Sciencewriters & Science Archive


Dangerous Ideas: Memes and the New Orwellianism

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

"If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that too." - Somerset Maugham

"The two enemies of the people are criminals and government, so let us tie the second down with the chains of the Constitution so the second will not become the legalized version of the first." – Thomas Jefferson

They are the new biological warfare, the ultimate propaganda weapon—weapons that make more of themselves—inside your and your neighbor's heads.

Units of cultural information that replicate have been called a variety of names—mnemes, mnemotypes, culturetypes, and idenes—before their current name caught on and, as befits the concept to which it refers, proliferated like there's no tomorrow. Which there may not be.

Memes—the notion of self-replicating bits of culture—are a seductive, slippery concept, vigorously debated in some corners of academia. And while I am serious in saying that they are easily deployed not just in marketing and church, but in counterintelligence and propaganda, they can also be merely banal or annoying. For example, snippets of song you may not even like but can't get out of your head…"say I'd like to know, where you got the notion…Our love is like a ship on the ocean…rock the boat, don't rock the boat, baby…”—The Hues Corporation.

Memes take the form of clothing fashions, religious ideas, and technologies—anything that can replicate, not by genes (although they are ultimately involved) but by the monkey-see-monkey-do imitative tendencies—the mimesis from which their name derives—of the species Homo sapiens sapiens.

Memes were first brought to the world's attention by the erstwhile Richard Dawkins, who has himself morphed into a kind of meme, becoming not just a name but a cultural symbol—for atheism, and for Darwinism, especially neoDarwinism which considers genes to be the persistent physical core of evolution, with animals and species being mere vehicles for their persistence and spread.

Dawkins's name (quite similar to Darwin's, as if it were a nonlethal mutation) reproduces from text to text, and is invoked by atheists requiring ammunition against creationists and theocrats, as well as religionists attacking secular humanism and academics decrying the limitations of biological determinism. Dawkins as meme replicates not only on the spines of bestsellers, but in documentaries, talk shows, and on television in the famous South Park episode where he is portrayed buggering a bald transvestite.

Which illustrates one of the crucial differences between memes and things: memes do not die when you attack them. They spread.

If you drop a bomb on a building it can be destroyed. But if you attack an idea, complain about or lampoon an image, as in the Dawkins parody episode of South Park, you will tend to reinforce rather than destroy it.

Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky made precisely this point regarding a building and the events of the destruction of the Trade Towers and Building 7 on 9/11/2001 makes his assertion glaringly obvious: the images and ideas of these buildings, the controversies and questions surrounding them, photographs of and emotions connected with them, have proliferated in the wake of the their collapse.

There are a great variety of elements that use the nutritive broth of imitative humans to replicate rather than the double helical chemistry unveiled in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson. In his novel Daimon and his TED talk, software engineer Daniel Suarez chronicles the spread of “bots”—programs involved in gathering marketing data and surveillance that increase corporate efficiency, and give the cognoscenti greater powers of espionage.

According to Suarez, the bots seem innocuous, but they dangerously concentrate societal control in the hands of the few, chipping away at the ideal of democracy and traditional Western liberal values.

Perhaps truly innocuous is RepRap. The term refers to an odd-looking tabletop device that can accomplish 3-dimensional copying of rubber and ceramic objects; its memetic gravitas derives from the fact that the mostly plastic machine, despite its decidedly low-tech look, can reproduce, with its modified glue gun, most of its own parts. It has devoted afficionados, hobbyists excited to own the means of production, as well as the means of producing production; these mostly male hobbyists have scaled down the suburban garage, indulging their ingenuity to copy, sans genes, stuff that so far nobody seems to need. But memes, from the flags at nationalist political rallies to yo-yos to motorcycles and hulahoops, seem to take on a life of their own.

The high priestess of memes, Susan Blackmore (author of The Meme Machine, with an intro by Dawkins) even argues that memes drove the evolutionary enlargement of our ancestors' brains, giving them more room to multiply—certainly the reverse of the usual way we think about it. Blackmore may be putting the cart before the horse, but it is certainly an arresting contention.

The recognition that nonliving units exist, and that in some cases they undergo differential rates of reproduction—satisfying the basic requirements for natural selection to take place—broadens significantly the real areas subject to Darwinian selection, which Blackmore calls “the single greatest idea that anyone has ever had.” (Never mind that Jean-Baptiste Lamark, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, and Charles's grandpa Erasmus had already put forth the idea, making it actually itself a transferred meme, which Darwin developed and appropriated, but did not invent.)

