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Monday, November 24, 2014

Trees of Life

I find myself running ahead, painting with broad strokes, even when I've promised to start small and go steady.  It's challenging to find a professional voice when your inner child is wondering at the complexity of memetic variation, running from pillar to post. 

The inner child and the activist need to express themselves, even if the scientist is a little taken aback.  I can't help but be passionate about social issues.  Memetics helps us to understand the complexities of our inner as well as social lives, and when we start to grasp those patterns we see how social interactions and judgments are restricted by the current paradigm, and I speak on topics the hard sciences are accustomed to remaining silent about.

I have faith readers may pardon me for excitement and personal bias.  Even the most rational among us are humans, not Straw Vulcans.  Science isn't just the accumulation of facts and the dispassionate reiteration of them.  It is the ability to understand, question and adapt policies and traditions we've taken for granted in light of new knowledge.  It is responding to changes of stimuli and information in our environment, a basic process of life.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Ritual Human Sacrifice In the Modern USA

The firing squad has a long history in the state of Utah, with some tracing its preservation to the concept of blood atonement found in Mormonism and wider cultural traditions and Christian doctrines. Most states in the US abolished firing squads in favor of the gas chamber and electric chair, finally (for the most part) phasing those out in favor of lethal injection.  Many citizens do not realize that the last execution by firing squad in Utah occurred in 2010.  Within this context it is little surprise that with current controversy over the process of lethal injection, some lawmakers want to revive the firing squad in Utah. (Though for people unaware of this history, especially the European drug manufacturers who boycotted sales to the USA, it must be quite shocking.)

The evolution of the death penalty and its eventual abolition in many countries is a fascinating study of memetic adaptation and extinction.  Of equal value is the study of how the death penalty persists as an acceptable state action in the USA.  This murder of a citizen is viewed as a deterrent to other criminals, although studies have demonstrated deterrence is ineffective.  It is viewed as justice even though studies have shown inequality in its application and faults within the judicial system.  In a land which adores the ideals of personal conscience and the ability of a person to reinvent themselves, people actively and passively play their part in a social machine which annihilates someone.

The actions of European drug manufactures are a form of selective pressure against the death penalty in the USA.  This action has stirred up controversy and consciousness, but that wasn't the main objective.  The initial goal was the same objective as boycotting sugar, tea and coffee during the slave trade (a concept which was tied to personal purity and influenced some of the prohibitions within Mormonism, btw).  It is a disruption of energy flow in the economic ecosystem.  It creates a decline in resources, placing pressure on the executioners to slow the schedule of executions or perhaps even halt their action.  But execution is a resilient memeplex in the USA.  It has many pressures feeding it (social memes, laws, institutional policies, pensions, etc.)  It will not die easily when faced with one single resource challenge.  Instead it adapts, using other forms of execution or going forward with botched lethal injections. 

But the boycott of the drug companies is an important innovation.  Instead of consumers boycotting a product to protest corporate production practices, this is a supplier refusing to provide a commodity, decreasing revenues and exposing themselves to some financial loss.  In an age where the drive for profit seems to be the ultimate moral law, the European manufacturers are making a statement that the value of human life is even greater. 

Though American culture has adapted the "humane" meme from Europe, it has simply integrated "humane" with the "execution" memeplex.  We can kill someone as long as they feel minimal or no pain, or as long as they are unable to show pain, as long as suffering is unobserved.  Yet if a man were on trial for vivisecting victims would he be exonerated if he could demonstrate that he took inordinate care that they were anesthetized to the whole experience?  Of course not. 

