January 28, 2006

Memes and Outlooks in Greg Egan’s Diaspora

By the year 2975, humanity has split into three main groupings: fleshers who have opted to remain on Earth in a physical form, the citizens who either uploaded themselves into supercomputer polises with introdus nanoware or who were born in the polises as software, and the widely mistrusted gleisner robots who are busy exploring the physical solar system.

The question which animates Parts One and Two of Greg Egan’s Diaspora is: Just how deep do memes go?

[warning: there are a few plot spoilers here, but not many more than are contained in the blurb on the back of the book. This post also only deals with Parts One and Two of Diaspora – the Earthbound prelude - and does not scratch the surface of the truly mind-boggling tale of the Diaspora itself. Neither does it touch on Egan’s hints that allowing exponential growth to take place is the highpoint of idiocy...]

By 2975, the fleshers and the citizens have mutated into smaller subgroups. Flesher populations have diverged to such an extent, due to various genetic experiments and mutations, that they are becoming new species unable to communicate with each other. One branch of humanity, the bridgers, has actually taken upon itself the task of communicating between the varieties of humans:

‘We call ourselves bridgers. When the founders came here from Turin, three centuries ago, they had a very specific plan. You know there’ve been thousands of artificial genetic changes in different flesher populations, since the Introdus?’ She gestured at a large picture behind her, and the portrait faded, to be replaced by a complex, upside down tree diagram. ‘Different exuberants have made modifications to all kinds of characteristics. Some have been simple, pragmatic adaptations for new diets or habitats: digestive, metabolic, respiratory, muscular-skeletal.’ Images flashed up from different points on the tree: amphibious, winged, and photosynthetic exuberants, close-ups of modified teeth, diagrams of altered metabolic pathways...

‘Often, habitat changes have also demanded neural modifications to provide appropriate new instincts; no one can thrive in the ocean, for example, without the right hardwired reflexes.’ A slick-skinned amphibious flesher rose slowly through emerald water, a faint stream of bubbles emerging from flaps behind vis ears...

‘Some neural changes have gone far beyond new instincts, though.’ The tree thinned out considerably – but were still thirty or forty current branches left. ‘There are species of exuberants who’ve changed aspects of language, perception, and cognition.’

Inoshiro said, ‘Like the dream apes?’

Liana nodded. ‘At one extreme. Their ancestors stripped back the language centres to the level of higher primates. They still have stronger general intelligence than any other primate, but their material culture has been reduced dramatically – and they can no longer modify themselves, even if they want to. I doubt that they even understand their own origins any more.

‘The dream apes are the exception though – a deliberate renunciation of possibilities. Most exuberants have tried more constructive changes: developing new ways of mapping the physical world into the minds, and adding specialised neural structures to handle the new categories. There are exuberants who can manipulate the most sophisticated, abstract concepts in genetics, meteorology, biochemistry or ecology as intuitively as any static can think about a rock or a plant or an animal with the “commons sense” about those things which comes from a few million years of evolution. And there are others who’ve simply modified ancestral neural structures to find out how that changes their thinking – who’ve headed out in search of new possibilities, with no specific goals in mind.’

...‘The only trouble with all this exploration is ... some species of exuberants have changed so much that they can’t communicate with anyone else any more. Different groups have rushed off in their own directions, trying out new kinds of minds – and now they can barely make sense each other, even with software intermediaries. It’s not just a question of language – or at least not the simple question that language was for the statics, when everyone had basically identical brains. Once different communities start carving up the world into different categories, and caring about wildly different things, it becomes impossible to have have a global culture in anything like the pre-Introdus sense. We’re fragmenting. We’re losing each other.’ [73-5]

One of the privileges of science fiction is to be able to jump so far into the future that the ‘ethical issues’ contemporary homo sapiens agonizes over – genetic engineering, cloning, nanotech, AI - have become basic facts of life. Yet, as with all good science fiction, this leap forward also gets to the core of what is at stake in the contemporary anxieties.

It is fitting that the dream apes, the human population who have reprogrammed themselves to regress back to primate ignorance, have two characteristics in common with some branches of present humanity: they have opted to relinquish the ability to modify themselves genetically, and they do not understand their origins.

In Egan’s envisaged world, the refusal to evolve and the desire to retrogress, espoused from a stubbornly maintained moral high ground, are exposed as nothing more than disastrous cowardice and parochial intellectual narrowness. Even the open-minded fleshers - the bridgers and and experimental exuberants - are plagued with crippling paranoia and mistrust of non-flesher intelligence and information: when offered an escape from certain, imminent disaster they are ultimately more afraid of leaving their bodies that they are of death. The fleshers define humanity as having a physical body and living on Earth, but from the perspective of the coalition citizens this definition amounts to nothing more than an irrational, petrified clinging to absurd restrictions at the best of times, but which are utterly incomprehensible in the face of certain, involuntary death.

Egan’s ‘explanation’ for this fearful refusal to give up the physical human form comes in his subtle hints as to the role memes have played in shaping flesher history and in his his more explicit descriptions of how the polis citizens have consciously designed ‘outlooks’ to replace memes.

