LEON FELKINS LEON[email protected] WRITTEN: 28 AUGUST, 1995 REVISED: 9 SEPTEMBER, 1995
Isn’t it strange that in the past people were so peculiar in their tastes, their prejudices, their sexual attitudes, their treatment of animals, and their family relationships? Even now, people in some parts of the world have some really strange ideas about how to feel and behave. Were our ancestors stupid? What about the great scientists and philosophers of the past, who seemed very intelligent, yet showed little understanding for the problems of women and minorities? Many of the great leaders and statesmen of the past even had slaves. Are we just smarter now — or what?
No, those strange folks in other times and other lands were making decisions in the same way you do now — decisions based on the memes and genes that inhabit their minds.
We all know what genes are, but maybe we are not too clear on “memes”. Basically, memes are beliefs that spread from individual to individual; that is, they replicate somewhat as genes do. Note that the concept of “memes” itself is a meme!
In this essay I will give a brief introduction to how the mind is influenced by memes and genes and give examples of the many memes that have great control over our lives.
ME AND MY MIND
While the subject of the mind and exactly how we humans control ourselves is very complex and somewhat controversial, a limited review is possible that will be adequate for the purposes of this essay. (An excellent reference on this subject is [DENN]).
Our mind controls our body somewhat like an operating system controls a computer. While the task of genes is primarily to determine the physical characteristics of our bodies, including our brain and nervous system, they also influence decisions of the mind. For example, the fact that genes make us feel great pleasure in sexual activity certainly has a great influence on the mind.
But the mind is also strongly influenced by beliefs — and that is where memes come in. In his book, The Selfish Gene [DAWK1], Dawkins defines a meme as a replicating information pattern that uses minds to make copies into other minds. That is, memes are thoughts, ideas, beliefs, prejudices, etc. that replicate. Dawkins writes:
"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."
(Several good papers on this subject are available on the Internet, for example see [HENS] and [HALE]).
The memes associated with morals are often referred to by the term “mores” which my dictionary defines as, “folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a group”.
For our purposes here we will assume that the individual’s mind makes its decisions by means of analysis of the inputs as augmented by the genes and memes. Details on just how genes and memes influence the mind will be discussed in the next sections.
A comparison to computers may be helpful: Genes correspond to the ROM that is built into computers. Memes correspond to the programs that run on the computers, along with the associated data, and are loaded subsequent to the initial boot. The mind corresponds to the Operating System. Roughly.
Note that the origin of a meme could be based on fact or logical analysis. Memes should not be equated with myths. But the meme once established in the mind is just a belief — regardless of its origin.
Memes are comparable to genes in the fact that they replicate and that they influence our behavior. But how memes influence the mind is quite different from the way genes do. Let’s look at each approach.
Our genetic psychological factors are powerful forces that tell us what to do but, unfortunately, are slow to adapt to a changing world. Tragically, they are just not adequate for humans interacting with a rapidly changing world. We are struggling today with emotions — provided by our genes — appropriate for the caveman.
Genes cause problems because they provide psychological directions for a particular situation that is no longer appropriate. The evolved genetic solutions for certain problems apparently worked at one time but may no longer do the job. Unfortunately, it takes thousands of years for the genes to be modified.
Genes affect our behavior in two ways: physical characteristics and sensual enhancement.
Many of the characteristics of humans, both physical and mental, are determined at birth. We all are unique when it comes to capabilities, emotions, and physical makeup. One person’s sexual drive can be as different from another’s as their ability to play music or do mathematics is.
Our physical characteristics, our hormonal makeup, and our other inherited factors color the sensations sent to the brain from which it must make decisions. That is, from a given set of external conditions, the message received by the brain is not the same for every individual. Moreover, the brain’s ability to process these messages is vastly different from individual to individual. Therefore the decision made by two different brains, based on the same external conditions, could, and likely will, be quite different for two different individuals.
Now, to complicate the matter further, the memes get involved.
To the brain, memes are additional facts that are combined with the genetic input (discussed above) from which a decision is made. Even though they are just beliefs, for all practical purposes to the brain they are facts.
For efficiency, beliefs are accepted as factual and the brain moves on. If this approach were not taken, our brain would get bogged down in analysis to the point that it would never be able to make a timely decision.
Unlike genes, these memes, or “facts on file”, may be added, removed or changed many times in a person’s life time. The ability for humans to rapidly change our society and our surrounding environment, made it necessary for some adaptive mechanism to be built in our mind that would allow for these rapid societal and environment changes.