Referencing the phrase and title of Daniel Dennet's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Blackmore provides some startling, if unexpected examples. Her TED Talk begins with the toilet paper triangulation of the first demurely folded sheet, an innovation, she assures us, meant to signify cleanliness but is really just a meme that has propagated successfully through the lodging and tourism industries.  She points out that the result of someone else's fingers on your toilet tissue brings no necessary assurance of extraordinary hygiene.

Memes are rather mischievous like this, seeming to replicate not because they necessarily add meaning, truth, or value to our lives, but simply because they can. Indeed, they often seem like the part of the genome considered superfluous, the so-called “redundant DNA.”

At a recent meeting of Darwinists celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species at Balliol College in Oxford, England, Dawkins leaned on the example of two different species of salamander—but for all appearances very similar organisms—one of which has many more genes. This example Dawkins takes as solid proof of his core idea that what is real in evolution—what stays, via replication—are the genes.

The rest, even the animals favored as the units of evolution by Chas Darwin, are ultimately expendable, as Dawkins says, “vehicles” for the conveyance of those true actors, the genes. In other words, Dawkins is saying that genes are selfish, replicating as much as they can, and their copying behaviors don't necessarily enhance the survival of the vehicles that convey them, as is testified by the presence of the “junk,” or “redundant” DNA with no known coding function.

But now genes have competition, the memes. Blackmore, perhaps the most genial of the reproductive determinists, is fearless in her defense and application of the concept of meme. Eschewing the infighting among her own ranks of memeticists who have argued heatedly over whether memes should include artifacts or be confined only to beliefs, ideas, etc. replicating via human brains, Blackmore casts two of what she sees as the three major turning points of the evolution of life on Earth in terms of memes and their selfish shenanigans.

The first major threshold was of course when chemical matter began to faithfully replicate as genes, a.k.a. the origin of life. Next, a brief three and a half billion years later, came the origin of memes, the little bastards bloating human heads to make more room for their dastardly activities.  Then…drum roll…with the origin of technologically reproduced human artifacts, which Blackmore christens “temes,” the triumvirate of revolutionary evolutionary innovations is—for now—concluded.

I have to admit, Blackmore may have a point—and I like her style. I mean who wouldn't enjoy looking at the spread of triangulated toilet paper rolls to the most remote corners of the ecotouristed Earth at the beginning of a lecture on evolution's major transitions? It sure beats listening to a string theorist drone on about incomprehensible unseen dimensions, or even trying to follow the chemical reaction arrows in a diagram of the Krebs' cycle.

Plus, yours truly once had a science fiction idea that if future archaeologists were to dig up our planet several hundred years hence, after our inevitable extinction, they would be tempted, seeing the great proliferation of beer cans and flip tops encrusted in our surface, to postulate a fascinating radiation of cylindrical beings with durable lightweight aluminum exoskeletons. And who knows what kind of extinct beings they would concoct from the interpretation of used condoms as trace or body fossils?

But is all that we see or seem nothing but a me within a meme?

I do think memes fall prey to a kind of pathology of Platonic abstraction, where the phenomenal world (with its many cycles, recurring themes and reproducing beings) takes a convenient backseat to imagined ideal forms. The real world is messier.

Systems thinking teaches us that reproducing systems reproduce because of the integration of their parts, making it specious to identify a central agent of unique worth in the integrated cycle. Where is the point that “begins” the circle? A parent can claim that his lovemaking represents the cause of his child's existence, but what about his parents' lovemaking, or the instinctive biochemical processes that mold an embryo from a zygote?

Another problem with memes is the way the reproductive model dispenses with the notion of thought. It turns out that autistic children and schizophrenics are more likely to define things by repeating, rather than relating them. I recall teaching a young boy with Asperger syndrome the correct use of pronouns. Before our rather entertaining discussion on a porch in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, he would answer a question such as “Do you want a piece of candy?” by repeating it.

Moving my index finger from me to him to indicate who was speaking, I would say, “No—not do I want a piece, but do you want a piece.” And so it went, until Johnnie was no longer memetically repeating but empathizing with the first person perspective of another person.