Polis citizens are immortal, which has its drawbacks. They have a lot of time on their hands, especially if they choose to experience time slowly and get more value for their ‘tau’. Plus they do not sleep, unless they are traveling for light years, from one side of the universe to the other. While some polises are committed to a principled relationship with the physical world, the citizens of Konishi Polis have abandoned the laws of physics all together and tend to occupy themselves with mathematics. The orphan Yatima is a born ‘truth miner’ who is being led astray by the more rebellious and artistically inclined Inoshiro.

'Yatima knew that Radiya, and most other miners, used outlooks to keep themselves focused on their work. Any citizen with a mind broadly modelled on a flesher’s was vulnerable to drift: the decay over time of even the most cherished goals and values, Flexibility was an essential part of the flesher legacy, but after a dozen computational equivalents of the pre-Introdus lifespan, even the most robust personality was liable to unwind into an entropic mess. None of the polises’ founders had chosen to build pre-determined stabilizing mechanisms into their basic designs, though, less the entire species ossify into tribes of self-perpetuating monomaniacs, parasitised by a handful of memes. It was judged far safer for each citizen be free to choose from a wide variety of outlooks: software that could run inside your exoself and reinforce the qualities you valued most, if and when you felt the need for such an anchor. The possibilities for short-term cross-cultural experimentation were almost incidental.

Each outlook offered a slightly different package of values and aesthetics, often built up from the ancestral reasons-to-be-cheerful that still lingered to some degree in most citizens’ minds: Regularities and periodicities – rhythms like days and seasons. Harmonies and elaborations, in sounds and images, and in ideas. Novelty. Reminiscence and anticipation. Gossip, companionship, empathy, compassion. Solitude and silence. There was a continuum which stretched all the way from trivial aesthetic preferences to emotional associations to the cornerstones of morality and identity.' (50-1)

Both memes and outlooks provide deep level stability for the intelligence they shape and motivate: intelligence derived from the furiously-adaptive, restless mammalian brain. Both have the potential to be architects of deep structure and determine behaviour on a fundamental psychological level; their scope and extent dependent on their programming. The difference seems to be that memes are parasitic replicators which take root in their hosts without their consent, while outlooks are used more like recreational drugs: their software is installed for a specific purpose, for example to keep an intelligence on task, or to appreciate a work of art. However, outlooks can be highly addictive, which is to say they have the potential to parasitise the citizens: Yatima scans the outlook offered by Inoshiro for its parasitical potential; parents in the polis frown on the use of certain outlooks by artistic-minded youths...

When Yatima and Inoshiro clone themselves and embed the clones in empty gleisner robots they have found on Earth, they come across ‘a small piece of corroded metal’ in the undergrowth.

“ ‘Replicator!’

Yatima turned back and angled for a better view; the interface made vis body crouch. ‘It’s just an empty canister.’ It was almost crushed flat, but there was still paint clinging to the metal in places, the colours faded to barely distinguishable greys...

... Inoshiro spoke in a hushed, sickened voice. ‘Pre-Introdus, this was pandemic. Distorted whole nations’ economies. It had hooks into everything: sexuality, tribalism, half a dozen art forms and subcultures ... it parasitised the fleshers so thoroughly you had to be some kind of desert monk to escape it.’

Yatima regarded the pathetic object dubiously, but they had no access to the library now, and vis knowledge of the era was patchy. ‘Even if there are traces left inside, I’m sure they’re all immune to it by now. And it could hardly infect us-‘

Inoshiro cut ver off impatiently. ‘We’re not talking nucleotide viruses here. The molecules themselves were just a random assortment of junk – mostly phosphoric acid; it was the memes they came wrapped up in that made them virulent.’ Ve bent down lower, and cupped vis hands over the container. ‘And who knows how small a fragment it can bootstrap from? I’m not taking any chances.’ [66-7}

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the discovery of memes is on the eve of its thousandth anniversary in 2975. Memes have come a long way since their conception in The Selfish Gene. The pandemic meme plague hinted at in the passage above suggests that by the time Yatima and Inoshiro visit Earth, meme transmission has evolved considerably beyond the description of meme transmission given by Richard Dawkins in 1976:

“I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. `Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like `gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to `memory', or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with `cream'.

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 leaping from body to body via sperms 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. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.”


By 2975, meme transmission appears to have become more sophisticated than mere imitation via language and concepts. Yatima and Inoshiro stumble upon a meme canister which spread memes via biological weaponry: viruses coated with memes. The memes were far more virulent than the biological viruses they traveled with. This is not surprising, as Dawkins informed us memes are evolving at a rate which leaves genes ‘panting behind.’ Yet if memes have evolved considerably in the manner of their transmission, their symptoms are basically the same as they were in 1976: they latch onto the economy and sexuality: “Distorted whole nations’ economies. It had hooks into everything: sexuality, tribalism, half a dozen art forms and subcultures ...”

In 2996, when the fleshers face certain death from a gamma ray catastrophe, Yatima and Inoshiro return to Earth as clones in gleisner robots with the aim of persuading fleshers to upload. The resistance they meet is basically memetic:

“Francesca moderated the responses. The first came from the representatives of an enclave of statics; he spoke a dialect of English, so the interface slipped the language into Yatima’s mind.