As we noted above, memes are more effective than genes in dealing with modern problems due to their ability to rapidly develop. That is, while genetic forces have evolved over many centuries to adapt to particular problems, memes can evolve in a lifetime or less. The price to pay for this quick reaction is that there is little chance for corrections when the memes may be in error. In fact, the behavior they evoke is not necessarily best for humans (but may be best for the memes — see [DAWK2]). They just evolve, mainly based on short term phenomena, limited information and often, ignorance.
Unfortunately, memes generate psychological forces and emotions that are just as powerful as genetic forces. Sexual mores, to be discussed shortly, best illustrate the power of memes.
It is difficult for each of us to make decisions without using memes. Since memes are involved in our thinking process, we may have to use memes to evaluate other memes! Even when applying our best effort to think precisely and logically, we may still be basing our decision on “facts” that are really just memes. After all, the “scientific method” itself is a meme.
How Memes get established
Memes can evolve spontaneously in a group in response to some problem. That is, the meme evolves, somewhat like genes, by adapting to conditions and continuously changing. Most likely our meme for compassion probably evolved this way since it made life better for everyone in the group.
It is obvious, however, that many memes are “planted” in the group by certain individuals for their own reasons. The politicians, the schools, the press, the clergy and others are guilty of sowing a constant stream of memes within the populace and encouraging their growth. Examples will be given in the next few paragraphs.
Just like genes, the survivability of a meme depends on its environment. In that sense, memes that are compatible support each other’s growth and survivability. The meme for religion, for examples, is helped a great deal by the meme that says we should have “blind faith”.
Yet, strangely, we do harbor contradictory memes.
Contradictory Memes coexist
Since we are constantly bombarded with either new memes and the reinforcement of old memes, it should be no surprise that many of the memes might be contradictory to each other. What is a surprise is that humans seem to be able to have contradictory memes cohabiting within their mind at the same time! An example would be a person who works with computers using analysis and logic all day and yet has many beliefs in religion and sex that he accepts on blind faith.
Now let us look at how memes and genes work together to get us to do their bidding. See [DAWK1], page 192.
The Gene/Meme Team
It appears that memes enhance or amplify the influence of genes in many situations. For example, genes insure that a young man is sexually excited when he views a young voluptuous girl in the nude. Memes, on the other hand, might make this young girl even more attractive with clothes on if she were only partially clothed; or if she is his best friend's wife; or if she admits having just had sex with someone else; or she is seen buying porno flicks; etc.
Practically, the gene/meme team determine our outlook and our attitudes toward the world.
Our Individual World View
The genes we have inherited and the memes that we have adopted determine what our world view is. They provide the perspective in which we view the world and the basis for our decisions. It is ridiculous for us to make judgments on how other people act in other times or other societies. For our judgments are based on our set of memes and their actions were caused by their set of memes. Our memes are not superior just because we happen to possess them.
We simply should not be critical of other societies based on nothing more than our own meme/gene makeup. For example, to judge that societies in which marriages are arranged or where free love is common are inferior to ours is stupid. They live by their memes and we live by ours. That’s all.
In fact, it is important to keep in mind that any judgment you make about anything is directly based on — or at least contaminated by — memes and genes. Even your opinion of this essay comes from a foundation of memes that this essay may be critical of! So, could you just turn off your memes until you finish reading this article please! Just kidding.
Can we think without being influenced by memes and genes? While we can’t completely eliminate the influence of memes and genes we certainly can diminish their impact. Further, we can adopt the “Scientific Method” which requires that all conclusions be subject to verification. That is, we can keep an open mind for errors in our thinking and try to minimize accepting anything on blind faith.
THE MEMETIC MINE FIELD
In this section I will list some of the common memes we live with. It is difficult not to pass judgment on some of these memes as many appear not to be in the best interests of our society. But the primary purpose here is to list the memes, not to judge them. Let’s start with the richest source of funky memes — our love life!
Sex, Love, Marriage
“Sex is Immoral outside of Marriage”
This well known, apparently religious based, meme is blindly followed by many people who aren’t even into religion! Many people feel guilt if they have sex outside of marriage and have given little thought to the origin of that feeling.
Relations between the Sexes
There is always a great deal of memetic activity in this area!
There is no doubt that humans, particularly men, have done some pretty heartless and cruel things to members of the opposite sex just to get sexual favors. To combat this problem, laws have been passed and memes have been established. Both, unfortunately, have gone too far.
The current “sexual harassment” meme now deems sexual harassment what used to be harmless and entertaining sexual flirtation between the sexes. Apparently this meme can be turned on or off since some women admit that the actions that would be deemed “sexual harassment” in one situation might be deemed “desirable flirting” in another.
