mess as our conversation easily demonstrates. It should be tossed out in favor of the following: adaptations such as that causing cycle-cell anemia evolved to protect the organism from malaria. This is an example of an adaptation that is both good and bad, just like any meme that is “deleterious” also evolved for a good reason and has some benefit. Christianity is like cycle-cell: great at solving certain problems but nearly guaranteed to produce others.

      Re: Symbiosis is not necessarily close
      True, but so what? In the case of memes the symbiosis is always close! Vehicles, with their genetic and vehicle interests, engineer the vast, vast majority, if not all, memes. Plus, your examples include things that are clearly not examples of symbiosis. HIV is not symbiotic with humans! It is a damned parasite. The definition of this word includes “mutually beneficial.”

      Re: Symbiosis does not *necessarily* mean that symbiont and host have a very intimate relationship – or that their interests are aligned.

      What? Why are we even using this word then? I notice that the wiki on the term mentions that some scientists wish to regard parasitism as symbiosis, but they are clearly mad. The term simply loses all of its meaning. This is like terming ‘murder’ as an altruistic relationship between two people.

      Re: Many are tools – but some are not really anyone’s tools – and that’s part of the point. Many urban legends and chain letters have broken free of any initial designers and evolve in the wild.

      How have they “broken free”? Any “Chinese whisper” effect is being produced by a vehicle, and the vast majority of cases it will be due to an unconscious projection of hidden desires or an overt and conscious change of the message to better fit the vehicles desires. However, even if I were to grant you some “wild memes,” this will invariably be less than a fraction of a percent of cultural material. Thus, all but the vanishingly few wild memes are tools! This invalidates every single strong statement regarding memetic hegemony that I was attacking in my posts. But lets get down to brass tax here…I am worried about religious ideas. Clearly none of these are “wild memes.” Every one of them is a tool and my objection still stands.

      Re: So: there’s *no* chance of the hammer maker hitting their thumb? Of the virus leaking out by accident? What, not *ever*?

      I’m not following. Hammer MAKERS can hit their thumbs, yes. Hammers cannot hit their makers thumbs. But my point didn’t seem to get across. A tool maker can make a tool for a specific job and only afterward realize that it would also work wonderfully for another task as well. This would be an example of a tool affecting or influencing its maker, but only by aligning with his pre-existing interests. Furthermore, we could not say that the hammer “did” anything to so affect the makers interests…the MAKER had the breakthrough! Tools do NOT “break free from their designers.” Animals do, but then again we are not their designers. Even if we genetically modify a tiger, this doesn’t render it a “tool.” The same goes for viruses. Pilots use the air “as if” it were a tool, but nobody calls the air a tool…the airplane is a tool. If you are claiming that a meme can get installed for one reason, and then later be used for a different reason than it was initially installed for, then thats fine. But that second reason is still going to be either a genetic or vehicle interest…so it will ALWAYS be inappropriate to say that memes control people, even if they take them in directions that they didn’t initially intend on going. Memes just have no other power besides the power of the hosts will…they can’t “break free” and thwart all of their interests…they can only play one interest off of another.

  18. Tim Tyler says:

    Re: Sex as “bait” in STDs.

    OK, so: it turns out we don’t have a serious disagreement there.

    Re: It remains to be demonstrated whether organic viruses satisfy “some” interest, even loosely. I don’t buy the “I wanted to rest a while anyway, so this Polio virus is A-Okay” line.

    I hasten to add that the bit in quotation marks is from you – and is not a quotation of anything I ever said.

    Re: This is not a matter of “broad interests” versus “narrow,” or whatever…organic viruses just don’t help people.

    With the exceptions that I already mentioned. Hosts deliberately infect themselves and their children with viruses at “pox parties”. There are viruses that only attack cancerous tumors. “Virotherapy” uses organic viruses for theraputic purposes. The Cowpox virus became the first vaccine – when it was found that a previous Cowpox infection was protective against smallpox. Subsequently viruses are routinely delivered as vaccines. Basically, the idea that viruses are always deleterious to their hosts is a simple fallacy.

