November 02, 2004

Meme Plague

It is clear that culture, like physiological characteristics, is inherited by children from their parents. Your physiological characteristics are determined by your unique combination of genes, your culture by your unique combination of memes.

Now, it is well known (or should be) that the evolutionary success of a gene is dependent on two factors: its contribution to the survival of the organism, and its contribution to the fertility of the organism. Though you can combine these characteristics into one measure: reproductive fitness, to describe the gene’s contribution to survival and fertility together, I would like to keep them separate, because in relation to the world these factors are independent. It is easy to imagine a gene that contributes to survival but decreases fertility, or vice versa. Imagine, for example, a gene that does what steroids do: increasing strength while inhibiting fertility – such a gene would have no success in being passed on the next generation no matter how successful the organism that carried it in surviving, or even dominating, its peers.

But a characteristic of memes not shared by genes is their ability to propagate not only through reproduction, but also through contact. Why are some memes adopted though contact, resulting in the discarding of others? Clearly, fashion is a factor – you can see this in music and styles of clothing. While fashion is a chaotic feature (chaotic in the mathematical sense, which I think for the purposes here is the same as random) I think that there is a clear non-random factor as well – survival. It seems clear to me that human beings are programmed to adopt memes that they perceive as beneficial to survival. (Memes can also be transmitted in self-reinforcing groups, known as meme complexes. In the following discussion, read “meme or meme complex” where for brevity I just say “meme”.)

All things being equal, this is a very advantageous human characteristic – when you adopt a meme that increases your chance of survival you would normally increase your overall reproductive fitness as well. But all things are not necessarily equal. For one thing, it seems to me that human beings are not programmed to be attracted to memes that benefit fertility. It is possible to imagine a meme that strongly inhibits fertility, but is so attractive (either because it benefits survival or for some other reason) that is sweeps the human race: a meme plague. The meme would sweep through humanity (perhaps increasing overall prosperity, if its attractiveness is based on enhancing survival), only later resulting in a vast inter-generational die-off, as it fails to be transmitted to the next generation.

What defenses might we have to such a meme plague? I can think only one: Another meme even more attractive than the meme causing the plague. But this begs the question: Wouldn’t, then, this other meme sweep through the population instead? Not necessarily. Remember, there are two memetic transmission models: the viral model, i.e. though contact, and the genetic model, i.e. from your parents. You could argue that both are in fact through contact, and therefore the same. I, however, believe that the nature of your contact with your parents is fundamentally different from any other contact in your life, so they are not necessarily the same. I can imagine a meme complex (if not a single meme) that is extremely attractive to one who has acquired it, but also hard enough to transmit that it requires the kind a prolonged, extremely intimate contact, very early in life, that we only see in the parent-child relationship. If such were the case, the meme plague would likely leave such groups intact.

My question to you: do you think this is happening today?

Posted by David Boxenhorn at November 2, 2004 12:42 PM
Comments & Trackbacks

Oh, David, we have other defenses. Our receptors will reject memes that are too far off in orientation. Probably our receptors are calibrated when we're young, in part.
Lurker and I talked about this at Winds-- I'll try to find the comments.
Usually we go from the input model, and try to find some magic meme that appeals to everyone, or look at the differences between memes in retention and transmission. Lurker suggested going the other way, to look at the differences in aperature and orientation of the receptors. :)

Posted by: jinnderella at November 2, 2004 10:25 PM Permalink

Jinnderella: I was thinking specifically about the western culture meme complex vs. religions of all sorts.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at November 2, 2004 10:32 PM Permalink

Oh! Western culture is antithetic to fertitlity? And all religions promote fertility? Well, Spengler reviews this book--
Perhaps religion is an inoculation against deleterious memes. :)

Posted by: jinnderella at November 2, 2004 11:01 PM Permalink

I wouldn't put things in such black and white terms. But religion is generally a "genetic" meme, rather than a "viral" meme, and I think the distinction is important. It seems to explain the patterns that we see today. Imagine that before the advent of the western culture meme complex, parents were transmitting their religion memes with variable levels of quality. Those who were poorest (sorry about the loaded-sounding language, I don't mean it to be) at transmitting their memes were susceptible to incursion. This would have the result of increasing the transmission-quality of the memes of the remaining religious meme-carrying population. At a certain point we would reach equilibrium. After that, if the traditional memes were more fertility-encouraging (as is likely if they survived for centuries) we would see their increase.

Is that not what we see today?

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at November 3, 2004 05:52 AM Permalink

Yes, David. :)
It is all about reproduction. Are you saying religions evolved to increase the reproductive fitness of the religious?

Posted by: jinnderella at November 3, 2004 10:54 AM Permalink

No, I'm saying that memes have to provide a reproductive advantage in order to survive in a large majority of the population long term. In other words, memes can survive in viral mode indefinitely only as long as they are carried by a minority. Religions that have survived for many generations are meme-complexes that have survived long term in genetic mode (i.e. passed from parent to child).

Is it surprising that religious people are the most resistant to the western-culture meme complex?

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at November 3, 2004 11:06 AM Permalink


You're right to note the special power of memes passed down family generations. However, I don't think this requires a genetic explanation.

We transmit inexplicit knowledge to each other all the time through facial expression, mood swings, tone of voice. The knowledge can be quite subtle, like when and when not to start a conversation. Prolongued contact and intimate dependency are enough to explain the power of the parental meme channel.

(An observation: Israel flourishes. Jewishness is passed down the female line. Coincidence?)

There is no genetic defence against memes: memes rule! Genes handed in the hat millions of years ago. (Jinderella will know more accurately when human beings got started).

Whether you are susceptible to infection by a new idea depends entirely on the set of other ideas of which you are currently composed.

There is no falling back on the biological "values" of survival and reproduction. For then how does one explain the existence of celibate religious orders or people who strap bombs to themselves to kill innocents?

Posted by: Tom Robinson at November 3, 2004 12:25 PM Permalink

Tom: I'm not sure I understand you. But I want to make clear that when I speak of memes being passed in "genetic" mode, I mean this purely as a metaphor - that the memes are passed from parent to child. I certainly don't mean to imply memes in our genes!

I agree with you that memetics is more important than genetics!

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at November 3, 2004 12:38 PM Permalink

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