It is interesting that in the past, for a man to have refrained from flirting would have hurt some women’s feelings due to the sexual meme that they possessed then.
This essay is far too short to cover all the memes alive and well in this area! Instead I will only discuss the prejudicial memes and that will done below in the “Prejudices” section.
Funerals and other ceremonies surrounding a death are powerful and ancient memes that remain unchallenged in the most modern of communities. The United States has spent millions retrieving the bones of service men and others from foreign countries without a thought as to what could be in those bones that make them so valuable.
The meme that makes us want to be forever spotlessly clean probably, on balance, is a good one but does get a bit silly at times. Lovers, husband and wives, etc. refuse to share a tooth brush but otherwise swap bodily fluids with abandonment!
Even people who actively support environmental causes still insist on a shower and clean clothes everyday without the tiniest consideration of a rational justification for wasting energy on a somewhat fastidious purpose.
Politics and Government
There are too many memes associated with government to enumerate. I will mention a couple, not necessarily the most important.
“The government can fix all our problems”
This powerful political meme causes all of us a lot of grief and expense. In reality, it is quite rare that government ever solves any problems without creating far greater ones, and, at the same time, relieving the taxpayers from a lot of their money. The fact that government has been so successful in instilling this meme in most of the population and in keeping it alive (in spite of all evidence of their success to the contrary), is quite astounding!
“Let the government pay for it”
Another meme that the government has been very successful in establishing is that they can provide services for free. How often do you hear someone say, “It doesn’t cost anything – the government is paying for it!” Right!
“The Sanctity of Government”
This meme has taken some hits here in the USA in recent times but will probably survive. Recently, President Clinton had to admonish the people that it was wrong to be critical of the government.
Well, maybe so, but a rational person must realize that the government, including law enforcement agencies, is composed of people looking after their own best interests and who, in fact, have a long history of corruption and deceit. We would probably be better off if we simply gave the government the respect it deserves — based on its record.
“People of Country X are Evil”
During World War II, the Allied countries very successfully implanted the meme in to the minds of the citizens that the Germans and the Japanese were evil monsters. Later, to a lesser degree, the Russians were made to look evil. Of course, in each case, when peace is made the memes have to be squashed quickly! People fight wars better if they hate each other!
“The primary factors for selecting (male) politicians are his sex life (or, more likely, the lack thereof) and how much hair he has”
Strange but true. To be fair, we did accept Clinton and his sexual escapades, but he is a goner if we find out that he is wearing a toupee!
The “Concern for the Environment” meme is a very interesting meme. Since our genes promote selfishness, without restraint, the genes would likely have us trash the environment. But let us not be too hard on the genes. Their selfishness was established in ancient times before we had the power to lay waste thousands of acres in a day. Again, the genes are not up to handling a modern situation.
So, the solution is to establish memes that tell us that trashing the environment is wrong. This has been amazingly well done by environmentalists and the government with the help of the news media.
Memes, like genes, by necessity are simplistic so as not to take up too much space in our limited brain capacity. We see people making sure their own trash is picked up at a camp site even though there is a huge pile already there! We see people using vast quantities of water for bathing and electricity for air conditioning while religiously making sure that their old newspapers are carried to the recycle depot.
Without compassion, civilization, or at least a decent society, would probably collapse. On the other hand, we know that humans have the capability and the tools to be incredibly cruel to each other.
Periodically, we are confronted with the facts that humans will do horrible things to each other — especially if they are not held accountable. How can this be if we are compassionate?
The answer is that compassion is most likely not genetic. No, compassion is a meme that is grilled into our heads from childhood. Thank goodness for this one!
Cause and Effect
The “Cause and Effect” meme is an interesting one. This meme, established by the scientific revolution, says that most situations, such as health, mental states, relationships, etc., have simple causes. A popular example is, “If you eat the right foods and avoid the wrong foods, you will not get cancer or heart disease”.
To be fair to the scientists, the statement “established by the scientific revolution” needs some qualification. Actually the meme is a misunderstanding of scientific principles. Scientists may publish a report that says — I’m making this up — that there is a correlation between eating a lot of stale hot-dogs and the loss of sexual desire. The facts may be that people obsessed by sports spend a lot of time in stadiums (where they eat a lot of hot-dogs) and have little time or interest in sex. But the news media simply reports that “hot-dogs kills sexual appetite” and that becomes the meme.
That there is a simple cause and effect relationship for most events in the world is a concept that is not necessarily obvious. Yet, strangely, even people who are hostile towards technology and science still believe in this meme (“if you will just take a handful of Vitamin C pills every day, you will not get a cold”).
The dictionary gives several definitions for “prejudice”, the first two in mine are:
"1. an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason. 2. any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable."
