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"This is how science (unlike religion) works: in the end it's the data that counts."
September 19, 2010 5:42 AM   Subscribe

New evidence of religion's reproductive, cooperative, and personal benefits militates against the belief that religion is a "virus of the mind."

It's not all rosy, of course: atheistic countries have lower murder/suicide rates, and fewer abortions and teen pregnancies.
posted by anotherpanacea (315 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Talk about eponysterical.
posted by bwg at 5:44 AM on September 19, 2010 [21 favorites]


I believe in God, but I do not believe in religion.
posted by bwg at 5:46 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't believe in God but I am religious.
posted by octothorpe at 5:52 AM on September 19, 2010 [10 favorites]


I find the whole "are atheists better people" thing really tedious. Stuff like this comic (which I just saw on the front page of Reddit) ignore all the horrible people who happened to be atheists. One recent example was the Discovery Channel gunman. Obviously you have communist dictators in history.

It's annoying to see supposedly "rational" people subscribing to such common dumbass intellectual biases.
posted by delmoi at 5:52 AM on September 19, 2010 [22 favorites]


The Official God F.A.Q.
posted by Fizz at 5:57 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]



I don't believe in God and I'm not religious.

But I AM superstitious.
posted by notreally at 5:59 AM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oh, we're back to Durkheim in fancy dress again.

Religion is not a disease. It's a vestigial social function. It serves people who do not understand the causes of things in the natural and fear the uncertainty of ignorance. As in, all humans until about 2 centuries ago, and most humans still today. Is it still functional as a soother of human anxiety? Absolutely, of course. And we still have pinkies and body hair too.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:04 AM on September 19, 2010 [43 favorites]


(in the natural WORLD)
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:05 AM on September 19, 2010


I don't believe in religion, but I am God.
posted by Grangousier at 6:05 AM on September 19, 2010 [10 favorites]


I find the whole "are atheists better people" thing really tedious. Stuff like this comic (which I just saw on the front page of Reddit) ignore all the horrible people who happened to be atheists. One recent example was the Discovery Channel gunman. Obviously you have communist dictators in history.

It's annoying to see supposedly "rational" people subscribing to such common dumbass intellectual biases.
posted by delmoi at 5:52 AM on September 19 [+] [!]


There are not atheist groups trying to kill people. There are sick atheists that kill people.
posted by Brent Parker at 6:09 AM on September 19, 2010 [9 favorites]


I had no idea "militates" was even a word. Huh.
posted by nevercalm at 6:12 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm sorry if this wasn't clear from my phrasing, but the new evidence is all in *favor* of religion as a useful adaption that *continues* to be useful even today. This is not the "atheists rule, believers drool" post you seem to have been expecting, nor does the evidence give us any reason to believe that religion is "vestigial."
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:12 AM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


The Cylons were devout monotheists...just sayin'
posted by digitalprimate at 6:13 AM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


I find the whole "are atheists better people" thing really tedious. Stuff like this comic (which I just saw on the front page of Reddit) ignore all the horrible people who happened to be atheists. One recent example was the Discovery Channel gunman. Obviously you have communist dictators in history.

The operative words are "happened to be atheists."

I don't think anyone has ever claimed that atheism alone makes one a good person.
posted by John Cohen at 6:13 AM on September 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


Granting that religion might be beneficial (a point on which I have no firm position) that doesn't mean it's not a "virus of the mind," or to use the proper terminology a memetic infection. It could just be a memetic infection with which we have a positive symbiotic relationship.
posted by localroger at 6:14 AM on September 19, 2010 [19 favorites]


Why do you care?
posted by ZaneJ. at 6:17 AM on September 19, 2010


Why do you care?

Because I like thinking about the world and humanity. Because it's really important. Because other people care, and what they care about affects the world in which I live.

I mean, it's cool if you don't, but ... well, why do you care if I do?
posted by John Cohen at 6:20 AM on September 19, 2010 [17 favorites]


Interesting post, but just to be the one-note poster - "atheistic countries" and "theistic countries" differ in a billion ways and one should not be considered the counterfactual of the other. It may be that atheism causes abortion rates to be lower or teen pregnancy to be lower, but it's far more likely that "atheistic" belief is just spuriously correlated with other economic and cultural variables that determine those same things.
posted by scunning at 6:25 AM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Granting that religion might be beneficial (a point on which I have no firm position) that doesn't mean it's not a "virus of the mind," or to use the proper terminology a memetic infection. It could just be a memetic infection with which we have a positive symbiotic relationship.

You beat me to it. May I offer up as an example the SMAM-1 chicken viruses cholesterol lowering effects.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:26 AM on September 19, 2010


Have you ever seen a FPP without a poster having created it? Well, then, . . .
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:27 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


delmoi, the point of that cartoon is that while many people go out of their way to commit violence, both as individuals and in groups specifically because of their religiosity, you will have a much harder time finding anyone who ever woke up one day and said, "You know, this whole God idea is daft, so I think I'll go kill some people."
posted by localroger at 6:28 AM on September 19, 2010 [11 favorites]


There are not atheist groups trying to kill people. There are sick atheists that kill people.
posted by Brent Parker at 6:09 AM on September 19 [+] [!]


Brent, I'm sorry to be directly confrontational about this, but you're wrong. Very wrong. There are still militant communists in the world (Shining Path, Indian Naxalites). They still regularly kill both religious leaders and ordinary religious folk who refuse to renounce their religion.
posted by Ahab at 6:29 AM on September 19, 2010 [11 favorites]


I like religion because receptions at religious weddings are much better than those for atheists.
posted by Postroad at 6:30 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lord I hate religion
posted by A189Nut at 6:33 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


There are not atheist groups trying to kill people. There are sick atheists that kill people.

I could snark about this comment (hey, there are no religious groups trying to kill people either!) but I assume you mean there has never been a group of people who had the purpose of promoting atheism in mind and murdered people for that reason specifically. Which is easy to disprove.
posted by shii at 6:33 AM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone has a new book out on religion, American Grace. One observation from the book: Religious Americans are better neighbors than secular Americans—more generous with their time and treasure, even for secular causes—but the explanation has less to do with faith than with communities of faith;


Fourcheesemac: " It serves people who do not understand the causes of things in the natural and fear the uncertainty of ignorance."

You sound like you're sixteen years old and just finished Atlas Shrugged. I think the reality is a little more complex than that.
posted by mecran01 at 6:33 AM on September 19, 2010 [25 favorites]


This analysis is a bit of a sticky wicket for God-followers everywhere. Organized religions cannot make use of these findings without also admitting that the scientific method works for studying and making conclusions about reality. Tough predicament, that.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:36 AM on September 19, 2010 [11 favorites]


As far as disadvantages go, the very belief in a god is irrational, as is the unquestioning acceptance of religious dogma. Groups of irrational individuals cause many problems for society and the world at large.
posted by tybeet at 6:36 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


While I do agree some communist political parties are atheistic - I'm not sure that I had that in mind when I typed the comment above. I was thinking about groups that atheism, not a political process.
posted by Brent Parker at 6:37 AM on September 19, 2010


... groups that promote atheism ...
posted by Brent Parker at 6:38 AM on September 19, 2010


There are still militant communists in the world

You're making a common mistake that invariably comes up in threads like these. Communist terrorist groups are not fighting in the name of atheism: they are fighting in the name of their brand of political theory. Nitpicking perhaps, but it's a somewhat important point.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:38 AM on September 19, 2010 [26 favorites]


Organized religions cannot make use of these findings without also admitting that the scientific method works for studying and making conclusions about reality. Tough predicament, that.

Oh, sure, because we're all of us nothing if not intellectually consistent.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:40 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also for the record, the "meme virus" account certainly applies here when you consider the nature of dogma in the individual's mind. In Christianity, for instance, many people are taught explicitly when they are very young not to question the word of God. So not only are they adhering to an unfalsifiable hypothesis (God) and lessons purely from authority, but they are being inoculated against seeking evidence that may bring these beliefs into question. If that's not parasitic, then I don't know what is.
posted by tybeet at 6:40 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


The terms "meme" and "virus of the mind" have no social scientific referent I am aware of. The proper term is "culture."
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:42 AM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Ahab's mistaken point highlights a problem with the entire series of source material: It's all heavily weighted toward Judeo-Christian religions. These represent only a relatively brief time and far from total penetration over the entire history of human religious observance.

The proper response to Ahab is that from an outsider's standpoint, as a dogmatic belief system which purports to explain everything and brooks no disagreement, Communism itself becomes a religion.

What, you say, Communism doesn't have a god? Well neither do a lot of religions. Buddhism makes no firm claims about the origin of the Universe, nor does Taoism or Shinto. Hinduism has a creation myth but I don't think they take it quite as literally as some Christians tend to take theirs, and they have many gods none of which quite fits the Christian idea of over-creator of everything.

Furthermore, if you look at non-Christian religions you see a much clearer reason why they are beneficial; they're designed to be. Most of them concentrate on rituals rather than belief, on the (rather time proven) theory that you get the benfits if you do the ritual whether you believe in anything or not. In this respect Christianity is almost a degenerate religion, the Jackson Pollack painting in a gallery full of portraits. It's not at all obvious how it generates benefits at all, which is probably why scientists think it worthwhile to study it to find out. Whereas, should they have thought of studying a Buddhist population, they would have started with the Eight-Fold Path and gone "duh, it's obvious."
posted by localroger at 6:43 AM on September 19, 2010 [32 favorites]


New evidence of religion's reproductive, cooperative, and personal benefits militates against the belief that religion is a "virus of the mind."

The fact that something is correlated with increased reproduction does not not imply it is beneficial. "Reproductive benefits" is only makes sense from a particular perspective, which is evidently the one assumed by the OP...

anotherpanacea, it seems like you are using evidence about what might make people religious to infer that religion is better than nonreligion (at least in some ways). That assumes particular values, and anyone who does not share those values will not see why you think this paints a "rosy" picture of religion. People who aren't religious aren't asking themselves how they can have more babies and be more integrated with religious people.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 6:43 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Hey Look! Freethinkers with Community! They aren't all automatically anti-social!
posted by oneswellfoop at 6:43 AM on September 19, 2010


Sue Blackmore is going on what, 60 years old now? She's entering a phase of her life where death is an increasingly frightening prospect. Don't many people at this point in their lives turn to religion as a way of mitigating this despair? If you ask me, she's a vulnerable host for such ideas.
posted by tybeet at 6:43 AM on September 19, 2010


In this respect Christianity is almost a degenerate religion, the Jackson Pollack painting in a gallery full of portraits. It's not at all obvious how it generates benefits at all, which is probably why scientists think it worthwhile to study it to find out.

Have you read Jesus' teachings, and considered them in their historical context? I think its pretty obvious how Jesus' teachings could generate benefits for an oppressed people. Consider also how American slaves adopted Christianity. The elevation of the servant role in Christianity makes adapting to oppression easier (I believe Nietzsche made this point first).
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 6:49 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


fourcheesemac, while the usefulness of it is controversial the terminology of meme theory has been around since the 1980's and there are references to it all over the literature. It's in Wikipedia, so it must be true :-)
posted by localroger at 6:51 AM on September 19, 2010


You sound like you're sixteen years old and just finished Atlas Shrugged. I think the reality is a little more complex than that.


Well, do you now? Funny thing that I'm a middle aged anthropologist who's read very extensively in the relevant historical, theoretical, and ethnographic literatures, and who has never even opened anything by Ayn Rand.

I was restating -- in a mode of "what is the original argument here?" snark -- the now standard functionalist argument for religion, as most famously stated by Emile Durkheim more than a century ago. One could, following this analysis, say that science has replaced religion for many moderns (not "rationality," which is only an asserted high ground), or even that science *is* a religion (whose adherents believe it possesses the higher truth, and so far have racked up an impressive array of accomplishments and proofs to show for it compared to any and all previous belief systems).

Religion was absolutely integral to human cultural evolution up until the advent of the modern era (what that means as a boundary is hard to unpack and very controversial). It remains so for many extant societies and cultures, including many constituencies within modern societies who are otherwise dependent on the material advances of scientific rationality (the irony of flat-earthers meeting each other on the internet, for instance).

Science has proved a double-edged sword, giving us the capacity to destroy as well as create far more than religion ever did. Harnessed together, you get the current world situation in which a massive global theological conflict has the arsenals of the modern state at hand.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:51 AM on September 19, 2010 [30 favorites]


delmoi, I agree with your big point but with regard to that comic you can get called a militant atheist for just definitely not believing in god. In order to get called a militant christian or militant islamist you actually need to be sort of actually militant.

If you are an atheist an you assert that there is not a god a number of agnostics and theists will say that you are being arrogant. These same people would never say that a christian was being arrogant for believing that there is a god, who is omnipotent, perfectly good, has known turn ons and turn offs, flooded the earth, turned people to salt, sent his son to earth, had him die and resurrected, judges the living and the dead etc. That isn't arrogant.

If there was a minority religious group that existed that the majority of people believed to be immoral or less moral and they pointed to all the ways that other religious groups were actually immoral I think even if they were no better than original religious groups it would be easy to understand that behavior as a response to the wide spread belief in their immorality.
posted by I Foody at 6:51 AM on September 19, 2010 [9 favorites]


localroger, yes I know, but that doesn't mean it isn't bullshit. It's a vastly oversimplified reinvention of the wheel. We have a century of cultural theory that says there is no basic unit of conceptual communication.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:53 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


We have a century of cultural theory that says there is no basic unit of conceptual communication.

Oh, your theory is older, so it wins.
posted by John Cohen at 6:55 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Philosopher Dirtbike, Christianity is extremely thin on both source material and ritual activity compared to nearly all other religions, and most of the religions which have ever existed would say that modern Christianity's focus on belief first, then benefits is exactly backward; you have rituals so that you will experience the benefits whether you believe or not.

But then, part of Christianity's memetic success strategy may be that it is more about spreading itself than helping its individual members, and as with Skinner boxes a less reliable reward system might work better for that.
posted by localroger at 6:55 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Is religion true?" and "Is religion beneficial?" are two distinct questions.

Even the most anti-religion atheist would agree that (many forms of) religion increase reproduction, for example. Many will agree that it aids community formation as well (at the cost of making life miserable for the misfits, usually.) And anybody can see that religion can alleviate personal problems like anxiety as well (c.f. "the opiate of the masses" or George Bush sleeping like a baby.)

The only thing all atheists agree on about (theistic) religion is that it ain't true.
posted by callmejay at 6:57 AM on September 19, 2010 [8 favorites]


4cm, while I don't think there is anybody left who thinks memetics describes "basic units of cultural transition" there are a lot of people who think it reflects an accurate analogy to the evolution of species, in the way ideas spread among people with some becoming widely accepted and others being forgotten according to how they affect the people who are exposed.
posted by localroger at 7:00 AM on September 19, 2010


So I tried to skim the 'reproductive' link and it seems to be a real mess. Its basically arguing that because there is a correlation between religious adherence and larger family size, that means that being religious confers a survival advantage. In the conclusion, the author even goes on to make wild speculation that the reason that the Creationism/ID movement hasn't lumbered off and died in a cold hole is that the religious people are out-breeding the non-religious, even though the latter have a position that is defensible by reason and evidence and the former have only tradition and 'nuh-uh'. I'm not sure even where to start with that one. However I'm pretty sure that there aren't any Atheist couples who, barring physiological reproductive issues which afflict both groups equally, would like to have more kids but aren't because they don't have a God telling them it's their duty. Maybe this was a survival advantage in the past, but I can't see how it has any relevance in the modern western world, nor can I see it being relevant in a world with increasingly limited physical resources -- shouldn't "practices family planning" be a virtue and not a liability?
posted by Rhomboid at 7:03 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


cooperative, and personal benefits

These are pretty weak articles. They just say that religious people are "happier" and do charitable things "more." We're never told how much happier they are or how much more they give. This must have been quantified in the experiment, so why don't we get to find out how significant the difference is?
posted by John Cohen at 7:04 AM on September 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


localroger, yes I know, but that doesn't mean it isn't bullshit. It's a vastly oversimplified reinvention of the wheel. We have a century of cultural theory that says there is no basic unit of conceptual communication.

I'm sure the contrary position was similar before we discovered the atom, while we were still philosophizing that there could be such a thing as a basic unit of matter. In fact every transformation of philosophy to science reveals that the original idea was too simplistic, including the case with the atom - as there may be multiple basic "units" in a dynamic of sorts. The fact is, cultural transmission of ideas acts very much the same as disease transmission so whether or not there even is such a thing as a basic unit is somewhat beside the point of memetic theory overall.
posted by tybeet at 7:04 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


In any case, religion wouldn't be a basic unit of culture (meme), it would be a "memeplex" - a complex mesh of many different memes.
posted by tybeet at 7:07 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


You're making a common mistake that invariably comes up in threads like these. Communist terrorist groups are not fighting in the name of atheism: they are fighting in the name of their brand of political theory. Nitpicking perhaps, but it's a somewhat important point.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:38 AM on September 19 [+] [!]


Granted, communism is about much more than simply atheism. But I'm unable to think of a significant communist thinker who wasn't a) an atheist, and b) didn't follow the basic and fundamental Marxist premise that organized religion should be wiped out as part of the process of revolution. Nor am I able to think of an actual revolution in which churches and church figures weren't specifically targeted at an early stage.

If that can be explained away as a product of "political theory" rather than atheism itself, one might just as well say that violence perpetrated by the religious and their churches can be explained away as a product of dogma and dogmatic practice (or to put it more bluntly, church politics).
posted by Ahab at 7:09 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


The fact is, cultural transmission of ideas acts very much the same as disease transmission so whether or not there even is such a thing as a basic unit is somewhat beside the point of memetic theory overall.