    Re: The whole meme-virus metaphor is a total mess as our conversation easily demonstrates.

    It does cause some people to get into a muddle. However, there are up-sides. Some memes really do behave a lot like viruses. Also, epidemiology has the best models and terminology. It has “epidemics” and the “epidemic threshold”. Retromemes, meme shedding, persistent memetic infections are all based on terminology from virology.

    Symbiosis is not necessarily close
    True, but so what? In the case of memes the symbiosis is always close!

    Re: HIV is not symbiotic with humans! It is a damned parasite. The definition of this word includes “mutually beneficial.”

    Not so. Parasites are symbionts. The definition of symbiosis usually allows for parasitism or commensalism – though mutualisms are more common.

    Re: I notice that the wiki on the term mentions that some scientists wish to regard parasitism as symbiosis, but they are clearly mad.

    That is quite conventional usage. A mutually beneficial symbiosis is normally called a “mutualism”.

    Re: How have [urban legends and chain letters] “broken free”?

    So: perhaps their initial designer might be dead, for example.

    Re: Any “Chinese whisper” effect is being produced by a vehicle, and the vast majority of cases it will be due to an unconscious projection of hidden desires or an overt and conscious change of the message to better fit the vehicles desires.

    Very likely – but that doesn’t mean that the meme is doing its host good. Take “smoking” memes, for instance – they mostly screw their hosts up.

    Re: However, even if I were to grant you some “wild memes,” this will invariably be less than a fraction of a percent of cultural material. Thus, all but the vanishingly few wild memes are tools!

    So: similarly, most collisions humans observe are modelled well by Newtoniam mechanics. However there are a *few* that are not – and so a modern theory that handled both types of collision was developed, even though in practice that theory is rarely needed. Memetics handles engineered beneficial memes, deleterious manipulative memes *and* memes that gradually evolved via natural selection – even though many modern memes are engineered or tools for the manipulation of others.

    Re: I’m not following. Hammer MAKERS can hit their thumbs, yes. Hammers cannot hit their makers thumbs.

    “Hammers cannot hit their makers thumbs”?!? That is a pretty narrow definition of “hit” you are using, there. The dictionary has, amongst other things: “to come against with an impact or collision, as a missile, a flying fragment, a falling body, or the like: The car hit the tree.” By that definition, hammers CAN hit their makers thumbs.

    Re: But my point didn’t seem to get across. A tool maker can make a tool for a specific job and only afterward realize that it would also work wonderfully for another task as well.

    Or they can make a tool, and it doesn’t work out the way they thought. Are you familiar with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?” Or with “Frankenstein”? Inventions can harm their owners – and harm others. There are accidents and problems as well as successes.

  19. Re: With the exceptions that I already mentioned. Hosts deliberately infect themselves and their children with viruses at “pox parties”

    You mean the exceptions that I was paraphrasing with my “Polio” bit. Still not buying it. Have you ever heard of the expression “the better of two evils”? Just because one is better than the other does not make it a good. Getting shot in the knee instead of the chest is “better,” but we would not say that getting shot in the knee is “good.” Chicken pox as a child is better than chicken pox as an adult, but this does not make it “good.” In many cases the virus re-emerges producing Shingles, for example. Chicken pox is just ALL BAD! The viruses that attack cancer are purposefully engineered, that is “synthetic,” while I was referring to “organic” or natural viruses. I could similarly argue that rubber bullets are designed not to kill and that this prove that some bullets are good for their recipients. Well, they are better than steel jacketed rounds, but this does not make them “good” for their recipients. You are simply listing the better of two evils as a “good.” This just robs the word of its meaning, which seems to be the general trend in memetics I might add. Getting a frontal lobotomy is “better” in some situations of extreme mental illness than just letting the sick person run around hurting themselves and others…are you willing to conclude that some frontal lobotomies are a “good” for their recipients? We can’t go on abusing the English language like this…though I give up trying to rescue “symbiosis,” as it seems that once the biologists observe a “conventional usage” the final word has been spoken on the matter.

