virus: RE: What does the replicating?

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Sun, 8 Jun 1997 12:45:49 -0500

I'm copying this to the same CC's as Richard Brodie did -- which is either
an example of memes gone berserk or will prove interesting to those
receiving it. I hope for the latter, but if the former, my apologies.

>Colin Brooke wrote:
>>[Tim Perper] Is memetics simply a fashionable novelty that does
>>> little more than give a new name to old ideas? Thus we learn that rhetoric
>>> cuts both ways.
>>This is precisely one of the thoughts that I've been having,
>>after reading Brodie's Virus of the Mind. His book didn't have a lot
>>appeal for me, most of it repeating what Aristotle wrote 2500 or so
>You'd be amazed at the number of letters I get from people very well
>educated in X, where X is philosophy, psychology, anthropology, etc.,
>who read Virus of the Mind and conclude (despite my warnings at the
>beginning and end of the book about Kuhnian paradigm shifts) that
>memetics is simply a mapping of what they already know onto some weird
>new jargon. Without evaluating the thought process of any individuals on
>this list, I would like to point out that this phenomenon seems to be a
>common response people have just prior to "getting" a new paradigm or
>model. Remember, the key thing about memetics is the thesis that the
>future will be full of culture with "good memes" -- memes that replicate
>successfully. I'm sure others on this list are far more familiar with
>Aristotle than I, but I do not think Aristotle covered self-replication
>of ideas in any of his treatises.

The first part of Richard's paragraph sounds like Paul on the road to
Damascus moments before the light. Is that kind of *religious* conversion
the root metaphor of memetics -- that you shall know the Truth and it shall
set you free? It has long been a principle of evangelical religion that
"preaching the word" will make converts.

If so, that suggests one or both of two things. One is that like
Aristotle, Paul too was a Dawkins-manque, a forerunner of what we know
today more clearly as an Applied Memeticist. The other is that memetics
borrows much of its theory not from genetics and infectious particles (like
viruses or bacteria) but from the more homely practices of the preacher.
Or both could be true -- that "memetics" is only one more example of how
people have tried to understand why and how communication and language can
*persuade* an audience to believe certain things -- and not others.

But the second part of Richard's paragraph raises a rather more
significanct point. "Remember, the key thing about memetics is the thesis
that the
future will be full of culture with 'good memes' -- memes that replicate
successfully." Does this comment predict a ghastly doom or a paradise?

The crux is the phrase "good memes." Within memetics, such is defined by
measuring the memes' success in replicating -- so Joe Camel is a "good"
meme, so is the Coca-Cola logo, and so are such jewels of human creativity
as Mickey Mouse. Judged on that basis, Richard is inviting us to
contemplate a future *filled* with such memes -- hucksterism run amok.

Now, as a gloomy forecast of the shape of things to come, a vision of a
world run on the lowest-common-denominator principle of "good memes" may
galvanize us to seek better things -- but only if we balance the
memeticist's definition of "good" with an ethical definition. Then too we
must remember that in the last analysis memes are spread not by their own
little feet (contra the claims of what Omar de la Cruz aptly calls the
Full-Fledged Memeticist), but rather more often at gunpoint.

It is here that I have worries about memetics beyond comments that it draws
on Western philosophy from Plato to Madison Avenue. It invites us to think
that armies and force majeure *do not exist* or, if they do, they are
epiphenomena of the memes, as if Cortez and his men, armed to the teeth and
eventually killing everybody in sight, were only the memes way of spreading
themselves. Memetics seems to be an ivory-tower *intellectualized*
exercise in which men dying in battle are incidents in the differential
replication of memes.

Perhaps so, but I still insist that there is an alternative view: that
sooner or later, human beings cannot foist off moral or other
responsibility onto the Memes, but must realize that *we* -- not some kind
of disembodied quasi-Platonic entity -- are the agents of what we do.
Pushed to the limits of its envelope, memetics offers a escape hatch from
morality: "I ordered the death of a 100,000 people because they opposed
the spread of the memes."

And, in turn, that raises a rather curious puzzle about memes. If they are
so all-fired eager to replicate in the minds of their carriers, why do
memes exist that induce people to kill other people? That. it seems to me,
is a rather counter-productive activity for the memes -- self-limiting, in

Now let me sidestep an obvious reply, which is to say that viruses and
bacteria also kill their hosts. True, true indeed. However, in
epidemiology, there is a phenomenon called "attenuation" (forgive me if I
start sounding like a biologist). It involves the *decrease* in the
virulence of infective agents (the classical case is syphilis: when it
first appeared, it killed you within a few days or weeks; now it takes
years to decades). The Darwinian reason is simple. It only rarely pays
the infectious agent to kill the host, because doing so shuts down the
replication of the agent.

Some memes, however, seem rather the opposite -- they seem hell-bent on
destroying as many people as possible. Such memes include those for modern
warfare and drug use. Darwinian selection does not explain why they
spread, since selection *opposes* them. In fact, the memes' best strategy
for spreading themselves is to promote not killing but *procreation* of
their carriers. In Richard's sense, the slogan of a *good* meme must be
"Make Love, Not War."

Ironically, we come full circle to Paul on the road to Damascus. Religions
try to explain the origin of good and evil. Memetics must, I think, also
try to explain the origin of evil. How comes it that memes for immense
self-destruction exist, of which the "meme" for the intercontinental
nuclear ballistic missile is an excellent example? Not a good thing, that
meme -- in *either* sense.

Yet such memes exist. How is that possible, given Richard's criterion that
"good" memes are the best replicators -- which means they need more, not
fewer, people?

I might add one more comment. In several of my postings, I have been
challenging memetics to define itself in relationship to a known and
ancient history of philosophy. I just did so again, this time by asking a
question in ethics. How does memetics explain the origin and spread of
evil without postulating yet *another* ghost in the machine, this time in
the form of a dualist set of Evil Memes, kin, we presume, to the forces of
darkness variously known as Ahriman, Set, or Mephistopheles?

Over to you.