A common and well established meme in our society would have us believe that the first definition is the correct one (yes, our prejudice against prejudices is itself a meme). Yet the second one is probably more practical since it would allow “prejudices” to refer to both good and bad beliefs.
However, in recent times, due to the tragedies associated with some unfortunate historical prejudices, a powerful meme has been established that prejudices are bad. Since the crux of the definition of “prejudice”, “opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason” sounds almost like the definition of a meme, we might simply define a “prejudice” as an unfavorable meme.
So, it appears that prejudices are just a subclass of memes that are believed to be bad. Therein lies a “can of worms” for we are all in possession of thousands of memes and whether they are good or bad is a judgment call (made with the help of another meme!).
Let us look at an example or two. Almost everyone agrees that racial prejudice is bad. How about prejudice against people that seem stupid? speak with a Southern accent? wear unstylish clothes, are economically disadvantaged (poor), are fat, and so on?
The fact is prejudices have the same advantages and failings that other memes do. They allow the brain to make a quick judgment which is generally necessary for survival. If the prejudice is based on logic and/or facts (definition number 2), then it is useful. If it based on faith or “opinions without knowledge”, like memes in general, then it can be bad.
Lets look at a couple of well known examples:
Racial prejudices have caused much grief, cruelty and suffering in the world. Genes may be the culprit here — in an indirect way. Genes would have us to only look after the best interests of those folks that are closely related to us. [DAWK1] People with a different color or from a foreign land certainly don't meet that requirement.
There appears to be some success in diminishing racial prejudice in much of the world. This success is the result of diminishing the control of the "racial prejudice" meme and by establishing another meme that says you are a bad person to have racial prejudices.
Obviously the sexes have some differences. However, it is not conducive to peace and harmony to believe that one sex is inferior to the other. Yet, creating a meme that says there is no difference in the sexes, as some are promoting, seems to be a bad approach. A better meme would be simply “neither sex is inferior to the other”.
Cool Sayings and actions
Expressions that are considered “cool” come and go and woe to those who use an out of date one!
An interesting aside here is the survivability of the word “cool” itself. It has been around for a couple of generations.
How about wearing your shoes untied and your baseball cap on backwards?
Companies know that getting the right memes established can result is profits of millions of dollars! Trademark and trade name recognition along with the associated belief in superior value is a common and profitable type of meme.
A few months ago, while at a party, a friend of mine was induced to take a blind folded taste test of various bourbon whiskies — including her favorite that is very pricy (another meme!: “quality equates to price”). To her embarrassment, she flunked the test, picking “Jim Beam” as the best. Did that change her buying habits? Of course not!
Brand name acceptance is a powerful meme that the majority of the people unhesitatingly follow. However, there are recent trends that indicate that people are beginning to drift away from that bias and to try products that have generic labels. Maybe there’s hope.
An amusing but serious application of memes is our attitudes towards clothing styles. Without any particular reason, clothing styles change with time: skirts get short and skirts get long, ties get fat and then they get slim, and so on.
The “clothing styles” meme allows us to clearly see the power of memes. We genuinely feel negative toward a person dressed in clothes that are “out of style” but were in style some years ago. Now, rationally, we know this is ridiculous. How can there be anything wrong with a style that once was a popular style?
Here we have evidence that memes can make us feel badly towards something that is not supported by rational reasoning — in other words, prejudice. With this recognition in mind, we might want to reflect on the many other memes we so blindly accept.
Many of our young people truly believe that if they will only buy and wear the right brand of athletic shoes, they will be able to do athletic feats that defy the laws of physics. It is a sad reflection on our society that advertisers have been so successful in planting this meme that really exploits the young, especially the very poorest young.
In some parts of the world people would no more consider eating a cow or a pig than you would a dog.
A real tragedy here. Essentially all varieties of music have at least some examples that are enjoyable and some that are quite outstanding. Yet memes dictate, particularly to the young, what “brand” of music they should “enjoy”. And they seem to only enjoy that designated music! Amazing, the power of memes!
Our attitudes towards members of our family are greatly affected by memes. These attitudes vary greatly over time and in different societies. In the 60’s, the meme got established, with some justification, I suppose, that parents could not be trusted and were generally out of touch with the activities and interests of the current society. This meme has caused a lot of grief and suffering for everyone and is one that needs to be replaced by something more realistic. How about, “Parents are (reasonably) out of date, a little sluggish with the thinking and may have some interests of their own, but they are all I have and it would be in my best interests to stay on their good side”.