It's been a while since I read The Selfish Gene, but Dawkins' main point in that book was that the important unit on which evolution acts is the gene, and that evolution can be understood by thinking in terms the survival of genes instead of individual. He then made the analogy with ideas, and coined the term "meme". As I remember it, the entire point was to make an analogy with genes, so if there is no basic unit, the whole metaphor fails. I don't think anyone would contest the fact that some ideas spread better than others, and that ideas change. The question is why. If there's no basic unit, then what was the point of memetic theory for Dawkins?
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:14 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't know about religion being a virus, but I know for certain that language is.
posted by hippybear at 7:14 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ahab, if I may expand on what I said before, Communism isn't atheism; Communism only contains atheism. Taken as a whole, from an outsider's perspective, Communism is itself a religion, doing all the things a religion might do to expand its sphere of influence. It is not the disbelief in God that drives that, but the belief in something else which improves its chances by attempting to destroy the competition.

To say that atheism is bad because it is part of Communism is exactly like saying the Bible is bad because Jim Jones used it.

And, in case you didn't see my other comment, Communism isn't the only religion that doesn't feature a God; Hinduism, Taoism, and Shinto come immediately to mind as more traditional religions that don't bother explaining how the world came to exist.
posted by localroger at 7:18 AM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


There are not atheist groups trying to kill people. There are sick atheists that kill people.

I'm hoping it goes without saying that you believe the same is true of any religious person who tries to kill people.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:20 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Philosopher Dirtbike, to shift gears from social theory to information theory let me assert that there is obviously a fundamental unit of information transfer because there is a fundamental unit of information, the bit. All human communication can be reduced to bits; it is finite and recordable. If there is no other fundamental unit consisting of more than one bit based on some more complex biological mechanism, then the fundamental unit will be the bit. To suggest that the whole idea of memetics fails because no fundamental unit has been identified basically misunderstands the very concept of what information is.
posted by localroger at 7:24 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I won't endorse the "atheists are more moral" position, but I'd like to correct two faults in the arguments against it.

First, there's this argument: "[evil dictator] was an atheist. That invalidates the claim that atheists are more moral."

No, it doesn't. The fact that you can point to examples of immoral atheists does not mean that atheists, as a whole, are less moral than believers. Because we can also point to examples of equally immoral believers. (No one's claiming that all atheists are completely moral all of the time.)

To determine which group has more grams of moral fiber per average serving, you should compare the number of immoral people (or individual immoral acts) in a sufficiently large random sample of atheists, compared to a sufficiently large random sample of believers.

That's not exactly what the murder studies cited in the FPP did, but it's close. (Murder is a useful metric because it's almost universally understood to be immoral, it's usually pretty unambiguous when a murder has been committed [i.e., there's not much room for debate as to what constitutes a murder and what doesn't], and we can assume that most murders make it into the available data. Other metrics of morality, such as adultery, are fraught with difficulties on all those points.)

Secondly, I'm hardly the first person to suggest that the absolutist ideologies and cults of personality that characterize dictatorial regimes are very similar to religions.

Every wonder why so many authoritarian regimes seek to stamp out religion? Or why the North Korean regime maintains fantastic quasi-religious myths about its leaders, while claiming atheism as their official policy? It's because they seek to replace religion in the hearts and minds of their subjects. They are religions that cast their own leaders or ideologies as the objects of worship.

Another similarity with religion: political religions often demand that when there's a conflict between evidence and ideology, the ideology must be favored.

There was no rational reason, in 1930s Germany, to believe that Jews were the cause of all the nation's ills. It took an antirational ideology to make that belief possible.* Lysenkoism was not driven by any rational, atheistic tendencies in the Soviet project, but by a blind and slavish adherence to unquestionable ideology.

Except for one detail—the absence of a deity (and in the case of Kim Jong-Il, that's debatable)—these systems are religion. They're based on the same irrational foundations; they operate by the same social and psychological mechanisms; they use the same tactics to indoctrinate people and discourage opposition; they play similar roles in their follower's lives.

So, given that the characters of deistic religions and political religions are so similar, it's a bit absurd to draw a parallel between the atheism of Dawkins and the atheism of Stalin. When I say "I object to religion because of x, y, and z", and Stalin's regime is also characterized by x, y, and z, it's safe to assume that Stalin's regime is part of the thing I'm arguing against.

* I don't mean to suggest that Hitler was an atheist. The historical facts on that question are a bit more complicated.
posted by ixohoxi at 7:25 AM on September 19, 2010 [28 favorites]


God doesn't believe in me.
posted by doctor_negative at 7:33 AM on September 19, 2010


I always found that the existence of pubs provides quote a few reproductive, cooperative and personal benefits for a community. There's also the not-insignificant matter of there being pretty solid evidence for their actual existence.
posted by Decani at 7:34 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


When I say "I object to religion because of x, y, and z", and Stalin's [atheist] regime is also characterized by x, y, and z, it's safe to assume that Stalin's regime is part of the thing I'm arguing against.

Wait, then why is religion even mentioned? Why not just say "I object to x, y, and z"?
posted by shii at 7:38 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


As we are all made of "star stuff, to quote Carl Sagan, then my religion is the circularity of the Universe.

I am made of star stuff, and one day I shall return to being star stuff.
posted by bwg at 7:39 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like religion because receptions at religious weddings are much better than those for atheists.
posted by Postroad at 2:30 PM on September 19


Funny, I've almost invariable found the opposite to be the case. Certainly at my own wedding. Now that was a party. Several, in fact.
posted by Decani at 7:40 AM on September 19, 2010


Philosopher Dirtbike, to shift gears from social theory to information theory let me assert that there is obviously a fundamental unit of information transfer because there is a fundamental unit of information, the bit.

Had you given two seconds of thought to what you just wrote, you would have seen why the bit is a completely irrelevant unit here. But in case you haven't yet, which has greater fitness, 0s or 1s? How does memetic selection on 0s and 1s work?

If I were to ask about units in, say, classical music theory, if you reply with something about the encoding of your Mozart MP3s you've missed the point.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:41 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


But I'm unable to think of a significant communist thinker who wasn't a) an atheist, and b) didn't follow the basic and fundamental Marxist premise that organized religion should be wiped out as part of the process of revolution.

Again, this is a mistake of logic. Even if historically prominent Communists are atheists, they are still not fomenting revolution for the purpose of spreading atheism.

Organized religion is a problem for some Marxists because it maintains social classes and oppresses the working class, not because any one particular idea of God is involved. There are even some Communists who are religious — some have argued over history that Jesus was a Communist, or that his teachings had communist aspects well before Marx came around.

In any case, Shining Path is a terrorist group that aim to liberate the proletariat from imperialist hegemony over Peru by the United States. Their revolution isn't about spreading atheism far and wide.

If that can be explained away as a product of "political theory" rather than atheism itself, one might just as well say that violence perpetrated by the religious and their churches can be explained away as a product of dogma and dogmatic practice (or to put it more bluntly, church politics).

I can't think of any religious leader in history who didn't ultimately claim his motivations for acting rested with serving God or some teachings of godlike figures. Whether they were or are being sincere or simply playing political games seems irrelevant, in light of that original motivation.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:43 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'm not at all sure that "increasing reproduction" is a benefit, in fact I'll argue pretty strongly that the fact that religion appears to be linked to increased reproduction seems to be detrimental in the modern world.
posted by sotonohito at 7:45 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


localroger, I do understand what you're saying. And in many ways I agree.

But for me, this boils down to a question of whether the content is separable from the container.

Belief solely in the existence or non-existence of god (or gods, or nature spirits, or my imaginary friend the white whale) is not exactly contentious, and I doubt that it often produces terrible results.

However, those who believe (and I'll include "disbelieve" in that), rarely have a single shining belief. They rarely hold something in their head in isolation. Rather, their belief is always attached to dogma, doctrine or politics. It's usually attached to organizational structure. And it's often attached to programmatic practice.

In other words, one needs to assess ideas and beliefs as structures, and as likely bases for real world action.

To turn a phrase on it's head. Communism without atheism wouldn't have existed. Jim Jones without the bible would have been a nobody. To my mind, both would have been good.
posted by Ahab at 7:47 AM on September 19, 2010


You sound like you're sixteen years old and just finished Atlas Shrugged. I think the reality is a little more complex than that.
posted by mecran01 at 2:33 PM on September 19 [2 favorites +]


Personal attack - check
Lack of actual argument - check

And still no sign of a deity. Diversions are such fun when the arguments aren't on your side.
posted by Decani at 7:49 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am befuddled by claims that "religion is bad" or "religion is good."

What is religion? It's a huge set of different traditions that have spanned the course of human history. It's pantheism and Judaism; it's Scientology and Zeus worship; It's votive candles and New Age crystals.

If we just confine it to mean Christianity, it's still (a) a complex groups of stories; (b) a bunch of rituals; (c) a set of personal beliefs; (d) a bunch of communities; (e) a bunch of political groups and hierarchies; (f) a connected web of historical events; (g) an educational system; (h) a collection of artistic works; and probably a bunch of other letters-in-parenthesis-followed-by-phrases that I'm not thinking of at the moment.

How can all that be simply good or bad?

That's like saying literature is good or bad. In my view, "The Great Gatsby" is good while "Garbage World" is bad.

I try not to play armchair psychology, but when I hear people foam at the mouth about religion in general, I can't help thinking they're really just mad that their dad, who forced them to go to church or at a particular religious community that ostracized them for being gay. Those are great reasons for being mad. But they veer into irrationality when they make grand claims about something as old and multifaceted and bound up in every corner of human history as religion.

When people counter that religion is wonderful, I suspect they are being defensive. Aren't they really saying, "It's been great for me," and ignoring crusades, witch burnings, human sacrifices, sanctioned misogyny, brainwashing, etc? These are not blemishes on all of religion; they are blemishes on SOME religious groups -- but the fact that these blemishes exist means it's absurd to say, in a general way, that religion is wonderful.

Sorry, but no matter how much you personally love or hate religion, that doesn't change the fact that you're trying to simplify E=MC^2 to 1+1=2. And is anyone here really childish enough to think that if all religion magically vanished, there'd be no more war, prejudice or intolerance? Is anyone really stupid enough to think that if everyone in the world found Jesus, we'd all love each other, never be jealous, never throw punches and spend every day dancing under rainbows?

Food is not delicious; food is not disgusting. Both statements are absurd.

I know there's a big drive that some people have to, like Frankenstein's monster, grunt "RELIGION GOOOOOD" or "RELIGION BAAAAAD." But you don't get to do that (and claim any semblance of intellectual rigor) unless you have a defective brain and bolts in your neck.
posted by grumblebee at 7:50 AM on September 19, 2010 [55 favorites]


Jesus Christ, this again?!
posted by nomadicink at 7:55 AM on September 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


Note: Help maintain a healthy, respectful discussion by focusing comments on the
issues, topics, and facts at hand—not at other members of the site.
posted by shii at 7:55 AM on September 19, 2010


I try not to play armchair psychology, but when I hear people foam at the mouth about religion in general, I can't help thinking they're really just mad that their dad, who forced them to go to church or at a particular religious community that ostracized them for being gay.

This means that you have inaccurate ideas about why people aren't religious, and is the opposite of insightful.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:57 AM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Philosopher Dirtbike, what you are basically saying is that Mendel was wasting his time because DNA and genes weren't known to him. That's silly.

Without knowing about DNA you could infer that something like it must exist because living things are made of matter. You might have no idea how big it is, what it's made of, how it propagates, or whether there's more than one form of it, but you can say it exists because of how it's expressed at a macroscopic level.

We can say very clearly that there must be some unit of cultural transmission because culture gets transmitted. If it is nothing else culture is combinations of ones and zeroes. It may be that it is combinations of some relatively limited set of large sets of ones and zeroes, just as genes are a set of base pairs which are significantly more complex than individual atoms, but you don't have to know that to infer that genes exist and explore how they act.

But in case you haven't yet, which has greater fitness, 0s or 1s? How does memetic selection on 0s and 1s work?

This is just plain stupid. It's like asking which has more fitness, adenine or cytosine. Even if you knew the fundamental unit of memetic transmission, it would still only be combinations of that unit that have "fitness."
posted by localroger at 7:57 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


cooperative, and personal benefits

These are pretty weak articles. They just say that religious people are "happier" and do charitable things "more." We're never told how much happier they are or how much more they give. This must have been quantified in the experiment, so why don't we get to find out how significant the difference is?


I find people who are drunk on average to be more happy and generous as well. Doesn't mean it is a good thing.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:57 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ahab: Communism without atheism wouldn't have existed. Jim Jones without the bible would have been a nobody.

I would dispute both of these claims. While Marx and many of the more prominent Communist thinkers were anti-religion, not all were and it is possible to reconcile Communist economic theory with non-Communist religious practice; it's mainly because they saw religion as a powerful competitor that Marx & co. chose not to.

And I seriously doubt that Jim Jones would have been a different person without his Bible; he had a lot of creepy stuff going on that had nothing to do with the Bible, and it's likely he would have found some other frame for his cult of personality if he didn't have it.
posted by localroger at 8:04 AM on September 19, 2010


This means that you have inaccurate ideas about why people aren't religious, and is the opposite of insightful.

No, I didn't make any claims about why people are or aren't religious. I made a GUESS -- and noted that it was a guess -- about why people put religion in simplistic mental categories.

I am not religious. I have been an atheist all my life. I am not an atheist because I hate religion. I am an atheist because I don't believe in God. So I would never claim that people aren't religious because they have simplistic ideas about the historical and social value (positive and negative) of religion, because that wouldn't fit my own personal experience.
posted by grumblebee at 8:06 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


As I remember it, the entire point was to make an analogy with genes, so if there is no basic unit, the whole metaphor fails. I don't think anyone would contest the fact that some ideas spread better than others, and that ideas change. The question is why. If there's no basic unit, then what was the point of memetic theory for Dawkins?

I'm not sure this is correct. What is the basic unit in genetics? A gene in the selfish gene theory (and the extended phoenotype) as I recall it could be a set of any number of alleles that lead to genotypic expression. It could be a base pair, a group of base pairs or any number of such groups. The term gene was not a defined basic unit.
posted by devon at 8:09 AM on September 19, 2010


nomadicink: "Jesus Christ, this again?!"

Yep. Jesus wept.
posted by bwg at 8:10 AM on September 19, 2010


Religion is not a disease. It's a vestigial social function. It serves people who do not understand the causes of things in the natural and fear the uncertainty of ignorance.

Unless you're reproducing all of the experiments yourself, then you do not "understand" the "causes of things" anymore than a believer of Thor. You're just exchanging one faith for another.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:13 AM on September 19, 2010


This is just plain stupid. It's like asking which has more fitness, adenine or cytosine. Even if you knew the fundamental unit of memetic transmission, it would still only be combinations of that unit that have "fitness."

Yes, I see you understand my point. I am NOT saying that there is no unit of cultural heritability. What was reacting to was tybeet's assertion that "The fact is, cultural transmission of ideas acts very much the same as disease transmission so whether or not there even is such a thing as a basic unit is somewhat beside the point of memetic theory overall." In fact, the existence of such a unit is critical to memetic theory - it was, in fact, the point.

To extend the analogy, Mendel would have been barking up the wrong tree if indeed there were no unit of heritability. Evolution could still occur, but the explanation for the evolution could not be the selection of genes. Dawkins' memetic theory was more than just a statement that ideas evolve - it was a proposal that there is some unit of cultural information that could be selected for or against. It was a step toward an explanation of why certain ideas or groups of ideas spread. Without a fundamental unit, memetics has no content aside from the trivial observation that ideas change.

So, in a discussion of whether there is a unit of cultural heritability of ideas, to interject something about information theory was completely irrelevant. Memetic theory deals with units which are selected for or against. You conflated the ideas ("memeplexes", which is what we were discussing) with some possible digital encoding (which is what information theory deals with).
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:15 AM on September 19, 2010


We can say very clearly that there must be some unit of cultural transmission because culture gets transmitted. If it is nothing else culture is combinations of ones and zeroes. It may be that it is combinations of some relatively limited set of large sets of ones and zeroes, just as genes are a set of base pairs which are significantly more complex than individual atoms, but you don't have to know that to infer that genes exist and explore how they act.

You're mistaking a heuristic device for thinking collectively about how humans communicate with the actual physically existing atoms.

There is no such thing as "culture." As the koan says--"Do not mistake your finger for the moon."
posted by Ironmouth at 8:18 AM on September 19, 2010


You're mistaking a heuristic device for thinking collectively about how humans communicate with the actual physically existing atoms.

No, I'm not. What I'm saying is that the heuristic device can be useful even if you don't know how the atoms get arranged to perform the functionality; the fact that you don't know how it happens doesn't mean it doesn't happen or that there aren't consistent and repeatable effects that can be explored, possibly to shed light on that mechanism.

There is no such thing as "culture."

Claude Shannon suggests you are wrong about this. Clearly there is a consistent body of information that is shared between people who bind together in communities; this body of information is persistent across generations so it must be transmitted somehow. As it happens these bodies of information also mutate, form combinations, and come into conflict. These bodies of information are culture. They can be measured and recorded; they are made up of words, artwork and artistic skills, and survival skills. All of these things are ultimately made up of ones and zeroes, and they most definitely exist.
posted by localroger at 8:30 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


There is no such thing as "culture." As the koan says--"Do not mistake your finger for the moon."

I have not heard that koan before. I like it!
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:30 AM on September 19, 2010


Claude Shannon suggests you are wrong about this.

I severely doubt Shannon would be so daft as to mistake his mathematical theory of digital channels with a theory of culture.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:33 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I severely doubt Shannon would be so daft as to mistake his mathematical theory of digital channels with a theory of culture.

Can you elaborate what you base your doubts on?
posted by tybeet at 8:42 AM on September 19, 2010


I find the whole "are atheists better people" thing really tedious.

Atheists aren't better people, believers aren't better people, better people are better people. Just try to be a better person and not justify one's beliefs all the time.
posted by acheekymonkey at 8:44 AM on September 19, 2010 [7 favorites]


New evidence of religion's reproductive, cooperative, and personal benefits militates against the belief that religion is a "virus of the mind."

