virus: Memes: What We Seek Is What We Get

Grant Callaghan (
Fri, 30 May 1997 23:14:27 -0700 (PDT)

Dear Mr. Brodie,

I just finished reading your book, Virus of the Mind, and=20
although I agree with the majority of what you say about=20
memes in general, I do have a few nits I would like to pick=20
with you.

Let me say right off the bat that I do not have much in the=20
way of academic credentials in this field. I do have a=20
bachelors degree in Linguistics from UCSD and a propensity=20
to read books by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Erik Drexler,=20
Daniel Dennett, E.O. Wilson, Roger Penrose and Douglas=20
Hofstadter. I am also a died-in-the-wool skeptic who=20
disbelieves a lot more than I believe of what I read. =20
Everything I say is my opinion. I don't present anything as=20
"the truth," but merely as my view of the world. Everyone's=20
view is different, although some views are more useful than=20

First of all, you seem to imply with not only the title of=20
your book but through myriad examples set forth inside that=20
the memes we pick up are acquired much as one would catch=20
the flu or the measles. That it is a process we have=20
little control over and need to be inoculated against. I=20

I have my own thesis on why we pick up the memes with which=20
we seek to cope with a universe we never made but are=20
constantly seeking to remake. And although you touched on=20
it in your book, I feel you didn=92t make nearly a strong=20
enough case for the fact that there is a continuing conflict=20
between the genes that not only create a human body out of=20
the elements of the world around us, but carry out a program=20
that runs that body for up to 120 years. The problem is=20
that most of that program was developed before the mind came=20
along and even after it did, most of the programming by our=20
genes was developed prior to the advent of social=20
organizations larger than tribes of hunter-gatherers.

I believe that many memes were created as tools with which to=20
combat the destructive tendencies of our genes in an=20
evolutionary path toward the more complex organization=20
required by a population that was outgrowing the resources=20
of the environment it inhabited. That's not the only reason=20
for their creation of course. But it applies to most =20
fields of study, such as religion, law, education,=20
psychology and even potty training.

Most of the memes we acquire today are garnered through=20
great expenditure of time, money and effort. Starting=20
with toilet training, a baby has to be taught the need to=20
acquire that set of memes, and then has to work hard to=20
learn to control functions he would not otherwise have much=20
control over. In my mind, every word we use is a meme, as=20
well as the grammatical structures with which we string them=20
together. But we didn=92t just pick them up like a virus. We=20
spent countless hours, in school and out, making great=20
efforts to acquire them. They are tools that allow us to=20
operate within a social environment. =20

I also don't believe that religious cults take over the=20
beliefs of their followers against their will. The gurus=20
have far too few followers for that to be true. It seems=20
more likely to me that the past life and experience of a=20
follower predisposed him to wanting what the guru had to=20
offer. The environment in which he was raised, the problems=20
he had with social interaction, and many other factors make=20
a person ready, even eager, to accept certain doctrines at=20
certain times in their lives. At seventeen, I was sent to=20
the Far East to fight in the Korean war. I picked up a book=20
call "Zen in English Literature and the Oriental Classics"=20
by R. H. Blythe, and adopted the philosophy in a single=20
reading. But it was something I was looking for. =20

I was raised in a Catholic school and went through their=20
entire indoctrination process but found myself unable to=20
accept it. By the time I reached high school I was wondering=20
how the priests and nuns could accept what I saw as=20
superstitious nonsense and I was looking for something=20
better. Zen appealed to me because it seemed to have more=20
application to my life. It stressed insight over doctrine=20
and action over contemplation. =20

In my mind, a lot of our culture and religious beliefs were=20
developed to help us overcome genetic tendencies that are=20
anathema to our survival as a group. Over the hundreds of=20
thousands of years during which most of mankind consisted of=20
small groups of hunter-gatherers, much as the apes live=20
today, we developed a genetic heritage that allowed us to=20
survive in times of famine and shortages. But it goes back=20
even further than that. Almost every animal on the=20
planet shares traits that include defense of territory,=20
competition for mates, an emotional response to fear of=20
attack, and so on. Almost every emotional response we have=20
is built into our gene pool, including happiness, madness=20
and despair. This is because our genes create the chemicals=20
which course through our veins and trigger our emotional=20