    Re: How have [urban legends and chain letters] “broken free”?
    So: perhaps their initial designer might be dead, for example.

    How is this “breaking free”? Joyce is dead…has “Ulysses” broken free? Is it out there replicating in the wild? Even if someone changed “Ulysses” since Joyce died, I scarcely see how this frees the meme.

    Re: Very likely – but that doesn’t mean that the meme is doing its host good. Take “smoking” memes, for instance – they mostly screw their hosts up.

    Smoking memes don’t do a damned thing to their recipients…smoking physical cigarettes does the damage, and as mentioned before, this is not all they do. You seem to be entirely fixated on gene interests to the total exclusion of vehicle interests, which are written off as gene or meme interests to save you from facing the grave problems with memetic theory. But here is a neat experiment for ya: block the acetylcholine receptors so that smokers don’t feel a subjective “coolness” or relaxation, numb their whole mouth so that they don’t get the subjective benefit of the oral fixation, and see just how powerful your smoking memes are.

    Re: So: similarly, most collisions humans observe are modelled well by Newtoniam mechanics. However there are a *few* that are not

    And any physicist worth his salt will quickly correct you if you try to use the unique features of General Relativity to explain the motion of billiard balls on your pool table. So why are you ok with memeticists using viral terminology and STRONG claims about the power of memes when this would only be appropriate (if ever) for the vanishingly few cases that you and I are still working to discover and agree upon? You can’t give me a single important example of a wild meme (important like a religious, philosophical, or political idea)…so we are essentially just dealing with engineered memes…and yet you seem perfectly happy stating the following:

    “It would be OK to describe political systems as “imperious masters”, IMO. A political system acts like a large, powerful agent – in much the same way as a company acts as a large, powerful agent.”

    Acting “like” and “being” an agent are very different things. The automated voice menu for a customer service line “acts like” an agent too…but its not. Political systems do NOT involve wild memes. Political systems are engineered memes. Thus, they are tools. Moreover, they are tools that serve both genetic AND vehicle interests. You are still in the position of suggesting that hammers swing people around if you stick to your guns on this one. But this doesn’t seem to faze you one bit: “By that definition, hammers CAN hit their makers thumbs.” Seriously dude?

    Re: Hammers cannot hit their makers thumbs”?!? That is a pretty narrow definition of “hit” you are using, there.

    Really? Have you ever seen a hammer hit someone? No. Ok, then lets move on.

    Re: Are you familiar with “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice?” Or with “Frankenstein”? Inventions can harm their owners – and harm others. There are accidents and problems as well as successes.

    Yes I am familiar with these works of literary FICTION. And, I’ll agree that inventions can have unintended side effects that harm their makers. Accidents happen. I just cannot agree that these accidents are cases of the invention “breaking free” and evolving on its own or pursuing its own interests (again, Frankenstein is FICTION). Accidents don’t undermine the fact that human intentions produced ALL of the effects, accidental or intended. Human intentions, human agents, are responsible even for their mistakes. Seriously, how are “accidents” supposed to help your case that memes such as political systems are “imperious masters”? These were not the result of accidents, and even if they were, how does this help your case? When I accidentally trip over my own shoelace has the shoelace exerted its imperious will over me?

  20. Tim Tyler says:

    Re: [Pox parties] Still not buying it. Have you ever heard of the expression “the better of two evils”? Just because one is better than the other does not make it a good. Getting shot in the knee instead of the chest is “better,” but we would not say that getting shot in the knee is “good.”

    Hosts – given the choice between attending a pox party and staying away – *choose* to attend the pox party. Getting infected at the party is regarded by them as *better* than not getting infected.

    Re: The viruses that attack cancer are purposefully engineered, that is “synthetic,” while I was referring to “organic” or natural viruses.

    Nope – check out the Seneca Valley Virus – which is naturally occurring: “Seneca Valley Virus (SVV-001) is a novel naturally occurring replication-competent picornavirus with potent and selective tropism for neuroendocrine cancer cell types, including small cell lung cancer.”