Um, no.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:48 AM on September 19, 2010


Religious people have a moral duty to report satisfaction if connected to a religious belief. That's their practiced testimonial, and eternal punishments are reserved for those who break rank. The real problem is that poor, desperate people will most often become religious as a coping mechanism, and fear is openly exploited. To then report on their purported states of happiness to make a secular point about religious products is rather demonic.
posted by Brian B. at 8:50 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wait, then why is religion even mentioned? Why not just say "I object to x, y, and z"?

1. I didn't bring up religion. This conversation was framed in terms of religion from the get-go. Then someone dragged out the tired "but [evil dictator] was an atheist" argument, suggesting that "atheism" as the term is commonly meant is comparable to the atheism of your Stalins and your Pol Pots. I was just illustrating the fallacy of that.

2. Because nearly everyone already agrees that x, y, and z are bad in the context of political systems. I rarely encounter anyone that needs to be convinced of that—so in that sense, at least, that battle has already been won. What remains is to convince those same people that x, y, and z are also bad in the context of religion.

3. Because religion is the particular variety of irrational belief system that has the most practical bearing on my personal situation, and the situation in my country. There aren't (many) people campaigning for the United States to submit to an absolutist political ideology. But there are millions of my countrymen who would be glad to see the country under the rule of their fundamentalist religion.

delmoi: the point of that cartoon isn't to suggest that atheists are more moral than believers. The point is to illustrate how obnoxious the term "militant atheist" is. The media cavalierly applies it to people like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and their fans—people whose "militance" includes such violent and inhuman acts as writing books, giving lectures, and having intellectual debates on the Internet. One might not care for their message or their delivery, but it's offensive (and shitty journalism) to lump them in with real militants, who actually kill people.

Sorry, guys; I'm done with this one. I'm not in the mood to defend myself against the same old lazy tropes this morning.
posted by ixohoxi at 8:53 AM on September 19, 2010 [14 favorites]


Can you elaborate what you base your doubts on?

That's what my last three posts have been about. The basic problem here is a conflating of the idea of a unit; just because cultural information can be encoded as bits to any arbitrary precision, does not mean that culture is bits, or even that it is useful for thinking about it that way (at least, for all purposes).

In fact, Shannon's information theory is completely devoid of semantics - that's not it's purpose! Information is information, regardless of the underlying meaning of the information. To say that a mathematical theory which has no bearing on semantics of the information being encoded can somehow capture the transmission of cultural information is just plain wrong.

I have graduate level experience in human information processing, so I am more than just a little familiar with Shannon's work. And it simply is not relevant to this discussion, as much as localroger would like to make it so.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 8:56 AM on September 19, 2010


Silly rationalists, culture is the property of the humanities. You can't quantify and measure culture!
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 8:56 AM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]


So, we're on about religion this Sunday morning, are we? Hey, try this: in all those pro-religion arguments put forward, substitute the word "religion" with the word "Scientology" and see how you feel.
posted by kozad at 8:56 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, we're on about religion this Sunday morning, are we? Hey, try this: in all those pro-religion arguments put forward, substitute the word "religion" with the word "Scientology" and see how you feel.

"Why are we talking about Scientology instead of personality cults and brainwashing? Didn't other people do those things? Wouldn't it be better to focus on the eliminating the bad within Scientology, rather than suppressing Scientology and giving them a martyr complex?" Yup, feel pretty comfortable with my line of argument.
posted by shii at 9:01 AM on September 19, 2010


and that evolution can be understood by thinking in terms the survival of genes instead of individual.

Actually, Dawkins is wrong, because genes don't have a specific function outside the context of the genome and its history. It's more subtle than that, and evolutionary pressures operate not on the genome directly, but rather the "phenotypome". More than one combination of genes can produce the same phenotype, and this is what evolutionary pressure operates on directly.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:02 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Haven't we settled this a long time ago? Totalitarianism is immoral. Tolerance is moral.

Systems of belief that promote pluralism make for happier societies. When those systems demand conformity of something beyond the equality of law, societies are miserable.
posted by notion at 9:02 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Communism without atheism wouldn't have existed.

Examining that, I see it is a parsable English sentence, but it's ostensible meaning does not seem to have any support in your surrounding sentences. Perhaps if you offered some evidence in favor of this assertion, it would be more valuable. There have been, throughout history, religious communities which function almost exactly like the system proposed by Marx and Engels, but just not labeled "Communism." How does this fact square with your assertion?
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:07 AM on September 19, 2010


Science is the means by which God reveals his inconceivably vast and complex majesty to us. It say so in a Yes song.

I think.
posted by philip-random at 9:11 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Here's my naive conclusions from approx. a half-century of watching and thinking:

I get the arguments that suggest how religion appeared as a way to share and transmit values, and to provide some sort of answer to the "big" questions, and supplied the other benefits of community

It's obvious that we humans, amazing as we are, don't have the capacity to know and understand EVERYTHING. This can be argued simply based on physical limitations of the brain, nasty brutish and short lifespan, etc. So regardless of being "religious" or not, someone's answers to the 'big' questions, might be logical conclusions, even scientific, but at some level or other we humans have to have "faith" or belief. For an example, a strong atheistic position requires belief first that we humans are capable of creating and following a near-flawless system of semantics and logic capable of framing the 'big' questions, and then that we are capable of perceiving all relevent evidence, encoding it into our logical framework correctly, and reaching the truth (or Truth).

I think we (individually or collectively) don't have this perfect logical ability, and that history shows how much irrationality influences human thought and activity.

From the above, I conclude that most religions provide a premade shorthand answer to the 'big' questions, with a plausible if unprovable backstory. And most importantly, religion provides a ready framework for promoting, discussing and justifying altruism, ethics, pursuit of a common good as opposed to pure self-interest. Finally, religion has proven effective at providing all the trappings and benefits of community to its members.

The non-religious world by contrast has no such cohesion. The ideas of competition amorality and self-interest are far stronger here in some pockets (capitalism, libertarianism), yet here also is communism.

Science holds the promise of answering all our questions (given enough time, effort and input), but it's only as good as its practitioners. It's failed to motivate people to good works in the same way that religion has. (Likewise, religion has also successfully motivated people to do evil...)

I personally don't believe in a conscious omnipotent supreme being. But that might just be because He/She/It/They have chosen not to reveal their presence to me. Or I could even be right. It only matters to me so I don't see the point of beating others about the ears with my beliefs. (oops, too late...)

From observation, I will say this: I've found that people who were genuinely religious and sincerely held their beliefs are usually secure, confident, unafraid to engage the world, and had a good family and community life. Most of the same can also be said about confident atheists or agnostics, but I've encountered them far less, and they usually lack the easy access to community of the quality provided by religion.
posted by Artful Codger at 9:12 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


You're mistaking a heuristic device for thinking collectively about how humans communicate with the actual physically existing atoms.

There is no such thing as "culture."


By that argument, nothing exists but atoms. Specifically, you, as a person, don't exist.

You are nothing but a pattern. There is not a single atom in you that was there when you were born, and none of the atoms in you now will be there when you die.
posted by empath at 9:13 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Prof Dirtbike, your basic assertion seems to be that memetics is meaningless without a unit of culture to work from, and since no such unit has been identified memetics is meaningless.

My point is that you can infer from the top down that there must be such a unit; culture gets transmitted, we aren't born with it and it moves around, and we can see at a macroscopic level that it moves in ways very analogous to disease transmission.

And we can infer from the bottom up that there must be such a unit, because there are certain things we identify as "culture" -- languages, artworks, skills, and so on -- which all consist of information. To assert (as Ironmouth did) that these things "don't exist" or maybe "aren't culture" is just plain wrong. And regardless of what higher level information structure might provide a common focus for describing these things, they can always be described in terms of the raw information they contain, just as you can describe an animal by its physical properties even if you can't whip up a stem cell from raw chemicals and grow one in your laboratory.

So the premise you seem to be hawking here, that memetics is useless because there is no (known) unit of transmission, fails from both ends; the whole point of erecting a descriptive framework like memetics is to try to illuminate such a unit if it exists. The fact that we so far haven't done that doesn't mean it can't or won't be done, and the eerie resemblance of meme propagation to disease propagation suggests the idea is worth pursuing.

Mendel did not live to learn the physical mechanism by which his rules of genetics were implemented, but that did not mean he was crazy for trying to infer them or that they did not or could not exist.
posted by localroger at 9:16 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, come on:

A political cult of personality IS a form of religion.
Evil dictators are not really atheists, they just run a strict "state-religion".
Spirituality is intentionally channeled into political functions.
Naziism is a religion. Stalinism is a religion. Maoism is a religion.
posted by ovvl at 9:21 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Michael Blume (second link) argues that women prefer to marry religious men because they are more likely to be faithful, and that religion is therefore biologically advantageous. He backs this up with some anecdotes, data from the 2000 Swedish census showing that Swedes with a religious affiliation are more likely to be female, married and have children than Swedes without a religious affiliation, and some additional data showing that people who attend religious services more frequently also tend to have more children.

There are some problems with this:

People, not just women, prefer to marry people with a similar background and beliefs. Atheists also prefer to marry fellow atheists. (I can provide some anecdotal evidence for this.) Many religions are explicit in not permitting their followers to marry outside of their religion.

The Swedish census data indicates a tendency for younger adults to be less likely to have a religious affiliation than older adults, who are also more likely to be married and have children. This would be expected if the rate of religious belief and affiliation were, in fact, declining. (I'm not sure if this is true in Sweden or not.)

The tendency for younger people to lack religious affiliation may in part reflect the relative rootless of young adults. One of the things many people do when they get older, find a permanent job, get married and "settle down" is join a church or religious organization similar to the one they were raised in. Are young adults also less likely to belong to other types of clubs and professional organizations, and more likely live in temporary rental housing?

Many people who are religious but not devout consider it important to pass on their traditions, including their religion, to their children, and so may join a church when they have children, attend religious services with their children, and send their children to religious instruction, but attend only irregularly when they don't have children.

Some religions forbid the use of birth control. This is not a general characteristic of all or most religions.

High reproductive rates are not necessarily advantageous.
posted by nangar at 9:21 AM on September 19, 2010


It's probably worthwhile to link to Dawkins' article Viruses of the Mind linked to and referenced in Sue Blackmore's article.
posted by nangar at 9:27 AM on September 19, 2010


Another thing about those experiments: they must have, in some way, limited what kinds of charitable donations and volunteer work they observed. I'd hardly fault them for that -- that's just part of properly constructing a controlled experiment. But was there any bias in how they placed these limitations? For instance, would they have been willing to study who made more donations to a gay rights organization, or would they rule this out because they'd be afraid this would tilt the results for or against certain kinds of people?

Studies don't show us everything important that's really going on. These studies are mildly interesting, and they're sure to be popular on the internet, but you have to take them with a grain of salt.
posted by John Cohen at 9:29 AM on September 19, 2010


My point is that you can infer from the top down that there must be such a unit; culture gets transmitted, we aren't born with it and it moves around, and we can see at a macroscopic level that it moves in ways very analogous to disease transmission.

In some ways it does, but not always. Culture doesn't spread randomly, and doesn't mutate randomly. People develop ideas by thinking about them. It's not random mutation and natural selection. Creatures don't develop new organs because they want them or need them, but people develop new ideas because they want them or need them all the time.
posted by empath at 9:31 AM on September 19, 2010


Sorry, but no matter how much you personally love or hate religion, that doesn't change the fact that you're trying to simplify E=MC^2 to 1+1=2.

Thank you.

I shall now put on some Led Zeppelin and read a little literary theory (homework).
posted by philip-random at 9:37 AM on September 19, 2010


Culture doesn't spread randomly, and doesn't mutate randomly. People develop ideas by thinking about them.

I think you're underspecifying development. Aren't you, in the development of an idea using one meme on another, and essentially breeding them? You're also forgetting that memes do "mutate randomly" when you consider the fact that ideas are not ever perfectly transmitted or encoded, and account for memory loss; just as genes are never perfectly copied.
posted by tybeet at 9:42 AM on September 19, 2010


What I have learned from this thread is that, while many atheists will not tolerate a no true Scotsman argument when applied to religion, many in this thread will not tolerate any other argument when applied to atheism.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:46 AM on September 19, 2010 [12 favorites]


I think memetics is a useful tool for thinking about cultural evolution and cultural transmission. It is however a metaphor, thinking of cultural traits, practices and ideas as if they were genes or viruses. Like any metaphor or analogy it can break down if overextended. However useful the analogy may be, there are important ways in which ideas are not like genes. They are often explicitly invented by people for explicit reasons. Ideas are fuzzy and can glom onto other ideas in a way genes don't. Whether or not to adopt an idea is often a conscious, rational decision by the person "infected."

If we're arguing over what precisely defines a meme as an idea-unit, we're overextending the metaphor. Ideas don't really come in units like that.
posted by nangar at 9:47 AM on September 19, 2010


I think you're underspecifying development. Aren't you, in the development of an idea using one meme on another, and essentially breeding them? You're also forgetting that memes do "mutate randomly" when you consider the fact that ideas are not ever perfectly transmitted or encoded, and account for memory loss; just as genes are never perfectly copied.

Do you think that Copernicus just misunderstood Ptolemy somehow?
posted by empath at 9:54 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Whether or not to adopt an idea is often a conscious, rational decision by the person "infected."

At that point you're making the mistake of injecting dualism into the argument, or you're making the Panglossian mistake of assuming that humans are by default rational decision makers, when the evidence from cognitive psychology overwhelmingly suggests the opposite.
posted by tybeet at 9:54 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do you think that Copernicus just misunderstood Ptolemy somehow?

I think that when we learn ideas from bygone eras we are not acquiring them with the same information particularly because our background knowledge about the world is fundamentally different due to changes in culture, changes in language, and advances in knowledge. We don't learn ideas on a blank slate, we integrate them with what we already know. Therefore, if the two slates differ, the learning process will encode new information differently. This is true even of how one makes sense of sensory experience. Long story short, Copernicus didn't misunderstand Ptolemy so much as he had different "memetic" tools at his disposal with which to make sense of the world around him.
posted by tybeet at 10:01 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


We don't learn ideas on a blank slate, we integrate them with what we already know. Therefore, if the two slates differ, the learning process will encode new information differently.

If the same information is being encoded differently depending on context, that would seem to point in the opposite direction from a 'unit of culture'.

DNA works precisely the opposite way -- very similarly encoded genes produce dramatically different outcomes between species.
posted by empath at 10:12 AM on September 19, 2010


People develop ideas by thinking about them. It's not random mutation and natural selection.

So, a demiurge is placing the ideas in people's minds, then?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 10:13 AM on September 19, 2010


Communism without atheism wouldn't have existed.
Communism predates Marx by many centuries, of course, and was often the preserve of the religious (in keeping with the tenor of the times) - thinkers like Gerrard Winstanley, Thomas Müntzer or movements like the Taborites. Christian communism was certainly still a living movement though the twentieth century.
Marx himself was a far more interesting thinker on religion than the duff caricature served up up-thread. Here's the passage that directly precedes the widely misunderstood religion as the 'opium of the people' quote:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is indeed the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
posted by Abiezer at 10:16 AM on September 19, 2010 [15 favorites]


At that point you're making the mistake of injecting dualism into the argument, or you're making the Panglossian mistake of assuming that humans are by default rational decision makers, when the evidence from cognitive psychology overwhelmingly suggests the opposite.

Nope. I'm a neutral monist. I didn't mean to imply soul-body dualism when I mentioned "conscious decisions." Evidence from cognitive psychology does not suggest that people don't reason, it suggests that we're not as logical as we might like to think we are.

That whether or not to adopt an idea is often a conscious, rational decision by the person infected means that ideas perceived to be "good ideas" spread more rapidly than rapidly than those not perceived to be good ideas. Genes don't work that way.
posted by nangar at 10:19 AM on September 19, 2010


New evidence of religion's reproductive, cooperative, and personal benefits militates against the belief that religion is a "virus of the mind."

For those persuaded by this line of reasoning could you make Sure that the arbitary belief system you pick is not sexist, homophobic, or pro -kid diddling, does not invoke blocking other people from doing whatever nonharmful thing it is that they like doing and does not involve Tom Cruise. Also do not expect others to pretend what you beleive in is real. Other than that knock yourself out. Thank you.
posted by Artw at 10:23 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love the "Well, religion offers these benefits!" line of argumentation. I mean, really, if your religious beliefs reflect reality, that should be enough, shouldn't it? Christianity in particular tends to carry with it a massive martyr complex- the Bible all but comes out and says that martyrs are the best people- and so you would think that Christians would be indifferent to whether their faith benefits them or not. If they cared at all, you'd think they'd revel in any disadvantages it caused them. Ah, well. I suppose that's one more thing modern Christianity throws in the fire for being inconvenient.

At any rate, I find it absolutely fascinating when the religious argue for religion because religion benefits the religious. I was raised United Methodist, and at no point did anyone say anything even vaguely along the lines of "We believe in the Trinity because doing so makes us more successful." We were taught to believe things because they were true, and that's a reason to believe things that I don't think can be beaten. Is the "Well, religion offers these benefits!" argument a tacit epistemic surrender? Can you imagine Martin Luther or Saint Anselm arguing that we should believe because we'll get earthly benefits for it? The whole thing is very unseemly.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:26 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


I don't think anyone has ever claimed that atheism alone makes one a good person.
Well, they usually claim that religion makes you a bad person, or a worse person, or whatever. Bill Maher in particular has said that religion is what makes people actually go out and be violent, which implies that Atheists wouldn't do these things.
I'm sorry if this wasn't clear from my phrasing, but the new evidence is all in *favor* of religion as a useful adaption that *continues* to be useful even today. This is not the "atheists rule, believers drool" post you seem to have been expecting, nor does the evidence give us any reason to believe that religion is "vestigial."
I don't think religion is any kind of evolutionary 'adaptation'. People tend to anthropomorphize things, and early religions were just anthropomorphisation* of their environments.

Most "atheist" thought is actually just "not Jewish/Christian/Muslim". They argue against blind faith, or belief without evidence. Other religions don't actually have that requirement.

