AOH :: MEMETICS.TXT|
Memetics; the nascent science of ideas and their transmission
MEMETICS; THE NASCENT SCIENCE OF IDEAS AND THEIR TRANSMISSION
J. Peter Vajk
An Essay Presented to the Outlook Club
January 19, 1989
In April 1917, a 47-year old lawyer-turned-journalist and a handful of
companions enter Russia by train. By November, they take control of
the government of Russia. Within another four years, a devastating
civil war kills some 10 million Russians.
In 1924, a 34-year old handyman and would-be artist and architect is
arrested for starting a brawl in a tavern in southern Germany. In
jail over the next nine months, he writes a book expressing his
dissatisfactions with life and the world in which he lives, and lays
out a blueprint of what he plans to do to change it. Within nine years
he has total and sole control of the entire national government. Over
the ensuing thirteen years, his exercise of that power leads to the
deaths of some thirty million people across two continents and three
In the early 1970's, two young men, both of them Vietnam War veterans,
go camping in the Sierra Nevada in California, about a mile from a Girl
Scout campground. The second afternoon of their stay, one of the men
breaks out in chills, sweats, and violent shivering, like he had
experienced a few times in Vietnam. About a week later, in the
San Francisco Bay area, six Girl Scouts become ill, with high fevers,
severe headaches, and violent shivering.
In the mid-1970's, a charismatic minister attracts a large following
among the poor and disaffected population of a Northern California urban
center. After their activities draw increasing attention from the press,
the minister and nearly a thousand of his adherent move en masse to an
obscure village in the jungles of a small South American country. By
November 1978, he and 910 others, including children, lie dead in the
jungle, having drunk KoolAid which they knew was laced with cyanide.
In the late 1970's, a handsome young French Canadian steward working for
Air Canada begins to make regular visits (using his free airline passes)
to New York's Greenwich Village, Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, and San
Francisco's Castro, Polk, and Mission Street areas. He has no trouble
picking up dates with dozens of gay men over a period of two or three
years. By 1980, over a hundred men from coast to coast are dead of dying
>from a strange form of cancer or from a rare form of pneumonia.
In the fall, of 1988, a graduate student loads a short program into a few
mainframe computers. Within two days, dozens of mainframe computers all
across North America and Great Britain come to a halt: each computer is
repetitively doing nonsense copying of files, leaving no time at all for
productive computing. It takes as much as a week to get some of the
computer centers back to normal activity.
These six episodes, from the disparate fields of politics, human disease,
religion, and computer technology, have a great deal in common. It is my
aim tonight to explore memetics, a science in the early stages of birth.
"Meme" (pronounced to rhyme with "cream") is a neologism, coined by
analogy to "gene," by the writer-zoologist Richard Dawkins in his book
_The Selfish Gene_ (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). By the end
of this essay, the deep similarities (as well as some of the vital
differences) among these six episodes will, I hope, become clear. I will
also engage in some speculation about the implications of this nascent
science for current affairs.
The roots of the idea of memetics as a science lie in the study of
biological evolution, in genetics, in modern information theory, in
artificial intelligence research, in epidemiology, and in studies of
patients with split brains. To set the stage for my discussion of memetics,
let me briefly recapitulate the modern understanding of biological evolution
and the role genes play in evolution.
We now know that life originated on Earth about four billion years ago.
The earliest things we might consider to be on the threshhold of living
beings were in all probability complex organic molecules capable of
replication, that is, able to make identical copies of themselves from
less complex molecules in their environment. Complex molecules of this
sort, given a few hundred million years, could arise by chance at the
edges of the young oceans out of the primordial broth of substances like
water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, which were
all abundant in the original atmosphere of the Earth. This broth was
stimulated by ultraviolet light from the Sun (more intense since the Earth
had as yet no ozone layer); by lightning and tidal action (both of which
were more intense because the Moon was considerably closer and the day was
shorter); and volcanism (also more intense since the Earth's crust was newly
formed and thinner). Such stimuli, acting for a period of just a few weeks
on such a primordial broth, have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments
to produce molecules of intermediate complexity such as amino acids from
which all proteins are made. These amino acids, in turn, give rise in the
same laboratory experiments within a few months to nucleic acids, from which
the DNA in all living viruses, plants, and animals on Earth are made.