‘You are shameless. We expect no honour from the simulacra of the shadows of departed cowards, but will you never give up trying to wipe the last trace of vitality from the face of the Earth?’ The static laughed hmuourlessly. ‘Dis you honestly believe that you could frighten us with this risible fairy tale of “quarks” and “gamma rays: raining from the sky, and then we’d all file meekly into your insipid virtual paradise? Did you imagine that a few cheap, shocking words would send us fleeing from the real world of pain and ecstasy into your nightmare of perfectibility?’ He gazed down at them with a fascinated loathing. ‘Why can’t you stay inside your citadels of infinite blandness, and leave us in peace? We humans are fallen creatures; we’ll never come crawling on our bellies into your ersatz Garden of Eden. I tell you this: there will always be flesh, there will always be sin, there will always be dreams and madness, war and famine, torture and slavery.’

Even with the language graft, Yatima could make little sense of this, and the translation into Modern Roman was equally opaque. Ve dredged the library for clarification; half the speech seemed to consist of references to a virulent family of Palestinian theistic replicators.

Ve whispered to Francesca, dismayed, ‘I thought religion was long gone, even among the statics.’

‘God is dead, but the platitudes linger.’ Yatima couldn’t bring verself to ask whether torture and slavery also lingered, but Francesca seemed to read vis face, and added, ‘Including a lot of confused rhetoric about free will. Most statics aren’t violent, but they view the possibility of atrocities as essential for virtue – what philosophers call “the Clockwork Orange fallacy”. So in their eyes, autonomy makes the polises a kind of amoral hell, masquerading as Eden.’

It is intriguing that Egan’s citizens view a pessimistic view of human nature to be a lingering symptom of ‘virulent Palestinian theistic replicators’. This goes against Hobbesian and Burkean pessimistic-conservatism, and the Pinkeresque mapping of human psychology, which present homo sapiens as bundled with all sorts of nasty ‘passions’ or bio-programs in a ‘state of nature’ prior to the arrival of memes.

Pinker’s argument in How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate is, to put it crudely, that the human brain evolved to be pessimistic because of the adversity and turmoil human ancestors had to contend with in the distant evolutionary past. The emotions are weighted towards pessimism: there are four negative emotions (fear, anger, disgust and sadness), one neutral emotion (surprise) and just one positive emotion (joy), and this imbalance is part of our ancestry for the simple reason that negative emotions tend to save lives. From the perspective of contemporary evolutionary psychology, memes cannot take all the blame for human pessimism. In fact, evolutionary psychology has to admit that Abrahamic meme replicators contain a great deal of truth in their picture of the soul as a battleground which a permanent set of (largely negative) desires are forever competing for control of.

Egan seems to be suggesting that memes have the capacity to insinuate themselves far deeper than we are aware, to the point where even science is still unwittingly conditioned by residual meme code buried deep in the structure of the human psyche. In Diaspora, memes and outlooks do not merely occupy a host intelligence – they rewrite and shape it at a fundamental operating level. The question then becomes: how could a ‘scientific’ brain that is infected with deep traces of Abrahamic replicators not find evidence of negative, pessimistic programming when it searches its evolutionary past?

Obviously Egan’s citizens know far more about feedback processes than we do. Maybe it goes a bit like this: At some point in the distant past meme-replicators were conceived of, readily accepted and transmitted because of their apparent compatibility with the programming of the human genome. Once they took hold and they unloaded their packages, however, feedback processes would eventually enable them to rewrite the structure of the mind, to some extent at least, at the level of the emotions. Any mind still based on the basic ancestral structure is incapable of truly ridding itself of guiding meme subprograms until it redesigns itself in a post-Introdus polis.

However, even in the Polis the temptation of outlooks is too great for some:

‘Inoshiro smiles beatifically and held out vis hands. A white lotus flower blossomed from the centre of each palm, both emitting identical reference tags. Yatima hesitated, then followed their scent.

It was an old outlook, buried in the Ashton-Laval library, copied nine centuries before from one of the ancient memetic replicators replicators that had infested the fleshers. It imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving ... including explicit renunciations of every mode of reasoning able to illuminate the core belief’s failings.

Analysis with a standard tool confirmed that the outlook was universally self-affirming. Once you ran it, you could not change your mind. Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it.

Yatima said numbly, ‘You were smarter than that, stronget than that.’ [149]

Posted by sd at January 28, 2006 12:50 PM | TrackBack




Greg Egan's supplementary materials for Diaspora:


Posted by: sd at January 28, 2006 12:57 PM



sd - this is very clarifying. We're drowning in Dream Apes ...

The question of motivation is crucial IMHO. A nihilistic possibility arises that all purpose is entirely random (from a cosmic perspective), dependent entirely upon quasi-arbitrary evolutionary legacies. Some interesting discussions of this on various Singularity boards (e.g. those hosted at the Kurzweil site), where the largest menace to the future is seen as black-holing into hedonic engineering - very similar to Burroughs' vision of 'wire-heads'.
Why privilge 'onwards, upwards' as the extropians do? I like this attitude, but it's hard to ground it persuasively.

Posted by: Nick at January 30, 2006 04:09 AM



The two main motivations which guide the citizens in Diaspora are:

* scientific (mathematics & physics), which amounts to the pursuit of truth - a citizen can devote thousand of years to solving a physics problem that has a concrete outcome in the apparently dominant physical physical reality, e.g. a new means of transport.