*real word. I checked
delmoi, I agree with your big point but with regard to that comic you can get called a militant atheist for just definitely not believing in god. In order to get called a militant christian or militant islamist you actually need to be sort of actually militant.
Is that really true? I mean, I guess people use the term "militant atheist" to mean message board warriors. But that's just a different sense of the word. Kind of like how software pirates don't actually nock over boats on the open sea.
These are pretty weak articles. They just say that religious people are "happier" and do charitable things "more." We're never told how much happier they are or how much more they give. This must have been quantified in the experiment, so why don't we get to find out how significant the difference is?
Yeah. It's important to remember that lies and happiness go together. Depressed people rate themselves more accurately then non-depressed people, who overrate themselves. Families where kids lie to parents are happier and have less conflict.

There are a lot of bad things in the world, and lies hide them from sight. But that doesn't mean they aren't there. Believing the lies won't make them go away.
Taken as a whole, from an outsider's perspective, Communism is itself a religion, doing all the things a religion might do to expand its sphere of influence.
See this is what I'm talking about w.r.t lies. Calling communism a religion is like calling Atheism itself a religion (which religious people love to do). There was nothing supernatural in communist ideology. It was not a religion.

People who try to claim that communists were somehow religious is just buying into lies to make them feel better the same way religious people do. It's really annoying.
Had you given two seconds of thought to what you just wrote, you would have seen why the bit is a completely irrelevant unit here. But in case you haven't yet, which has greater fitness, 0s or 1s? How does memetic selection on 0s and 1s work?

If I were to ask about units in, say, classical music theory, if you reply with something about the encoding of your Mozart MP3s you've missed the point.
hey guess what! You have no idea what you're talking about. Man. Philosopher Dirtbike is just making some amazingly dumbass comments about information theory. Kind of amazing. But beside the point of the thread so I'm not going to get into it.
I try not to play armchair psychology, but when I hear people foam at the mouth about religion in general, I can't help thinking they're really just mad that their dad, who forced them to go to church or at a particular religious community that ostracized them for being gay -- grumblebee
Jesus Christ that's just astoundingly stupid.
What I have learned from this thread is that, while many atheists will not tolerate a no true Scotsman argument when applied to religion, many in this thread will not tolerate any other argument when applied to atheism. -- Astro Zombie
That's a very succinct way of expressing what I was trying to say :P
posted by delmoi at 10:28 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I had no idea "militates" was even a word. Huh.

1/1000 of a tater.
posted by ryanrs at 10:29 AM on September 19, 2010 [8 favorites]


Is that really true? I mean, I guess people use the term "militant atheist" to mean message board warriors. But that's just a different sense of the word.

So it's okay with you that simply being passionate about atheism gets you tagged with the same word that for religious people means you're a murderer and a terrorist?
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:31 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Professor Dirtbike and Local Roger-- thank you for elevating this discussion. I'm learning a lot from both of you, do please carry on.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:36 AM on September 19, 2010


I believe in fairies, magic, Santa, and unicorns, and God.
posted by docpops at 10:37 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


everyone else please shut up
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:37 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, a demiurge is placing the ideas in people's minds, then?

Uh, no?

Just because a system was designed by natural selection, it doesn't mean that it works by natural selection.

When you walk, you don't choose where you put your foot via a process of random placement and natural selection. You put your foot in the optimal position to carry your weight and propel motion.

Your brain and your nervous system don't work that way. You don't evolve ideas, you think them.
posted by empath at 10:39 AM on September 19, 2010


DNA works precisely the opposite way -- very similarly encoded genes produce dramatically different outcomes between species.

That's a common misconception about the DNA code: it is not universal. You cannot put the code for one organism into another and expect the other to build the organism it was given code for. It would result in complete failure. In other words, DNA depends not only on the code itself but also on the machine that uses the code as instructions to build an organism. Dennett talks about this in Darwin's Dangerous Idea. What this means is that, just because DNA must be taken into context of its builder that doesn't mean we can't treat it as a basic unit, it just means we need to take it into a certain context when we determine what it means.
posted by tybeet at 10:45 AM on September 19, 2010


So it's okay with you that simply being passionate about atheism gets you tagged with the same word that for religious people means you're a murderer and a terrorist?
Like I said, same thing is true about violating copyright law. Who cares?
posted by delmoi at 10:46 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


That whether or not to adopt an idea is often a conscious, rational decision by the person infected means that ideas perceived to be "good ideas" spread more rapidly than rapidly than those not perceived to be good ideas. Genes don't work that way.

No, but mating does work exactly that way in the animal kingdom. Animals mate with others they perceive to be carriers of "good genes". Genes (and memes) don't propagate themselves, their carriers do.
posted by tybeet at 10:50 AM on September 19, 2010


Memes are not an analogy or a metaphor. The whole point of the concept is that evolution by natural selection isn't a particular property of genes, but will inevitably occur for anything that exhibits (a) replication, (b) mutation, and (c) competition for limited resources. "Meme" is simply the name Dawkins chose for anything within the mind that exhibits these traits.

It's true that there isn't a specific concrete thing that we can point to and say "That there is a meme". All we can do is observe their outward effects. But the same was true of genes in Gregor Mendel's day, and that didn't stop him from developing a fairly rigorous theory of how they worked.
posted by baf at 10:50 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Communism without atheism wouldn't have existed.

Examining that, I see it is a parsable English sentence, but it's ostensible meaning does not seem to have any support in your surrounding sentences. Perhaps if you offered some evidence in favor of this assertion, it would be more valuable. There have been, throughout history, religious communities which function almost exactly like the system proposed by Marx and Engels, but just not labeled "Communism." How does this fact square with your assertion?

posted by Mental Wimp at 9:07 AM on September 19 [+] [!]


Quite simply, I didn't see any need to support the claim that Communism wouldn't have existed without a central belief of it's founding philosophers and best known adherents.. But if you see such a need, let me start you here.

Yes, the religious have frequently adopted communal practices (that's one of the things that's really worthwhile (indeed groovy) about religion), but to equate those with Communism is simplistic and naive.

The capital "C" is there for a reason. It's how those of us who speak English distinguish religious communalism from an ideology and philosophy geared towards the radicalization of the working classes, the revolutionary overthrow of corrupt capitalist regimes, and the subsequent institution of a dictatorship of the proletariat. This is particularly so when that ideology is based upon the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and/or Mao.

A slightly more telling point than yours was made by blazecock pileon above when he linked to the wikipedia page referencing Christian communism.

There sure is such a thing. But it's worth noting with regard to the wiki material that - a) it deals almost entirely with Christians who became Communists, and that there are none mentioned who followed a reverse "conversion"; and b) that there relatively few of them (the wiki article manages to name just five of any note).

Finally, just to reinforce that point, it's worth having a look at wiki's list of the more than two dozen Communist regimes that have come into being via the orthodox Marxist route of revolution. You can have a go if you like, but for the life of me, I can't find more than two of those that have enjoyed any substantial level of religious freedom in the aftermath of revolution. Yet I can spot more than a few that massacred their priesthoods almost immediately.
posted by Ahab at 10:51 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


But the same was true of genes in Gregor Mendel's day, and that didn't stop him from developing a fairly rigorous theory of how they worked.

There is no such theory for memes.
posted by empath at 10:53 AM on September 19, 2010


. Animals mate with others they perceive to be carriers of "good genes". Genes (and memes) don't propagate themselves, their carriers do.

This is not true. Animals don't know anything about genes, nor do they care. Nor do they eat because they want to survive and be healthy.
posted by empath at 10:54 AM on September 19, 2010


. Animals mate with others they perceive to be carriers of "good genes". Genes (and memes) don't propagate themselves, their carriers do.

This is not true. Animals don't know anything about genes, nor do they care. Nor do they eat because they want to survive and be healthy.


Sorry, but you're wrong. This is exactly how attractiveness works. What you are perceiving (averageness, symmetry, and sexual dimorphism) are biological signals of fitness.
posted by tybeet at 10:56 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Like I said, same thing is true about violating copyright law. Who cares?

You really are okay with non-religious people being called terrorists not because of what they do but because they are passionate in their belief? I just want to hear you say it, so to speak.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:01 AM on September 19, 2010


It doesn't matter if they are indicators of fitness. Animals (as individuals) don't make choices based on their perceptions of fitness. They do things because they have a reward system in their brain which has been evolved to encourage particular behaviors. Animals care not one wit about the continuation of the species, or their genes.
posted by empath at 11:02 AM on September 19, 2010


To be more clear, we don't have to care or know or perceive anything about genes to be influenced by the changes they produce in the organism that we have sensory experience of. Naturally, mechanisms have adapted to take advantage of this information, one piece of which is attractiveness. Attractiveness ratings on three basic traits have been shown to be culturally independent, and to correlate very strongly with biological fitness. When you mate with someone who is very attractive you are implicitly selecting for "good genes".
posted by tybeet at 11:03 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


It doesn't matter if they are indicators of fitness. Animals (as individuals) don't make choices based on their perceptions of fitness. They do things because they have a reward system in their brain which has been evolved to encourage particular behaviors.

Huh? Animals are more complex than behaviorism would like you to think.
posted by tybeet at 11:04 AM on September 19, 2010


Animals don't know anything about genes
Righto.
And no scientist has ever proven that all human attraction and coupling (or other behavior) is only about finding fit mates either. The rose of free will is as thorny as it's ever been. The science of "why people do stuff" is incomplete, and meme-theory is only one possibility, which is why I don't take anotherpanacea's links (at least not the one about it being reproductively beneficial) as definitely proving or disproving the claim that religion is bad for humanity. I'll take my own anecdotal evidence for it being a net positive in the lives of people who seem to benefit from it as good enough for now, thanks.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:05 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


This can be clearly seen by the behavior of the one animal whose intentions we can interrogate, ourselves. People fuck because fucking is enjoyable. And they eat because they enjoy food. And in fact many people will go out of their way to avoid having children. Systems which are designed by evolution do not need to operate by the principles of evolution in all things.
posted by empath at 11:05 AM on September 19, 2010


ricochet biscuit, your comment reminds me of a quote which I am surprised has not yet shown up in this thread:

"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality."
— George Bernard Shaw
posted by dhens at 11:06 AM on September 19, 2010 [5 favorites]




Huh? Animals are more complex than behaviorism would like you to think.

Who said anything about behaviorism. Animals do what they enjoy because they enjoy it. Do you think even know that mating produces babies?
posted by empath at 11:07 AM on September 19, 2010


There is no such theory for memes.

Sadly, true. They're slippery things, and harder to do controlled experiments with than pea plants. All we're really sure of is that they exist -- that is, mental constructs definitely reproduce (through communication), mutate (through transmission errors, through people forgetting details and making up new ones, even sometimes through conscious thought), and compete for the limited space in people's brains, and therefore they evolve.

FWIW, it's always seemed to me that folk songs are better examples of memes than ideas or beliefs are. They're not subject to hard constraints like conforming to observable truth.
posted by baf at 11:11 AM on September 19, 2010


delmoi: See this is what I'm talking about w.r.t lies. Calling communism a religion is like calling Atheism itself a religion (which religious people love to do). There was nothing supernatural in communist ideology. It was not a religion.

People who try to claim that communists were somehow religious is just buying into lies to make them feel better the same way religious people do. It's really annoying.


All right, instead of using the loaded word religion suppose we assert that Communism is a dogma, and what is generally bad about religion (when religion is bad) is that religions are dogmas too, and it's the dogmatism that inspires people to wipe out the competition and kill people.

I would not regard the supernatural as an essential component of religion, but if you do there's a frame that should get the point across.

Atheism, on the other hand, is generally not dogmatic and atheists usually don't care what other people believe, except when their beliefs are making them stupid and belligerent.
posted by localroger at 11:12 AM on September 19, 2010


What I have learned from this thread is that, while many atheists will not tolerate a no true Scotsman argument when applied to religion, many in this thread will not tolerate any other argument when applied to atheism. posted by Astro Zombie

Can someone dumb this down for me? I feel like I took a level in dumbass and I am not groking its significance. I know what True Scotsman means, but the second part is unclear to me: "many in this thread will not tolerate any other argument when applied to atheism."

Maybe this is asking to do my homework for me? I do want to keep up!
posted by acheekymonkey at 11:14 AM on September 19, 2010


This can be clearly seen by the behavior of the one animal whose intentions we can interrogate, ourselves. People fuck because fucking is enjoyable. And they eat because they enjoy food. And in fact many people will go out of their way to avoid having children. Systems which are designed by evolution do not need to operate by the principles of evolution in all things.

Who said they did? As far as cognitive theory of rationality goes, humans are of two minds: the old reptilian mind which deals with associative learning and instincts, and the new mind which deals with algorithmic processing (via working memory). To address your point: just because we do things outside of lower-class animal behaviour does not mean for an instant that we are immune, or do not rely on that system to a great extent. In fact, we still use the old system because it uses less processing power and it satisfices (i.e. it is "good enough"). It takes extra energy to override the default decisions that are recommended by the heuristic portion of our brain. I'd refer you to Stanovich's book: The Robot's Rebellion, which talks about this very idea, and why we are cognitive misers. Or to the cognitive psychology literature on rationality and cognitive biases.
posted by tybeet at 11:14 AM on September 19, 2010


Who said anything about behaviorism.

You did, when you described animal behaviour in terms of a reward system. That is behaviorism.

Do you think even know that mating produces babies?

I don't even know what you're on about at this point. I have better things to do than go back and forth on this same point.
posted by tybeet at 11:17 AM on September 19, 2010


You really are okay with non-religious people being called terrorists not because of what they do but because they are passionate in their belief? I just want to hear you say it, so to speak.

Relevant to this, it has been demonstrated that those who know less display more confidence in their decisions than those who know more (over-confidence). Religious fundamentalists may very well be more passionate by virtue of not having any clue what they're talking about.
posted by tybeet at 11:20 AM on September 19, 2010


Prof Dirtbike, your basic assertion seems to be that memetics is meaningless without a unit of culture to work from, and since no such unit has been identified memetics is meaningless.

I explicitly disclaimed the second part of that sentence in a post above. I never claimed that memes don't exist or that memetics is meaningless without an identified meme. Perhaps you have confused me with fourcheesemac?

As I said before, I was reacting to the claim here that the idea-unit is not essential to memetics, not that the claim that lack of memes' identification implies a lack of meaning. I don't study memes; if you want to know about whether memes have been identified or are useful, you should ask fourcheesemac.

My claims to tybee and you were the following:
First, memetics needs memes to exist, because the idea of a meme as a unit of replicating cultural information, as an analogue to the gene, is the essential thrust of memetics. Without a basic unit, memetics fails because its core idea (memes as units of selection) is not useful. Note the difference between the claim that memetics is not useful because memes have not been identified, and the claim that memetics is not useful if memes don't exist. Scientific theories often contain components that have not been identified (like, say, the top quark or Higgs Boson in the Standard model); but if it turns out that critical components don't actually exist, the theory is in trouble.

Second, it is not a given that a memetic-type unit exists, just like it wasn't a given that the gene exists. There are other theoretical ways of thinking about how ideas spread (ask fourcheesemac, because he has claimed expert knowledge here). Memetics is just one. The (trivial) claim that ideas can be encoded as bits is not useful in a discussion of memetics because bits aren't what the selection in memetic theory acts on (and can't be, because bits don't have meaning, although they may carry information*). Further, if the mere fact that information is transmitted were enough to ensure the existence of memes, memetic theory would have no scientific usefulness, because memetic theory would be trivially true. Scientific theories that are trivially true are not useful.

*Of course, if you know know something about Shannon information, you know that Shannon information is strictly a function of the probabilities of the characters in the transmission, and has nothing to do with meaning. Meaning is essential for memetics, because memetics is a theory of how cultural information is spread. Information can be transmitted without meaning. Memes cannot.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 11:22 AM on September 19, 2010


You really are okay with non-religious people being called terrorists not because of what they do but because they are passionate in their belief? I just want to hear you say it, so to speak.
I thought this was about them being called militants. Militant isn't a synonym for terrorist.
All right, instead of using the loaded word religion suppose we assert that Communism is a dogma, and what is generally bad about religion (when religion is bad) is that religions are dogmas too, and it's the dogmatism that inspires people to wipe out the competition and kill people.
Sure, you could say that. But if dogmatism is orthogonal to religion, then the supposed benefits of atheism, or the problems of religion don't actually exist. There are plenty of religious people who are not dogmatic.
posted by delmoi at 11:24 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Sue Blackmore column that was the foundation of this post is, well, laughably stupid (More Babies= Better Society!), but having a religious belief, or any strong belief, can be pragmatically useful.

For example: Rosy, statistically inaccurate expectations of the degree and swiftness of one's success in a given task tend to correlate with motivation toward attempting and completing that task, and therefore ultimate success. Believing that something is easier than it actually is increases the odds you'll take action to do it, and ultimately the odds you'll do it successfully.

Beliefs are cause-effect linkages, which act to intensify perceptions by making A=definitively good and B=definitively bad; within some particular and possibly narrow context, any given belief can be "helpful" to the believer, in terms of alleviating the believer's pain or stimulating the believer's action.

Religious beliefs, specifically, are about structuring responsibility for individual actions and societal results, variously diffusing it or concentrating it, and establishing consequences that are more compelling than what is empirically available-- for some, an eternity in hellfire is more motivating than the look of a disappointed beggar.

To say that "religion is good for you" has ultimately no more meaning than to say that "believing something is good for you", which ultimately has no more meaning than to say "some things are good for you, sometimes". Why? Because religious beliefs are rule-sets; whether or not a rule-set is helpful depends on the exact content of the rule, and the exact context within which the rule is applied.

Believing that swimming is the best way to move is pretty darn helpful in the ocean; less so in the sky.
posted by darth_tedious at 11:28 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is all great and all, but it still doesn't make god any more real, and it doesn't make superstitions true.
posted by fuq at 11:29 AM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


Memes are not an analogy or a metaphor. The whole point of the concept is that evolution by natural selection isn't a particular property of genes, but will inevitably occur for anything that exhibits (a) replication, (b) mutation, and (c) competition for limited resources.