Once even one self-replicating molecule had come together, evolution toward
diversity and greater complexity was inevitable. Once in a while, a copying
mistake would happen; if the new copy could still make copies of itself, a
new "species" would have emerged. Soon (speaking in geological time scales)
there would be a number of species of self-replicating molecules competing for
the shrinking supply of raw materials in the broth at the edge of the sea.
The populations of these different species would depend to a large extent
on three characteristics of the molecules: longevity, fecundity, and
If a particular type of molecule were only moderately stable against
disruption by ultraviolet light or by the acidity of the broth, for
example, it would not have much time available to make copies of itself.
On the other hand, even a short-lived molecule could come to outnumber a
very stable molecule if it can make new copies of itself very quickly. A
molecule which is not very selective about which bits of raw materials it
uses for a particular part of a copy may have numerous offspring, but they
will be of different species, so that the numbers of molecules which do not
have high fidelity replication will not grow; the species may, in fact,
become extinct fairly rapidly.
As the numbers of self-replicating molecules increased, their food supply
declined, since the food was increasingly embodied in the replicators
themselves. Any molecule which accidentally had the capability of
breaking other species of molecules apart would then have access to more
raw materials, and predation appeared on the scene. In turn, molecules
resistant to being eaten in this way (perhaps by carrying around a coat of
proteins like modern viruses) would then increase in numbers relative to
those which molecules which could be eaten easily. At some unknown stage
in this process, the class of self-replicating molecules we know as DNA,
appeared on the scene. We do not know whether or not DNA was the original
replicating molecule, or whether it evolved from some earlier class of
molecules. In any case, it has been highly successful, since no other
class of self-replicating molecules survives on Earth today.
At some later point in time, by processes which are still unknown, simple
single-celled organisms which we would clearly recognize as "living" arose.
These early creatures were still dependent on physical processes (lightning,
ultraviolet light, etc.) for the production of foodstuffs, on predation, or
on scavenging. Finally, about two billion years ago, a new molecule was
"invented" which changed the whole picture. That molecule was chlorophyll,
which enabled its inventors, the blue-green algae, to make complex foodstuffs
(sugars and starches) directly and rapidly from two of the simplest and most
abundant molecules in the environment, namely, water and carbon dioxide, with
a little help from the sunlight. This made it possible for several different
types of simple primitive cells to fuse together into the more complicated
modern cell in a mutually helpful, symbiotic relationship. The more complex
cell could now form multi-cellular entities, and higher plants and animals
appeared on the scene, creating the sort or biosphere we know today.
But underneath it all, the self-replicating DNA molecule, the gene, is the
very essence of life. Trees, dogs, mosquitos, robins, earthworms, and human
beings are from a certain perspective nothing more than huge, elaborate robots
whose only function is to enhance the ability of the minute genes inside to
replicate themselves. In other words, a chicken is merely an egg's way of
making more eggs.
While individual chickens or salmon or human beings have fairly short
lifespans, a particular gene, that is, a particular pattern of amino acids
in a DNA chain, may survive through many generations. Ignoring some of the
finer points of the way in which chromosomes are scrambled during the
formation of sperm cells and egg cells in sexual reproduction, a given gene
may actually survive for millions of years, although the survival machine,
the body it wears, is replaced frequently.
Any particular body reflects the particular collection of genes it carries;
natural selection operates, not on species or on particular populations, but
on individual genes. As environments change, the survival probabilities for
a particular gene may be enhanced by tagging along with a different collection
of genes. Thus it is not surprising that the gene for Rh factor in human
blood is virtually identical to that in chimpanzees, and just a little bit
different in rhesus monkeys in which the expression of the gene was first
discovered. Each gene, like its distant ancestors, the primitive self-
replicating molecules of four billion years ago, is "selfish:" the survival
of that gene depends on making its survival machine (its body) act or grow in
a way that increases the changes that more copies of that gene (rather than
some other competing gene in the gene pool) will be made in new survival
Let us turn now to human beings. It has been observed frequently that
cultural evolution has, by and large, become more important for humans than
biological evolution. It is, in any case, far faster: a new cultural idea
or mutation can spread through all the individuals in the same generation
which invented the new idea. A genetic mutation, on the other hand, can
only begin to spread when the next generation is born, and it will take many
generations before the mutation has any chance of being expressed in a
significant fraction of the population. It is thus of much more than passing
interest to consider how ideas are transmitted; whether and how they compete;
and what effects they have on the survival machines, originally built to help
genes propagate, which house the minds in which ideas are born and live.