    Re: I could similarly argue that rubber bullets are designed not to kill and that this prove that some bullets are good for their recipients. Well, they are better than steel jacketed rounds, but this does not make them “good” for their recipients. You are simply listing the better of two evils as a “good.”

    It’s not true in the case of any of my examples – since the hosts choose exposure over non-exposure. *Maybe* in a fantasy land with no viruses or cancer, they would choose not to be exposed at all – but that is not the real world.

    Re: Joyce is dead…has “Ulysses” broken free? Is it out there replicating in the wild? Even if someone changed “Ulysses” since Joyce died, I scarcely see how this frees the meme.

    What I originally said was “broken free of any initial designers”. Memes may go on to acquire new stewards who care about them, or – in the case of hoax memes and urban ledgends – they may continue to sucker people.

    Re: Smoking memes don’t do a damned thing to their recipients…smoking physical cigarettes does the damage, and as mentioned before, this is not all they do.

    Do you think that “suicide bomber” memes don’t do a damned thing to their recipients either? Claiming that “cigarettes do the damage” seems like claiming that “bullets do the damage” to me.

    Re: But here is a neat experiment for ya: block the acetylcholine receptors so that smokers don’t feel a subjective “coolness” or relaxation, numb their whole mouth so that they don’t get the subjective benefit of the oral fixation, and see just how powerful your smoking memes are.

    It seems like saying that software doesn’t control the computer – since if you stick a pitchfork through the power supply, the software is useless.

    Re: And any physicist worth his salt will quickly correct you if you try to use the unique features of General Relativity to explain the motion of billiard balls on your pool table. So why are you ok with memeticists using viral terminology and STRONG claims about the power of memes when this would only be appropriate (if ever) for the vanishingly few cases that you and I are still working to discover and agree upon?

    It isn’t *just* memetics. The main competing theories that purport to explain the same phenomenon are explicitly based on epidemiological models as well, I hasten to add – e.g. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Boyd and Richerson (1985). There is just no getting away from the fact that crazes and fads spread from person to person in a population just like plagues and diseases do, and the same math models the phenomenon.

    If you have some day-to-day cultural phenomenon that you are pretty sure is beneficial, then you *don’t* need the whole of memetics to model it – you can use a *simplified* version that treats culture as an “extended genotype”. Such models are often used in academia to model cultural phenomena – because they are simple. However, like Newtonian mechanics, they are no good for doing rocket science with.

    Re: Acting “like” and “being” an agent are very different things. The automated voice menu for a customer service line “acts like” an agent too…but its not. Political systems do NOT involve wild memes. Political systems are engineered memes. Thus, they are tools.

    So, that seems to be an orthogonal point to me. You have have natural and engineered agents. Man is a natural agent – and a robot is an engineered agent (and a tool). I was arguing for political and corporate *agenthood*. FWIW, corporate agenthood (personhood even) currently happens to be enshrined in law in many countries.

    Re: I’ll agree that inventions can have unintended side effects that harm their makers.

    OK. So, to recap, this asssertion: “Tools don’t control their makers. They can influence the maker, but only if they are going in the same direction that the maker wants to go!” – was wrong. In fact, tools can maim and kill people – including those who designed them.

    Re: You can’t give me a single important example of a wild meme (important like a religious, philosophical, or political idea)…so we are essentially just dealing with engineered memes…

    There are certainly memes that were not engineered. Some arise from simple mistakes. For example, the term “pwned” arose as a typographical error from “owned”. “Acne” arose as a clerical misreading of the greek term “akme”. “Zenith” arose as a result of a bungled translation from the word “samt”. The “Geddan” meme arose as a result of a half-inserted console game cartridge. However, *most* modern memes are at least domesticated.

    Walking is largely culturally transmitted. It dates back some seven million years – it is probably fair to describe it as being “wild”. Or perhaps some of the chimpanzee memes – like cracking nuts with rocks, or ant-fishing with sticks. If you accept that 7 million year old chimpanzee ancestors are wild, then their memes would be too.