It's still an analogy, but it's a good analogy for exactly the reasons you mentioned. There's nothing wrong with it as long with it as long as you remember that ideas aren't actually genes and not like genes in every respect, though they are in some respects. Most theoretical constructs are analogies of one sort or another. It's also true (to use a textbook example) that it's important for cognitive psychologists to remember that short term verbal memory isn't actually a little box in the brain with seven slots in it. (Nobody thinks it is; it's just a way of conceptualizing how it works.)
posted by nangar at 11:30 AM on September 19, 2010


I thought this was about them being called militants. Militant isn't a synonym for terrorist.

What, to your mind, does describing somebody as a militant imply? To my mind it means that they endorse the use of violence to spread and enforce their beliefs. This is, in fact, the only meaning of the word when it not being applied to atheists.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:31 AM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Alright, I'm going to put these in a big blue box together, and when I wake up in the morning, I expect most of them to be dead.

http://atheistblogger.com/2008/02/15/101-atheist-quotes/

http://www.twoorthree.net/2008/12/101-christian-q.html


With that, a gentle good night to you all, and thank you for some interesting discussion.
posted by Ahab at 11:38 AM on September 19, 2010


Blume: ...my demographic findings about the religious having more children while the seculars lacked offspring...

No argument with that, but:

Darby: It's a mistake to equate reproductive rate straight-up with evolutionary success, especially in social systems where bigger groups of siblings are usually correlated with lesser standing (poorer, fewer advancement opportunities, less education). You ought to see it yourself: you cite the drop in population growth in the western societies, do you REALLY see that as an indicator of evolutionary failure? What's being given here is a very shallow understanding of modern evolutionary concepts.

Phrased better than I could have. I could say that societies that tolerate non-breeding (or less-breeding) non-conformists (homosexuals, beatniks, odd aunties and uncles) also tend to tolerate more technical innovations and diverse survival strategies. But in the end, no society lasts forever.

A common problem in discussions of evolution (or "evolutionary success") is ascribing a teleological goal to the process, leaping to the conclusion that just because something is evolving in a certain manner proves it to be good, or to be the final point of the matter. Darwin himself wasn't very comfortable with these presumptions.
posted by ovvl at 11:39 AM on September 19, 2010


Unless you're reproducing all of the experiments yourself, then you do not "understand" the "causes of things" anymore than a believer of Thor. You're just exchanging one faith for another.

!!!

No human has even done all the experiments that revealed Newton's Laws - because there are simply too many of them. I'm sure there doesn't exist even one scientist in this world who has done all the experiments that lead to his speciality - because there are far far too many of them, and many significant experiments take literally years to complete.

I was reading today about the strange and tiny force effects noticed by distant spacecraft like Pioneer (and wondering still if it were a measurement anomaly). Now, in your world, believing in the very existence of these spacecraft is exactly the same matter of "faith" that I'd have if I believed in Thor - I have never seen these spacecraft when they were on Earth, or observed them in space, or in fact done much astronomical observation at all.

In fact, I realize that from my direct observations, I have no evidence as to whether the sun goes around the earth or the other way around. In your world, my belief that the earth goes around the sun is exactly the same as someone else's belief in Zeus or Ahura-Mazda.

Is this really what you mean?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:41 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


*Of course, if you know know something about Shannon information, you know that Shannon information is strictly a function of the probabilities of the characters in the transmission, and has nothing to do with meaning.
Do you believe that you can have meaning without information. At the simplest level meaning and information are the same thing.

Of course "meaning" here is kind of an undefined term. What does it even mean? I think any reasonable definition can be reduced to a mix of information and salience: whether or not you care about it.

How is meaning acquired? It's either transmitted from person to person using a communication medium to which Shannon's laws of information apply, or it's acquired through direct experience. But Direct experience is still mediated by the senses, and transmitted through the nerves, to which information theory applies.

So either way, meaning is made out of information.
Scientific theories often contain components that have not been identified (like, say, the top quark or Higgs Boson in the Standard model); but if it turns out that critical components don't actually exist, the theory is in trouble.
Lots of scientific theories rely on things that haven't been identified or even theorized. Natural selection before DNA is the obvious example -- and it's already been discussed in this thread.

Another example from biology: abiogenisys. How did life start? We know it did start, but there really isn't any explanation at all for how it actually began. (There are some different theories out there, obviously. But the fact that we don't have a clear picture doesn't mean we don't know that life started)

You brought up particle physics, but the fact is we have no idea where these particles come from or why they should exist as they do.

The idea that scientific theories don't work if you don't understand what the underlying mechanisms are is a misunderstanding that would make all science throughout all of history non-science.
posted by delmoi at 11:43 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Who said anything about behaviorism.

Speaking of behaviorism, here is a quote from an E.O.Wilson interview in a 1979 issue of Omni:

"Along with our productive, semantic language, I think religion is the unique human trait, sui generis. It has to be studied on its own terms, but it has to be looked at as a biological phenomenon, not just as a cultural phenomenon, nor as an aberration, nor as some would like to have it, the conduit for divine guidance to man... religion is essentially an extension of tribalism..."
posted by ovvl at 11:46 AM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


What, to your mind, does describing somebody as a militant imply?

Someone who cries like a baby over terminology.
posted by delmoi at 11:47 AM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sadly, true. They're slippery things, and harder to do controlled experiments with than pea plants. All we're really sure of is that they exist -- that is, mental constructs definitely reproduce (through communication), mutate (through transmission errors, through people forgetting details and making up new ones, even sometimes through conscious thought), and compete for the limited space in people's brains, and therefore they evolve.

So we have no evidence that they exist, and no theory that requires them to exist, and yet we are sure that they exist.
posted by empath at 11:51 AM on September 19, 2010


"Militant" in this context has always sounded to me like another way of saying "aggro," "belligerent," or "in the manner of a rude jackass." No one to my knowledge has ever seriously argued that they thought Dawkinsites were a violent threat to anybody, and I think it's basically a derail to act as though that's something people frequently imply.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:54 AM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Claude Shannon suggests you are wrong about this. Clearly there is a consistent body of information that is shared between people who bind together in communities; this body of information is persistent across generations so it must be transmitted somehow.

All due respect to Claude, but no. Generally, when someone says the word clearly, they are trying to wave over a premise they cannot prove. And you cannot prove that there is a shared consistent body of information that is persistent across generations. This all assumes the existence of some sort of platonic existence of things outside the minds of the memers of a community. Yet how could that be? How can an idea have existence outside any indivdual mind. For this theory to be true, there would have to be some exactly comparable idea about which only one actual way of thinking could exist. This does not exist.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:57 AM on September 19, 2010


Someone who cries like a baby over terminology.

Wow. Just wow.


"Militant" in this context has always sounded to me like another way of saying "aggro," "belligerent," or "in the manner of a rude jackass." No one to my knowledge has ever seriously argued that they thought Dawkinsites were a violent threat to anybody, and I think it's basically a derail to act as though that's something people frequently imply.

In what other context is it okay to refer to someone as a terrorist when they are not?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:09 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


And you cannot prove that there is a shared consistent body of information that is persistent across generations. This all assumes the existence of some sort of platonic existence of things outside the minds of the memers of a community.

When you look at culture, particularly art, philosophy, and science (the bedrock of culture), you can see how new ideas are derivations (mutations) of old ideas. Ideas exist outside of any individual mind precisely because we can retain and transmit them to others, and for some thousands of years have been able to record them.
posted by tybeet at 12:10 PM on September 19, 2010


Do you believe that you can have meaning without information. At the simplest level meaning and information are the same thing.

This is not true: you can have information without meaning. Information is not enough to imply meaning, and that is precisely what the problem with localroger's claim that Shannon's information theory provides a framework for the transmission of and selection for cultural information. Meaning implies information, but not the other way around.

The idea that scientific theories don't work if you don't understand what the underlying mechanisms are is a misunderstanding that would make all science throughout all of history non-science.

But that's not what I claimed. In fact, I used the physics example to try to prevent this interpretation of what I said. What I said was that memetics fails if the central idea behind memetics (that cultural information transmission can be broken down into a basic unit called the meme, which replicates and can be selected for) is false. The memetic model, in this case, would be false.

Part of the problem here is that "meme" has taken on a popular meaning of "idea that spreads fast". This definition is not constrained enough to be useful as a scientific theory, and wasn't what Dawkins proposed. To Dawkins, memetics was not simply another way of saying that information is transmitted. It was a way of describing why certain information is selected for, and how cultural information changes across transmissions, and depends on the idea of a "meme". as a unit of selection. No meme, no memetics.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:11 PM on September 19, 2010


People use to think that animals were created from "prototypes that existed somewhere out there", but this isn't true nor necessary for genetic inheritance and lineage and evolution and we now know it's not the case at all. It likewise does not have to be the case for memetics or shared meme-pools or memetic lineages and memetic evolution.
posted by tybeet at 12:13 PM on September 19, 2010


So we have no evidence that they exist, and no theory that requires them to exist, and yet we are sure that they exist.

No. The theory that requires them to exist was outlined in my first comment here. You have seen this argument, you have replied to it, but now? Now you say, not that the argument is wrong, but that there is no such argument. What the heck?
posted by baf at 12:14 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't consider "militant" to be a synonym for "terrorist." I have only probably substandard online resources to go by at present, but I'm not seeing a thesaurus that does either.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:14 PM on September 19, 2010


Of course, if you know know something about Shannon information, you know that Shannon information is strictly a function of the probabilities of the characters in the transmission, and has nothing to do with meaning. Meaning is essential for memetics, because memetics is a theory of how cultural information is spread. Information can be transmitted without meaning. Memes cannot.

This is not even true of genetics. Genes do not have "meaning" because their expression depends in part on their surroundings, and the same gene sequence can do quite different things in different animals, or even in the same animal at different stages of development.

So if genes don't have inherent meaning, what do they have? They contain information; a base pair is two bits, and that tells us a great deal about the gene even if we don't know anything else. That tells us how much of an information channel is necessary to transmit the gene, and if we know the s/n ratio on that channel it tells us the mutation rate. We might be entirely ignorant of the mechanisms of genetics, but if someone were to tell us that the genome contains about 7 gigabytes of information, that would tell us an awful lot about where we should be looking for physical mechanisms.

Meanwhile, your claim that culture can't be transmitted without meaning just plain makes no sense. Culture contains plenty of information that, like junk DNA, seems to have no meaning. What is the meaning of a fad like Hula Hoops or the ebb and flow of fashion? What is the meaning when uncontacted tribesmen in the Amazon rainforest are found wearing Nike tennis shoes? Does a religious ikon bought as a souvenir by an American tourist in Russia have the same meaning as it did for the person who made it in the 15th century? Does the architecture of a cathedral have the same meaning for modern tourists as it did for ancient builders? Yet I think most people would agree that all of those things are examples of cultural expression.

Culture starts as information. The reason I brought up Shannon is that one of the implications of his work is that everything starts as information -- even matter and energy. You can describe the Universe just as usefully as being the information it contains as you can by assuming little billiard-ball like particles.

You also keep confusing the lack of a memetic unit now with the idea that there is no such thing. We are in the position of Gregor Mendel here; to assert that you know there is no such thing is as ignorant as someone who might advise Mendel he was wasting his time. It might turn out you're right, but even then information theory would set constraints on how cultural influences spread and combine.
posted by localroger at 12:17 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


I don't consider "militant" to be a synonym for "terrorist." I have only probably substandard online resources to go by at present, but I'm not seeing a thesaurus that does either.

So if I describe somebody as a militant Muslim, you wouldn't assume I'm referring to somebody who supports the use of violence to spread Islam?
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:27 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


There are not atheist groups trying to kill people. There are sick atheists that kill people.

I'm hoping it goes without saying that you believe the same is true of any religious person who tries to kill people.


I guess, Empress, you missed the whole bit where the Catholic Church decreed for the extermination of the Cathars, and made it the duty of Catholics to supress them. Or the whole Crusade bit. Or any number of other examples where the coherant religious body and its clergy endorsed, in religious terms, murder.

Which is one reason the Pope rabble-rousing against atheists makes me a little nervous. It appears the Church hasn't learned much from all that time denigrating Jews. Or maybe it has.

Communism without atheism wouldn't have existed.

A brief glance at the history of World War II would, in fact, reveal that without the Orthodox Church, Communism wouldn't have existed for very long.
posted by rodgerd at 12:37 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


So if I describe somebody as a militant Muslim, you wouldn't assume I'm referring to somebody who supports the use of violence to spread Islam?

I'd assume you were running as the Tea Party candidate for something or other.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 12:38 PM on September 19, 2010 [3 favorites]


Sue Blackmore is going on what, 60 years old now? She's entering a phase of her life where death is an increasingly frightening prospect. Don't many people at this point in their lives turn to religion as a way of mitigating this despair? If you ask me, she's a vulnerable host for such ideas.

I don't see anything in Blackmore's article that suggest she's become a religious believer. I thought her point was that evidence that religious belief was biologically adaptive convinced her that she had been mistaken in thinking that religions are by-products of cognitive mechanisms that evolve and spread, like viruses.
posted by layceepee at 12:42 PM on September 19, 2010


Ahab what Marxist theory are you talking about? I actually had to undust some of my knowledge of Marxist literature to address your comment.

Here is Marx's comment (and context) on his "abolition of religion":
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
This is one of the most mis-represented quotes by Marx because he is not referring to religion only as an institution; ie: Catholicsm, Judaism, etc. In this text Marx is referring to religion as both way of thinking and as a way of being. If you read the whole page, you will notice that Marx equates religion with not only the official history of Germany but with Germany as a philosophy; that is, a way of thinking:
German philosophy is the ideal prolongation of German history. If therefore, instead of the oeuvres incompletes of our real history, we criticize the oeuvres posthumes of our ideal history, philosophy, our criticism is in the midst of the questions of which the present says: that is the question. What, in progressive nations, is a practical break with modern state conditions, is, in Germany, where even those conditions do not yet exist, at first a critical break with the philosophical reflexion of those conditions.
The abolition of religion does not come from political prosecution of religions institutions and orders. This tract is basically Marx's attempt to find the "superheroes" of a much needed socialist revolution in a Germany that is still entrenched in the spiritual revolution it pioneered in the Middle Ages (the Reformation) yet is lagging behind the modern social revolutions of a place like France. If Marx really were that rabidly against religious institutions, he would have said out right "off with their heads" but he doesn't because the struggle of Germany as he saw it in his time was not one against religion (Martin Luther was, after all, a badass by Marx's own account). The real struggle Marx identifies is that of the people's need for religion inside (and in spite) of themselves:
The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism of the weapon, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But, for man, the root is man himself. The evident proof of the radicalism of German theory, and hence of its practical energy, is that is proceeds from a resolute positive abolition of religion. The criticism of religion ends with the teaching that man is the highest essence for man – hence, with the categoric imperative to overthrow all relations in which man is a debased, enslaved, abandoned, despicable essence, relations which cannot be better described than by the cry of a Frenchman when it was planned to introduce a tax on dogs: Poor dogs! They want to treat you as human beings!

Even historically, theoretical emancipation has specific practical significance for Germany. For Germany’s revolutionary past is theoretical, it is the Reformation. As the revolution then began in the brain of the monk, so now it begins in the brain of the philosopher.

Luther, we grant, overcame bondage out of devotion by replacing it by bondage out of conviction. He shattered faith in authority because he restored the authority of faith. He turned priests into laymen because he turned laymen into priests. He freed man from outer religiosity because he made religiosity the inner man. He freed the body from chains because he enchained the heart.

But, if Protestantism was not the true solution of the problem, it was at least the true setting of it. It was no longer a case of the layman’s struggle against the priest outside himself but of his struggle against his own priest inside himself, his priestly nature. And if the Protestant transformation of the German layman into priests emancipated the lay popes, the princes, with the whole of their priestly clique, the privileged and philistines, the philosophical transformation of priestly Germans into men will emancipate the people. But, secularization will not stop at the confiscation of church estates set in motion mainly by hypocritical Prussia any more than emancipation stops at princes. The Peasant War, the most radical fact of German history, came to grief because of theology.


And let me just give you the spoilers of this story as Marx gives them himself:
As philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy. And once the lightning of thought has squarely struck this ingenuous soil of the people, the emancipation of the Germans into men will be accomplished.

Let us sum up the result:

The only liberation of Germany which is practically possible is liberation from the point of view of that theory which declares man to be the supreme being for man. Germany can emancipate itself from the Middle Ages only if it emancipates itself at the same time from the partial victories over the Middle Ages. In Germany, no form of bondage can be broken without breaking all forms of bondage. Germany, which is renowned for its thoroughness, cannot make a revolution unless it is a thorough one. The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of man. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat. Philosophy cannot realize itself without the transcendence [Aufhebung] of the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot transcend itself without the realization [Verwirklichung] of philosophy.

When all the inner conditions are met, the day of the German resurrection will be heralded by the crowing of the cock of Gaul.
Marx's use of religious imagery to talk about revolution is not happenstance, by the way. I encourage you to read this bit from Engles' On the History of Early Christianity, an article that is the cornerstone for the marxist inspired Catholic insurgency we know as Theology Of Liberation. Liberation theologists look at themselves as abolitionists, not of religion but of Empire because without Empire, catholicism could be true force for liberation from suffering and oppression on our earthly road to Heaven. And to Marx, early Christian organizations were as needed as Martin Luther's protests because their revolutions were needed within their context in History.

Indeed, if you read closely A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right Marx is making the point that Germans were stuck and were not living fully to their modernist potential --they were not playing the revolutionary part they needed to play in order to move their society forward into the next stage of History.

His quest to understand why German's were so ass-backwards at the time became what we know as his critique of history and his philosophy. But don't be fooled: Religion plays an intrinsic part in the realization of the German revolution because Marx looked at the Reformation as one of the heights of German History and Philosophy. His intention wasnt to erase all conditions for religious thought but to identify its material importance in the making of history and to point out how religion wasnt an end in itself but a point in knowledge and time in Humanity's march towards complete freedom.

