Memetics: The Nascent Science of Ideas and Their Transmission

J. Peter Vajk

An Essay Presented to the Outlook Club
Berkeley, California
January 19, 1989

Part Two ... (Go back to Part One)

This mechanism in the brain, which appears to overlap the speech center, may be called an "inference engine"; given limited information, it leaps to some sort of initially plausible explanation for phenomena the brain must handle. Such a mechanism has obvious survival value if it can suggest that the rustling in the bushes behind you might be a large predator.

On the other hand, as Gazzaniga's example shows, the inference engine will wring blood from a stone: you can count on it to manufacture causal relations whether or not they exist. Nor does it seem to be able to tell when it doesn't have enough data. Given an increasingly complex world, the inference engine is more and more likely to generate stuff having the quality of National Enquirer headlines. Memes originating in this way can be weeded out by exercise of a fairly modern meme complex, the meme complex forming the foundation of modern science, a healthy degree of skepticism. "What's the evidence?" this meme complex asks. Actually, we should call this a metameme, since it is a meme about memes.

Thus the human mind has a need for explanations or theories about its perceived reality. Given the complexity of mind which has extensive and detailed memory and vivid imagination, the ability to conceive of times past and future as well as present, and to foresee the death of the self, explanations are called for. Given the existence of evil and death, the inference engine seeks meaning. Religious meme complexes (frequently including such memes as belief in God, belief in an after-life and an immortal soul, belief in rewards or punishments in the here-after) satisfy the need for explanations or theories about these cosmic issues, which may be sufficient explanation for the prevalence and persistence of these memes in human culture.

Related meme complexes are those of political belief systems. To some extent, these overlap some or all of the meme-space occupied by religious meme complexes insofar as they, too, attempt to explain good and evil within human affairs and give meaning and purpose to activities in the human sphere. For people who have little power or influence, political theories can explain why they are so unfortunate.

Let me return now to some issues I mentioned in passing. Can we predict what sorts of brains will be more or less susceptible to infection by a particular meme? Can we immunize people against infection by more pernicious memes? Can particular memes be modified to make them more infective? A few observations suggest some lines of inquiry and investigation. Although the gene itself was unknown until Gregor Mendel's experiments on sweet peas near the end of the last century, farmers and animal breeders had a practical, intuitive grasp of genetics and evolution by selection thousands of years ago. Similarly, advertising agencies and political propagandists have been putting analogous concepts into practice for a long time, despite lack of the meme metameme.

Infection by the memes of television advertising is more likely among inexperienced, uneducated, or unsophisticated individuals. Children are more likely to catch these infections than adults; highly educated individuals who have previously been infected to some degree by the skepticism meme are much more resistant. A strongly developed sense of humor also appears to confer a high degree of resistance, perhaps because humor and skepticism are related by way of irony.

What about religious or political memes? Note first that most religious meme complexes are mutually exclusive: one cannot simultaneously adhere to Greek Orthodoxy and to polytheistic Hinduism, albeit hybridization between several seemingly incompatible religions is possible. (On the other hand, it is possible to subscribe to several of the Asian religions simultaneously: it is possible to be a Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucianist at once, for example.) Political meme complexes, as I mentioned before, seem to occupy similar locations in our mental landscapes. Patty Hearst, who had been exposed only superficially to either Christianity or to the American civic religion, had a near-vacuum in that space. So we should not be surprised that intense personal exposure to the far-fringe political belief system of the Symbionese Liberation Army successfully infected her with a rather bizarre meme complex, one which had very little genetic survivability, since most of that group died in a firefight and conflagration in Los Angeles about a year after she was initially kidnapped.

During the Korean War, American prisoners of war in North Korean prison camps were subjected to intense brainwashing procedures. Many prisoners cracked; others did not. The only consistent difference between those who did and those who did not succumb was the degree to which they had been infected with the traditional religious beliefs and/or traditional American values, i.e., belief in the American civic religion. An important exception was POW's who were "True Believers" in Eric Hoffer's sense. Most of the POW's who actually defected to North Korea had such a personality. It is interesting to note, however, that the True Believer personality usually has a poorly developed sense of humor.

In the present century, two major meme complexes in the political sphere are in active competition. Make no mistake: the conflict between the West and the Sino-Soviet bloc is not over physical resources such as land or petroleum; neither is it about weapons systems or trade items. It is a battle between competing memes for survival and replication in the minds of human beings. At the cores of the respective meme complexes lie Western democracy and Marxist-Leninism, respectively, and it is these memes which I wish to discuss now.

The Marxist-Leninist meme complex has to date been highly successful when viewed from the perspective of memetics rather than economics, I have already referred to the role of Lenin and a handful of his companions who arrived at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg in April 1917 and successfully captured control of the government within eight months. It is worth looking at some of the competitive strategies the Marxist-Leninist meme (MLM for short) has used to achieve this success.