An early hint at some of these issues is in an article by neuro-physiologist
Roger W. Sperry titled _Mind, Brain, and Humanist Values_ (In John R. Platt,
ed., New Views on the Nature of Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1965.) Sperry writes,
Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each
other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring
brains, and, thanks to global communications, in far distant, foreign
brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to
produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far behind
anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence
of the living cell.
Molecular biologist Jacques Monod in the last chapter of _Chance and Necessity:
An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology_ began to explore the
evolution of ideas.
For a biologist it is tempting to draw a parallel between the evolution of
ideas and that of the biosphere. For while the abstract kingdom stands at
a yet greater distance above the biosphere than the latter does above the
nonliving universe, ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms.
Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can
fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in
this evolution selection must surely play an important role. I shall not
hazard a theory of the selection of ideas. But one may at least try to define
some of the principal factors involved in it. This selection must necessarily
operate at two levels: that of the mind itself and that of performance.
The performance value of an idea depends upon the change it brings to the
behavior of the person or the group that adopts it. The human group upon
which a given idea confers greater cohesiveness, greater ambition, and
greater self-confidence thereby receives from (the idea) an added power to
expand which will insure the promotion of the idea itself. Its capacity to
'take," the extent to which it can be 'put over' has little to do with the
amount of objective truth the idea may contain. The important thing about
the stout armature a religious ideology constitutes for a society is not what
goes into its structure, but the fact that this structure is accepted, that it
gains sway. So one cannot well separate such an idea's power to spread from
its power to perform.
The 'spreading power' -- the infectivity, as it were, -- of ideas is much
more difficult to analyze. Let us say that it depends upon preexisting
structures in the mind, among them ideas already implanted by culture, but
also undoubtedly upon certain innate structure which we are hard put to
identify. What is very plain, however, is that the ideas having the highest
invading potential are those that explain man by assigning him his place in
an immanent destiny, in whose bosom his anxiety dissolves.
Monod refers here to the pool of ideas present in human culture as "the
abstract kingdom. Douglas R. Hofstadter in his book _Metamagical Themas:
Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern_ (New York: Basic Books,
1985; New York: Bantam Books, 1986) suggests the word "ideosphere" instead,
in closer analogy to "biosphere."
In the last chapter of his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins further develops
this notion. He defines a meme as a replicating information pattern that
uses minds to get itself copies into other minds; it is the basic unit of
replication and selection in the ideosphere. The word meme is taken from
the same Greek root as the word memory; a memory is a more-or-less organized
collection of memes and other things. Memes float about in the soup of human
culture where they grow, replicate, mutate, compete, or become extinct.
"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions,
ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate
themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm
or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping
from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be
called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea,
he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his
articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to
propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain."
Dawkins then quotes the comments of a colleague, N. K. Humphrey, on a
draft by Dawkins:
"...memes should be regarded as living structures, not just
metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in
my mind, you literally parasitize by brain, turning it into a
vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus
may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't
just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, 'belief in life after
death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as
a structure in the nervous systems of individual (people) the world
It is important to note here that, in contrast to genes, memes are not
encoded in any universal code within our brains or in human culture. The
meme for vanishing point perspective in two-dimensional art, for example,
which first appeared in the sixteenth century, can be encoded and
transmitted in German, English or Chinese; it can be described in words, or
in algebraic equations, or in line drawings. Nonetheless, in any of these
forms, the meme can be transmitted, resulting in a certain recognizable
element of realism which appears only in art works executed by artists
infected with this meme.
Jokes are an interesting group of memes. Because the recipient of a joke can
collect nearly as much reward each time he passes the joke on to yet another
recipient as he received when first hearing the joke, jokes are very fecund
memes, and very infective as well.
Given that memes are encoded in many different ways, it is not surprising
that memes also occur in species other than Homo sapiens. Some species of
birds learn a neighborhood repertoire of songs, rather than inheriting
them. Such birds, raised from hatchlings with other species, will sing only
in the foreign throat. Humpback whales learn songs from one another, and
chimpanzees pass on the art of fishing termites from their nests with long
twigs or reeds from generation to generation.
