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Sunday, April 26, 2015

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Disquieting Thought: Spirits in Whisky and in the Air

Our ancestors talked about the spirits in liquor and used that to explain intoxication. 

Shamans talked about the powers of psychedelic mushrooms and certain plants when they didn't know the chemical names but knew the effects.

The witch-hunters got spine chills from watching symptoms of dementia and ergot poisoning and burned and drowned innocents.

Perhaps we humans have been studying memeplexes all along, just without a framework for critically analyzing them.  Perhaps we've been like Pharonic priests who brewed beer with antibiotics...preserving the recipe because it works but not knowing exactly why. 

Perhaps those traditional whispers of "spirits" that travel through the ether influencing collective emotions, inspiring wars, deluding the unwary or inspiring peace deserve critical consideration instead of dismissal.  

Perhaps ignoring them is just as bad as deifying or demonizing them.
Perhaps we've collectively had some idea of what's going on but now we have words for these phenomena:

Collective Emotion

Naming them--articulating them, gives us power.
Instead of dismissing the superstitions of the past, let's reexamine them.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Blast Furnaces USA: Industrial Art is Taxonomy of Technology

Blast Furnaces USA is part of the contemporary collections of the St. Louis Art Museum.
It is a compilation of twenty-four gelatin silver prints and takes up an entire wall in its gallery.
These photographs were taken some time between 1978 and 1986 by Bernd and Hilla Becher, German artists who documented industrial artifacts.  As SLAM's online collection attests, these blast furnaces in Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other US cities were captured by the Bechers from an 'ideal viewpoint' (a set height and angle) which showcases the furnaces slight variations. 

To stand in front of this installation is to absorb the magnitude of these industrial creations and reflect on the combustion chemistry, physics, supplies, market demands and human input which shaped each unique structure.

Quite similar to contemplating the ecological pressures which shaped the physical and behavioral differences in Galapagos finches.  Nearly identical to the taxonomic collections in many natural history museums of butterflies and other insects.

The industrial revolution and its products are the memetic equivalent of rainforests and tropical islands--where diversity and competition abound, leaving massive evidence of  variation, niche adaptation and natural selection.  

Just as the abundance of the tropics paints a different picture of genetic evolution than the scarcity and mutual adaptation evidenced on the Siberian tundra, the industrial revolution should not be our exclusive resource for exploring memetic evolution.  The adaptations and variations from nomadic cultures and ancient societies are just as important to investigate (and often of immense complexity and refinement in their own context).  However, the industrial revolution provides us with the material, the documentation, to begin the work of strict, scientific comparison and evaluation, providing us with the material hard sciences crave to support this fledgling discipline.  

Young memeticist, look to your urban explorers, your industrial photographers, your mercantile libraries, enclaves of urban renewal and the rusting industrial wastelands for your evidence.  Get out of your labs and ivory towers, get your hands dirty, your heart pounding with adventure--explore!

(Just please for the love of efficiency, take notes--we have modern tech at our disposal!)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Skyscrapers Evolved: Inorganic Evolution in Human Innovation

Skyscrapers are a perfect case-study of memetic evolution within the realm of technology.  To achieve these modern marvels, advances in steel manufacture, concrete pouring and glass  production were necessary.  Engineering and construction techniques had to be refined, including the use of blueprints and cost analysis.  As towers rose higher, they contended with intense wind.   This environmental pressure shaped their foundations and internal structures, much as the trunks and root systems of hardwood trees (instead of small shrubs) are shaped by wind intensity.

Large buildings also developed a challenge common to larger animals, the struggle to regulate internal temperatures. This was solved by borrowing technology first developed for food preservation (refrigeration) to cool air.  With the repurposing of refrigeration we see another aspect of evolution at play--the adaptation of one innovation to solve a different problem or fill a different niche in a changing environment.  

Skyscrapers are like the human eye or cell structures: intricate and impressive.  But unlike examples of evolution in the natural world, we cannot ascribe their origin to a mythic, instantaneous event.  We know they rose over time in locations determined by economic, environmental and cultural factors.  They were assembled by adapting previous technologies and new innovations to a new demand.  Not assembled by perfect & omnimpotent inteligence, they are instead a conglomeration of human products and resources...exceedingly well adapted and ever more efficient, yet displaying the quirks and flaws instilled by economic constraints, not always adhering to our idealized visions of what they could be.

Our buildings are still at the mercy of their environmental contexts, as the Haitian earthquake, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and numerous other disasters attest.  These events not only have consequences on the personal, social and ecological levels, they shape the memetic evolution of archetectural technologies.  Buildings are being constructed to withstand the impact of terror attacks as well as earthquakes--they are adapting to environmental pressures.  That we are driven to cooperate in this evolution through our own economic and emotional motivations is an ancillary matter. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Value of Irrational Beliefs

Not every "irrational" belief is destructive.

Some women who miscarry choose to believe (or their cultural traditions encourage them to believe) the desired child is going through a process of fetal death and re-conception which will make the child physically stronger and spiritually powerful. 
In such a world-view the stress of multiple miscarriages is mitigated by the perception that the timing of the child entering the world just wasn't right and the child will arrive at the ripe time.  Such a perception can lend itself to creating a relaxed mentality in both partners, controlling stress hormones and making successful gestation more probable. 