Similarly, author Philip K. Dick, sensitive to schizophrenics' tendencies to repeat rather than interpret phrases in their definitions, showcases in We Can Build You (1972; two years before his own schizophrenic break) a character who fails to correctly answer the meaning of the proverb, “A rolling stone gathers no moss.” He tries a variety of answers, including "a man who's active and doesn't let grass grow under his feet, he'll get ahead in life," but they all tend toward the literal, and he accepts that "for the purposes of legal diagnosis" he had revealed "a schizophrenic thinking disorder." 

The Voight-Kampff test, in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (made via interpretation not mimesis into Blade Runner), is used to distinguish humans from androids, which are good at copying but lack empathy.

Memes copy, but it is a shallow process. We can see this in education too, where informational regurgitation remains a far cry from thinking. So there seems to be a serious conflict between the replication of memes and real thinking, which, Blackmore's meme machines notwithstanding, seems to have been crucial to humanity's spread across the Earth.

For me the most frightening aspect of the new “science” of memetics is the light it shines on the modern engines of Orwellian propaganda. It is rather obvious that rumors, errors, and paranoia, let loose in the nutrient broth of the Internet, can spread like wildfire. But what worries me about this is not so much the conspiracy theories, but the Machiavellian technique of purposefully attaching misinformation to critical thinking to deflect serious questions, curtailing our ability to keep tabs on the government.

The extremely level-headed and meticulous 9-11 scholar David Ray Griffin, points out in his latest bookCognitive Infiltration: An Obama Appointee's Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory—that Cass Sunstein, appointed by Obama, has published a position paper on the “cognitive isolation” of those who believe that 9-11 was an inside job.

Instead of letting bygones be bygones, some of these ingenues harp on annoying details such as the melting point of steel (1000 degrees F. higher than kerosene-based jet fuels), and the aerodynamic impossibility (due to air's density increasing closer to the ground) of planes flying 560 miles per hour at 1000 feet (part of the official account.) It's one thing for the government to suspend constitutional laws, destroying civil freedoms and protections in the name of liberty and security. It's another thing entirely to suspend scientific laws such as the Galilean formula for gravitational acceleration, which applies in a perfect vacuum, not to falling skyscrapers encountering friction from their own structural concrete and steel.

Overturning the laws of physics continues to be a challenge for this administration as it was for the previous one. Still, I suppose science education has improved somewhat compared to the old days when a nut like Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake, his tongue tied to a tree limb to prevent from further spreading his crazy ideas about life in space and the Earth moving around the sun. (The fickle public, apparently even more critcial then, threatened not to attend any more public executions if the authorities continued their evil scheme of silencing the screams of heretics.) Far more effective than open debate among experts about science and evidence, it turns out, is to seed the web with electronically replicating rumors.

Sunstein's version? "Cognitive diversity.” By which he means introducing, surreptitiously if need be, more “informed” opinions to balance out the freakishly annoyingly persistent fantastically inappropriate questions of the 911 conspiracy mental cases.

Rather than delve into the morass, I wish only to call your attention to the role of memes in all this. If there is a cheaper way than the new biological warfare of memes to propagate counterintelligence and damage control, rather than honestly addressing the questions of pilots, engineers, scientists, emergency medical technicians and relatives of loved ones of whom not so much as a bone has been found, I wouldn't be able to tell you what it is.

Memes' tendency for spreading without regard to truth cannot have been overlooked by those who wish to obscure or keep hidden certain kinds of "sensitive" information.

The Southern Poverty Law Center used to be my favorite charity. Now, in recent issues of their once-fine publication The Intelligence Report (which chronicles hate groups), they have begun to conflate any group that criticizes the government – for example on the status of the Federal Reserve as a private corporation, the voluntary nature of the federal income tax code, or why Building 7, which wasn't hit by a plane, came down on 9-11—with truly nasty hate groups such as the Sovereigns, the Patriots, and Neo-Nazis. "The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes," wrote founding father Thomas Paine, anticipating George Orwell. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

The attachment of liberal values such as tolerance and diversity to Machiavellian corporate-imperialist agendas is a form of what one could call memejacking. You associate the baby of good memes with the bathwater of your nefarious goals, or, contrariwise, you associate idiotic ideas with the good questions or noble courses of action you want to discredit. For example, I may say your questions about the inconsistencies and the internal contradictions of the official account of 9-11 are quite valid—and it is also amazing how many believe in that fake moon landing.