It's a matter of who has a right to be violent.  The violence of individual humans can be at times gruesome and horrifying, motivated by fear, hatred, self-defense and social conditioning.  Sometimes individual violence is the result of frustrations and survival instincts, motivated by memeplexes.   The collective violence of groups is even more frightening with its feedback loops and mob mentality.  Science is just starting to understand these processes of the human experience, allowing us to develop rationally based interventions.  But more horrifying than human violence (because our minds and bodies do not react viscerally to it) is the methodical and mechanical destruction of an individual caught within the legal machine.  We are unwittingly complacent and trusting until such violence hits close to home.  We can participate in it and rationalize it as "duty".  Just as we should be wary about granting human rights to corporations, we should be concerned over any institution claiming a right to violence.  Corporations, laws and other complex memetic machines should be in the service of humanity.  The European drug manufactures understand this well. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Note to Fellow Atheists

Atheists are killing evolutionary (and memetic) theory. 
If we want to set ourselves apart from religions, we have to stop practicing the out-group derision, attraction-based recruitment, lack of self-criticism and leader-worship we've inherited from them.  Maybe we need some ego-stroking to counterbalance public and private ridicule we've faced.  At some point, however, it becomes counterproductive.

Religions are intricate memeplexes which interface with personal identity and action (what Blackmore terms the "selfplex").  So it is not as simple as Richard Dawkins recently claimed in a tweet on November 1,
        "It's possible to offend or insult a person, or hurt a person's feelings. 
         But you can't offend a belief. Beliefs have no feelings to hurt." 

Beliefs interfaced with a brain can respond defensively, throwing the host into intellectual and emotional turmoil.  Of course the host will respond negatively to the other person, identifying them as the cause of their pain.  That is what our brains do...they look for human action and intention.

If you want to reach someone & not just preach to the choir or "save the few who will listen", you have to reach out effectively, with consideration for the person and their ability to think critically.  Don't berate and don't infantilize.  Understand how thought processes, due to memeplexes, evolve over time.  Education doesn't happen overnight.

If we let our frustrations get the best of us, we'll sink evolution and memetics.  Frustration is good:  it shows when we're hitting heads against a brick wall.  Find ways to dig deeper if you truly want to get through. 

Most importantly, don't alienate allies. Don't tie science, evolutionary theory or memetic theory exclusively to atheism.  Even the most hard-set, true believers can learn the scientific method and begin to apply it to parts of the world which they feel comfortable with.  Let them dig deep into the history of religion.  Let them study evolution to discover flaws which they can discuss with you.  Don't alienate them from the scientific discourse.

Educate, don't be a "frustrated hammer".  Value intellectual growth.

Let's not approach this as saving the few that we can.  I'm not for converting everyone to my point of view, either in an instant or a lifetime.  I value diversity of viewpoints.  I'm for the collective improvement of our human lot. I'm not ok with sacrificing the few or the many to get to a better future.  I'm delighted if a believer looks deeply into memetics, picks up the torch and runs with it.  I won't turn them away.  I assume atheists will make the most headway in memetics, but that's just an assumption. I look forward to someone proving it wrong.  I think most atheists are too protective to evaluate the scientific process in light of meme theory, and perhaps believers could have valuable insights there.  We all have something to contribute to the conversation.  Deny no one a seat at the table.

Friday, November 7, 2014

How Chain Letters Get Inside Our Heads

We last addressed how Cat Memes colonize the internet (and our hearts) through connecting with widely recognized cultural memes as well as our basic human emotions.

The work of Daniel W. VanArsdale on Chain Letter structure, emotional integration with human hosts  and replicative ability is pivotal in developing memetic theory.  Since Chain Letters contain more text than Cat Memes and fewer graphics, Chain Letters can be mined for quantitative data more easily.  The linguistic structure can be analyzed, articulating the anatomy of the chain letter.  VanArsdale's work is the first I've come across which analyses a printed text from the perspective of memetic theory.

He traces the lineage of chain letters from "letters from heaven" which circulated in Europe for several centuries.  As the cultural environment changed, chain letters adapted, keying into different emotional and social drives.  Focus shifted from religious motivations to money, good luck and social advocacy. 

Letters threatening disaster if they weren't copied had a survival advantage as did letters including the affirmation "It works!".  Even more compelling were ambiguous hints of future reward: "see what happens to you on the fourth day". 