Of course, not all ideas are memes. A passing thought which you never
mention to anyone else, or an idea which no one else ever takes an
interest in, is not self-replicating. On the other hand, I first
encountered the meme about memes four or five years ago, and that meme
is tonight attempting to infect each of you as well. In a science article
in ANALOG magazine appearing in August 1987, space activist Keith Henson
"The important part of the "meme about memes" is that memes are
subject to adaptive evolutionary forces very similar to hose that
select for genes. That is, their variation is subject to selection
in the environment provided by human minds, communications channels,
and the vast collection of cooperating and competing memes that make
up human culture. The analogy is remarkably close. For example,
genes in cold viruses that cause sneezes by irritating noses spread
themselves by this route to new hosts and become more common in the
gene pool of a cold virus. Memes cause those they have successfully
infected to spread the meme by both direct methods (proselytizing)
and indirect methods (writing). Such memes become more common in the
In the title of this essay, I referred to memetics as a science, albeit one
in a very early and poorly developed stage. What does it take for a field
of study to deserve the name "science?" Without getting too rigorous about
this question, two factors are of major importance here. First, does the
putative "science" explain a diversity of phenomena by a small number of
underlying principles or laws or theories? In other words, a science is not
merely a vast catalog of facts or case histories, although most sciences,
especially the natural sciences, have gone through a stage of amassing such
data before any patterns emerged with sufficient clarity to permit the
formulation of theories which would account for large portions of those data.
Second, are these laws or theories testable? To be testable, a theory must
make predictions about phenomena which have not previously been considered in
devising the theory. If observations match the predictions, then the theory
stands. If the observations differ from the predictions, then the theory
must be either modified until it fits both the old data and the new, or
The science of information theory, which has developed during the past half
century as an outgrowth of the needs of the telecommunications industries;
the cryptographic needs of military services; and the burgeoning field of
artificial intelligence research, basically says that, regardless of the
specific content of information a message may have, and regardless of the
particular method of encoding that message, certain universal laws apply to
the copying and transmission of the information. If memetics has any
substance, then, we should expect that phenomena observed among genes should
have analogs among memes. Let us consider briefly then a few of the things
we understand in the biosphere and see if there are analogs in the
ideosphere. Consider first epidemiology, the study of the transmission of
pathogens, disease-causing microorganisms.
It is fairly easy to find phenomena in the propagation of memes in the
ideosphere analogous to the spread of pathogens. While some pathogens can
infect only by direct contact (such as most sexually transmitted diseases),
others are usually transmitted by intermediaries, usually called "vectors."
The Girl Scouts in my earlier example were infected with malaria transmitted
by mosquitos which had previously bitten the Vietnam veteran while he as in
the throes of a malarial relapse.
Similarly, some religious memes are very difficult to transmit except by the
force of personal example at close quarters. Other memes, particularly those
of a commercial nature, like "Things go better with Coke," are very
effectively transmitted by the vectors of modern electronic media.
Occasionally, a pathogen may be successfully suppressed in most places, but
survive in a few tiny pockets or reservoirs until the large environment is
once more susceptible to infection. Tuberculosis is one such disease;
reservoirs of the bacillus can survive among the fringes of society or even
in tiny calcified spots within a particular person, who will show no
symptoms of the disease until his or her immunological resistance is
weakened by malnutrition or another disease. Most of the intellectual and
esthetic memes of classical Greece were "lost" for a millennium, surviving
only in tiny reservoirs in the monastic communities of Ireland until the
Renaissance made it possible for these memes to again infect significant
numbers of people.
A correct understanding of some of the mechanisms involved can be very
important to survival of human genes. Thus, for example, human cultures
had little or no success in combatting epidemics of the plague, smallpox,
or malaria, to name a few, while the dominant meme (which survived for over
five centuries in Western civilization) of the miasma theory of diseases
held sway. With the advent of the germ theory (a meme which corresponds
more closely to reality), quarantine measures, innoculation and immunization,
and suppression of vectors (like rates, mosquitos, or contaminated water
supplies) finally enabled human genes to compete more successfully against
the genes of the germs.
A major problem in the United States today is drug abuse among teenagers
and young adults. The growth curves for numbers of drug abusers have the
same shape as the curves for influenza epidemics or for AIDS, and efforts
up to now in the war against drugs have been about as successful as were
public health measures based on the miasma theory. The drug-abuse meme,
since it is particularly prevalent among teenagers and young adults and
since it increases mortality among these individuals, reduces the survival
and reproduction of human genes. If we are to make headway in the war on
drugs, we must understand the characteristics of the drug-abuse meme;
clearly identify its vectors; and find ways to immunize those populations
at risk of infection.
Later in this essay I will return to examining some of these
epidemiological analogies, including issues of susceptibility and resistance
to infection; possibilities of immunization against particularly nasty
memes; and some of the strategies used by memes to increase their infectivity.