It is not hard to imagine how our putative leaders, drunk on realpolitik, think. Schooled in Strauss's literal readings of Nietzsche, believers in Plato's double politics, one for the masses, one for the philosopher kings, and cocksure about the necessity for murderous triage in an increasingly overpopulated and ideological world, they have opted for an amoral Nietzscheanism that creates political reality by Machiavellian machination and image manipulation.

In our increasingly Orwellian world, on the oasis of the intrinsically democratic Internet, questions about logical gaps, changing and mutually contradictory official stories, and scientific impossibilities can propagate (along with sobering histories of false flag operations).

But so, of course, in this memetic medium, can any fruitcake theories or demonstrably false assertions with which such questions are packaged. Oligarchs have never really cozied up to the notion of freedom—except of course freedom for them. Packaging counterintelligence programs as cognitive diversity—or, indeed, repackaging Bush's national security state as Obama's new, culturally more inclusive America—may, unfortunately, be a memetic scheme.

In the buoyantly propagative medium of public opinion, imperialist agendas can be appended—memejacked—to enduring liberal values like “freedom” and “diversity.” Like a genetically engineered contagion, but working on the mind rather than the body, Internet memes represent a threat to our freedom, and a challenge to critical thinking and the search for truth.

Read the original article at the Wild River Review.

deathandsex Dorion Sagan is co-author of Death and Sex.

My Father

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

My father's work made science cool. He showed that it was good to be smart, to be open to wonder but also critical, both of superstition and political authority. The universe was our home. Space exploration and evolution were part of a story based on evidence that belonged to all humanity, not a religious or political elite looking out for their own interests. He criticized Congress (most of whom are lawyers) for not knowing science, and he empowered the public by revealing the multicultural truth of our belonging to a cosmos that was beautiful, understandable, and open to human discovery. He showed not only that science belonged to everybody, but that a scientifically educated public was necessary for the health of society. In short he used television to democratize the advances of the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

Cosmos was one of the most watched TV programs in history, and it wasn't drama or sports but the story of who, what, why, when, and where we are. Rather than being local or international news, it was cosmic news: a taking-stock and popularization of where we are in our voyage of self-discovery of the cosmos from which we have evolved. Although Jacob Bronowski had preceded and paved the way for my father in his TV series The Ascent of Man, and David Attenborough had expanded the form in his nature series, my father inaugurated and embodied the idea of exciting television that was about the beauty and truth of our place in a universe that is far bigger than humanity. He showed science as both an intellectual adventure and a spiritual experience. As the Protestants dispensed with priests to show that the individual could have a personal relationship with God, so my father showed that anybody on the planet, employing the nondenominational method of science, could have a personal understanding of the cosmos—a kind of God (the God of Einstein and Spinoza) but one that was open to rational and mathematical inquiry.

Cosmos may be dated in terms of production value and special effects, and certain scientific and philosophical aspects of it could be tweaked, but its spirit remains timeless. Because of the backsliding in science education, in some ways it is more relevant than when it appeared. The emphasis on evolutionary biology, scientific history, critical thinking, free inquiry and the role of evidence in the growth of humanity's understanding in a universe that dwarfs us and in which we are not masters but an immature life form—these continue to be crucial themes.

My father was unparalleled in his ability to convey the essence of science in poetic language. He was pleasant to look at, hypnotic to listen to, and the conviction and enthusiasm of his presentations—which took the form of a moral imperative for us to know ourselves—were infectious. I miss him; the world misses him. He was not just a good popularizer, but a man in love with the truth. He was not afraid of the powers that be or, if he was, he had the courage to face them in the name of a cosmic human heritage that transcended class, sex, and racial-cultural differences. He oversaw a leap from an age of science fiction to an age of scientific reality, where we really did go to the moon and beyond. He was asked to lend his image to advertising campaigns—but he steadfastly refused. Although he was famous, he was motivated to educate and empower through science, not to cash in or compromise. Here he differs from the many celebrities and sports stars who do not think twice about attaching their name to a product to make money.

