Memetics Discussion

Memetics Discussion

Dear All,
Is our next meeting regular BMCAI meetup June 4th? Also, note that I have Cc’ed four of my most recent students on the chance that they might be interested in trying out our group.
I’m happy to be open-minded (part of me is, anyway) and discuss memes and memeplexes, and maybe have my perspectives upgraded. But, I’ve been dealing with the meme-thing since Dawkins came up with it in the selfish gene. It has pretty much gone nowhere within professional evolutionary psychology. Some initial excitement mostly fueled by Dawkin’s articulate charisma. But for the longest time now, very few peer-reviewed papers, very few talks at professional meetings. Even Dawkins seems to downplay the idea now. Maybe a bit embarrassed. Try to get a job specializing in memetics. You’ll probably end up as a priest in a dying religion, or in advertising. Not in academia. Of course, that is not necessarily the ultimate measure of the value of an idea. But there are other ways to mitigate the hold of the meme-concept on certain people.
Remark: I think that the main reason the vague idea of memes still fascinates some folks is that it triggers “religiosity instincts.” Ones that predispose all of us to magical thinking.
Anyway, the biggest problem is that memes are very crappy replicators compared to genes; hell, we cannot even get solid agreement on what a meme is!
Body-brain-mind systems should evolve to take memes (or not!) and be defended against having their memosphere “infected”  by that meme in its pristine primordial form (i.e., the form in which it originally was received). Specifically, every BBM system should take on the meme in a way that is maximally adaptive for that particular gene “survival machine.” For example, we know that taught morals, even if you have a skilled shaman, are very malleable in relation to an individual’s nonconsciously chosen optimal reproductive strategy, as makes perfect sense.
This is why when discussing any moderately complex idea, it is difficult to come to a common understanding. Even to develop a common language. And, even if you think you have done so, that notion is just hypothetical. A matter of faith. A “shared meme” really is evoking very different very different, and highly contingent responses in any collection of people. (Religious professional’s job, traditionally, is to use all possible tricks to minimize those differences, to make as sure as possible that everyone’s BIOS chip has the same code – a big job, thus the complexity of religion.) We cannot even get together on the bloodly “Golden Rule,” can we. Nope — I’m opening today’s New York Times. Looks like even within small regions, “infection” with the Golden Rule still has not occurred, not even within small groups.
Further, there is individually adaptive drift in people’s understanding of any given meme or memeplex. This is one reason why religious teachings have to be given, skillfully, over and over again. It is also why in the context of religion and most other ideological systems “honest signals” of commitment, quality, and need constantly have to be refreshed, renewed (religion helps us get those socially essential job done with high effectiveness and efficiency – one reason it is so popular). Having a somewhat unified understanding of your group’s moral code is critical for the operation of complex contractual reciprocity, pan-culturally the basic human way of life. If you cannot demonstrate that you do, you are less popular, shunned, or just killed. But we can always pretend a bit, risky but potentially profitable in fitness terms.
We could talk a bit about a “learning instinct” (Is it really one? Yes and No.) that, in the context of my evolution of religiosity and human coalitional psychology class, I call “cognitive system zero,” in contrast to CS’s 1 &2. It makes us maximally open to at least medium fidelity recording of meme’s. I also refer to this system and its cognitive-emotional effects as “the mystery instinct,” “the rationality switch,” (too often flipped to the off position in our troubled society), and “mystery mode.” I think we have evolved a cognitive mode, adaptive to the individual and their group (and so back again to the individual; eschew genetic group selection), that makes us maximally receptive to having certain kinds of memes burnt into our BIOS (i.e., not our normal relatively flexible memory systems) using very special procedures, often religious in nature at least for the last 300K+ years, with unusually intra- and inter-individual good fidelity.
The ubiquity, complexity, and nature of religion, IMO, is a testament to the nearly impossible job of getting people to adopt even modestly fitness-relevant memes in a uniform manner. But, thank God for that BIOS chip in my computer, right? Without it, my fancy laptop would be a brick. We would be bricks too, socioeconomically, if we did not have a relatively decent in-group tuned BIOS.
I had fun writing this. But I should be working on grading my students’ journals! — Paul


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Mark H

I replied to your great comments by email. The next meeting is Monday, June 4. I look forward to further exploration of these points–and to meeting some of your students.

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