* aesthetic (virtual scapes) - which might be driven by the pursuit of beauty, or the empathic desire to learn more via vicarious experience, or the desire to provoke.

Both of these can lead to virtual solipsism or pointless pleasure (e.g. living at high speed to watch mountains erode, just for kicks).

Aimless drift is a constant danger, mainly, it seems, because the coalition has grown out of war:

'I keep asking myself, though: where do we go from here? History can't guide us. Evolution can't guide us. The C-Z charter says 'understand and respect the universe'... but in what form? On what scale? With what kind of senses, what kinds of minds? We can become anything at all - and that space of possible futures dwarfs the galaxy. Can we explore it without losing the way? Fleshers used to spin fantasies alout aliens arriving to 'conquer Earth, to steal their 'precious' physical resources, to wipe them out for fear of competition ... as if a species capable of making the journey wouldn't have had the power, or the wit, or the imagination, to rid itself of obsolete biological imperatives. Conquering the galaxy is what bacteria with spaceships would do - knowing no better, having no choice.

'Our condition is the opposite of that: we have no end of choices. That's why we need to find another space-faring civilisation... [we] need to speak to others who've faced the same decisions, and discovered how to live, what to become. We need to understand what it means to inhabit the universe.' (214)

Egan's citizens have a greater tendency to pacifism than Butler's Oankali (who set out to steal your DNA to create new species, whether you like it or not). The citizens are on a more philosophical quest - motivated by the desire to communicate and understand.

Posted by: sd at January 30, 2006 09:33 AM



Regarding the depths which memes can get their hooks into, here's a question:

To what extent can memes rewrite the mind's emotional software? Or do they rather merely erase the superficial restraining programs of civilisation to unleash the default aggression is always there, straining at the leash?

There are obvious, well-recorded cases of how memetic programming (or, to be quaint, ideology) blocks, subverts or inverts 'normal' emotional responses: the Einsatzgruppen in Russia shot children before their mothers' eyes, then shot the mothers; at the death camps, those normally singled out for special care - the elderly, pregnant women, women with children, the sick - were selected to be sent straight to the gas chambers; the Leninist-Stalinist system programmed children to respect the Party more then their parents and encouraged them to denounce them; there were three year old children on the 9/11 flights...

It is possible to offer crude biological explanations for such behaviour, along the lines of 'killing another man's children is adaptive - it promotes the survival of the killer's genes.' Such an explanation could be supported by evidence of male monkeys annihilating the children of another group and would suggest that the meme activates aggressive bio-programs, rather than actively reshapes the mind's programming. The example of children denouncing their parents has been explained by the theory that male adolescents are programmed to compete with, and assert themselves against, their elders, particularly the alpha male [this is the thesis put forward in an extreme form by Howard Bloom: Chimpanzees and Romans at www.howardbloom.net/, The Chinese Cultural Revolution www.ukpoliticsmisc.org.uk/usenet_evidence/revolution.htm; and in a tamer form by Pinker]

While there is no doubt a lot of truth in these explanations, how memes work in the psyche is extremely complex and mysterious. Evolutionary psychology has a harder job of explaining apparently non-adaptive memes, such as asceticism. A meme that can induce prudish disgust with the body and sexuality does not tap into any default bio-program, at least not in any straightforward manner. Neither can evolutionary psychology fully explain the mania and psychoses which some memes clearly spread (the Nazi suicidal line of abolition; the idolisation mass murderers such as Lenin, Stalin and Mao) - there is no adaptive sense in worshipping an icon that can have you (and your family) tortured and packed off to freeze and starve to death.

Some memes seem to come bundled with righteousness programs, some with a Trojan horse full of insanity...

Posted by: sd at January 30, 2006 10:31 AM



sd - seems worth trying to hold two things apart, unless they rigorously collapse into each other:
1) Ethical impertives (most of the example in your two comments above) and relation to genoprogramming / memetics.
2) Motivation and its sources.

#1 seems IMHO more richly explored in the mainstream extant literature. The case of 'Buddhism' is interesting, however, in that it combines an exceptionally refined ethical sensibility with complete implosion of purposive dynamism. Even aesthetics is not intrinsically motivating (see Schopenhauer's occidental 'Buddhism' or at least 'Vedism') - Aesthetic appreciation does not propel to action without ancillary drivers.

Once "obsolete biological imperatives" have been overcome, what really remains? Does "the pursuit of truth" really substitute for reptile-brain motivation? Maybe I've read too much decadent German philosophy, but I have my doubts. The "will" deserves attention in its own right - vapid 'values' certainly don't subtitute for it (as the present state of supine European drift makes evident). There is no logical foundation to the passion for existence, let alone for growth, multiplication, onwards, upwards ... Crude and stubborn seems eminently capable of defeating sophisticated and nihilistic, through sheer residual resolve.

How do memes motivate? I need more on this. If they're gene-analogs, then they must be able to effectively direct (propel) behaviour? Seems like there must be a lot of impacted theory here, in need of unfolding ...

Posted by: Nick at January 30, 2006 12:42 PM



Nick - "Aesthetic appreciation does not propel to action without ancillary drivers."

