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(no subject)
2012
unknownj
Today I have been mostly reading The Origins of Life, or The Major Transitions in Evolution For Dummies. Though I'm only a sixth of the way through it, it has provoked a lot of thought. I wish to now just blurt all of it out at once, without planning or structure. Please do not adjust your set...

There comes a time when one's perception inverts, quite dramatically. Or, rather oscillates. In order to understand natural selection on the various levels in which it takes place, it is necessary to imagine genes as people. They have a will of their own, almost like motives. The mechanism of natural selection can be likened in many ways to human society. Genes are selfish, want to gain as much power as possible (as measured by their spread), and can have widespread control over processes in their environment.

But then you have to take a step back, and consider that genes have no real will, they are not alive in the way that complete organisms are. They are a slave to the natural logic of survival of the fittest (or, as was pointed out to me today, "survival of the best fitted", because it all comes down to environmental factors). When I say that "genes want to...", what I really mean is that it is in the best interest of the survival and replication of a gene to do a given action. Due to the hereditary nature of genes, survival of the fittest gives rise to life-like action.

And suddenly, the analogy with human behaviour backfires, because it suddenly becomes obvious that rather than genes immitating people, what we really have is that the people are acting like the genes. Human traits like selfishness and altruism have very real parallels in far more simple systems that don't have any of the sociological complexities of humanity. We may have a more intricate means of coming by these characteristics, but ultimately memetics is just as much a part of evolution as genetics is. Altruism arises both genetically and memetically.

We really are slaves to evolution, and while it seemed for a while that we broke the rules, we stumbled upon the idea of memes, which merely back up evolutionary theory. A meme, for those who do not know, is an idea. The human mind is sufficiently complex enough that these ideas can be transmitted between minds. It really is one of the most interesting developments in the field of evolution in recent years - competition between ideas is quite some notion.

Take religion, for example. Memetics actually created religion, though many would disagree. It is a stipulation of many major religions that non-believers should be punished or converted. Consider what that does to the idea - it spreads the idea to new people, and destroys those who do not hold the idea. The proportion of a population that believes the idea will increase.

In fact, a meme can be said to be much like the genetic code of an organism. It spreads where it is well fitted to its environment, and has a degree of heredity. Indeed, due to the fallibility and subjectivity of the human mind, we even have mutation, and in this case, favourable mutation has an advantage over deleterious mutation. When an idea is communicated, it is adapted to fit the recipient of the idea. When that idea is communicated to others, it is more likely to be accepted, due to relational factors.

In my view of memetics, rather than ideas being related, we have that structures of ideas are related, and that this helps to shape society. Rather than looking at how genetically related two people are, we instead look at how culturally related they are. This in turn depends on their memetic makeup. If two people are similar culturally, then if a meme fits one, it is more likely to fit the other than it would be to fit a random person. Thus, memes being adapted by people helps them, since if a meme fits them, it is likely to fit the people that the person would communicate that idea to.

(Note: there is a lot of bollocks that goes around the field of Memetics. Take this site for example... No matter how accurate any of it is, it's still bollocks, and is in itself a meme. But the author knows that, and the whole thing becomes endlessly self-referential and rhetorical. It treats memes like virii, sent to distract us from life, and deliberately trying to mess with our heads. This is simply not the case - they are a natural consequence of communication, and no matter how hard we try to control them, they're ultimately controlled by the same evolutionary drive which controls us, and there's little point trying to fight against that which seeks to improve us...)

(Note 2: That sounds a bit stupid in itself, I don't mean to suggest that evolution consciously seeks to do anything, but a consequence of it is self-improvement, and it seems easier to give human characteristics to the whole thing - makes understanding it all a bit more native to us...)

But this is getting off track. I merely wanted to demonstrate that these ideas also seem to have a life of their own. Genes, organic molecules, ideas, all these things are given properties that we associate with being alive. And they are given those properties by survival of the fittest, a natural law in the universe. The universe is actually built in such a way as to encourage behaviour that we find analogous to life. It should, therefore, be easy to believe that what we call life, in all its forms and complexity, is just another obvious consequence of this law of evolution. Life is as inevitable as any of the universal constants, and is encouraged into being by the sheer nature of the universe.