  21. Re: Hosts – given the choice between attending a pox party and staying away – *choose* to attend the pox party. Getting infected at the party is regarded by them as *better* than not getting infected.

    Yes, the “better” of two EVILS! You just can’t pass off viruses as good like this. The Seneca Valley Virus is a neat counter-example, but 1) we know that these examples are VANISHINGLY FEW, and 2) we don’t know what else this virus does to humans yet. We could find that it causes Alzheimers along with fighting cancer cells. Regardless, it still qualifies as the better of two evils. Humans would much rather have to deal with neither of them!

    Re: It’s not true in the case of any of my examples – since the hosts choose exposure over non-exposure. *Maybe* in a fantasy land with no viruses or cancer, they would choose not to be exposed at all – but that is not the real world.

    Ok, so if someone points a gun at you and says you got two choices, the knee-cap or the heart, nearly every human is going to CHOOSE the knee. Just because humans make such choices to serve their interests does not mean that either choice is a “good.” Viruses are just no good! Perhaps one out of the MILLIONS of viruses out there has some beneficial properties, but this hardly qualifies viruses as being good for humans.

    Re: What I originally said was “broken free of any initial designers”. Memes may go on to acquire new stewards who care about them, or – in the case of hoax memes and urban ledgends – they may continue to sucker people.

    Ah, so you will admit that memes are not breaking free from designers…but that future designers are doing any “breaking” or altering that is going on. Excellent. Does this not undermine the “imperious masters” bit?

    Re: Claiming that “cigarettes do the damage” seems like claiming that “bullets do the damage” to me.

    Human persons use both cigarettes and bullets to do damage, while neither bullets nor cigarettes do anything to people by themselves. Similarly, memes just don’t do shit without motivated humans attached to them. So it is not correct to say either that memes are “doing” stuff or that inanimate stuff is “doing” stuff…human agents are.

    Re: It seems like saying that software doesn’t control the computer – since if you stick a pitchfork through the power supply, the software is useless.

    Disabling the subjective sense of pleasure is hardly sticking a pitchfork through the brain stem. How about this: ingest a drug that counter-acts the effects of nicotine and numbs the mouth, then see how powerful your smoking memes are. This is just another way of demonstrating memes dependence on bait, which you are willing to grant. However, you think the bait is just attaching to gene interests, whereas I think that the bait is attaching to vehicle interests, which usurp the genetically programmed reward mechanisms. Vehicle interests are NOT just genes plus memes (plus a tiny bit of environment, etc).

    Re: However, like Newtonian mechanics, they are no good for doing rocket science with.

    You position is actually much more radical than this analogy of Newtonian versus Relativity Theory would suggest. You think that the human species was engineered by memes for memes! The analogy is backwards: memes should be in the position of Newtonian Mechanics not Relativity, according to your position.

    Re: Do you think that “suicide bomber” memes don’t do a damned thing to their recipients either?

    No, I don’t. I think that we are all willing to die for a worthy cause. I would happily die for a cause that I believed in. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I can’t seem to find such a cause. Put me next to William Wallace on the battlefield, though, and I’d fight by his side to the last man…FREEDOM (pronounced with Scottish brogue)!

    You see, terrorists are not actually dieing for memes. They live in shit conditions with not much to live for and have some legitimate grievances towards western nations (none of which actually warrant suicide bombings of course). Deny a human vehicle most of its vehicle interests and you get violence…regardless of whatever meme it happens to take advantage of. Violence springs from impotence and powerlessness…people being powerless to satisfy their freed human interests along with their genetic interests. Thinking, along with Sam Harris, that Islam is the real danger is just missing the point. Now, Islam is much more conducive to justifying terrorism than other religions, so in this sense I think that it does some damage…but really it is just drafting on veritable deluge of human suffering and the frustration of the human vehicles…there is your real problem.

    Re: FWIW, corporate agenthood (personhood even) currently happens to be enshrined in law in many countries.

