virus: Brain Tennis

KMO prime (
Tue, 22 Oct 1996 15:50:22 EDT

Here is one of Richard Barbrook's contributions to the Brain Tennis
feature on Hotwired. Mr. Barbrook's efforts definitely fit my conception
of level two thinking. Following Barbrook's post is one that I posted to
"Threads" on Hotwired. I would encourage everyone to contribute to that

Richard Barbrook

According to you, Aaron,
"memetic evolution theory now
provides a broadly unifying
explanation of beliefs about
family, sex, politics, health,
abortion, and war." Formed
from a heady mixture of
Darwinian biology and Net
hype, this theory supposedly
represents a "paradigm shift"
that supersedes all earlier
explanations of human social
development. This is complete
cyberbollocks! Far from being
something new, memetics is
really another form of
mystical positivism - a
restatement of very old
religious ideas in the latest
scientific jargon.

For thousands of years,
priests have been claiming
that matter is controlled by
spirit. The Bible opens with
the famous line: "In the
beginning was the Word."
Plato's parable of the cave
asserts that the material
world is just a shadow cast by
the divine. But in the modern
world, most people would think
that you were crazy if you
still believed that human
destiny was controlled by
spirits. Yet, by using
biobabble, Aaron can sound
credible when he asserts that
"ideas acquire people." As
long as you rename them as
memes, it is possible to
believe in possession by
demons and angels without
sounding completely mad!

This is why it is very ironic
that memetic theory seems to
be so popular in the United
States as a method of
attacking Christian
fundamentalism. For the
proponents of meme theory are
really not that different from
their creationist opponents.
When religion is denounced as
a glorified computer virus,
the meme theorists are
themselves putting forward a
mystical argument. Just like
Christians, they're claiming
that the Word can control the
real. As an atheist, I have no
wish to defend the idiocies of
believers. However, it is
important to challenge the
condescending and ignorant
assertion that Christianity
can be simply explained away
as a self-replicating idea.
The power of religion has
never been derived from its
bizarre beliefs. Above all,
religion is a set of social
practices: a magical guide to
regulate our profane affairs.
We may deplore the sexual
repression and group
exclusivity encouraged by the
faith, but we cannot deny that
Christianity has provided a
real structure for how humans
should live down the
centuries. As Ludwig Feuerbach
pointed out, religion is a
mystical way of expressing our
real bonds with each other as
members of a community beyond
the individual.

It is no accident that meme
theorists cannot construct a
materialist analysis of
religion. Your belief, Aaron,
in demonic possession by memes
is a way of denying the
Promethean power of humanity.
We may not be able to choose
the historical circumstances
in which we find ourselves,
but we are a self-creating
species. No meme can do it for
us. We're the only ones
responsible for our own

Richard Barbrook’s critique of memetics amounts to no more than than
linguistic calisthenics and a round of sparring with a straw man he call
‘memetics.’ Mr. Barbrook characterizes the memetic perspective as a
theory which explains human behavior as the result of demonic possession.
Memes amount to no more than spirits which inhabit our flesh and wrest
control of our bodies from us. This characterization is simple-minded at
Memetics is a point of view. It is a way of looking at events from the
perspective of an idea. In his recent brain tennis post, Mr. Barbrook
includes the biblical quote, “In the beginning was the Word." That
string of characters is a meme. Mr. Barbrook didn’t invent that string
of symbols. He encountered them in a book. From Mr. Barbrook’s point of
view he encountered the sentence, "In the beginning was the Word," in a
book, reproduced it in a rant and sent it as e-mail. From the
perspective of the string of symbols however, the story is much longer.
It starts thousands of years prior the Mr. Barbrook’s. When we think
about the causal history of that string; when we think of it as something
that has been reproduced and perpetuated in a series of cultural
transactions, then we have shifted our focus away from minds as
generators of cultural artifacts to ideas as information patterns which
propagate themselves via a series of human vectors. When we take this
perspective we are looking at the world through the lens of memetics.
Memetic enthusiasts frequently describe memetics as a new paradigm in the
Kuhnian sense. Rather than representing a paradigm shift, adopting the
memetic perspective is more of a gestalt shift. The traditional view of
the human mind as “idea generator” and the view of it as “memetic vector”
are like two ways of seeing a Necker cube. Stare at a Necker cube long
enough and what you previously took to be the top becomes the side. This
shift in perception is not permanent With a little practice, you can go
back and forth. The same is true of memetics.
There are contexts in which it is useful to take a memetic perspective
and contexts in which the more traditional perspective works best. You
need not choose view one and champion it as the Truth. The ability to
see ideas as memes is a conceptual tool that will give you an
intellectual versatility which Mr. Barbrook lacks.
Mr. Barbrook sees memetics as incompatible with free will. If we accept
his argument, then we should reject the notion that we can gain any use
form a statistical view of a population. After all human beings are free
to make their own decisions and are not bound by any statistical laws.
Like the memetic perspective, the statistical one is useful in certain
contexts and not so useful in others. Cigarette smoking decreased X%
when cigarette television advertisement was banned in the United States.
Does that mean that people are slaves to advertising; incapable of
resisting Madison Avenue programming and making their own decisions? Of
course not, but at the same time, the belief that humans are free to
choose does not require that we reject the possibility of there being a
causal connection between the advertising ban and the decrease in smoking
in the United States.
Finally, Mr. Barbrook equates memetics with a Christian bashing agenda in
memetic enthusiasts. That is like criticizing Marx for the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan or rejecting St. Augustine’s “The City of God” on
the basis of recent high profile convictions of Catholic priests for the
sexual molestation of children. The memetic perspective is a tool, and
people employ tools to further their own objectives. This is as true of
memetics as it is of chemistry. I would encourage Mr. Barbrook to make a
greater effort to distinguish between a tool and the use to which people
put that tool in his future posts on this or any other subject.

Take care. -KMO