When my father as a child became interested in numbers, his father indulged him by trying to count them as high as they could go–of course they went on forever; his mother took him to the library to find a book on stars and persevered beyond the initial advice from the librarian to look at a book of Hollywood stars. Parents need to learn some science but, more importantly, to stay open minded as well as critical as they encourage their curious youngsters to pursue their interests in a new world of informational riches. Is the sun a star? Why is the sky blue? How old is the universe? Where do I come from? What sometimes seem like inexplicable mysteries often have scientific answers. The sky is blue because oxygen atoms are the right size to bounce around blue wavelength light. They are even better at reflecting ultraviolet light, which we can't see but bees can. The sky is not even blue for everybody. Moreover oxygen gas only became prevalent in the atmosphere two billion years ago, so even if we were there to see it the sky wouldn't always have looked blue. Science is a thrilling adventure that begins with simple questions.

My father's example influenced me both directly and indirectly, as well as by counter-example. As a boy he told me stories about collapsing stars and black holes, about time travel and space exploration that he would later explain to the world. I felt abandoned by him when my parents split when I was five but we still talked and had many fascinating intellectual discussions. His emphasis on natural and rational explanation, of intellectual exploration and critical appraisal—of learning—continues to be empowering and enlightening. The hard-won heritage of the ancient Greeks, of the Italian Renaissance and the Scientific Enlightenment belongs to us all. I have collaborated with my mother to show the role of ancient evolutionary history, which stretches beyond primates and other animals to symbiotic environment-changing bacteria. And I have explored the simple but profound question of why we are here in material terms; it turns out that all life shares traits with nonliving systems that maintain complexity and grow to accommodate energy's tendency to spread—life seems to be a natural form of energy transformation in a thermodynamic universe. My father's emphasis on returning to the classics, integrating science with philosophy and history, and looking to science and the simplicity and beauty of universal truths continues to be a source of inspiration in my own work.

Most scientists, like most people, are not very articulate. And if they can articulate their thoughts and results, responsible working scientists in the academic world do not like to see their careful and qualified descriptions butchered and truncated by the news media which, requiring advertising revenues, is more concerned with sensational headlines and selling newspapers or time slots than the quest for truth. Scientists working for corporations may be prohibited from discussing their results, and these results in turn may have little of universal importance but more to do with making money for their sponsors. Moreover, the average working scientist in both the academic and the corporate setting is too much of a specialist to say much of interest to the general public. Corporate influence, media sloppiness and sensationalization, and scientific overspecialization all make it difficult to communicate science to the public. There is no easy solution but we should always encourage both curiosity and critical thinking. I believe both philosophy and science should be taught from an early age. Kids need to know not only that it is okay to be wrong, but that science is a continuous process of learning from mistakes and moving on. People want certainty and authorities to provide answers; they tend to care more about being right and belonging than finding out, and the modern media thrives on short attention spans and emotional reactions. But science and philosophy are about thinking things through carefully, looking for consistency and beauty, staying critical and enduring uncertainties in the search for truth.

I would say that literature, philosophy, and history are important background disciplines that must be learned before “science” can be fully communicated. Science has a long cultural history. My father described it as a means of error-correction. If you are a reporter and you simply relay what a scientist tells you, you are not doing your whole job. You must keep an open and critical mind—be scientifically minded yourself—to most effectively convey science in the breezy news world of today. Samuel Butler in the 19th century said scientists are the priests of the modern age and must be watched very closely. Science is so effective that scientists and scientific spokesmen are considered authorities. But, as my father emphasized, science belongs to the people and its methods and results must be studied by everybody if we are to thrive, or even survive, as a species.

My father would have been ecstatic about the discovery of extrasolar planets, and he would have focused the world's wonder on them in their particulars in ways that have not been done. The Internet was already underway when he died but its recent rapid growth would have posed new problems and opportunities for him. On the one hand, there is a very low threshold for truth on the Internet; lies and rumors, conspiracies and pseudoscience, mediocrity and misinformation flourish. On the other hand, it is arguably the greatest boon to democracy since the invention of voting. Similarly, genomics and bioinformatics may have both excited and worried him. For example, gene sequencing has recently shown that Hitler had both African American and Jewish genes—showing the hypocrisy of racist ideology and underscoring our Darwinian relatedness. But market-based genetic testing could also be a new doorway into eugenics and different forms of exploitation and racism and class exclusion. It would be fascinating to see how my father put science and politics and technology together, as only he could, if he were alive today.

Read the original essay at Kepler.nasa.gov.

Dorion Sagan is the author of, most recently, Death and Sex.