Marx's work hinges on finding ways for humans to move beyond being peasants to being masters of their own destiny not in anarchy but in community. Overcoming the will to religion was as important as overcoming the tyranny Estranged Labour and alienation :
Do not let us go back to a fictitious primordial condition as the political economist does, when he tries to explain. Such a primordial condition explains nothing; it merely pushes the question away into a grey nebulous distance. The economist assumes in the form of a fact, of an event, what he is supposed to deduce – namely, the necessary relationship between two things – between, for example, division of labor and exchange. Thus the theologian explains the origin of evil by the fall of Man – that is, he assumes as a fact, in historical form, what has to be explained.

We proceed from an actual economic fact.

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.
As you can see the Economist and the Theologian are equals actors in the subjugation of the masses for the sake of Capital.

All of this to say that McCarthyism has done a tremendous amount of damage to the understanding of Marxism in this country. The Quakers have a better understanding and practice of communism than the state-run plutocracies that ruled during the Soviet years in Eastern Europe and Russia. Yet Americans to this day parrot McCarthyist talking points about the "Soviets = communism" as if that were factually true and any discussion is accompanied with an "OMGTHEYBECRIMSONDEVILS" as if the United States hasn't dont the same in it's fauxmessianic quest to spread "freedom and democracy".

And to make the point even clearer: Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism and whatever the hell that little guy in North Korea calls communism would be, by Marx's account, secular expressions of religion. He wouldn't even call them atheism.

So please, next time you talk about "Marxist Philosophy" as if it were the root of all atheist evil, give it a thought.
posted by liza at 12:43 PM on September 19, 2010 [27 favorites]


You also keep confusing the lack of a memetic unit now with the idea that there is no such thing. We are in the position of Gregor Mendel here; to assert that you know there is no such thing is as ignorant as someone who might advise Mendel he was wasting his time.

OH DEAR GOD I have explicitly said exactly the opposite multiple times above. I have also explicitly said that you are have misinterpreted what I am saying. If you want to have a conversation, read what I wrote!

When I say this:
I explicitly disclaimed the second part of that sentence in a post above. I never claimed that memes don't exist or that memetics is meaningless without an identified meme. Perhaps you have confused me with fourcheesemac?
how can you possibly read that think that I "know there is no such thing"? Let me say this again (for the fourth or fifth time). I am not claiming that memes do not exist. Tybeet made the assertion that a basic unit is "beside the point" of memetic theory, and I even provided a link to his/her assertion. Tybeet's assertion is not true. The basic unit is THE POINT of memetic theory, not "beside the point".

So, my claim is this logical implication: IF MEMES DON'T EXIST, THEN MEMETIC THEORY IS A BUST. This has the form of "if P then Q."

I can claim that "if P then Q" is true without claiming that P is true, and that is what I am doing here. In spite of my explicit reminders of what my point is, you still keep saying that I am claiming that P is true. I'm not. I'm claiming that "if P then Q" is true.

And all that stuff about genetics is beside the point. Genetics requires genes, which don't have meaning but carry information (that is, information is not enough to imply meaning). Memetics requires memes, which must have meaning. Memes are cultural information, and are interpreted people who require meaning, not by mRNA, which doesn't.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:46 PM on September 19, 2010


While it's true that I wouldn't use the term "militant" in English unless I meant to imply some kind of armed force, there is a long history of using the word as more or less a synonym for "dedicated" or "activist":

From the Oxford English Dictionary:
3. a. Combative; aggressively persistent; strongly espousing a cause; entrenched, adamant.

Examples:
1961 E. S. TURNER Phoney War xiii. 179 There was an arrogance among certain militant pacifists which..prevented them from respecting the views of those who thought freedom worth fighting for. 1992 N.Y. Times 5 Apr. 16/4 If my mother had one rule, it was militant ecumenism in all matters of food and experience. ‘Try new things’, she would say.

I should also point out that militant is the French word for "activist" (both as noun and adjective).
posted by dhens at 12:50 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Tybeet made the assertion that a basic unit is "beside the point" of memetic theory, and I even provided a link to his/her assertion. Tybeet's assertion is not true. The basic unit is THE POINT of memetic theory, not "beside the point".

I do concede your point. I was over-exerting myself. The existence of the unit is necessary to the theory, however what I meant to say was that our identification of it a priori is not necessary for our collection of observations about its effects, or our assertion that these effects indicate the existence of the unit itself. As I mentioned, this was the same scenario surrounding theories regarding matter and the atom.
posted by tybeet at 12:53 PM on September 19, 2010


Or more appropriately, the same scenario surrounding theories regarding heritability of traits and the gene. We used to think the gene was actually a unit, and now know that it is nothing more than a higher-level description of a configuration of genetic material. This may very well be the case (in fact I think it is) with the meme, but it doesn't hurt the case against memetics in general.
posted by tybeet at 12:56 PM on September 19, 2010


that should read "hurt the case *for* memetics."
posted by tybeet at 12:56 PM on September 19, 2010


If we discover the atomic unit of cultural transmission is a material substance other than a neurotransmitting chemical, get back to me.

The analogy is flawed. Culture is not a virus.
posted by fourcheesemac at 12:57 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Communism without atheism wouldn't have existed.

Communism is a Christian institution.
posted by Brian B. at 12:58 PM on September 19, 2010


Now, I'll deal with this:
Meanwhile, your claim that culture can't be transmitted without meaning just plain makes no sense. Culture contains plenty of information that, like junk DNA, seems to have no meaning. What is the meaning of a fad like Hula Hoops or the ebb and flow of fashion?

Fads and fashions make statements about which social groups you identify with, among other things.

What is the meaning when uncontacted tribesmen in the Amazon rainforest are found wearing Nike tennis shoes?

Depends. Why are they wearing them? That could mean any one of many things. My inability to select one out of the many possibilities doesn't mean the wearing of the tennis shoes lacks meaning. They could be status symbols, because they are rare and colorful, or any number of things.

Does a religious ikon bought as a souvenir by an American tourist in Russia have the same meaning as it did for the person who made it in the 15th century? Does the architecture of a cathedral have the same meaning for modern tourists as it did for ancient builders

No. The word "gay" also doesn't mean the same thing as it did 90 years ago. That doesn't mean that it is meaningless.

Yet I think most people would agree that all of those things are examples of cultural expression.

Sure, and they all have meaning. But even if the meaning isn't clear, that doesn't mean it is meaningless. I can't read Russian but I know it has meaning.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:58 PM on September 19, 2010


If we discover the atomic unit of cultural transmission is a material substance other than a neurotransmitting chemical, get back to me.

What makes you think that's a necessary condition for the theory? For one, culture is transmitted by means other than simply neurons. When you read a book you are interacting with memes, therefore it cannot be reducible solely to neurochemicals, though these neurochemicals may be necessary for the evolution of the meme, and the creation of new memes, they are not necessary for its transmission or storage. That's a pretty key feature of memetics, in fact.
posted by tybeet at 1:02 PM on September 19, 2010


localroger: No, I'm not. What I'm saying is that the heuristic device can be useful even if you don't know how the atoms get arranged to perform the functionality; the fact that you don't know how it happens doesn't mean it doesn't happen or that there aren't consistent and repeatable effects that can be explored, possibly to shed light on that mechanism.

This is a stupid argument because the whole power of modern evolutionary theory comes from the synthesis of the Central Dogma of molecular biology and statistical mathematics. Or in short, we can talk about biological evolution as a theory because, except for a few fringe cases, we know exactly how genetic information is transmitted, expressed, and modified.

They can be measured and recorded; they are made up of words, artwork and artistic skills, and survival skills. All of these things are ultimately made up of ones and zeroes, and they most definitely exist.

Which points to the fundamental fallacy behind the "meme" stupid. Genes are a subset of information theory, and culture involves a subset of information theory, therefore, the exact same theories apply to both genes and to culture. The fact that evolutionary theory doesn't tell you much of anything about how to get computer code from Earth to Mars should be a big red flag against this theory.

And it's not as if people who study culture don't deal with units of information: signs, symbols, behaviors, and practices are all units of information. We don't need a degenerate and gimped sign and a bad analogy to genetics in order to create working predictive theories. Which you know, Roger's Diffusion of Innovations is only a bit older and has produced far more empirical results than memetics by looking at behaviors qua behaviors rather than some gene-like unit of information behind them.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:07 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't read Russian but I know it has meaning.

The meaning resides in the Russians who speak the language; the words themselves are just a convention for pointing to that shared meaning. As someone said above, do not mistake your finger for the moon.
posted by Pyry at 1:08 PM on September 19, 2010


Or a better analogy is don't mistake the recipe for the cake.
posted by Pyry at 1:13 PM on September 19, 2010


Tybeet: I do concede your point. I was over-exerting myself.

Thanks, that clears that up :) Regarding memes existing as higher-level abstractions, I have no problem with using the word "exist" in that way. As a scientist I use higher-level abstractions of phenomena all the time, without believing they either have physical existence or believing that they account for all the variance in the data. Although water waves lack independent existence (they are merely higher-level abstractions, descriptions of statistical regularity in the movements of water molecules), I have no problem saying that waves "exist".
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:14 PM on September 19, 2010


tybeet: What makes you think that's a necessary condition for the theory?

Simple answer. The power of evolutionary biology since the 1930s depends on our understanding of molecular biology with respect to the nature of the gene and how one can be transmitted. The statistical tools that allow us to say, for example, that H. pylori was endemic to early humans just don't work when you look at something like the Saxophone, a bastard chimera of two different musical lineages.

In fact, you can use these tools to falsify ID, as cladistic trees of objects invented by intelligent designers have properties that you just don't find looking at descent with modification via a common ancestor.

So by all means, memetic theory has been effectively been falsified. The predictions made by evolutionary theory cannot be reconciled with analysis of cultural practices or artifacts.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:21 PM on September 19, 2010


I find it absolutely fascinating when the religious argue for religion because religion benefits the religious. I was raised United Methodist, and at no point did anyone say anything even vaguely along the lines of "We believe in the Trinity because doing so makes us more successful."

Are religious people actually arguing that? Are you taking the articles linked to by the OP as arguments that we should believe in whatever the authors believe in? I think they're mostly sociological arguments that religion has some social benefits for believers. (Blume was arguing for a direct reproductive advantage, but like I said above, I think his evidence is dubious.) Are you arguing that any sociologists or anthropologists that find that membership in a religious community has some social benefit or function for it's members are trying to browbeat us in to believing in it?

I've heard people say things like "joining a church is a good way to meet people." That's not exactly an argument for belief. I think atheists who want to accomplish the same thing might join some other kind of club.

In the thread I think we've mostly been arguing about whether memetics is valid or not. I think it is, up to a point. Does that make me pro- or anti-religious?
posted by nangar at 1:24 PM on September 19, 2010


I try not to play armchair psychology, but when I hear people foam at the mouth about religion in general, I can't help thinking they're really just mad that their dad, who forced them to go to church or at a particular religious community that ostracized them for being gay -- grumblebee

delmoi: Jesus Christ that's just astoundingly stupid.

It would help me (and other people) if you'd explain my errors rather than just calling what I said stupid. I am here to learn. No matter how stupid I am, I think my reasoning is sound, and I am crippled by my own blind spots, so when you just calling my claims and guesses stupid, I learn nothing. It's like you're a math teacher, and I just did a problem on the board, and you said, "No, that's wrong." And when I asked you to tell me my mistake, you said, "It's just stupid." Please don't do that.

And because someone earlier thought I meant something other than what I actually meant (probably my fault for not being clearer), let me reiterate. And then you can explain my errors.

I am NOT claiming that religious thinking is rational. I am an atheist, and I believe atheism has a rational foundation, so it would not make sense for me to claim that theism is equally rational, since theism and atheism contradict each other. In any case, I didn't make any claims about whether or not God exists -- or even whether or not it makes sense to believe He exists.

Nor am I making any claim about why people are theists or atheists. I suspect there are many reasons why people wind up believing or not believing. And, in my post, I wasn't interested in those reasons. I didn't make any claims about them whatsoever.

My post was about why people label religion as a bad thing or a good thing. My claim was they can't possibly be doing this because religion actually IS bad or good. Presumably, that's the claim you think is stupid, or maybe you think I'm right about that, but you think that my guess as to what's actually going on in their heads is the stupid part.

As to the former claim -- that people can't possibly think that religion is good or evil in some simplistic, binary way -- my (stupid? why?) reasoning comes from thirty years of reading history. I am not going to claim I'm right, only that I've had thirty years to form ideas and opinions. So wrong though I may be, I'm not just pulling ideas out of my ass or knee-jerking.

I'm saying that, from my understanding of history, it seems clear that religion is a many-headed beast. I won't list those heads again, because I listed some of them up-thread. But there are so many of them and they are so varied -- and they interact with history and society in such complex ways -- I can't see how they can be simply good or bad.

Even non-history-buffs must be aware of some of this complexity, so how can they really think (at least if they're being rational) that religion is just a good thing or just a bad thing? Religion had some causal effect on the crusades; it also had some causal effect on Bach's music; people act with incredible kindness due to their religious beliefs; they also act with incredible cruelty and intolerance due to them. (And I'm not even sure that "due to them" is true. Is religion the cause or the effect? Is it the reason or the excuse? Or are we talking about a complex system with all sorts of feedback loops?)

Thus far, what is my error? Even if I am in error, how am I being "astoundingly stupid"?

IF I'm right, then when people claim to hate (or love) religion because it's a good thing or a bad thing (instead of an incredibly complex thing with some good parts and some bad parts), there must be something else going on -- at least if these people are capable of rational thought. So what IS going on? If someone who knows enough history to understand the complexity claims that the complexity is NOT complex, why are they claiming that?

In answer to that question, I suggested -- and I admitted it was a guess -- that they were lashing out (or acting defensively) due to childhood issues (e.g. "daddy forced me to go to church!").

I should have made it clear that didn't mean this was true for all people. I meant it was probably true for many people. If you thought I was making a universal claim about how all people think, that's entirely my fault and I'm sorry. Even my general claim is a guess, and I was clear about that from the beginning.

(Note: I have some anecdotal evidence to back up my claim. Religion is one of my favorite subjects to discuss with people. In lots of discussions, when people have claimed that religion is good or bad, it often has become clear that they are -- at least in part -- reacting to wonderful or horrible things that happened to them as kids or young adults. Of course, I have to be careful here: I risk wandering into a den of confirmation bias.)

You think it's a bad guess. In fact, you think it's an "astoundingly stupid" guess! That's fair enough. But please explain why.
posted by grumblebee at 1:29 PM on September 19, 2010


So by all means, memetic theory has been effectively been falsified.

I don't see that this follows. We don't have statistical tools to deal with memetics because memetics is still a relatively new field of study. Perhaps we differ in that you believe memes cannot be sufficiently operationalized, whereas I simply believe they have not yet been sufficiently operationalized? Because that's the obstacle which stands in the way of applying these statistical tools.
posted by tybeet at 1:30 PM on September 19, 2010


localroger: You also keep confusing the lack of a memetic unit now with the idea that there is no such thing. We are in the position of Gregor Mendel here; to assert that you know there is no such thing is as ignorant as someone who might advise Mendel he was wasting his time. It might turn out you're right, but even then information theory would set constraints on how cultural influences spread and combine.

The argument against the memetic unit isn't that there is no such thing as a unit of cultural transmission. The argument is that the meme is a bad analogy except on the most superficial levels to describe that unit. And so far in about 40 years, it's done nothing admirable other than to become slang for lolcats and inside jokes.

In this particular issue, it oversimplifies the issue of religion to a ludicrous degree. Part of the problem with Dawkins' continued dependence on mind-viruses is that it's focused exclusively on orthodoxy when there are religions out there that don't give a rat's ass if you believe the right things as long as you stay in the community and do the right things.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:33 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


In fact, I realize that from my direct observations, I have no evidence as to whether the sun goes around the earth or the other way around. In your world, my belief that the earth goes around the sun is exactly the same as someone else's belief in Zeus or Ahura-Mazda.

Is this really what you mean?


Exactly. You are exchanging one faith for another. I admit I profess the same faith as you, but I realize it to be faith.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:43 PM on September 19, 2010


tybeet: I don't see that this follows. We don't have statistical tools to deal with memetics because memetics is still a relatively new field of study.

Except the whole argument for memetics is that we do have those statistical tools: quantitative genetics. If quantitative genetics fails to be predictive in looking at culture, then memetics is falsified.

Perhaps we differ in that you believe memes cannot be sufficiently operationalized, whereas I simply believe they have not yet been sufficiently operationalized?

No, I'm pointing out that predictive units of cultural transmission have already been operationalized by theories that make valid and useful predictions: signs and behaviors are two useful constructs. But since those constructs come from a century of actually studying behavior rather than a biologist talking out of his depth, they obviously don't count.

Because that's the obstacle which stands in the way of applying these statistical tools.

No, the obstacle here is that the theory you're using in an attempt to operationalize those units is bullshit. You're like Tycho Brahe logging observations night after night in an attempt to prove a modified Geocentrism with enough epicycles to make it work. Memetics will never work because quantitative genetics assumes constraints (descent with modification) that don't apply to cultural artifacts like the saxophone.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:47 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


What makes you think that's a necessary condition for the theory? For one, culture is transmitted by means other than simply neurons. When you read a book you are interacting with memes, therefore it cannot be reducible solely to neurochemicals, though these neurochemicals may be necessary for the evolution of the meme, and the creation of new memes, they are not necessary for its transmission or storage. That's a pretty key feature of memetics, in fact.

This is all Platonism writ large. Hugely defective. You cannot ever track and observe at particle called a "meme."

Genetics works becuase there are extremely limited numbers of combinations and those combinations are expressed through chemical units whose interactions with one another can be observed.

Here there can be no "meme" becasue reduction of thought to a single thing is merely arbitrary. You're almost, ironically, arguing for a god who would create these little things.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:49 PM on September 19, 2010


Except the whole argument for memetics is that we do have those statistical tools: quantitative genetics. If quantitative genetics fails to be predictive in looking at culture, then memetics is falsified.