Contrast this with a clinical perspective of each fetus being genetically unique and the person-hood (personality, intelligence, "spirit") being directly linked to the unique genetics and material components of each, separate human.  [As opposed to the more realistic environmental & social factors which create epegenetic variations (and which may be consistent among siblings), the memetic milieu which shapes an individual's psychology, etc.].  Drug cocktails, fetal surgery and other advanced interventions are prescribed to avoid miscarriage...treatments most of humanity before us (and likely after us) could not begin to fathom.

The clinical approach often focuses on finding the cause of miscarriage and has value in its own right.  But exclusively, because of its focus on identifying causation and predicting future events (& mitigating them), a woman can easily become stressed, anxious, isolated and self-doubting over a process that is extremely common to the human condition.  Clinical science can adapt and become more humane, but until that time traditional folkways will maintain their role as a supportive therapy. 

Another instance to consider: The Bari (a population in Venezuela) have held a traditional belief that a fetus develops not simply from the initial act of fertilization but through successive washes of semen.  They seem to have some concept that the initial act has primary importance because they emphasize the importance of a wife having her husband as an exclusive partner for that time-frame, yet they encourage women (this practice is dwindling with western influence) to select a secondary father for the child--to take a lover during her pregnancy.  This second man provides nutritional support for the woman through her pregnancy and for the child after it is born.  The secondary man is viewed to be providing a service to the husband, who might otherwise waste away from trying to supply enough material to guarantee a successful pregnancy.  This testifies to the ability of human culture to adapt to resource constrictions and use memetic engineering to mitigate the territorial concerns of our species which can impede our survival.  Lest you view the Bari as an anomaly, variations of this belief have been observed in cultures from the Na of China to populations in New Guinea, India and other regions of South America. 

From a purely "rational", "scientific" perspective (as such concepts stand today) these poor uneducated individuals in traditional societies don't know any better and need to be informed of modern medicine.  However, their worldview is one which arose from environmental constraints and cultural adaptations which should not be dismissed purely as primitive superstitions.  "Enlightening" them about scientific realities might first cause them to disparage traditional social structures and expose them to exploitation and destruction by other cultures.  It may also rob Western science of the opportunity to reconsider its assumptions about biology.  

We should not avoid such questions as: Does extra sexual activity during pregnancy have an impact on a woman's internal chemistry and thus the condition of the fetus?  Does the introduction of another partner impact the immune system of the woman and/or fetus? (I'm not saying this to assert there must be a positive impact simply because this is a traditional folkway that has been preserved...I am merely saying it's time science evolved to thoroughly investigate traditional hypotheses and get down from its high horse.  Even disproven theories benefit science.) 

It is important that we value what we can learn from traditional beliefs just as much as we value what we can teach these cultures.  We need to cultivate a symbiotic exchange over previous colonial approaches. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

An Exterminator vs. A Rodentologist

Susan Blackmore is a mildly effective publicist for the concept of memes.  She is certainly skilled at stirring up controversy about the topic with the next generation of scholars.

As a memeticist, my heartfelt apologies go out to her audience at the Oxford Royale Academy summer program of 2014 . 
Ms. Blackmore is perhaps a snapshot of what meme theory once was (or still is) to some, but she is not a viable representative of the discipline which is emerging.

She pontificates against metaphysical beliefs, waging war against "irrationality" while failing to lay a firm foundation for her scientific discipline.  She is an engaging speaker and the economic realities of modern life act as a selective pressure for her to limit her vision and customize her presentations to an anti-theist audience.  (No doubt if I were more fiscally "rational", I should do the same.)

The difference between Susan Blackmore and a Memeticist is the same distance between an exterminator and a rodentologist.  Both are passionate about their subject, but the first chooses a very narrow, reactionary approach towards their subject: the only good rat is a dead rat.  A zoologist on the other hand recognizes the resource conflicts created by the close proximity of human and rat populations.  They examine how artificial urban environments have shaped the evolution of rattus rattus into the massive and territorial urban legend of city transit systems.  The rodentologist studies diseases which afflict her subjects even though she may harbor concerns about their ability to vector diseases to humans.

Similarly a memeticist must have some curiosity and tolerance for her subjects.  Understanding interactions and evolutionary contexts, she refrains from blanket judgements and incendiary remarks.  Inquiry, understanding and reflective appreciation trump gut reactions because they often lead to more appropriate solutions.

Blackmore makes two critical errors: She dismisses "irrational" memes and provides blanket approval to "rational" ones.  Both reactions bypass the careful examination and articulation required of any academic study. 

Memetics is in desperate need of new minds to move it into the 21st Century.  Those who have passionately defended ancient belief systems and glean what they can from fields we have abandoned may offer insights which non-believers cannot perceive from a distance.  

The failures of Western development clearly illustrate we cannot eradicate every bacterium, pull every weed and exterminate every last rattlesnake.  We are learning we need a balance of bacteria to develop our immunity and maintain our health, that weeds are simply exceptionally adapted plants and processed venom (anti-venom) is the most effective cure for a snakebite.

Blackmore is not a memeticist.  Do not let her diatribes dissuade you from pursuing this emerging discipline.  Her fears over "irrationality", insecurities about the appeal of "rationality" and near-certainty of an impending apocalypse leads to the same fanatic desperation observed in all absolute and inflexible world-views.  She is only one person.  Memetics is so much more.