But as mankind developed more complex societies, a lot of=20
these responses were counterproductive. Society breaks=20
down when men go around stealing other men's mates or food=20
or territory. You can't live together in large groups and=20
continue to do these things, no matter how much they helped=20
people survive in small ones. When the whole world is one=20
big society, there is no place to which you can drive people=20
away when they follow a course that might have helped the=20
tribe survive when resources were scarce and the world was=20
divided into "us" and "them."

So we developed tools to help us regulate our actions and=20
counteract our desires. We developed language to help us=20
mediate disputes, religion to inspire us to follow certain=20
courses of action, a corpus of laws and methods of=20
distribution to make sure everyone got a fair share of=20
everything. Over a period of time the millions or billions=20
of little tools we developed have become what we call=20
culture and civilization. =20

Now someone has proposed we call these tools memes. Richard=20
Dawkins, for instance, has suggested that they undergo a=20
competition for survival in the social environment that is=20
much like the Darwinian competition for genetic survival. =20
Certain ideas, such as a specific religion or body of=20
knowledge, act a lot like species that grow to occupy a niche
within the minds and actions of people in a given=20
society. Those that help the groups to survive themselves=20
survive. Those that don't, die out.

But if you look at places like Bosnia, the Middle East, or=20
even Northern Ireland, you can see that where the genes and=20
memes are in conflict with one another, the genes seem to be=20
winning. =20

What is the difference between a Protestant Irishman and a=20
Catholic? Sitting on a bus, you would be hard pressed to=20
tell them apart. They both claim to believe in a Christian=20
religion that teaches the ten commandments, including "Thou=20
shalt not kill." And yet, when it comes to deciding who=20
will control the territory of Northern Ireland, they cast=20
aside their memetic heritage and revert to the old "fight to=20
the death." Emotions seem to outweigh culture by a wide=20
margin. All of the things forbidden by the ten commandments=20
seem to be flourishing throughout society and around the=20
world. =20

If we have souls, the memes and genes seem to be=20
in a gigantic battle to control them. The winner will=20
determine whether we become a huge social organism or=20
revert back to small tribes populating what is left of the=20
Earth. =20

Clouding the picture is a new line of evolution called=20
computers. They are tools, just as memes are tools, but=20
they seem capable of taking us in a direction we never=20
anticipated. We now have cars that extend the power of our=20
feet to travel. Giant machines to help us dig up the earth=20
and erect incredibly large buildings. And now thinking aids=20
to increase our power to manipulate symbols and speed=20
communication. I think it was Socrates (but I won't swear=20
to it) who said that the limit to the size of a city is the=20
distance a man can walk in a day. Now, through computers=20
and electronics, we can talk to anyone anywhere in the world=20
and even off of it, at the speed of light. We can travel=20
around the world in less than a day. What one man was=20
capable of holding in his head in the way of information and=20
knowledge has been replaced by huge libraries that can be=20
accessed instantaneously. This instant access and=20
communication between the whole of society is causing us to=20
evolve into a new organism. If, that is, our genes don't=20
cause us to self-destruct first.