Many of these techniques are directly analogous to techniques in the biosphere. Like the common cold virus and the AIDS virus, the MLM frequently changes its outer appearance to prevent immunological systems from immediately recognizing it and combatting it. Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, for example, pretended to be patriotic liberators; once in power, they shed their sheep's clothing to pursue the original purposes of the MLM. Like the penicillin bacterium, the MLM emits toxins that impede the replication of competing memes: secret police or Red Guards harass, imprison, or kill carriers of competing memes. Like the AIDS virus, the MLM improves its chances of success by weakening the immunological systems of its targets by an extensive disinformation and propaganda machine. (In the Winter 1989 issue of Global Affairs, John Lenczowski in "The Soviet Union and the United States: Myths, Realities, Maxims" makes a strong case that the current era of glasnost and perestroika is one more cycle of deliberate strategic deception.)

Like retroviruses which co-opt the genes of their hosts to make copies of the retroviruses themselves instead of whatever proteins those genes were intended to manufacture, the MLM seizes control of the machinery for transmission and replication of memes: radio, television, and the press are totally co-opted, and other channels (such as mimeograph machines and telephones) are restricted or closely monitored. Lenin was so successful in such a short time because the German Foreign Ministry secretly funded his propaganda campaign to the tune of some 50 million gold marks or more, equivalent to a few hundred million dollars today. (See Michael Pearson, The Sealed Train: Lenin's Eight-Month Journey from Exile to Power, New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1975.)

In order to lodge itself more firmly in the mental space occupied by religious meme complexes, not only does the MLM actively suppress standard religions, but it takes on some of the trappings of such religions, endowing the Party leaders with godlike attributes and offering a Marxist-Leninist vision of the future colored by a Heaven-like mystical aura.

Let me turn now to the meme complex of the West. Democratic institutions, some variation of capitalism, and significant personal liberty are the traditional values attributed to the West, but one other piece of the complex is especially important in this discussion, namely, the meme of tolerance.

The meme of tolerance evolved in America under conditions of partial isolation: relatively small doses of outside memes kept coming in, and could be absorbed and assimilated into a larger, fairly stable, meme pool. But the American meme pool was not being tested overseas against other large and fairly stable meme pools. Thus the tolerance meme was not exposed to competitive pressures in the global ideosphere until the middle of this century; it is not clear whether or not it is a "dominant" or a "recessive" meme; and it is not clear what its effect on the competitive survivability of the meme complex of American culture will be in this larger arena.

Note that in its nineteenth century form, the meme of tolerance did not assert that all meme complexes were created equal. To allow other memes to compete freely in the American ideosphere was all the tolerance meme stood for; it did not in any way inhibit the meme that the American political system was preferable to any other. In recent decades, a mutated version of the tolerance meme seems to have become more prevalent in the United States. In this form, the meme asserts that cultural and political meme complexes are of equal worth; in particular, the Soviet MLM complex and the Western democracy meme complex are held to be "morally equivalent." Judged by the values of the American cultural meme complex, however, a meme complex such as the MLM in which intolerance is inextricably embedded is clearly NOT of equal worth.

It would seem at the very least that the mutated version of the American tolerance meme weakens the immunological capacity of American culture to resist the MLM. It is even possible that the political-cultural meme complex of the Western democracies contains the seeds of its own destruction, not in the sense in which Marx, Engels, and Lenin predicted, but in the sense of memetics.

Can anything be done to immunize our populations against infection by the MLM? Simple anti-Communist hysteria is inadequate and, given the tolerance meme (either in its conventional or mutated forms), is even counterproductive. Greater education in the metameme of skepticism would certainly help. Renewed emphasis in the schools on the benefits of traditional American values would be expected to help, as would cultivation of adherence to traditional, mainline religions. (How the latter can be achieved with the framework of the American cultural system is difficult to see.)

The outcome of this competition between the meme complexes of the East and the West is of vital concern for the next few generations of the survival machines in which human genes are carried.

Is there any substance to memetics? Can it be placed on a sound scientific footing, able to make predictions? If so, applied memetics raises important ethical questions within the framework of the Western meme complex, as the dangers of deliberate manipulation of the general meme pool for personal power would be very real. Moreover, adherents of the Soviet MLM would have no hesitation about using such a science to further the spread of the MLM at the expense of the Western democratic meme.

Memetics is still at a very primitive stage. Like biology in the eighteenth century, the emphasis is necessarily on gathering reams of data and forming very tentative hypotheses. The formulation of universal principles may yet be years away. Indeed, it is possible that the entire concept may be intellectually and scientifically bankrupt. But in the meanwhile, it nonetheless provides an interesting framework for looking at social and political movements. Join the fun!


Brin, David, "The Dogma of Otherness," Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, April 1986.

Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Gazzaniga, Michael, The Social Brain.

Hofstadter, Douglas R., Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. New York: Basic Books, 1985; New York: Bantam Books, 1986. Chapter 3, "On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures."

Henson, Keith, "Memetics: The Science of Information Viruses," Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, August 1987; reprinted in Whole Earth Review, Winter 1987.

Minsky, Marvin, The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985, 1986.

Monod, Jacques, Chance and Necessity: An essay on the natural philosophy of modern biology. Translated by Austryn Wainhouse. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.

Pearson, Michael, The Sealed Train: Lenin's Eight Month Journey From Exile to Power. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.


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