    Just because people treat something like an agent doesn’t make it one. Little girls playing with dolls treat them like agents…do you think that dolls are agents? Notice that it requires real human agents to treat anything like an agent…to enshrine corporate personhood into law, etc.

    Re: OK. So, to recap, this asssertion: “Tools don’t control their makers. They can influence the maker, but only if they are going in the same direction that the maker wants to go!” – was wrong. In fact, tools can maim and kill people – including those who designed them.

    So you do seem to think that the shoelace is controlling me or exerting its imperious will when I accidentally trip over it! You are actually attacking two assertions here, not one. Assertion 1: Tools DO NOT control their makers (hammers don’t swing people, etc). Assertion 2: Tools can influence their makers if they are going in the same direction that the makers want to go. Assertion 2 has some counterexamples, you are right. However, you will of course agree that these are by far the minority of cases. Furthermore, in such cases, you will also have to agree that it is improper to assign agent status to the tool and claim that it intended to harm its maker. Thus, you are no closer to justifying your STRONG claims like political ideologies being our imperious masters, etc.

    Re: Re: You can’t give me a single important example of a wild meme (important like a religious, philosophical, or political idea)…so we are essentially just dealing with engineered memes…

    I thought we were talking about important movements in cultural development. So I asked for IMPORTANT memes…memes like ‘Islam,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘free speech,’ ’emergent phenomenon,’ etc. Who cares if the etymology of some words includes a clerical error or two? Who cares if “Acne” arose as a clerical misreading of the greek term “akme”? How does this put memes in the drivers seat? Domesticated or not, memes are NOT in the drivers seat. Humans take responsibility for accidents (“meant to do that!”) but how exactly are memes taking such responsibility for accidents? Why would this add to their agency? Wouldn’t we say that plain old luck or chance is in the drivers seat of clerical error?

    Re: Or perhaps some of the chimpanzee memes – like cracking nuts with rocks, or ant-fishing with sticks.

    So, you will admit that the nut-cracking meme was born of and serves the chimps interest in eating nuts, yes? So how does this put memes in the drivers seat by calling them “wild”? They are clearly just tools.

  22. Tim Tyler says:

    Re: viruses Perhaps one out of the MILLIONS of viruses out there has some beneficial properties, but this hardly qualifies viruses as being good for humans.

    I don’t claim that many viruses are good for humans. The idea is that **some* viruses are good for humans. Another example of that is “phage therapy”. That uses bacteriophage viruses to treat pathogenic bacterial infections. If you *still* think that viruses are all bad for humans, perhaps look into it.

    Re: Human persons use both cigarettes and bullets to do damage, while neither bullets nor cigarettes do anything to people by themselves. Similarly, memes just don’t do shit without motivated humans attached to them. So it is not correct to say either that memes are “doing” stuff or that inanimate stuff is “doing” stuff…human agents are.

    Uh, huh. What about the “meme products” that are machines and computers? I suppose those are just tools as well. IMO, the usual prescription for this perspective is Kevin Kelly’s book “Out Of Control”. Machines have grown increasingly autonomous. As they become more complex it becomes more difficult to predict their actions. Once we have artificial intelligence, machines won’t be “tools” any more.

    Re: You position is actually much more radical than this analogy of Newtonian versus Relativity Theory would suggest. You think that the human species was engineered by memes for memes!

    Well, what happens is cultural adaptations allow humans adapt to the environment, and then these migrate into the genome via genetic assimilation. We can see that happening in recent times with lactose digestion enzymes and anti-malarial adaptations. Further back it happened with cooking and walking as well. Most of this has been well-documented by scientists over the last two decades = so it should not be *too* controversial. Culture leads, and genes follow – *much* more slowly. In the modern world, we can see that culture has sprinted off, and genes are responding at a snail’s pace.

    Re: Just because people treat something like an agent doesn’t make it one. Little girls playing with dolls treat them like agents…do you think that dolls are agents?