Now, however, I would like to discuss the concept of competition among memes.
If memes are only ideas in our heads, and our minds can hold unbelievably
large quantities of information, why would memes have to compete? Simply
because the amount of time and attention a human can spend on efforts to
propagate memes is limited. Most of the external channels used to spread
memes are also limited resources, whether they be air time on radio or
television, shelf space in a book store or library, or column inches in a
magazine or newspaper. Moreover, some memes by their very nature attempt
to discredit other memes; still other groups of memes are self-reinforcing.
Thus we should expect that most competitive strategies used by genes in the
biosphere will also be observed in use by memes as they compete in the
How does a new gene initially become sufficiently common, even if it is
still in the minority among genes competing for a particular niche in the
gene pool, to survive over many generations? If the gene is dominant
over its immediate alternatives, then the traits of the survival machine
which it encodes will promptly be subjected to selective pressures. If the
new gene has a competitive advantage, it will likely spread steadily through
its gene pool. If, on the other hand, it is a recessive gene, it can spread
easily in the early stages, free of selective pressures until enough bodies
carry the gene that some offspring will inherit the recessive gene from both
parents, and the new genetic trait is actually expressed in the body of the
offspring, becoming subject to selective pressures. If the new gene is
harmful, selection will keep a ceiling on the fraction of the living
population carrying that gene.
But a seriously harmful gene can become prevalent under certain specialized
conditions, namely, if a small gene pool (that is, a small population of
survival machines carrying a group of genes) is isolated from most of the
competitive forces which would hinder that gene's propagation through the
gene pool. Then in a modest number of generations the new gene could become
endemic. If this population carrying the deleterious gene is now brought
back into contact with the larger population from which it originally
splintered, the results can be disastrous.
Such as been the case several times in recent history with some extreme
religious cults. Jim Jones' People's Temple cult was such a case. A basic
meme for Christianity mixed together with the meme for Marxism ricocheted
around among a small group of people who deliberately isolated themselves
>from the general meme pool of American culture. Social and intellectual
contact with the outside was discouraged; other memes were attacked and
discredited by the leadership of the cult. Lacking competitive pressures
>from more standard religious and cultural memes, the People's Temple meme
evolved into ever more bizarre forms. Fleeing to Guyana, the cult became
still more ingrown and bizarre, until renewed contact from outside led to
the collapse both of the meme itself and of the genes carried by 911
members of the cult and by four outsiders, including Congressman Ryan of
San Francisco. The Rajneesh cult is another more recent and somewhat less
extreme example of this pattern.
Lest I give you the impression that all memes are dangerous to the
genetic survival of humans and other gentlebeings, let me give a few quick
examples of benign and beneficial memes. Many commercial products are
tangible embodiments of memes; most of these are benign, since the most
virulent are quickly eliminated by regulatory agencies or civil lawsuits.
Hula hoops, pet rocks, and frisbees were memes deliberately designed by
their inventors to propagate rapidly. Like many genetically engineered
microbes (such as those used today to produce insulin and other
pharmaceutical products), these memes are reasonably successful in a
tailored environment, but do not have great longevity in the "wild." Pet
rocks were highly successful as long as they were highly advertised and
promoted, and as long as a large population which had not read the Owner's
Instruction Manual could be found. After that, the meme lost its vigor.
Other benign to slightly harmful memes include rumors about media starts,
superstitions, and chain letters.
Beneficial memes include the taming of fire; the ideas of cultivating food
plants and of herding animals; the notion of antisepis in medicine and
surgery; and writing and reading. One important meme in American culture
(to which we shall return a little later) is the idea of tolerance. During
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United States was a country of
immigration. Immigrants came from every country in Europe as well as from
parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, all speaking different languages;
observing different customs of dress, behavior, and diet; practicing different
religions; and using different styles of non-verbal communication. While
conflict was at times inevitable among these groups, in a surprisingly short
time, it became apparent that the notion of live and let live required less
energy and effort than did the competing meme of forced conversion. Not only
was this approach more beneficial in terms of personal effort, but it proved
to be economically productive as well, to accept and adopt individual memes
>from the meme-complexes of other immigrant groups and combine them with
elements of one's own ethnic meme-complex. By the end of the nineteenth
century, tolerance was publicly recognized as an important civic virtue in
To be sure, the meme of tolerance is still in competition with the memes of
racial supremacy and jingoism. But a number of memes active in the legal
system strongly support the meme of tolerance and inhibit its competitors.