Through the lack of our ability to control our genetic=20
impulses to want more and to take it any way we can get it,=20
we are destroying not only each other, but the environment=20
in which we live and on which we depend for survival as a=20
species. As we go around wiping out people whose cultural=20
concepts do not agree with ours, and depleting the oceans of=20
fish, the land of animals, and the forests of their trees,=20
we make it impossible to inhabit the world we expect to live=20
in. =20

Don't get the idea that I see this as a battle between good=20
and evil. Most of our genetic heritage helps us perpetuate=20
the species. But it was designed for something other than=20
what we are evolving into. Various elements of our memetic=20
heritage are still struggling to survive. And when they=20
come up against the genetic element, we tend to do what is=20
emotionally satisfying rather than what is good for us. =20


A yawn is not in and of itself a meme even though when=20
people see the behavior they sometimes imitate it. But it=20
can be a meme. If, for example, you tell me something you=20
think is new and exciting and I fake an exaggerated yawn in=20
order to express boredom, then you do the same thing for the=20
same purpose in a conversation with someone else, you have=20
picked up a meme. You have also picked up a tool with which=20
to convey an idea. But you do it as a conscious choice, not=20
because you were infected with something without knowing it.

In my mind, all of language and expression is a collection=20
of tools (memes) which we acquire and discard in order to do=20
various jobs of communication and persuasion. The words we=20
use are all memes. A language is a superset of lexical and=20
grammatical memes that make up a body of expression and get=20
passed around within a group based on their usefulness and=20
popularity. =20

Every word is a meme. It begins as a vocalization that=20
someone uses to express an idea. A kid sees something he=20
likes and wants his friends to know how he feels about it,=20
so he says, "Cool!" His friends like that and start using=20
it, and pretty soon someone writes the word in a letter or a=20
story or a book and it has expanded to the written lexicon. =20
When enough people are doing it, the makers of dictionaries=20
record it and it enters the area of reference. Psycholo-
gists and anthropologists and other academics begin remark-
ing on it and including it in their papers on various=20
subjects having to do with human behavior. The word now=20
serves as a tool with a thousand uses. It has beaten out=20
thousands of other expressions used in the same context such=20
as "zap" and "peachy keen" which have come and gone, been=20
born and died from lack of use. =20

Stand on any street corner in the nation and you will see=20
behavioral memes used as tools of expression. Two black men=20
walk up to one another and go through an elaborate ritual of=20
hand slapping and hand shaking. Two white men in a small=20
town pass each other and say, "Hey, George." and "Hey,=20
Bill." In this case each movement in the hand shake is a=20
meme and the word "hey" as well as the slight wave of a=20
hand that accompanies the "hey" are also memes. They are=20
also tools of communication. They are used by people to=20
acknowledge each others existence, to reestablish a pre-
existing bond, and to let people know how they feel (or=20
pretend to feel) about each other. They have become an=20
intimate part of the culture of each group and help separate=20
that group from other groups in the minds of the people who=20
are using those tools. =20

These linguistic tools consist not only of words and gestures,=20
but also the elements of grammar by which we arrange the=20
words. People who speak English arrange their words in the=20
order of subject, verb, object. That is a meme. Japanese=20
speakers arrange their words in the order of subject, object=20
verb. That is also a meme. The division of words into=20
nouns, verbs, adjectives and articles is another meme. It=20
is also a tool which aids our efforts to communicate. =20

When these tools become a force that separates English=20
speakers from French speakers and people who speak German,=20
it is like what happens when a gene change separates two=20
groups of the same species into separate species. Over time=20
they become unable to communicate with each other. Even=20
when a member of one group tries to integrate into another group,=20
the habits of a lifetime leave him with an accent that=20
betrays his origins in the other group. He is often unable=20
to completely assimilate into the new group.

Someone said to me:

"If you are going to make a yawn a Meme then you are =20
also going to have to put sneezing, blinking, coughing,=20
scratching and suchlike into the category of memes. Since=20
I had understood memes to be concepts and idea, things that=20
live with us, but are optional, howsabout we say that memes=20
can make use of natural human tics (such as yawns) but this=20
does not make the underlying action a Meme."
I replied: A yawn is a meme if it is used as a tool of=20
communication, not if it is a spontaneous action over=20
which you have no control. You seem to have overlooked my=20
example. But many of the things you cited above are used=20
as tools. Coughing to let someone know you're approaching;=20
blinking to indicate irritation, and so forth.