Most notably, VanArsdale investigates how chain letters set up distribution networks and key into basic human drives to gain human compliance.  In the process of copying, innovation ("It works!") as well as mistakes in transcription (make 8 copies ~ make 88 copies) create mutations which sometimes provide survival advantage to a lineage of letters. 

There is much work to be done in investigating chain letters.  VanArsdale's work does not delve into e-mail chain letters nor examines how different forms of copying (handwritten, photocopy, free & fast email) impact the spread of chain letters.

Whether you're looking for a research topic or more concrete evidence of memes, 
Chain Letter Evolution is a vital resource.  Best of all, it's available online for free. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

What Meme-Cats Teach Us

These crazy cat pictures (often with atrociously misspelled captions) circulate the internet with entire blogs and chat boards dedicated to them.  Yet, meme theorists don't take them seriously.  They're viewed as bastardizations of meme-theory...something that's too main-stream pop-culture to be examined closely. 

Because these are small, mostly visual snip-its of information, they're easier memeplexes to examine than say, a religious belief system or legal structure.  Several doctoral theses could be flown under the meme-cat banner. 

Take for instance the "Invisible Positive Pregnancy Test".  It has wide appeal as the cat's "reaction" could be interpreted as excitement or shock.  Even people who haven't personally experienced a moment like this can reference the cultural narrative of "the positive pregnancy test".  Because it doesn't encode bits of a larger memeplex (religious or political overtones) it has the ability to appeal to a wide audience.   The mirror neurons are firing.

"Whoever Said You Were Adopted" also anthropomorphizes the animals shown.  It references the media coverage of inter-species bonding (check these weird stories out) and appeals to our affection for cuteness.  Again, even if someone hasn't experienced this personally, they can reference the larger, cultural narrative about it.  It integrates with widely recognized cultural references and appeals to our emotional drives.  Success!

"Acute Kitty" doesn't anthropomorphize.  It shows the contortionist antics of a cat which might appeal to cat lovers as well as people who have no idea a cat is this flexible.  The caption also references math humor and corny humor, two sub-genres of jokes.   So "Acute Kitty" is more subtle with it's emotional integration, more dependent on the cultural references than the immediate emotional response of the viewer.  Wouldn't it be interesting to compare
"Acute Kitty" 's spread to the two previous memes?

"Gathering Wheat for The Motherland" references political history, the propaganda posters of social-realism and triggers the polarized emotions of the "should people put costumes on pets" debate.

"We Need to Find You a Boyfriend" references the urban-legend of women who are too obsessed with their cats to maintain a romantic relationship.  This puts a fun twist on it, suggesting the cats aren't enjoying this relationship.  It also triggers the emotions around the "costume" debate.

Clearly, to make a successful cat-meme (or any meme for that matter) references to existing memeplexes as well as integration with a hosts' (propagators') emotions is key. 

Notice such balance and integration need not be thought-out.  Someone may come up with a meme-cat which appeals to them & since they share certain cultural narratives and mental processes with others, the meme is able to spread.  In this way, memes mutate and propagate without the need of conscious design.  Creativity is often an organic process, designed by the culture and shared neurological patterns, not simply individual brilliance and a strategic plan. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

How We Teach Science: Science as Relgion

American science is a litany of Scientific saints.  Newton, Galileo, Edison and the Wright Brothers. We make the nod to minorities by recognizing George Washington Carver and Madame Curie.  Science is misrepresented in the classroom, with the result of most students alienated from the scientific process and discovery. 

We tie science in with the national mythology of progress, highlighting improvement and accumulation of knowledge with a triumphal narrative.  Classroom experiments involve predetermined questions, steps and outcomes.  Rarely is a genuine question asked and if it is (and the answer isn't in the textbook) it is left unanswered and worse, uninvestigated. 