This good intended but rather hopeless meme has had amazing success, particular on the college campuses. The driving force seems to be to eliminate any possibility of unfairness or hurting anyone’s feelings. To accomplish this, we are told that one word is better to use than another word, even if they have the same meaning, because the words themselves can hurt. So we are told that “intellectually impaired” is better than “stupid”, for example.
In view of the rather outlandish requirements that this series of memes puts on our belief systems, it is doubtful that they will survive. There is a limit to what you can make reasonably intelligent people believe!
Religion has had a great deal of success with memes. In fact, for anyone wanting to do research on the impact of memes, this is probably your best laboratory. There are many memes associated with religion, of which only a few are listed here. The memes listed here are associated with the Christian religion but in most cases are applicable to all religions.
- Infallibility of the Bible
- If you don’t rely totally on blind faith, you are a creep!
- The power of prayer
- Heaven will be your home after this life
- Converting others will help you get to heaven
- Sending your money to God’s representatives is what God wants you to do
All of these memes have proven to be very successful in promoting Christianity.
Much of the discussion above on “Political Correctness” applies to academia. However, there are a few more peculiar memes that thrive in that environment.
This well entrenched meme holds that academic freedom is more important than the welfare of the students — or maybe, even the university. During my personal experience as a professor in a public university, no administrator ever sat in my class room to evaluate my capabilities! Instead of Computer Science, I could have been teaching flatulence control (and doing a bad job of it, possibly) for all they cared.
“We need more research to understand the world better”
Poppycock! We need research to promote the selfish interests of the universities and the professors. This meme costs the taxpayers a few bucks!
“Doctoral Dissertations make major contributions to our understanding of the world”
Ha! Go read some of them!
“We should cooperate”
Social scientists say that the genes would have us look only after our own selfish interests even when cooperating would be better. But, thanks to some powerful memes, most people seem to want to cooperate even when it may not be in their best interests to do so. This behavior is apparently caused by a good meme, the idea that we should cooperate.
“We are all created equal”
Of course, we are not. We do have — somewhat — equal protection under the law, but we have vastly different capabilities, most of which result from birth and the circumstances we were born into.
Is this a good meme? Consider this your homework assignment. 🙂
The quite incomplete list of memes presented above constantly and continuously try to control our lives. It is obvious that a few are good but, in my judgment, many are bad. One thing is for certain: it is not in your best interests to totally resign to the control of memes.
But can you do anything about it? Certainly.
If we accept that many of our actions are meme based and therefore can be changed, we have the potential to improve our lives by evaluating the memes and overriding those that we believe have the potential to do us harm.
But how do we override memes? They are just as powerful as genes and they color our thinking, right? True, but they can be overridden by applying the rules of logic.
For example, after a person has accepted that certain memes are enhancing or interfering with their love life, that person should examine these memes under the microscope of rigid logic. Up until recently, there was a meme that said it is bad to masturbate. OK, let’s take a look at it. What exactly is bad about it? Is there really any correlation between masturbation and our visual difficulties? Not that anyone can prove. Is it sinful? You will have to decide that. What else? Not much. Another meme for the trash!
One useful tool in examining sexual mores is to ask, “What do animals do?”. After all, we are part of the animal kingdom and most of our sexual genes are common. But, as far as we know, the rest of the animals are not burdened (or blessed) with sexual memes. Based on this approach, you might ask, for example, is it OK for a female to have several lovers? Looks fairly common amongst the higher mammals. You take it from there. 🙂
But be careful. Some rules are not universal in the animal kingdom. For example, monogamy or polygamy; which is normal? No universal agreement here.
By selecting the good memes and chunking the bad ones, you should be able to greatly enhance your life and to avoid dropping a pile of your hard earned cash at the local shrink. Your friends will appreciate it too.
“Memes Meta-Memes and Politics”
By H. Keith Henson, (on the Internet)
Memetics: A Systems Metabiology, Version 950220, by Ron Hale-Evans, [email protected] (on the Internet)
Dennett, Daniel C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.
Dawkins, Richard. (1989). The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press. Second edition
Dawkins, R. (1993b) "Viruses of the Mind" in: Free Inquiry, summer 1993, vol 13 nr 3 (on the Internet at: <http://phenom.physics.wisc.edu/~shalizi/Dawkins/ viruses-of-the-mind.html>)
Leon Felkins says:I am a retired engineer (Computer Systems) and educator. I now happily spend much of my time on the study of philosophy — a lifelong interest but one that could not be pursued in depth while I was employed. When my fingers tire of communicating with my cyber-friends, I relax by playing with my garden and my animals here on a small farm on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. My non-technical publications include one essay on “A Theory of Cooperation” in Free Inquiry; Spring, 1989.