What I said is that a yawn is not, in itself, a meme but can =20
be a meme when used as an act of communication. The same=20
applies to all the other things you mentioned. Humans can=20
use anything as a tool. Actors regularly make use of a=20
blink, a sigh, a laugh, a smile (which is used even by apes=20
as a tool), and they are all memes of the trade of acting. =20
Even a scratch in various places (as Marlon Brando was=20
wont to do in "A Streetcar Named Desire") becomes a meme when=20
used to perform some job. What most people don't realize=20
is that they are communicating all the time with almost =20
every action they take. They don't do it consciously, most=20
of the time, but even an "ouch" is a communicating device. =20
In the Philippines, they say "Apo!" or "Apo da!" The=20
Japanese say "Itai!" or "Itai yo!" The Chinese say "Aio!" =20
If the expression of pain is not a cultural meme, why is it=20
different for each culture? Smiles, frowns, even ticks of=20
the eyelid are often unconscious expressions of what we are=20
thinking and feeling and although we may not be aware of it,=20
it is still an attempt to communicate something. Even =20
though a sneeze is spontaneously triggered by things like=20
temperature and pollen, how we do it varies greatly and=20
expresses something about us and how we feel about the act=20
of doing it. Some people cut the sneeze off with a little,=20
short burst of air in an attempt of control what comes out=20
of them. Others do it with a great "Ah Chooo!" designed to=20
tell the world where they are coming from. There is hardly=20
any action you can take that is not an attempt at some kind=20
of communicate and is being used as a tool for such.=20
Just as in genetics, Separation leads to isolation and=20
isolation leads to differentiation. E. O. Wilson talks=20
about a butterfly that is genetically programmed to have sex =20
only during a two hour period during a very short lifespan. =20
It became separated into two different species when one=20
group began doing it at a different time.=20

The only difference between the two at first was this one =20
gene. How many genes separate us from the Chimpanzee? You=20
might be shocked to learn how few. It is the same with=20
culture. You have two cultures when people of one culture=20
can tell on sight or hearing that another person is not=20
one of them.=20
In the field of biology, they were able to latch on to a set =20
of memes from Latin and Greek to provide names for their=20
taxonomy. Memetics can probably do the same, though from=20
what source I don't know. The new memes will have to catch=20
on with the people who are working in the field. It will=20
begin with someone like Dawkins coming up with a term that=20
everyone latches on to. Then it will appear in the=20
literature on memes. And, finally, learned papers and=20
dictionaries will define it for the world. All we can do=20
is talk about it and watch what is being discussed in the=20
field and see what sakes out of the trees. It is, after=20
all, a Darwinian process.=20
I really find this new field fascinating and I feel it is=20
going to lead to some strange and wonderful changes in our=20
But what we lack right now in the field of memetics is a=20
way of dividing the collections of memes into useful=20
divisions as we have divided the genetic world into sets=20
like genus, phyla, species, etc. What can we call complete=20
sets of memetic phenomena such as individual languages or=20
fields of study such as law, medicine, and literature? Is=20
American culture a complete division as opposed to British=20
culture? How we speak, how we dress, how we move, what we=20
like and dislike, what we cook and eat, are all parts of our=20
culture that distinguish us from people of other cultures. =20
But where do we draw the lines? I=92ve heard people from=20
Europe say that you can tell and American just by the way he=20
walks down the street. Even within America, people from=20
different groups have characteristic ways of moving when=20
they walk or dance. White people, as the people from the=20
ghetto say, lack rhythm. It=92s a cultural trait rather=20
than a genetic one. There=92s always an Elvis out there=20

If we are going to have a science of memetics, it seems to=20
me, we have to find ways of breaking down the components of=20
culture into useful divisions that we can refer to and talk=20
about. At present it=92s all confusion and every speaker=20
seems to have a different idea of what constitutes a meme. =20
No one seems to have a way of distinguishing a meme from a=20
collection of memes. This, I believe, should be the=20
starting point in the study of memetics. =20


Grant Callaghan