So when an American says Science is just another religion, they aren't simply being ignorant.   They may be reflecting a keen observation of Science education in this country.  We are spoon-fed wrote answers and expected to regurgitate.  Rewards are received for performance and conformity, silencing curiosity and innovation because they are inefficient class-time management.   We are told our futures depend on our ability to perform.  The Good Textbook rules over all (until the next edition).

This obscures how science grows in fits and starts often overgrowing with factions competing for minds until disagreement and confusion rule.  Only a scientific revolution prunes and trellises this overgrowth. 

But we are unaware that this disagreement and confusion is a sign of an imminent paradigm shift, we simply read it as chaos.  We don't know that most experiments end in failure and that persistence and rethinking the questions asked are key to solving the riddles in our universe. 

This misunderstanding is compounded by well-intentioned individuals like Bill Nye and Neil DeGrasse Tyson who seek to engage the public in science by highlighting science's predictive powers, assurance and material benefits.  They want us to fall in love with going to Mars but don't give us the real picture that will allow us to develop a long term relationship with the scientific process.

Even those of us in the "sciences" are disenfranchised from a deep understanding of Science.  For the professional scientist it's the manipulation of numbers, the collection of data, the rat-race of publish or perish.  Understanding the Scientific process is relegated to the philosophers who read Thomas S. Kuhn (and even they struggle with it).  This widespread scientific illiteracy is satirized by The Big Bang Theory.

What if science education looked more like this:

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Why Richard Dawkins is Unatractive in the USA

When Americans, especially believing Americans, hear Richard Dawkins speak, they perceive it through the filter of the American experience.  Our experience is a collection of political myths, small historic facts and unarticulated insecurities over economic structures.  When we hear "evolution" we think "survival of the fittest" and we think:  "I know that all too well".  It's a jungle out there.

We've been placed in competition with other workers since before the spinsters strike in Lowell, MA.  Social Darwinism was debunked in academic circles long ago but no one has informed the economic systems of this.  So when we hear "evolution" we think of brutish, harsh resource restrictions, not the intricate emergence of stellar systems, geography, life and culture.  We think "competition" not "cooperation" nor "interdependency".

Science fascinates and frightens us.  It has dubious ties with political funding of arms races, industrial health care, and elite power.  It's something we are taught to believe in, not something we are taught to practice.  Because we are fed the mythic history, because we are discouraged from criticizing the economic system, we often place blame on Science.  It seems cold, mechanical, calculating.  The human element is left out.  We deal with the complexities of religious organizations because they seem to humanize the markets and help us believe that something better is possible.  It might be an illusion, it might be short-term rewards with long-term costs, but we are humans who don't always see the long-term picture.

We embrace normative conformity and admire or privately dismiss those who accept religious ideology more than we do.  But we also are cautious of anyone who openly bucks the system.  We worry about falling into a lower circle of hell in this existence.

So we trust our own experience over religion and science.  We are skeptical of any new person claiming authority.  We want to learn but we don't want someone to point out how little we know as we grovel for crumbs of knowledge.

If science wants to make headway in the USA, it will have to learn from the mistakes of Religion.  And Science must accept the good lessons from the Religious Era too.  Be an ally of the poor, the weak, the disenfranchised, not just in word but in deed.  Reach out and improve this existence, person to person, make the human connection and empower others.

Most importantly, be truthful about the advance of Science:

Darwin is not a saint:  He sat on the shoulders of scientists who came before him and he had his bias.  His studies in a tropical environment shaped his focus on competition.  Russian evolutionary theorists who succeeded Darwin studied the Siberian tundra and saw cooperation and interdependency as the main drive of evolution, not competition.  Let's value that contribution & insight. 

Science and the Theory of Evolution are not cold and calculating.  They aren't the ally of the strong against the weak.  They show how our desires to work together, to be considerate and to improve our collective circumstances are a natural drive, not some gift to brutes from the beyond. 

But when Dawkins speaks, we do not hear this.  We hear ridicule.  We hear shame and devaluation of the internal experience of transcendence.  We hear a British preacher saying "this is the new and only way" and we are a rebellious people.