(Note how paradoxical this is: the meme of tolerance accepts help from
certain intolerant memes!)
Let me turn now to the category of memes or meme-complexes commonly known
as religious beliefs or creeds. No one knows how the meme of belief in
God originated; indeed, it probably arose independently many times. Why
should such a meme arise and flourish in human meme pools? To answer this
question by saying that God revealed Himself to us in various times and ways
does not really suffice. Even a believer can see that that is circular
reasoning: the only out is to recognize that a leap of faith is required to
accept that God exists. That leap transcends pure reason, but it is not
incompatible with reason. Just as it is possible and reasonable to accept
both the meme of biological evolution and the meme of an initial act of
creation by a Creator who built the laws of mathematics and physics in such
a way as to make the appearance of life inevitable, so is it possible to
accept the idea that human brains and minds have evolved structures or
programs for belief in things unseen and unprovable.
In fact, some evidence that just such a structure exists in our brains comes
>from split-brain research. Michael Gazzaniga describes one such experiment
in his book The Social Brain. Because part of each eyeball's visual field
is connected to the brain hemisphere on the same side as the eyeball, and
part is connected to the opposite hemisphere, it is possible to direct
visual images exclusively to one or the other hemisphere of the brain. Some
brain lesions destroy the neurological connections between the two
hemispheres, so the two halves of the brain act essentially independently.
Since the speech center is located almost exclusively in the left hemisphere,
such a patient can report verbally on activities in the left hemisphere, but
not in the right side. Gazzaniga presented each side of the brain in some of
his patients with a simple conceptual problem. Special viewing equipment
projected a picture of a claw to the left side and a snow scene to the right
side. A variety of cards were then placed in front of the subject who was
asked verbally (via the ears, which feed each hemisphere directly) to point
with each hand at a card matching what he had seen. The correct response for
the claw was a picture of a chicken; for the snow scene, a shovel. Gazzaniga
"After the two pictures are flashed to each half-brain, the subjects
are required to point to the answers. A typical response is that of
P.S., who pointed to the chicken with his right hand and the shovel
with his left. After his response, I asked him, 'Paul, why did
you do that?' Paul looked up and without a moment's hesitation said
from his left hemisphere, 'Oh, that's easy. The chicken claw goes
with the chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.'"
Here was the left half-brain having to explain why the left hand was pointing
to the shovel when the only picture (the left half-brain) saw was a claw.
The left half-brain is not privy to what the right half-brain saw because of
the brain's disconnection. Yet the patient's body was doing something. Why
was the left hand pointing to the shovel? The left-brain's cognitive system
needed a theory and instantly supplied one that made sense given the
information it had on this particular task...
This mechanism in the brain, which appears to overlap the speech center, may
be called an "inference engine:" given limited information, it leaps to some
sort of initially plausible explanation for phenomena the brain must handle.
Such a mechanism has obvious survival value if it can suggest that the
rustling in the bushes behind you might be a large predator.
On the other hand, as Gazzaniga's example shows, the inference engine will
wring blood from a stone: you can count on it to manufacture causal
relations whether or not they exist. Nor does it seem to be able to tell
when it doesn't have enough data. Given an increasingly complex world, the
inference engine is more and more likely to generate stuff having the quality
of National Enquirer headlines. Memes originating in this way can be weeded
out by exercise of a fairly modern meme complex, the meme complex forming the
foundation of modern science, a healthy degree of skepticism. "What's the
evidence?" this meme complex asks. Actually, we should call this a metameme,
since it is a meme about memes.
Thus the human mind has a need for explanations or theories about its
perceived reality. Given the complexity of mind which has extensive and
detailed memory and vivid imagination, the ability to conceive of times past
and future as well as present, and to foresee the death of the self,
explanations are called for. Given the existence of evil and death, the
inference engine seeks meaning. Religious meme complexes (frequently
including such memes as belief in God, belief in an after-life and an
immortal soul, belief in rewards or punishments in the here-after) satisfy
the need for explanations or theories about these cosmic issues, which may
be sufficient explanation for the prevalence and persistence of these memes
in human culture.
Related meme complexes are those of political belief systems. To some
extent, these overlap some or all of the meme-space occupied by religious
meme complexes insofar as they, too, attempt to explain good and evil
within human affairs and give meaning and purpose to activities in the human
sphere. For people who have little power or influence, political theories
can explain why they are so unfortunate.
