RE: virus: Memes: What We Seek Is What We Get

Richard Brodie (
Mon, 2 Jun 1997 14:25:40 -0700

Grant wrote:

>I just finished reading your book, Virus of the Mind,

I can already see you're a fellow with good taste. =)

>And although you touched on
>it in your book, I feel you didn't make nearly a strong
>enough case for the fact that there is a continuing conflict
>between the genes that not only create a human body out of
>the elements of the world around us, but carry out a program
>that runs that body for up to 120 years. The problem is
>that most of that program was developed before the mind came
>along and even after it did, most of the programming by our
>genes was developed prior to the advent of social
>organizations larger than tribes of hunter-gatherers.

You're right, I only have 5 or 6 chapters on this topic. Deserves
several books.
>I believe that many memes were created as tools with which to
>combat the destructive tendencies of our genes in an
>evolutionary path toward the more complex organization
>required by a population that was outgrowing the resources
>of the environment it inhabited. That's not the only reason
>for their creation of course. But it applies to most
>fields of study, such as religion, law, education,
>psychology and even potty training.

You think people created memes intentionally for this purpose?
Postulating that, how do you explain which memes spread as opposed to
those that did not? This argument does not seem Darwinian to me.
>Most of the memes we acquire today are garnered through
>great expenditure of time, money and effort. Starting
>with toilet training, a baby has to be taught the need to
>acquire that set of memes, and then has to work hard to
>learn to control functions he would not otherwise have much
>control over. In my mind, every word we use is a meme, as
>well as the grammatical structures with which we string them
>together. But we didn't just pick them up like a virus. We
>spent countless hours, in school and out, making great
>efforts to acquire them. They are tools that allow us to
>operate within a social environment.

The schools are the mechanism of the virus. And what percentage of what
you learned in school allows you to operate within a social environment?
>I also don't believe that religious cults take over the
>beliefs of their followers against their will. The gurus
>have far too few followers for that to be true.

Oh, come on! How many Christians are there in the world?

> It seems
>more likely to me that the past life and experience of a
>follower predisposed him to wanting what the guru had to
>offer. The environment in which he was raised, the problems
>he had with social interaction, and many other factors make
>a person ready, even eager, to accept certain doctrines at
>certain times in their lives.

This is not contrary to your first statement, simply a different
perspective on the same thing.

>At seventeen, I was sent to
>the Far East to fight in the Korean war. I picked up a book
>call "Zen in English Literature and the Oriental Classics"
>by R. H. Blythe, and adopted the philosophy in a single
>reading. But it was something I was looking for.

Blythe rules. But if you got all there is to get from Zen in one reading
of a book, you're a rare bird...
>I was raised in a Catholic school and went through their
>entire indoctrination process but found myself unable to
>accept it. By the time I reached high school I was wondering
>how the priests and nuns could accept what I saw as
>superstitious nonsense and I was looking for something
>better. Zen appealed to me because it seemed to have more
>application to my life. It stressed insight over doctrine
>and action over contemplation.

Hmm...Blythe said "Zen is not a religion -- Zen IS religion."
>In my mind, a lot of our culture and religious beliefs were
>developed to help us overcome genetic tendencies that are
>anathema to our survival as a group.

That's the common wisdom. Even many memeticists think most memes are
beneficial to the individual and society. I have a more extreme
viewpoint, positing that most memes are neutral or harmful to an
individual's happiness.

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

Careful! You make it sound like someone intentionally developed
language, seeing a need for a dispute-resolution tool. I daresay
language causes far more disputes than it resolves. Look at the legal
>But if you look at places like Bosnia, the Middle East, or
>even Northern Ireland, you can see that where the genes and
>memes are in conflict with one another, the genes seem to be

What an odd statement. How would you measure something like that? I
suppose you mean that war is winning, and that you attribute that to
genes. Why? Isn't it a religious war?
>If we have souls, the memes and genes seem to be
>in a gigantic battle to control them.

But we don't, so although it may SEEM that way, it only seems so because
your brain is structured to look for simple models of things.

> The winner will
>determine whether we become a huge social organism or
>revert back to small tribes populating what is left of the

Or continue chaotic expansion to the stars, or stabilize population and
become immortal, or...
>Through the lack of our ability to control our genetic
>impulses to want more and to take it any way we can get it,
>we are destroying not only each other, but the environment
>in which we live and on which we depend for survival as a
>species. As we go around wiping out people whose cultural
>concepts do not agree with ours, and depleting the oceans of
>fish, the land of animals, and the forests of their trees,
>we make it impossible to inhabit the world we expect to live
>in. seems to me that this behavior is decreasing, not increasing.
>Don't get the idea that I see this as a battle between good
>and evil. Most of our genetic heritage helps us perpetuate
>the species. But it was designed for something other than
>what we are evolving into. Various elements of our memetic
>heritage are still struggling to survive. And when they
>come up against the genetic element, we tend to do what is
>emotionally satisfying rather than what is good for us.

Well said.
>In my mind, all of language and expression is a collection
>of tools (memes) which we acquire and discard in order to do
>various jobs of communication and persuasion.

So you think you consciously decide which memes to pick up and which to
discard? OK, complete the following sentences:

"Things go better with _____"
"Just do _____"
"You deserve a ______ today."
"With liberty and justice _____ _____."

Have you consciously decided those are good memes to keep around? They
didn't ... INFECT you, did they?

>It has beaten out
>thousands of other expressions used in the same context such
>as "zap" and "peachy keen" which have come and gone, been
>born and died from lack of use.

What? I can't say "zap" any more? I'll sue!
>The only difference between the two at first was this one
>gene. How many genes separate us from the Chimpanzee? You
>might be shocked to learn how few.

Billions, isn't it? You are repeating a misleading statistical meme. =)

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

I don't think there's too much disagreement on what a meme is among

Thanks for the contribution.

Richard Brodie +1.425.688.8600
CEO, Brodie Technology Group, Inc., Bellevue, WA, USA
Do you know what a "meme" is?