Except that I'm suggesting that our units of culture (memes) are underspecified and by virtue of that they do not fit these models. You're still implying that they are fully specified.
posted by tybeet at 1:55 PM on September 19, 2010


The argument for memetics is still largely descriptive and theoretical. I don't see that it's falsified simply because it's not fully fleshed out.
posted by tybeet at 1:55 PM on September 19, 2010


When you look at culture, particularly art, philosophy, and science (the bedrock of culture), you can see how new ideas are derivations (mutations) of old ideas. Ideas exist outside of any individual mind precisely because we can retain and transmit them to others, and for some thousands of years have been able to record them.

There are so many problems with this, I don't know where to start. First, words on paper or a screen have zero meaning. Zero meaning. Unless a mind interacts with them. And you cannot show in any way that the way that mind is interacting with those words is exactly the same way that the mind that committed them to paper. Therefore it is not the same idea, and cannot be shown to be the same idea. Unlike genetics, where a cell reacts in a preprogrammed way to a certain set of nucleotides and the number of possible interactions is limited by the very shape and structure of the molecule.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:55 PM on September 19, 2010


The argument for memetics is still largely descriptive and theoretical. I don't see that it's falsified simply because it's not fully fleshed out.

So is my argument for why I should be ruler of the world. Not fully fleshed out and when I get it done, everyone will see why its the only possible way.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:58 PM on September 19, 2010


You cannot ever track and observe at particle called a "meme."

I think your confusion is that you're trying to pin the theory in a corner by saying "memes" don't exist in and of themselves. But so what? Neither do "genes" exist. I'll refer you to the thread with Prof. Dirtbike. I'm not suggesting memes are anything but abstractions. I may anthropomorphize them in my language, but that's only for us to be able to discuss things practically and not because I believe a meme is actually a particle.
posted by tybeet at 2:00 PM on September 19, 2010


Unlike genetics, where a cell reacts in a preprogrammed way to a certain set of nucleotides and the number of possible interactions is limited by the very shape and structure of the molecule.

Huh? No, you're making the mistake of assuming that genetics is a universal recipe. It is not. The host and the environment give "meaning" to genetics, just as they do to memetics.
posted by tybeet at 2:01 PM on September 19, 2010


Dawkins proposed memes in 1976. That was over 30 years ago.

Has there been a single scientific advance in 30 years dependent on the study of memes as a unit of culture?
posted by empath at 2:02 PM on September 19, 2010


While Tycho Brahe may not have found the epicycles he was looking for, his observations in the mistaken quest for them led directly to Kepler unravelling the real laws of planetary motion.
posted by localroger at 2:02 PM on September 19, 2010


You mean that the memes shuffling around in his Kepler's head randomly arranged himself to produce the real laws of planetary motion.
posted by empath at 2:05 PM on September 19, 2010


Dawkins proposed memes in 1976. That was over 30 years ago.

Has there been a single scientific advance in 30 years dependent on the study of memes as a unit of culture?


Hate to break it to you but science actually moves pretty slowly. One reason this field may be progressing particularly slowly (which I don't think it is, but let's assume) is because of the stigma attached to the idea that humans are much more passive carriers of information than people would like to think. People still cringe at the ideas of humans being carriers for genes because determinism is such a harsh thing to accept.
posted by tybeet at 2:07 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


First, words on paper or a screen have zero meaning. Zero meaning. Unless a mind interacts with them.

This is ridiculous. Words are a symbolic system with rules that can be inferred even if you have no contact with the culture that created them; this is why it is possible for linquists to work out the grammar and which words are verbs, nouns, etc. of lost languages even when the actual meanings of the words are unknown. In the purest no-context environment around, a computer core dump, it is quite easy to glance down the figures and tell whether you are looking at machine code, text, or a table of numbers because those all have distinct patterning.

Now it is obviously true that words have more meaning in the context of a mind that is interpreting them, but if the meaning of words were entirely dependent on mind with no context-independent meaning at all, then they would not be useful for communication.

Unlike genetics, where a cell reacts in a preprogrammed way to a certain set of nucleotides and the number of possible interactions is limited by the very shape and structure of the molecule.

Actually, genes can express in quite different ways from one organism to another, or in the same organism at different stages of development or in different environments. So you appear to be undermining your own point here.
posted by localroger at 2:08 PM on September 19, 2010


Unless you're reproducing all of the experiments yourself, then you do not "understand" the "causes of things" anymore than a believer of Thor. You're just exchanging one faith for another.

The difference is that the experiments even exist. If you want to verify a scientific claim there's at least a path that you could follow to do it. It might involve buying lots of books, attending a lot of classes, spending a lot of time learning, and buying a lot of equipment, but it's there. We can accept scientific claims by third parties that have done these experiments specifically because they are built entirely out of tangible things that can be described objectively in terms of process, equipment, and method, and whose results can be measured by some objective means. Faith is the opposite of all of that. If I want to verify a religious claim I can read all the books and attend all the classes I want, but I will never be able to answer things like "does god wants me to [x]?" and "what will happen to me after I die?" beyond what I really feel deep in my heart, which is totally subjective. It seems laughable to even think of such a thing as a global religious consensus and yet that very idea of consensus is the very core of how modern science works.

Science is not just another religion if you squint hard enough.

Can someone dumb this down for me? I feel like I took a level in dumbass and I am not groking its significance. I know what True Scotsman means, but the second part is unclear to me: "many in this thread will not tolerate any other argument when applied to atheism."

I think AZ was only pointing out that atheists love to chide the religious when they say things like, "that wacko/extremist/evildoer is not a representative of my religion" while at the same time in this thread doing contortions to disassociate atheism from any of the wackos/extremists/evildoers who have claimed it as a nominal part of their doctrine.
posted by Rhomboid at 2:08 PM on September 19, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also, did it take 30 whole years to progress from Gregor Mendel to Watson and Crick? Scientists are such slackers.
posted by localroger at 2:11 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hate to break it to you but science actually moves pretty slowly. One reason this field may be progressing particularly slowly (which I don't think it is, but let's assume) is because of the stigma attached to the idea that humans are much more passive carriers of information than people would like to think. People still cringe at the ideas of humans being carriers for genes because determinism is such a harsh thing to accept.

Bullshit. Genetics produced advances immediately. So did the theory of relativity, and the big bang. Despite the fact that people did not want to believe them. Either a theory has explanatory, predictive power, or it doesn't.
posted by empath at 2:12 PM on September 19, 2010


tybeet: Except that I'm suggesting that our units of culture (memes) are underspecified and by virtue of that they do not fit these models. You're still implying that they are fully specified.

Which just puts you into the same sort of pseudo-scientific conceit as cryptozoology and homeopathy. The theory works, we just don't have the right level of detail to make it work.

It's really simple here:
Theory: Units of cultural information (memes) are analogous to genes, and natural selection can explain both.
Hypothesis: "Families" of cultural artifacts should have similar cladistic trees as organisms.
Observation: Cladistic trees of cultural artifacts are radically different from those predicted by natural selection.
Conclusion: The theory is falsified.

The argument for memetics is still largely descriptive and theoretical.

As opposed to the half-dozen competing theories of human behavior that can, actually, make fairly good predictions about human behavior.

I don't see that it's falsified simply because it's not fully fleshed out.

It's falsified because it's predictions don't even come close to matching the evidence. No amount of additional beanplating of the theory is going to change the fact that behaviors, ideas, and practices are not bound by the assumptions that make quantitative genetics so powerful in evolutionary biology.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:12 PM on September 19, 2010


The argument for memetics is still largely descriptive and theoretical. I don't see that it's falsified simply because it's not fully fleshed out.

but what experiments do we have to give us outcomes that the theory of memetics can explain? - it's not just a question of whether it's falsifiable - how useful is it?

memes are an interesting idea, but at some point that idea needs to advance our scientific understanding of minds and/or society, otherwise, it just remains an interesting idea
posted by pyramid termite at 2:13 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, did it take 30 whole years to progress from Gregor Mendel to Watson and Crick? Scientists are such slackers.

It took less than 30 years to get from Mendel to Darwin.
posted by empath at 2:13 PM on September 19, 2010


I just don't see how any strong theory of memes gets around the fact that there is no such thing as a unit of culture.

I can accept a limited, weak epidemiological meme theory to explain the spread of certain concepts. I don't accept that culture is the product of random mutation and natural selection, because so much of culture is the result of applied intelligence.

The point of the theory of natural selection is to explain the existence of apparently designed objects (life) in the absence of a designer. We don't need natural selection to explain designed objects which were actually designed by designers. Once you have designers, anything goes. Culture is not 'apparently' designed, it's actually designed.
posted by empath at 2:19 PM on September 19, 2010


And I already commented that Darwin conspicuously lacked all that modern jazz to bolster his theory, and in fact many of Darwin's specific conclusions turned out to be wrong when we became able to check them.

The plain fact is that we have not in any sense closed the gap between molecular biology and consciousness, and without closing the gap anything we say about consciousness at all is going to be at best as mushy as Mendel's and Darwin's work, a speculative exercise that draws broad outlines but might not align with the details of whatever sharper theory eventually emerges. That does not mean such inquiries are wrong, meaningless, or useless, though, as they can guide us toward those better theories as we observe patterns and home in on better theories that duplicate them.
posted by localroger at 2:20 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Which just puts you into the same sort of pseudo-scientific conceit as cryptozoology and homeopathy. The theory works, we just don't have the right level of detail to make it work.

No, it doesn't. By your line of reasoning, every scientist thinking outside of our current paradigm is a quack. That's a pretty melodramatic judgment to make, don't you think? Science advances by making assumptions and testing them. Assumptions are not the same thing as quackery, particularly when they are arrived at by a process of logic and reasoning.
posted by tybeet at 2:23 PM on September 19, 2010


localroger: While Tycho Brahe may not have found the epicycles he was looking for, his observations in the mistaken quest for them led directly to Kepler unravelling the real laws of planetary motion.

Certainly, and while advocates of memetics may possibly result in useful data collection (although working with such a flawed theoretical framework will likely nix that) they're going to struggle trying to shoehorn that evidence into their pet theory.

tybeet: Hate to break it to you but science actually moves pretty slowly. One reason this field may be progressing particularly slowly (which I don't think it is, but let's assume) is because of the stigma attached to the idea that humans are much more passive carriers of information than people would like to think. People still cringe at the ideas of humans being carriers for genes because determinism is such a harsh thing to accept.

Ohh, bullshit. Biology has gone through three scientific revolutions since '76, and psychology has had at least one paradigm shift since then. Memetics isn't dead in the water because of some stigma attached to deterministic ideas about the human mind, (both cognitive and behavioral psych qualify.) It fails because theres better theories that have more evidence supporting them.

localroger: This is ridiculous. Words are a symbolic system with rules that can be inferred even if you have no contact with the culture that created them; this is why it is possible for linquists to work out the grammar and which words are verbs, nouns, etc. of lost languages even when the actual meanings of the words are unknown.

My goodness. This is demonstrably false. Linguists crack ancient languages by placing those signs in the context of known linguistic history. The meaning behind words (or any symbol system) is inherently arbitrary and contextual.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:24 PM on September 19, 2010


And one of those theories is the computational theory of mind, which actually explains a lot, and was developed out of actual experimental results.

Please name one experimental result which memetics explains, that no other theory does.

The point of scientific theories is to explain the way the world works. And I don't mean in a metaphorical sense, but in a hard, measurable sense.
posted by empath at 2:26 PM on September 19, 2010


Well, we've basically circled around the same fundamental disagreement three times now. I've appreciated the back and forth when we were dealing with the meat of the theory rather than placing some absolute judgment on it. I get the impression that the disagreement at this point boils down to how open- or close-minded (conservative or liberal) we all are, which strikes me as a bit silly, so that about does it for me.
posted by tybeet at 2:28 PM on September 19, 2010


localroger: That does not mean such inquiries are wrong, meaningless, or useless, though, as they can guide us toward those better theories as we observe patterns and home in on better theories that duplicate them.

Certainly, so why cling to a bad theory that's trivially falsified by the evidence (memetics) when we have viable and living theories that produce useful results?

tybeet: No, it doesn't. By your line of reasoning, every scientist thinking outside of our current paradigm is a quack.

No, the problem here is insisting that a falsified theory might be true if only we added more epicycles to it. (In your words, "operationalized" it better.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:31 PM on September 19, 2010


Yes, close-minded. Quantum mechanics, fine, relativity, fine, evolution, fine, cognitive psychology, fine, but the theory of memetics is too much for me to handle.
posted by empath at 2:33 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Is the technique of using a twig to eat termites a meme? It is a learned behavior, a cultural artifact not shared by all members of the pan genus. So what is the "meaning" of sticking a twig in a hole to get termites? It is similar many instinctual behaviors, does this have meaning and the instinctual behaviors do not?

And has anyone established a theory for the mechanism by which meaning exists?
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 2:37 PM on September 19, 2010


And has anyone established a theory for the mechanism by which meaning exists?

Semotics.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:39 PM on September 19, 2010


I've appreciated the back and forth when we were dealing with the meat of the theory rather than placing some absolute judgment on it. I get the impression that the disagreement at this point boils down to how open- or close-minded (conservative or liberal) we all are, which strikes me as a bit silly,

There's no meat there, that's the source of the disagreement. No observable facts, no possible existence of the alleged unit being transferred outside of the individual minds, nothing.

There must be a unit in real existence outside individual minds called the meme for the theory to work. No evidence of the unit's existence has been shown to exist. Therefore, no theory. Its not how liberal or conservative anyone is. Science requires observable facts and reproducable experiments. There are none here.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:45 PM on September 19, 2010


Mendel didn't lead to Darwin. They were contemporaries working independently, and Darwin's work didn't rely on Mendel's work.

"It took less than 30 years to get from Mendel to Darwin."

This idea that you can judge the value of a theory based on what...an arbitrary timeline? It's odd.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:45 PM on September 19, 2010


Let me preface this by saying I have read nothing about memes.

Science requires observable facts and reproducable experiments.

Given the huge amount of potentially searchable data we now have, it seems very possible to measure the spread of ideas, phrases, concepts.
posted by the young rope-rider at 2:48 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Science requires observable facts and reproducable experiments.

Given the huge amount of potentially searchable data we now have, it seems very possible to measure the spread of ideas, phrases, concepts.


But what constitutes a "meme" or idea is totally subjective. One dude's "idea" is another guy's fragement of an idea. One guy's idea isn't even an idea to others. How can you build a theory around something that's a matter of opinion?
posted by Ironmouth at 2:55 PM on September 19, 2010


KJS: My goodness. This is demonstrably false. Linguists crack ancient languages by placing those signs in the context of known linguistic history. The meaning behind words (or any symbol system) is inherently arbitrary and contextual.

If this were true, the combinatorial method would not produce results.

The fact that there are enough similarities in the way languages are structured across all known human cultures to attack a lost language this way does suggest that there are some universal specific fundamental rules about how humanss organize ideas and communicate them, but anybody who claims they have a system describing that that is even advanced enough to be falsified is selling snake oil.
posted by localroger at 2:58 PM on September 19, 2010


But what constitutes a "meme" or idea is totally subjective. One dude's "idea" is another guy's fragement of an idea. One guy's idea isn't even an idea to others. How can you build a theory around something that's a matter of opinion?

Well, what's a "gene?" Is it a chromosome? A section of a chromosome? Are such sections random or is there some way they are delineated? And while we've got some pretty good answers to that question today, I'd think it's fair to say we didn't as recently as 1990 or so, so does that mean "genetics" was a falsified busted waste of time until we started sequencing the genome in bulk and identifying these sections?
posted by localroger at 3:02 PM on September 19, 2010


Culture is not 'apparently' designed, it's actually designed.

Culture isn't actually designed. Individual cultural articfacts are - cars, computer viruses, items of clothing, shoes, songs, novels - but the cultures in which they occur aren't. There is no cabal or designer. Nobody designed the English language the way Zamenhof designed Esperanto. Even modern spoken spoken Esperanto isn't the language he designed. In constructing it, he drew on the vocabulary and syntax of existing European languages he didn't invent, and it's users have changed it ways he couldn't have predicted.

Is the idea of using the analogy of natural selection to think about the spread and popularity of ideas useful? I think it is to a certain extent.

Will we ever have statistical models of the spread of ideas analogous to those in population genetics? I doubt it. This sociology, not genetics, and we're dealing with ideas not genes.
posted by nangar at 3:03 PM on September 19, 2010


Furthermore, if you look at non-Christian religions you see a much clearer reason why they are beneficial; they're designed to be. Most of them concentrate on rituals rather than belief, on the (rather time proven) theory that you get the benfits if you do the ritual whether you believe in anything or not. In this respect Christianity is almost a degenerate religion, the Jackson Pollack painting in a gallery full of portraits. It's not at all obvious how it generates benefits at all, which is probably why scientists think it worthwhile to study it to find out. Whereas, should they have thought of studying a Buddhist population, they would have started with the Eight-Fold Path and gone "duh, it's obvious."

Oh, come on. The good Samaritan? Sell all you have and distribute to the poor? Two tunics, share with him who has none, and the same with food? The heaven belonging to people who feed the hungry, visit folks in prison etc.? Jesus hanging out with social outcasts? There's a reason the first Christians were filthy commies. This changed with the increasing status and wealth of the Church, but you still have to overlook a significant part of teachings before you end up with rich man's Jesus.

liza, great comment.
posted by ersatz at 3:06 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


"But what constitutes a "meme" or idea is totally subjective."

If something frequently exists with something else, but not with other things, you can consider that an idea or unit of meaning and track it pretty easily. Meaning, it's cohesive and distinct.

The OED seems to track words in this way--showing one meaning of a word as it is used over time.

Another example would be ideas like "they hate our freedom". From what I can tell, if you looked for that you could easily see it in many different places as cohesive and complete idea.
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:09 PM on September 19, 2010


ersatz, I was referring to modern Christianity's lack of formal, personal rituals.
posted by localroger at 3:11 PM on September 19, 2010


Culture isn't actually designed. Individual cultural articfacts are - cars, computer viruses, items of clothing, shoes, songs, novels - but the cultures in which they occur aren't

But memetics isn't an explanation of 'culture', supposedly it's an explanation of cultural artifacts and ideas.