It might be helpful to emphasize 'excess' at this point, and to distinguish between biological imperatives and psychological imperatives. Natural selection is blind and ruthless, but not miserly - the entire eukaryote trajectory could be described as excessive in comparison to the superbly economical prokaryotes. Building big-brained survival machines is a highly circuitous route to fulfill the purpose of gene transmission, so much so that an idealist might suspect a certain amount of pleasure is taken in the building. With the advent of the language instinct, which probably evolved as a result of environmental and competitive selection pressures (Toba, predators, other bipedal primates such as the Neanderthals), the brain of homo sapiens found itself 'over-capable' for the task of survival once those pressures eased off or were dealt with.

The outcome of this excess capacity would be the discomfort of sentience -or the agony of consciousness, if you have a melodramatic bent - wherein the blind genetic imperative to reproduce is laid bare in all its idiocy/horror. A number of strategies engineered and adopted in response, with varying degrees of consciousness: suicide; mythologizing and deifying the lineage; god(s); renunciation; other-worldly transcendence; hedonistic oblivion; shamanistic refusal... The psychological imperative would seem to be: make sense of this world so the brain can (decide to) deal with it (or not).

The citizens of Egan's Diaspora are no longer enslaved to any biological imperatives, and in a sense their intelligences are utterly pointless from a genetic point of view. They are stored as back-up copies throughout the coalition, so there is no need to worry too much about survival. They could clone themselves or reproduce ad infinitum if they had a mind to - but what would be the point? Being pure excess and capable of multiplying their excess exponentially, the citizens are acutely aware that they need to make sense of their existence - 'learn how to inhabit the universe'. The psychological imperative seems to become more acute as intelligence escalates and biology recedes as a distant prison. Hence the escapism, solipsism, madness and suicide that plague the Diaspora.

Another angle: the brain of homo sapiens reshapes and reprograms the environment it finds itself in, with wildly varying degrees of control and aesthetic sophistication. Homo sapiens has the capacity to reshape its environment into a work of art, but has had to mostly rely on the materials nature ultimately provides; in a genetically engineered or virtually produced reality homo sapiens will have nobody to blame but itself. Egan's citizens have total freedom to create their own visible forms, scapes, sounds and fabrics. If they need to 'sit down', they 'make' a chair in an instant. They can also rewrite their personalities as they see fit. Maybe this ultimate 'freedom and responsibility' actually enhances motivation (like in the good old US of A). There is also a luciferan element of refusal here: I am not going to live in YOUR world.

Re: Schopenhauer/Nietzsche - How far can the will be identified with the genome? As far as I remember, Schopenhauer's will is like a demonic factory that churns out species from templates, which isn't far off a possible conception of the genome. It is worth thinking about the extent to which the drives are programs installed and running in the brain, and to what extent they are chemical promptings from the the body's glands, remote controlled by genes. A fully uploaded brain packaged with genome details would be equipped with instincts and drives that could be applied to the signals of a simulated body. Once the genome is deterritorialized from meat production and supervision its instructions could be applied to virtual matter and what would be the difference as far as the brain is concerned? How much of the will could be uploaded?

[I know this clumsy noodling leaves the question of motivation mainlyunanswered, but...]

I'll have a pop at your meme question later.

Posted by: sd at January 30, 2006 11:52 PM



this is actually rather good:

Posted by: sd at January 31, 2006 05:44 AM



quite a reading list here:

Posted by: sd at January 31, 2006 10:10 AM



"How do memes motivate? If they're gene-analogs, then they must be able to effectively direct (propel) behaviour?"

Memes can be both ideas which promote specific behaviour and the behaviour itself - so the practice of circumcision is a meme which is packaged in various memeplexes, such as Judaism; the goose-step is a meme bundled with the fascist memeplex; wearing black leather was part and parcel of being a bolshevik. Such behavioural memes are transmitted horizontally and vertically through imitation, tradition and group security.

The ideas which lie at the core of memeplexes are often very crude concepts - such as 'the bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat' - which appeal to hard-wired emotions and instincts, many of which may well have evolved before the homo sapiens lineage forked from the common ancestor, such as the sense of fairness. The core memes are protected by self-affirming strategies that make argument pointless - appeals to historical necessity, reducing the attack to bourgeois ideology, etc. Core memes promote specific forms of behaviour which will guarantee the meme's further replication; just as a virus will enduce sneezing and diarrhea, a meme can be similarly cunning and treacherous in its manipulation of its host - Lenin promised peace, land, food and worker control of the factories in his April theses because these were simple, catchy slogans that spread like wildfire in the explosive environment of 1917. The peasants deserted the army and seized the land, the proletariat took control of the factories. Then the party plunged the country into civil war, then external wars of conquest, seized the land and factories, and used famine as a deliberate weapon of repression. The promises of the April Theses were a means for achieving very specific, short-term ends - through 'propelling' certain forms of behaviour.