    No, but I do think that *governments* are a lot like agents. They wage war on each other like giant lumbering machines. They weild enormous power – far beyond that of their citizens – launching space programs and enormous construction projects. Treating them as agents is fine with me.

    Re: Furthermore, in such cases, you will also have to agree that it is improper to assign agent status to the tool and claim that it intended to harm its maker.

    Well, think of those meme products that happen to be autonomous robots. Assigning “agent” status and intentions to autonomous robots seems quite appropriate to me.

    Re: Thus, you are no closer to justifying your STRONG claims like political ideologies being our imperious masters, etc.

    I said: “It would be OK to describe political systems as “imperious masters”, IMO.”

    Frankly, I don’t see your problem. Many people claim that political systems boss them around, imprison them, etc. The political systems *themselves* are often blamed – not their human pawns. What is the problem? Do you actuallly go as far as *denying* that governments behave in an agent-like manner? Or you don’t see why people would treat them as such?

    Re: Who cares if the etymology of some words includes a clerical error or two? Who cares if “Acne” arose as a clerical misreading of the greek term “akme”? How does this put memes in the drivers seat?

    Right – so the idea here is that not all memes are engineered – so a “memes-as-tools” theory won’t do – we need a theory that deals with accidental memes, unconsciously generated memes, memes that are made with deliberation, memes that exhibit multiple mutations after leaving the hands of their designers, and meme differential reproductive success. Evolutionary theory provides such a framework. In it, engineering is modelled as one type of mutation.

    Memes “lead” – in that they represent the majority of adaptive evolution associated with humans these days. If humans go to the arctic, they adapt with fur coats and snow shoes – cultural adaptations, not genetic ones. Memes lead, genes follow.

    Re: Domesticated or not, memes are NOT in the drivers seat. Humans take responsibility for accidents (“meant to do that!”) but how exactly are memes taking such responsibility for accidents?

    Who says that memes are “taking responsibility” for accidents? Sure, people might blame their computers when they crash and lose their work – and the computer might even apologise – but computers probably won’t *really* take on much responsibility in society until we get full-blown artificial intelligence. At the moment, viruses are a more conventional model. Viruses *cause* accidents – but they don’t “take responsibility” for them.

  23. Re: I don’t claim that many viruses are good for humans. The idea is that **some* viruses are good for humans

    This is still the case of the better of two evils. When you have an infection that is resistant to all known antibiotics and you are facing immanent death, yeah…injecting yourself with a bacteriophage is the better of two evils. Similarly, if a gangrenous limb is threatening your life, lopping it off is a good idea. But you would not say that lopping of limbs is a “good.” It is just a necessary EVIL. However, I must admit that you have pointed out a couple examples of viruses that, aside from their negative side-effects and other consequences, do some good to certain humans facing immanent death from other diseases. This does rather little to alter the picture of memes=overwhelmingly good, viruses=overwhelmingly evil. I hasten to add that this way of counting things as “good” would make ‘slavery’ a “good,” as this was an improvement from the prior practice of scorched earth. Better slavery than execution, but slavery being “good” for people? Can you see how we are twisting the language here?

    Re: Uh, huh. What about the “meme products” that are machines and computers? I suppose those are just tools as well.

    Yes, they are! You admit this yourself two lines later:
    “Once we have artificial intelligence, machines won’t be “tools” any more.”

    Re: Well, what happens is cultural adaptations allow humans adapt to the environment, and then these migrate into the genome via genetic assimilation.

    Yes, this is certainly true. But my point was to show that the Newtonian versus Relativity Theory bit doesn’t work. You are using memetics to do rocket science in some cases, and to calculate the trajectory of billiard balls in others.

    Re: No, but I do think that *governments* are a lot like agents. They wage war on each other like giant lumbering machines. They weild enormous power – far beyond that of their citizens – launching space programs and enormous construction projects. Treating them as agents is fine with me.

