RE: virus: Virus: Minds and Memes

David Leeper (
Fri, 27 Oct 95 17:48:00 PDT

Here's my reply to one of the best postings I'v seen on the Virus list (in
all the three or four days I've been on it.)

>>I'm new to this whole idea of memes.

Don't worry, so is just about everyone else.

>>I read that a meme is "a contagious
>>information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds
>>altering their behavior, causing them to propogate the pattern"(Memetic
>>Lexicon by Glenn Grant).

I supose this is a correct definition. I learned about memes only after
learning about genes. In my opinion, if you don't understand genes, you
don't understand memes. So... What Is A Gene? To answer that, here's a
very brief history of the Theory of Eveolution:

1) Charles Darwin invents his Theory of Evolution. Basically, it says that
existing lifeforms are modifications of previous lifeforms. Until then,
life was seen as being the unchanging result of God's creation.
Modification, compitition, and extinction are key aspects of this theory.
Another key aspect is the absence of a "Design" and, therefore, the need of
a "Designer".

2) This is all fine and dandy, but very high level. Over the years, various
and competing schools of thought emerged on Darwin. In other words,
Darwin's Theory mutated. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to justify their point
of view using Darwin's Theory. Also, different groups had different points
of view on exactly what Drawin's Theory really meant. (By the way, Darwin's
Theory is a meme complex. Reread this paragraph with that in mind.)

3) In the Seventies, a theory arose which said "Evolution Is Based On The
Gene." This was rather shocking. It meant that little pieces of DNA were
the unit of evolution. If a modification to a gene enabled that gene to
reproduce at a higher rate over time than its competitors, then (all other
things being equal) evolution would favor that gene. The implies that our
bodies and our minds are simply designed to propogate our genes in the best
way they can. It turns out that this strange theory is very fit, and is
today the most popular variety of Darwin's original theory. Richard
Dawkins, the well known proponent of this theory, can be seen as being to
Darwin what Einstein was to Newton.

4) Basing Evolution on the gene was just the beginning for Dawkins. Genes
are simply one example of a replicator, other examples could exist. In
fact, he said, others do exist: the Meme. The Meme concept means that ideas
evolve, just as bodies do. A species of Meme is "Dwelling". Look at how
this meme has evolved over the centuries. Man has gone from fields to caves
to huts to adobe homes to cities. Each of these is an example of the meme
"Dwelling" in different evolutionary states and occupying different niches.
Is a meme a metaphysical concept? No. In fact we may one day be able to
photograph a meme in the brain. For further reading on this topic, I would
suggest "The Selfish Gene", by Richard Dawkins.

...So how do genes and memes compare you ask. Well, both control behavior.
Genes enforce broad guidelines of behavior like "Have sex with as many
females as you can.". Memes are far more specific, like "Don't wear white
after Labor Day.". Memes mutate much more quickly than genes do. Genes
are based on DNA, memes are based on neurons of the brain (or at least this
is the best guess at this time).

>>but I don't
>>understand how an information pattern can truly be self-replicating
>>someone to replicate it). Do information patterns realy _cause_ anything?

As you know, a virus is a non-living replicator. It cannot reproduce
without a host. It can also lay dormant for very long periods of time,
seemingly dead, until a host appears. Memes are very similar to viruses in
their behavior: They need a host, they can lay dormant, like the Egyptian
Hieroglyphs, as someone on this list pointed out. Perhaps the word
"causing" is what is troubling you. Memes have no will, the do not "try" or
"want" to replicate. They don't even need to be self-aware. DNA is not
self-aware, but has no trouble replicating. Memes are the same in this
respect. For general purposes, a meme can be seen as "information which
reproduces and mutates". Exactly how that happens is not important to
laymen like me, and I seriously doubt anyone _really_ knows how this

>>Do information patterns realy _cause_ anything?

Yes. A Feminist is an example of someone whos serves as a host for a
particular meme complex (a group of mutually supporting memes). These memes
_cause_ him or her to act in a certain way in certain situations. Try
telling a Feminist that you think all woman should be beaten once a day.
Nothing but an information (meme) exchange takes place; that is, you don't
actually beat anyone, but watch the reaction.

>>Does anyone have any suggestions for how I can at
>>least learn how to get the jargon straight and begin to understand the
>>behind the jargon?
1) "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. The layman's clasic.
2) "The Moral Animal" by ???. Explores a new branch of though called
"Evolutionary Psychology".
3) "The Theory of Evolution" by Charles (Chuck) Darwin. I list this one
last because its really been replaced by "The Selfish Gene". Never the
less, it is a good and entertaining read. Earth-shaking theories are
presented and explained without math or strange terms.
4) "The Bible" by various folks. Read Genisis. Contrast the explainations
here with those presented in the other books.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in exploring life to read these
books. The concept of genes and memes being the units of Evolution is
amazingly powerful and flexable. For example, certain types of love (yes,
the infinite mystery love) can be explained by simply using the concept of
the gene creating behavior that best ensures its reproduction. As for the
jargon itself... I personally hate jargon and see the main weakness of
Virus and groups like it as being the jargon-fest that they create. Good
luck on that one. The main thing is "Don't Get Dazzeled". Nobody, not even
Richard Dawkins, is a magician. We're just looking at the world and
discussing what we see. As a final suggestion, look at the world. Can you
see how a car is an evolution of the meme (but not gene) called "Horse"?

Good Luck to you. Most of all, have fun.

Dave Leeper
"The power of Reason is it frees us from the blinders of Religion." - Dave
From: virus-owner
To: virus
Subject: virus: Virus: Minds and Memes
Date: Thursday, October 26, 1995 2:42PM

I'm new to this whole idea of memes. I read that a meme is "a contagious
information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds
altering their behavior, causing them to propogate the pattern"(Memetic
Lexicon by Glenn Grant). Doesn't this imply that these information patterns
are agents while minimizing the role of individual human minds as agents? I
find the idea of information patterns being exchanged, critically examined,
and refined, and being developed through this process attractive, but I
understand how an information pattern can truly be self-replicating
someone to replicate it). Do information patterns realy _cause_ anything?
The whole epistemology of memetics feels alien to me. Is this more of an
active or passive mind theory? You'll probably be able to tell just how new
am to the subject by my question of whether this whole theory is somehow
related to the theories that involve innate ideas and a priori categories
(both Kant and Hegel held theories involving a priori categories of thought-
or would you say that they were hosts of meme-complexes that involved a
categories of thought). Does anyone have any suggestions for how I can at
least learn how to get the jargon straight and begin to understand the
behind the jargon? The Memetic Lexicon is good and helps keep me from being
totally clueless about what you guys are talking about, but I still get the
impression that I have yet to really scratch the surface of memetic theory.