Let me return now to some issues I mentioned in passing. Can we predict
what sorts of brains will be more or less susceptible to infection by a
particular meme" Can we immunize people against infection by more
pernicious memes? Can particular memes be modified to make them more
infective? A few observations suggest some lines of inquiry and
investigation. Although the gene itself was unknown until Gregor Mendel's
experiments on sweet peas near the end of the last century, farmers and
animal breeders had a practical, intuitive grasp of genetics and evolution
by selection thousands of years ago. Similarly, advertising agencies and
political propagandists have been putting analogous concepts into practice
for a long time, despite lack of the meme metameme.
Infection by the memes of television advertising is more likely among
inexperienced, uneducated, or unsophisticated individuals. Children are more
likely to catch these infections than adults; highly educated individuals who
have previously been infected to some degree by the skepticism meme are much
more resistant. A strongly developed sense of humor also appears to confer a
high degree of resistance, perhaps because humor and skepticism are related
by way of irony.
What about religious or political memes? Note first that most religious
meme complexes are mutually exclusive: one cannot simultaneously adhere to
Greek Orthodoxy and to polytheistic Hinduism, albeit hybridization between
several seemingly incompatible religions is possible. (On the other hand,
it is possible to subscribe to several of the Asian religions simultaneously:
it is possible to be a Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist at once, for
example.) Political meme complexes, as I mentioned before, seem to occupy
similar locations in our mental landscapes. Patty Hearst, who had been
exposed only superficially to either Christianity or to the American civic
religion, had a near-vacuum in that space. So we should not be surprised
that intense personal exposure to the far-fringe political belief system
of the Symbionese Liberation Army successfully infected her with a rather
bizarre meme complex, one which had very little genetic survivability, since
most of that group died in a firefight and conflagration in Los Angeles
about a year after she was initially kidnapped.
During the Korean War, American prisoners of war in North Korean prison
camps were subjected to intense brainwashing procedures. Many prisoners
cracked; others did not. The only consistent difference between those
who did and those who did not succumb was the degree to which they had been
infected with the traditional religious beliefs and/or traditional American
values, i.e., belief in the American civic religion. An important exception
was POW's who were "True Believers" in Eric Hoffer's sense. Most of the
POW's who actually defected to North Korea had such a personality. It is
interesting to note, however, that the True Believer personality usually has
a poorly developed sense of humor.
In the present century, two major meme complexes in the political sphere
are in active competition. Make no mistake: the conflict between the West
and the Sino-Soviet bloc is not over physical resources such as land
or petroleum; neither is it about weapons systems or trade items. It is a
battle between competing memes for survival and replication in the minds of
human beings. At the cores of the respective meme complexed lie Western
democracy and Marxist-Leninism, respectively, and it is these memes which I
wish to discuss now.
The Marxist-Leninist meme complex has to date been highly successful when
viewed from the perspective of memetics rather than economics, I have already
referred to the role of Lenin and a handful of his companions who arrived at
the Finland Station in St. Petersburg in April 1917 and successfully captured
control of the government within eight months. It is worth looking at some
of the competitive strategies the Marxist-Leninist meme (MLM for short) has
used to achieve this success.
Many of these techniques are directly analogous to techniques in the
biosphere. Like the common cold virus and the AIDS virus, the MLM frequently
changes its outer appearance to prevent immunological systems from immediately
recognizing it and combatting it. Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, for
example, pretended to be patriotic liberators; once in power, they shed their
sheep's clothing to pursue the original purposes of the MLM. Like the
penicillin bacterium, the MLM emits toxins that impede the replication of
competing memes: secret police or Red Guards harass, imprison, or kill
carriers of competing memes: secret police or Red Guards harass, imprison,
or kill carriers of competing memes. Like the AIDS virus, the MLM improves
its chances of success by weakening the immunological systems of its targets
by an extensive disinformation and propaganda machine. (In the Winter 1989
issue of GLOBAL AFFAIRS, John Lenczowski, _The Soviet Union and the United
States: Myths, Realities, Maxims_ makes a strong case that the current era
of glasnost and perestroika is one more cycle of deliberate strategic
Like retroviruses which coopt the genes of their hosts to make copies of
the retroviruses themselves instead of whatever proteins those genes were
intended to manufacture, the MLM seizes control of the machinery for
transmission and replication of memes: radio, television, and the press are
totally coopted, and other channels (such as mimeograph machines and
telephones) are restricted or closely monitored. Lenin was so successful in
such a short time because the German Foreign Ministry secretly funded his
propaganda campaign to the tune of some 50 million gold marks or more,
equivalent to a few hundred million dollars today. (See Michael Pearson,
_The Sealed Train: Lenin's Eight-Month Journey from Exile to Power_,
New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1975.)