Posted by: sd at February 1, 2006 01:27 PM



sd - the meme concepts tends to slide back-and-forth between gene-analogs and cultural viruses. The latter-type account relies on 'hijackings' of the kind you outline, but the former would surely be capable of fabricating (rather than merely capturing) impulsive machinery.
I'm guessing 'hijacked' instincts are likely to deteriorate in the whirlwind of Singularity (in the fashion your Diaspora discussion points to). Only when memes close the engineering circuit containing the assemblage of desires will they be liberated from entropic bio-legacies, but then new hazards of a more 'metaphysical' cast emerge. How would a civilization capable of rebuilding its own infrastructure of motivation proceed? I'm assuming tidal trends would guide the process, without high level 'political decisions' being required, but I'm far from clear what they are or imply.

[more ...]

Posted by: Nick at February 1, 2006 11:47 PM



I know there's an awkward rub between 'gene-analogs and cultural viruses' - a bit maddening actually. You're right to draw attention to the parasitical hijacking vs. autonomous fabrication distinction, but maybe it's a question of degree, again... - the possibility that fabrication could arise from rewriting existing codes: permanently 'hijacking' the machinery rather than merely employing it for specific ends.

Posted by: sd at February 2, 2006 08:00 AM



sd - "the meme concepts tends to slide back-and-forth between gene-analogs and cultural viruses"

think this paper covers this:

What's in a Meme?

Memetic individuals

With the clarifications and mental tools introduced above, we are now able to ask Hull's question from biology - what is an individual? - in the memetic context. What is a memetic individual? What is subjected to selection in culture? What gets "coded for"?

When Juliet bitterly but eloquently complained how Romeo's social relationships were messing up their love life, she made the interesting observation that being a Montague, and being the person she loved, were two distinct states (apparently she had more of an interest in some of Romeo's biological aspects). The instantiation of the cultural relationship "is a Montague" in a particular biological organism, denoted by the name Romeo, is a case where an individual is something other than the sum of his own memes. The converse argument was given by the idealist philosopher FH Bradley in 1876, in a landmark essay in ethics, "My Station and its Duties". Here Bradley wishes to establish that one's social location and relations determine one's moral responsibilities. To do this, Bradley argues that what we are as social beings, as moral agents, is determined by the community of which we are part. An Englishman is not his biology25. In each case, Juliet and Bradley recognize the distinction, often overlooked by meme enthusiasts, between the biological and the memetic. Memes don't necessarily make you more biologically fit, nor are they necessarily going to make you less fit. Memes aren't fit themselves simply because they make you live healthier lives. Memes are fit only insofar as they are propagated successfully; forget the effects they have on biology.

Posted by: northanger at February 3, 2006 11:42 AM



northanger – after reading and rereading Wilkins’ ‘Memetic Individuals’ I’m confused as to what point he is actually trying to make.

One moment he says ‘Memes are fit only insofar as they are propagated successfully; forget the effects they have on biology,’ (which you quote), but then the next he goes on to say: ‘biological and cultural evolutionary processes ... are decoupled. This is not to say that the two realms do not meet and affect each other, for clearly they do; it is to say that no matter how you might be able to conceptualize cultural phenomena in biological terms (socio-biology), you can independently conceptualize them in social terms (memetics). To lift a phrase of Williams' (1992) there is a dearth of shared descriptors between the entities of biology and the entities of culture. Sometimes they may, indeed, be the same objects or processes, but you have to describe them differently in each analytic realm.’

So we are told to forget the ‘effects’ memes have on biology, then that the two realms do ‘meet and affect each other’. If he is only emphasizing that there we have to keep the distinction between biology (genes) and culture (memes) in mind, then he is saying nothing original at all. If he is calling for more ‘shared descriptors’ of how genes and memes feedback on each other then his point might be slightly more valid, but I’m not sure he’s saying this.

‘Memes are fit only insofar as they are propagated successfully; forget the effects they have on biology’ – A nihilistic meme which propelled its hosts towards suicide could propagate itself very successfully, but this would be ultimately disastrous for the meme’s fitness because it would run out of biological hosts. The effects that memes have on biology, and particularly on the motivation of the organism, are crucial. If natural selection has provided us with predominantly ‘nagging, cautious flesh’ (Burroughs) and brains which are programmed to look for dangers and problems, then memes can either reactively deepen and confirm this pessimism, or proactively take steps to overcome it – in either case the meme inevitably feeds back on the health of the organism.

Posted by: sd at February 3, 2006 03:37 PM



sd- maybe Wilkins' point is "discussing memes can be memetic". or something like that. thought the Hamming Distance interesting.

"the number of positions for which the corresponding symbols are different"

eg. The Hamming distance between "[t]o[n]e[d]" and "[r]o[s]e[s]" is 3.

very i-chingian.

Posted by: northanger at February 3, 2006 05:31 PM



sd - thinking about hooks & phages, or how viruses hook into dna. found something that may be related to your "how deep" question:

"Screening for a rare event against a background of unwanted events is one of the great pleasures of genetics. The trick, and much of the creativity in genetics is creating a screening system that distinguishes the event of interest from events that have no interest at the moment of the screen. Essentially, you are on a fishing trip for the unknown and it all depends on what kind of bait you use for your hook."

Two-hybrid screening :: "discover protein-protein interactions by testing for physical interactions (such as binding) between two proteins. One protein is termed the bait and the other is a 'prey'. The premise behind the test is the activation of downstream reporter gene(s) by the binding of a transcription factor onto an upstream activating sequence". reporter genes fuse with other genes & easily identify gene expression.

 • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-hybrid_screening
 • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reporter_gene
 • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_fluorescent_protein

searching "reporter gene" + meme, found MEME (Multiple EM for Motif Elicitation), to discover "sequence motifs" (highly conserved regions) in groups of related DNA or protein sequences. "highly conserved regions" or "ultra-conserved elements" refer to:

 • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_%28genetics%29
 • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequence_motif

'481 segments in the human genome longer than 200 bp that are 100% identical with rat and mouse genomes. Nearly all are also conserved in the chicken (467/481) and dog (477/481) genomes, with an average of 95.7% and 99.2% identity, respectively. Many are also significantly conserved in fish (324/481 at an average of 76.8% identity) ... Researchers from the University of California Santa Cruz in the United States and University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, suggest these sequences are under negative 'purifying' selection for more than 300 million years, some for at least 400 million years; or else they have very low mutation rates, or they are subject to perfect repair. It means they must be 'vital' for survival. The rate at which these sequences change in evolution is 20 fold less than the rest of the genome, including the protein coding regions.

'But researchers revealed that mice with big chunks for such ultraconserved sequences deleted get on very well without them ... "It may say as much about our inability to detect any phenotypes as it says about the function of this region," said David Haussler of the University of California, Santa Cruz, whose team described the 'ultra-conserved regions' in mammals, "What’s most mysterious is that we don’t know any molecular mechanism that would demand conservation like this."'

'Because they were not able to trace the ultra-conserved segments to even more distant species, the authors speculate that these particular parts of the genome represent innovations in the genomes of chordate species that evolved rapidly at first, then became effectively frozen in birds and mammals. "These ultra-conserved elements are long, they evolved rather rapidly, and they are now evolutionarily frozen. We don't know of a biomolecular mechanism that would explain them," Haussler said.'

Posted by: northanger at February 5, 2006 04:54 PM



thanks northanger, though I'm having trouble linking this to memes.

Anyway, definitely need to do some more reading and thinking on this topic. I'm currently digging into Daniel C.Dennett's 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' - so far it's fantastic: awe-inspiringly rigorous and ruthless. The basic thesis is that Darwin's theory of evolution (and its modern synthesis) rips apart every discipline in science and the humanities and that we are still a long way from it being the accepted paradigm. In his view, the Copernican turn was very easy for humanity to assimilate, whereas the theory of evolution is a 'universal acid' - highly unpalatable.

Posted by: sd at February 6, 2006 08:00 AM



Dennett is obviously among the greatest intellectuals of the century. Wish I'd appreciated him more when I had time to think.

Posted by: Nick at February 6, 2006 12:12 PM



sd - maybe it helps answer nick's question "How do memes motivate?". library screening, reporter genes, sequence motifs & MEME tool involve genetic engineering & gene transcription. maybe "reporter memes" can do the same for meme transmission. somewhat similar to vMeme of spiral dynamics.


Posted by: northanger at February 7, 2006 11:17 AM



this is very much on topic:

"The Evolution of Culture" Daniel C. Dennett

Posted by: sd at February 10, 2006 09:39 PM



where have you folks been all my life? i am a humble creator of bumper stickers. i am an old-school sci-fi addict. i have since 1994 run a website at www.unamerican.com which has been remarkably successful at sending oblique and "radical" (and probably also a few stupid) memes out into the various current youth subcultures. i am a memetic typhoid mary, if you will.

it gets worse. i just finished my first book - a book of real stickers that one can peel right out of the book. this book is being printed and distributed worldwide by Disinformation (www.disinformation.com), here's a link to a site that's pre-selling it (not a pitch, just for your info): www.atomicbooks.com/products/-/7936.html

If you are familiar with Heinlein, I am basically doing what the AI sub-persona "Simon Jester" did across Luna in the days before the Revolution.

The reason I'm writing is that I'm dizzy about the possible consequences of what I have just created. This book is "ten pounds of shit in a five-pound bag": the purchaser gets 432 stickers that say all kinds of (my own) intense slogans for just $15. I have been selling my stickers for 12 years now (www.unamerican.com) and I have never seen a person walk away from our virtual sticker table without a dollar for a sticker that caught their eye. My hope (concern?) is that this book might be HUGE.

If this book sells one million copies (which could happen, maybe only in my dreams but still), I and Disinformation will have spread nearly HALF A BILLION STICKERS across the world. They also have no intention of letting it get out of print, they're working with Barnes&Noble and the Virgin Megastore which is going to take it worldwide, and this book is "Volume I" suggesting there will be a franchise built around this.

The book also includes an introduction that places the "meme" concept firmly in the minds of the people who buy it. I honestly wonder what the highschools of america are going to look like a month after this thing hits the shelves.

I relate all this because it would appear that we're going to be a memetic force to be reckoned with and I'm trying to chart out the karmic potentials of my actions. The stickerslogans hit hard against organized religion, media crapitalism, the usual suspects basically. But I'm pretty clever and I have tested many of these memes out on my site for years. As you were relating the story of Egan's "meme canisters", I could not help but think of my impending shrink-wrapped book as being one. hopefully, the book will be a vaccine and not a virus!

forgive me for the newbie self-obsessed post, i look forward to reading more of this site!