So that's what the first 25 pages of the book got me thinking. I wonder what the rest will make me think about.....

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(Deleted comment)
Glad to see someone else has seen something like that too...

I've thrown the idea round a couple of times before, but never got too far because of the lack of people around willing to listen to me ramble about it.

So, what *is* an idea? How can we differentiate one meme from another?

Don't ever stop thinking, Jamie.

--In my view of memetics, rather than ideas being related, we have that structures of ideas are related, and that this helps to shape society. Rather than looking at how genetically related two people are, we instead look at how culturally related they are. This in turn depends on their memetic makeup. If two people are similar culturally, then if a meme fits one, it is more likely to fit the other than it would be to fit a random person. Thus, memes being adapted by people helps them, since if a meme fits them, it is likely to fit the people that the person would communicate that idea to.--

- Excellent point. Indeed, this idea is currently used in the direct marketing industry whereby memetic clusters are formed on a database which has been developed (at least partly) by using attitudinal data (garnered from people filling in things such as BMRB's TGI survey). In essence they are looking for groups of people who are or they hope will be, particulalry responsive to their marketing ideas and propositions.

Are you sure you couldnt handle the sociological aspect of the Discworld series? Some of the stuff you write has some very advanced sociological underpinnings to it - I think you will be wasted on a quantitative PhD! (albeit much better paid at the end of it!)

Well, it's not exactly that I can't handle the sociological bits, it's that they're not entirely interesting enough in the format it's presented in... And the actually interesting components are presented in a simplified way - it talks about the second law of thermodynamics and defines it as "things get simpler". That's not really the level I'm at.

The later chapters look interesting, but unless I can get into it early on, then the later bits will make less sense...

As for the marketting - they're doing it all wrong. Memes can do more than spread from one point, they can spread from the points they have already spread to. Word of mouth has been considered important for ages, but people don't actually bother exploiting that. Were I actually on the side of the evil capitalist organisations, I might try to direct them towards a form of advertising where you can actually get the people who buy your product to advertise it to other likely consumers... I'm sure it can be done with sufficient fore-thought...

You are right - and it is starting to be seen in the form of things such as viral email campaigns. Did you receive the mpeg clip of David Brent doing the crazy dance from the recent episode of The Office? It was sent annonymously but there is widespread belief in the marketing industry (which for all my sins, I am a part of...although I shall shortly be escaping back into the ivory tower of academia to pursue a PhD) that it was sent out by the BBC (the timing of its release being only 2-3 days before the DVD went on sale).

Just a thought - do you think fashion labels act in the way you describe? i.e. people wear a particular brand and thereby influence their friends purchasing decisions?

No, I didn't get it, but it wouldn't surprise me... it's a good idea, and relatively inexpensive.

And yes, I think it influences people to an extent. Especially with children - bear in mind that for the first part of peoples' lives they use others as a template of what is acceptable. It's one of the key features of society, and part of what holds it together - a tendency towards an average through exposure to other people. As such, if I saw lots of people around me wearing Nike clothes, it would be logical to conclude that it is appropriate for people like me to wear Nike. That might not be sufficient to make me change my mind about clothing decisions, depending on what sort of person I am, but it's certainly a factor.

Another example is beer - the beer industry works on that principle quite a lot. Initially, most people admit to not liking beer, but they drink it anyway. Eventually, they start to acquire a taste for it. However, it is my belief that memes are responsible for the initial drinking. After all, everyone drinks beer (or so society would have us believe), and therefore you should too. This is a direct example of memes overcoming obstacles (such as taste) in influencing peoples' decisions.

The Moral Animal

by Robert Wright is about evolutionary psychology, and I definitely suggest it if you're enjoying The Origins... even though Wright tends to over-simplify human behavior it's interesting (at the very least) to have everything from altruism to promiscuity broken down in terms of a gene's survival.

that was some interesting reading. i understood it... most of it.
why dont they just call memes "ideas"? so that they sound smart.

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