In order to lodge itself more firmly in the mental space occupied by
religious meme complexes, not only does the MLM actively suppress standard
religions, but it takes on some of the trappings of such religions, endowing
the Party leaders with godlike attributes and offering a Marxist-Leninist
vision of the future colored by a Heaven-like mystical aura.
Let me turn now to the meme complex of the West. Democratic institutions,
some variation of capitalism, and significant personal liberty are the
traditional values attributed to the West, but one other piece of the complex
is especially important in this discussion, namely, the meme of tolerance.
The meme of tolerance evolved in America under conditions of partial
isolation: relatively small doses of outside memes kept coming in, and
could be absorbed and assimilated into a larger, fairly stable, meme pool.
But the American meme pool was not being tested overseas against other large
and fairly stable meme pools. Thus the tolerance meme was not exposed to
competitive pressures in the global ideosphere until the middle of this
century; it is not clear whether or not it is a "dominant" or a "recessive"
meme; and it is not clear what its effect on the competitive survivability of
the meme complex of American culture will be in this larger arena.
Note that in its nineteenth century form, the meme of tolerance did not
assert that all meme complexes were created equal. To allow other memes to
compete freely in the American ideosphere was all the tolerance meme stood
for; it did not in any way inhibit the meme that the American political
system was preferable to any other. In recent decades, a mutated version of
the tolerance meme seems to have become more prevalent in the United States.
In this form, the meme asserts that cultural and political meme complexes are
of equal worth; in particular, the Soviet MLM complex and the Western
democracy meme complex are held to be "morally equivalent." Judged by the
values of the American cultural meme complex, however, a meme complex such
as the MLM in which intolerance is inextricably embedded is clearly NOT of
It would seem at the very least that the mutated version of the American
tolerance meme weakens the immunological capacity of American culture to
resist the MLM. It is even possible that the political-cultural meme
complex of the Western democracies contains the seeds of its own destruction,
not in the sense in which Marx, Engels, and Lenin predicted, but in the sense
Can anything be done to immunize our populations against infection by the
MLM? Simple anti-Communist hysteria is inadequate and, given the tolerance
meme (either in its conventional or mutated forms), is even counterproductive.
Greater education in the metameme of skepticism would certainly help. Renewed
emphasis in the schools on the benefits of traditional American values would
be expected to help, as would cultivation of adherence to traditional,
mainline religions. (How the latter can be achieved with the framework of
the American cultural system is difficult to see.)
The outcome of this competition between the meme complexes of the East and
the West is of vital concern for the next few generations of the survival
machines in which human genes are carried.
Is there any substance to memetics? Can it be placed on a sound scientific
footing, able to make predictions? If so, applied memetics raises important
ethical questions within the framework of the Western meme complex, as the
dangers of deliberate manipulation of the general meme pool for personal
power would be very real. Moreover, adherents of the Soviet MLM would
have no hesitation about using such a science to further the spread of the
MLM at the expense of the Western democratic meme.
Memetics is still at a very primitive stage. Like biology in the eighteenth
century, the emphasis is necessarily on gathering reams of data and forming
very tentative hypotheses. The formulation of universal principles may yet
be years away. Indeed, it is possible that the entire concept may be
intellectually and scientifically bankrupt. But in the meanwhile, it
nonetheless provides an interesting framework for looking at social and
political movements. Join the fun!
Brin, David, "The Dogma of Otherness," Analog Science
Fiction/Science Fact, April 1986.
Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1976.
Gazzaniga, Michael, The Social Brain.
Hofstadter, Douglas R., Metamagical Themas: Questing
for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. New York: Basic
Books, 1985; New York: Bantam Books, 1986. Chapter 3,
"On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures."
Henson, Keith, "Memetics: The Science of Information
Viruses," Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, August
1987; reprinted in Whole Earth Review, Winter 1987.
Minsky, Marvin, The Society of Mind. New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1985, 1986.
Monod, Jacques, Chance and Necessity: An essay on the
natural philosophy of modern biology. Translated by
Austryn Wainhouse. New York: Vintage Books, i971.
Pearson, Michael, The Sealed Train: Lenin's Eight Month
Journey From Exile to Power. New York: G. P. Putnam's
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