    Well, “treating them as” implies “as if they were real agents.” I too am fine with treating them “as if” they were agents, but your version of memetics has them as actual living agents! But governments (as a collection of memes) don’t wage war! Ever see the constitution bitch slap anybody? These memeplexes are only “lumbering giants” in a metaphorical sense…not a literal. Again, just like dolls, governments need people running them! When you take people out of the equation governments don’t do shit. If you claim that governments are imperious masters, this takes people out of the equation. I would agree to a statement to the effect of “certain key leaders are the imperious masters, who maintain control by use of powerful memes, etc, etc.” You must see this…otherwise you would interpret quite literally the following statement of yours: “Treating them as agents is fine with me.” Now, obviously, you don’t think that we should scold or punish the constitution or bill of rights, or reason with it, or negotiate with it, or feed it breakfast. Thus, you can’t mean your statement literally. Similarly, the “corporate person” is not treated as an agent…it is not thrown in jail, punished, etc, etc. The people running this corporate person we do treat as agents!

    Re: Well, think of those meme products that happen to be autonomous robots. Assigning “agent” status and intentions to autonomous robots seems quite appropriate to me.

    First of all, we don’t have autonomous robots. Second of all, if we did, they would not be “meme products:” they would be the products of the human mind in conjunction with memes. If you remember, I said: “you will also have to agree that it is improper to assign agent status to the tool and claim that it intended to harm its maker.” You can’t use a fictional example to show that tools DO intentionally harm their makers. We don’t have strong AI yet! The robots we do have can accidentally harm us, but that is OUR accident, not theirs, and moreover, you could not characterize them as “intentionally” harming us…thus, no agent-status.

    Re: Do you actuallly go as far as *denying* that governments behave in an agent-like manner? Or you don’t see why people would treat them as such?

    Yes, I do deny that governments behave in an agent-like manner…they can only be metaphorically described as agent-like, not literally described as agent-like. People DON’T treat them as such! Listen…if I get a thorn stuck in my sock, I “attack” the thorn in the same sense that I attack a law or political machine. Thorns are not even remotely agent-like. Furthermore, in most cases, people negatively affected by laws/politics attack the politicians responsible for such laws/politics, if they be alive! Thus, they don’t treat governments like agents, period!

    Re: Right – so the idea here is that not all memes are engineered – so a “memes-as-tools” theory won’t do – we need a theory that deals with accidental memes, unconsciously generated memes, memes that are made with deliberation…

    “Unconsciously generated memes” are clearly engineered! Do you think that it was some kind of coincidence that apes developed tools to eat termites? Of course not…they desire termites and this gives them ample motive for their sentient but subjectively unconscious minds to “engineer” a tool. We don’t have a single example of an important idea/meme that is truly not engineered. Typos and clerical errors just do not help you put memes in the drivers seat in any kind of strong sense, especially because these are SLIGHT alterations in previously ENGINEERED memes!

    Re: Memes “lead” – in that they represent the majority of adaptive evolution associated with humans these days. If humans go to the arctic, they adapt with fur coats and snow shoes – cultural adaptations, not genetic ones. Memes lead, genes follow.

    Sure, sure…thats all fine that memes lead, genes follow. What I have a problem with is “memes lead, genes follow, AND PEOPLE follow.” Notice that when humans go to the arctic, “they adapt” with fur coats…not, “the memes adapt” with fur coats. PEOPLE are doing the driving here!

    Re: Who says that memes are “taking responsibility” for accidents?

    Well, you are: “Well, think of those meme products that happen to be autonomous robots. Assigning “agent” status and intentions to autonomous robots seems quite appropriate to me.” Agents can take responsibility for accidents…you claim that both memes and autonomous robots are agents, so they can take responsibility for accidents.

    Re: Viruses *cause* accidents – but they don’t “take responsibility” for them.

    Viruses don’t cause accidents! They could only do this if they had intentions. Human beings “accidentally” get sick, as they did not intend to get sick. But insofar as you ascribe intentions to viruses, you must admit that they are doing exactly what they intend, and thus, that that they do not cause accidents! (I, however, do not like ascribing intentions to viruses, or memes, for that matter)

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