- Srini Kumar

Posted by: radio free srini at February 12, 2006 11:36 PM



an eightth of the whole thing (part 4):

Living spaces on tribal lands

The second route involves the setting up of entirely new living spaces on tribal lands that were previously seized by colonising governments that espoused and followed Taker philosophies. This route has greater credibility, in the sense of secession rights, where clear historical ownership of the land can be shown.
New Sunrise Industries Are Inherently Free [100]
Davidson and Rees-Mogg make an important observation about the new technological elites of the post-industrial age. They describe them as "speciawlists in production". The elites of nation states are, by their Taker ethos and historical events, characterised as "speciawlists in violence".

In the new industries such as nanofacture, technologists will use abundant energy to fashion any manner of tangible products from the inside out, from invisible and ubiquitous atoms rather than bulk traded commodities such as iron and steel. It is fundamentally impossible to tax the use of atoms and invisible technologies, or to hold the manufacturers to ransom within the borders of a nation state. In The Sovereign Individual the authors foresee that, "The defection of the information elite from citizenship will have a stimulus much like that which led millions of Europeans five hundred years earlier to renounce the infallibility of the pope."

They posit not only a shift from governed citizenship to individual sovereignty but also a new enlightenment that totally rejects centralised power and the threat of violent oppression. The new industries that spearhead the transition from the economics of scarcity to the economics of abundance will be inherently free. This will be so because the people that lead and work in them will be sovereign individuals, instead of lifelong tax slaves or available cannon fodder to fight in regular armed conflicts driven by takerism and nationalism.

A Time Favourable to Secession [101]
To many people it seems improbable that secessions could take place within the present constructs of federalism and nationalism. Australia can be taken as an example. Most people think that it is inconceivable that the central government would permit one or more cities or regions to opt out of the federation.

Besides the various legal and nationalistic arguments that could be mounted against any secessionist proposals, there would be options of military force and economic sanctions available to the central government. It might seem that speciawlists in violence and disinformation could always prevent any part of the federation from breaking away. But such thinking is pre-1980s and it ignores new realities that are driving the 2nd Renaissance.

The main difference between the practicality of secessions from federal systems in the early 21st century and that of past eras, comes down to the impact of new technologies on wealth creation and self sufficiency. Throughout the first and second industrial revolutions, it was practical for nation states to hold the processes of wealth creation to ransom. During some two hundred years of European settlement in Australia governments at various levels; local, state, and federal, were able to stringently control and tax wealth production and commercial transactions. Any attempts to break away from the rule of violence, that was dressed up as the rule of law, could be readily prevented.

This situation pertained while manufacture by fabrication was the norm, and while transactions and money flows could be reliably monitored and traced. Once invisible technologies produce limitless quantities of nanofactured goods that are built from the atomic level using abundant energy, it becomes impractical to hold the production processes to ransom. The control of the state is weakened and its power is diminished. It is five hundred years since a similar shift in the socio-political climate arose as a result of a fundamental advance in information technology - moveable type printing presses.

Posted by: p at February 14, 2006 01:07 PM



The All-Optical Net Will Have "Weird" Intelligence (69)
Although it will be orders of magnitude faster than the old Internet, speed will not be the distinguishing characteristic of the Lightnet. The attribute that will set the new all-optical technology apart from earlier networks will be its intelligence. A non-biological, network of holographic information processors, with intelligence! Now that's a really weird idea, isn't it? But, NO, the idea of an intelligent Lightnet is NOT weird, it is a logical evolution of non-human information processing. Only eight years ago, in 1996, Gregory S. Paul and Earl D. Cox wrote a book titled, Beyond Humanity. In their account of technology and where it is heading these authors made the following points.

"Lots of people are happy to apply words like "extreme", "weird" and "odd" to the Extraordinary Future."

*"We're not the crazy ones. Beyond Humanity is no weirder than 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the extreme notion that two bicycle makers got into their late Victorian heads that they could build a flying machine."

*"It is not weird to predict a "weird" future when we live in a weird world and the evidence that things are quickly getting weirder is overwhelming."

*We will tell you what is weird and extreme. It is extreme to insist that the day when computers will do what our brains do is certain to be far, far off."

*"When companies have employees outlining the principles for building computers as fast as brains, and computer power is rising a thousandfold every 20 years. It is very, very weird to argue that when the incredible mind machines are built, they will keep their place, not proliferate, and that humans will continue to lead normal lives. Now there is nutty for you!"

Posted by: p at February 14, 2006 01:38 PM



P - Interesting. Thanks.
There's evidently enormous psycho-cultural inertia when it comes to shifting expectations into a realistic mode - the notion that OF COURSE things will be utterly transformed in the remarkably near future runs counter to the entire biological legacy of reproductive time.

Posted by: Nick at February 14, 2006 11:49 PM



... and explosion of secessionism would be enormously encouraging, perhaps the key to all significant political disputes: variation and competition replacing zero-sum ideological conflict over uniformitized outcomes. It would skew the decks in favour of efficiency (markets, maths and secular rationality) though, so the leftoids and theocrats would probably 'resist'.

Posted by: Nick at February 14, 2006 11:53 PM



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