And the evolution of language is a separate issue. In fact, it was established that languages change over time well before Darwin. But I don't think that languages evolve by a process of natural selection. Is Italian somehow a better adapted language than Latin for it's environment? It's not a topic I know much about to be honest, but I don't think it's the case.
posted by empath at 3:14 PM on September 19, 2010


supposedly it's an explanation of cultural artifacts and ideas.

No, it's an explanation of how cultural ideas are transmitted, mutate, compete, and why some become widespread while others are forgotten.
posted by localroger at 3:20 PM on September 19, 2010


empath, my point about language wasn't about the evolution of language; it was about the fact that all languages have a structure which (1) makes them readily identifiable as languages and (2) can be probed with statistical methods to yield a lot of information about how a language was used even if there zero background on it from any source other than script fragments. This was in reaction to the rather hyperbolic claim that "words on a page have zero meaning."
posted by localroger at 3:22 PM on September 19, 2010


localroger: If this were true, the combinatorial method would not produce results.

Which proves my point, because one of the key aspects of the combinatorial method involves looking at texts in their context, and looking at morphemes in relationship to each other.

A central requirement for theories to be science rather than just conjecture is that they must be falsifiable. Darwin's theories were falsifiable in his time, and the synthesis of the 30s and 40s allowed biologists to make quantitative statements about heredity that would create the green revolution and make molecular biology possible in the 70s and 80s. Molecular biology is useful, but not necessary, and we can make falsifiable claims about Bird-Dinosaur relationships without a scrap of DNA.

Since these theories are falsifiable when applied to such things as the length of part of the hip bone, or the quantity of vascular structures in bone tissue, they should be falsifiable when applied to cultural artifacts. And the fact that cladistic groupings of cultural artifacts are radically different from those of their genetic cousins suggest that radically different mechanisms are at work.

No, it's an explanation of how cultural ideas are transmitted, mutate, compete, and why some become widespread while others are forgotten.

And a basic test of that explanation involves applying the same forms of analysis that's proven to be predictive in looking at mammals, bacteria, and fungi. If the observations don't match the theory, (they don't) then the theory is falsified.

In contrast, you have something like Rogers' Diffusion of Innovations which provides a nice explanatory framework for why broadband adoption has slowed in many countries. The market has already captured all but those most resistant to adoption for personal or cultural reasons.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:33 PM on September 19, 2010


Semotics

I was thinking more along the lines of how meaning exists in the physical universe. I get the distinct impression that the rejection of memetics has more to do with a rejection of materialism than with any problems with the theory (though Ironmouth has just become the contradiction). It reminds me of evolutionary psychology in that regard.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 3:46 PM on September 19, 2010


I think that the rejection of memetics is quite the opposite of the rejection of materialism. I'm a materialist, and I think memetics is far too fuzzy and ill-defined.
posted by empath at 3:50 PM on September 19, 2010


And again, many people who believe in evo-psych do not agree with memetics (steven pinker comes to mind)
posted by empath at 3:50 PM on September 19, 2010


Which proves my point, because one of the key aspects of the combinatorial method involves looking at texts in their context, and looking at morphemes in relationship to each other.

The combinatorial method is used when you can't look at texts in their context because the context isn't known. When all you've got is morphemes and their relationships to each other you can still get results.
posted by localroger at 4:13 PM on September 19, 2010


What do you mean "believe in" evo-psych? Natural selection obviously affects behavior. Other than that, it's a field of study, not a belief system.
posted by the young rope-rider at 4:19 PM on September 19, 2010


Observation: Cladistic trees of cultural artifacts are radically different from those predicted by natural selection.

That's a very interesting observation. Who made it? How did they make their predictions?
posted by LogicalDash at 4:31 PM on September 19, 2010


localroger: No, it's an explanation of how cultural ideas are transmitted, mutate, compete, and why some become widespread while others are forgotten.

Which is directly contradicted by the text you just cited for it.

0xdeadc0de: I get the distinct impression that the rejection of memetics has more to do with a rejection of materialism than with any problems with the theory (though Ironmouth has just become the contradiction).

Really? I see memetics, especially in the incoherent and badly defined defenses presented here, as being pretty much what radical behaviorists like Skinner would dismiss as non-material fluff. You can't measure memes, you can measure behavior. Now personally, I'm not a radical behaviorist, but I am demanding that memetics either present evidence that's not been trivially falsified or join in with the rest of us in creating empirically tested theories.

Evolutionary psychology, again, is the exact same problem. Their core theory that human behavior can be explained by the paleolithic is untestable without a) the discovery of related species with a common ancestor in the paleolithic, b) strong estimates on the contributions of variance to behavior from genetics and environmental factors, or c) identification of key gene sequences that can be examined.

The best evolutionary psychology can say is that such-and-such a behavior is the product of an evolved brain, but behavioral, cognitive, and developmental psych people already said that. Heck, Skinner said that back in the 60s.

LogicalDash: That's a very interesting observation. Who made it? How did they make their predictions?

Unfortunately, I forget the author. Basically what he did was run a cladistic analysis on 19th century brass instruments and found that designers were liberally ripping off each other's ideas to such an extent that the resulting clades could not be reconciled with descent with modification.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:52 PM on September 19, 2010


No, it's an explanation of how cultural ideas are transmitted, mutate, compete, and why some become widespread while others are forgotten.

Could you point to some instances of those phenomena which memetic theory superlatively explains?
posted by clockzero at 6:23 PM on September 19, 2010


Basically what he did was run a cladistic analysis on 19th century brass instruments and found that designers were liberally ripping off each other's ideas to such an extent that the resulting clades could not be reconciled with descent with modification.

I just don't see the benefit of taking an explanation for why things which appear to be designed to achieve an end were not actually designed at all, and applying it to explain things which were actually designed to achieve an end. It makes no sense. It's not just counter-intuitive, it's completely nonsensical.
posted by empath at 6:58 PM on September 19, 2010


The origin of life needs an explanation which does not require life. The origin of intelligence needs an explanation which does not require intelligence. The origin of a human being which can create and design needs an explanation which doesn't require a human being which can create and design. But once you have a designer and a creator with a will, and you've explained it's existence, you don't need a further reductionist explanation for how everything is created and designed that ignores the existence of the designer. It's not as if a human being is an empty vessel that houses mental viruses that reproduce on their own. A human being is not a blank slate. It has goals, desires, wants, needs, imagination, creativity, even in the absence of cultural ideas transmitted to him or her by others.

Evolution by natural selection was needed to explain the existence of man in a world where god does not exist. It's not needed to explain the existence of man's creations in a world where man does exist.
posted by empath at 7:05 PM on September 19, 2010


Without the transcendent and sacred world what's the point really? Self awareness and choice are probably an illusion created by our brains to explain why we did things. Science has shown that there isn't much for you anyway. The truth created by data and science is just a set of empirically drawn assumptions which cannot be disproven at this time and are subject to change and revision endlessly. In my world there is Santa claus and presents on Christmas morning. In my world there is love, lovers, feasts, art and parties. Do you reenact the sacrifice of a God and drink his blood, eat his body to cleanse away your sins after forgiving your neighbor? Have you ever spoken in tongues or felt then gifts of the holy spirit descend down on you. Stand in the church of the Holy Sepulchure on Easter and watch holy fire ignite inside the tomb and let your 33 candles be ignited as the sheet of fire spreads out. If you are just an illusion, why not enjoy a grand illusion. Stand in Al-Aqska or the grand mosque in Cairo for Friday prayers and bow to Mecca. Open the Torah read the prayers and rest. There will be time for you data and deductions after the sabbath ends.
posted by humanfont at 7:36 PM on September 19, 2010


Are you Faze's sockpuppet?
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:54 PM on September 19, 2010


My Euphonium is so perfect it could not have existed without a designer.
posted by ovvl at 7:57 PM on September 19, 2010


Evolution by natural selection was needed to explain the existence of man in a world where god does not exist. It's not needed to explain the existence of man's creations in a world where man does exist.

I think you're reifying the model -- memetic theory proposes that our models of how evolution by natural selection operates can be profitably applied to the transmission of ideas. It doesn't "explain the existence" of anything. Anyway, it sounds to me like the study that KirkJobSluder is talking about meant to demonstrate that those models in fact do not correspond to the observed behaviors.
posted by invitapriore at 8:04 PM on September 19, 2010


Without the transcendent and sacred world what's the point really?

The visible, touchable world. That's the point. It's full of wonders, we'll be happy to show you around if you ever decide to join us.
posted by signal at 8:31 PM on September 19, 2010


Tedious.
posted by bardic at 9:00 PM on September 19, 2010


I believe in fairies, magic, Santa, and unicorns, and God.

I believe in faeries, magick and SATAN. Who needs unicorns and God?
posted by philip-random at 9:08 PM on September 19, 2010


i missed the most epic thread of epic threads.

You are loved beyond your wildest imagination.

i suppose it's time for bed.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 9:13 PM on September 19, 2010


I try not to play armchair psychology, but when I hear people foam at the mouth about religion in general, I can't help thinking they're really just mad that their dad, who forced them to go to church or at a particular religious community that ostracized them for being gay -- grumblebee

delmoi: Jesus Christ that's just astoundingly stupid.

It would help me (and other people) if you'd explain my errors rather than just calling what I said stupid.


Happy to help

It's stupid because it smacks of saying "Oh, you can't *possibly* believe that - there *must* be some other, underlying reason, (probably some Freudian psycho-sexual hang-up) of which you are currently in denial."

In other words - At worst you're dishonest, at best you don't even know yourself half as well as I do.

It's stupid, not because it's arguing in bad faith (which it is), but because it was a really clumsy way writing off the many and varied experiences and thought processes that lead people to atheism and made you appear a lot less thoughtful than your other comments would indicate you are.
posted by Sparx at 9:24 PM on September 19, 2010 [2 favorites]


Without the transcendent and sacred world what's the point really?

The world itself can be transcendent and sacred.

And I say that as a theist.

Neither theism or atheism has a lock on any one thing -- morality, "meaning in life", the capacity for awe and wonder, the One True Way, or ANY of it. And I find it just as tiresome to listen to my fellow theists sneering "I don't see how you atheist could POSSIBLY live like that" as I find it to hear atheists sneering the same back at me.

A person's relationship to faith -- and yes, I consider "no relationship at all" to still be A relationship -- is a very, VERY personal thing, and one man's meat is another man's poison. So even though I am a theist, I rankle at hearing this -- because, dammit, it IS possible to find "meaning" and "the point" in the world without having to have a belief in God as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:26 PM on September 19, 2010 [6 favorites]


I mean, Sartre said that "Hell is other people". I believe it's possible for heaven to be other people as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:27 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


Baby_Balrog: You are loved beyond your wildest imagination.

I know, I live with her.

humanfront: There will be time for you data and deductions after the sabbath ends.

I just love having my own beliefs and experiences simultaneously dismissed and explained to me. Tell me more!

grumblebee: I try not to play armchair psychology, but...

It seems that everything before the "but" is a lie, since you proceed to do it anyway.

I'll just point here and say, "Well, the important thing is that you've found a way to feel superior to both."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:34 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos: A person's relationship to faith -- and yes, I consider "no relationship at all" to still be A relationship -- is a very, VERY personal thing, and one man's meat is another man's poison. So even though I am a theist, I rankle at hearing this -- because, dammit, it IS possible to find "meaning" and "the point" in the world without having to have a belief in God as well.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:36 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


It seems that everything before the "but" is a lie,

"it's all bullshit before the but."
(Anonymous letter - Esquire-mag - maybe five years ago)
posted by philip-random at 9:41 PM on September 19, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd imagine we've covered this unthread, but : Genes can definitely begin symbiotically but end up deleterious. Ideas & memes "live" in a vastly more stable reproductive environment than genes. It's therefore reasonable speak memes might begin as symbiotes, but ultimately become actual viruses, not merely harmful.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:58 PM on September 19, 2010


Tedious
Te Deum.
posted by Abiezer at 11:58 PM on September 19, 2010


In what other context is it okay to refer to someone as a terrorist when they are not?
Well, like I said. They're not calling them terrorists; they're calling them militants. Those are different words.
This is not true: you can have information without meaning. Information is not enough to imply meaning, and that is precisely what the problem with localroger's claim that Shannon's information theory provides a framework for the transmission of and selection for cultural information. Meaning implies information, but not the other way around.
Well, you never even bothered to try defining "meaning" so it's really impossible to have a discussion about it. Is it really possible to have information without meaning? All information "means" something - at the very least the result of some random process. The output of a PRNG "means" the result of a mathematical process. If you have a nuclear random number generator, then the bits "mean" whether or not some subatomic event happened. It all "means" something in some sense. It's just that you may not care.

But anyway, like I said without a real definition of "meaning" any discussion is kind of, well, meaningless.
Or in short, we can talk about biological evolution as a theory because, except for a few fringe cases, we know exactly how genetic information is transmitted, expressed, and modified.
But we didn't know that 60 years ago. Does that mean biology wasn't a science at that point? Obviously not. People talked about genes before anyone knew what DNA was.
It took less than 30 years to get from Mendel to Darwin.
Neither Mendel nor Darwin knew what genes were actually made of. Which according to the "logic" in this thread means they weren't doing real science. Obviously, that's idiotic.
What do you mean "believe in" evo-psych? Natural selection obviously affects behavior. Other than that, it's a field of study, not a belief system.
It's a field of study that's produced bupkis.
posted by delmoi at 1:19 AM on September 20, 2010


liza, I think if you actually read my comments above, you'll find that at no point did I use the phrases "Marxist theory" or "Marxist Philosophy." I certainly didn't talk "about "Marxist Philosophy" as if it were the root of all atheist evil".

That said, I don't have any doubt whatsoever that Marx was an atheist, although I do accept that his atheism took a variety of forms during the course of his philosophical career.

Without wishing to be rude, I'm simply not sure what you're arguing with regard to that particular issue. You've made a large variety of points, some of them contradictory, but have quoted only two works from very early in Marx's career. One of those works is notoriously open to conflicting interpretation on the topic of religion, and the other seems to support the notion that Marx did indeed consider religion to be an evil very similar to alienation of labor.

That said, beyond noting that Marx was an atheist, my comments above referred initially to the present (ie ongoing Communist revolutions) and later, as the argument developed, to the past 70-90 odd years (ie successful Communist revolutions).

The historical record of this period is pretty damn clear, and based on that record, I don't think there can be too much doubt that almost all 20th and 21st century Communism has had atheism as a core premise. Further, I don't see it as all that debateable that it was a premise which was frequently acted upon in a fashion that resulted in religious people getting killed.

Re liberation theology. I have direct personal experience with this. I used to work for an organization that was rather severely admonished for supporting and engaging in liberation theology (by the current pope no less). This was in a country that had been communist at the state level, was run by former communists, and which still had significant areas under the control of communists of a rather different stripe.

The thing is, I don't think anyone ever really mixed up the communists and the liberation theologists. This one just strikes me as the sort of weird arse mistake that only gets made by people on the outside looking in. It'd almost be productive of a chuckle or two if it weren't also an error made by Cardinal Ratzinger, a handful of fucked up Latin American dictators, and the State Department under Reagan.

In short, you're not in great company if you're pushing that particularly barrow.
posted by Ahab at 2:26 AM on September 20, 2010


Well, like I said. They're not calling them terrorists; they're calling them militants. Those are different words.

Either way, it's a dismissive label which seeks to imply that passionate atheists are the moral equivalent of people who kill for their religious beliefs. It's offensive and has no purpose other than to establish atheists who feel strongly about the subject as being irrational and outside the bounds of acceptable positions. It's insane that there are seriously people defending this garbage.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:26 AM on September 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


> EmpressCallipygos: A person's relationship to faith -- and yes, I consider "no relationship at all" to still be A relationship -- is a very, VERY personal thing, and one man's meat is another man's poison. So even though I am a theist, I rankle at hearing this -- because, dammit, it IS possible to find "meaning" and "the point" in the world without having to have a belief in God as well.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.
posted by KirkJobSluder


You're welcome.

Now, if a handful of people here could also remember that it is ALSO possible to have reason, intelligence, and smarts, but still FIND meaning in theism, and if those people could stop implying that all theists are somehow lacking or crippled in their intellectual capacity, then we'd really be getting somewhere.

It just goes both ways, is all. Respect, that is.

(Not implying you're one of those folks, Kirk, you just happened to give me the chance to say that.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:09 AM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Those Marx quotes from liza really highlight the difference between one of the great philosophers and...Metafilter.
posted by jet_manifesto at 4:52 AM on September 20, 2010


it was a really clumsy way writing off the many and varied experiences and thought processes that lead people to atheism

I'll just point here and say, "Well, the important thing is that you've found a way to feel superior to both." -- KirkJobSluder.


Except my post wasn't about atheism. I never wrote anything about what leads people to atheism (or theism). My post was about people -- theists, atheists or agnostics -- who put religion in the categories of "good" or "bad."

A theist is a person who puts religion (generally some specific religion) in the category of "true." An atheist puts religion in the category of "false." That sort of categorization is interesting, but it wasn't remotely what I was writing about.

I CLEARLY fucked up, because at least three people thought that's what I WAS writing about. I don't get how I created that confusion, but I did.

There are atheists who think religion is bad; there are atheists who think it's good; there are atheists who think it's sometimes good and sometimes bad. In any case, an atheist isn't someone who thinks religion is bad. I've met a few THEISTS who think religion is bad. I once met who who HATED God, but he still believed in Him, so he was still a theist.

I suppose someone could think all untrue things are bad, and so religion is bad just because it's untrue. I am a little irked by people who believe in untrue things, but I don't find it EVIL that they do, and I can't imagine someone else finding false beliefs actually evil. But maybe my imagination is limited. For me, there would have to be some actions going along with the false beliefs in order for religion to be bad or evil.

Of course, religious people do plenty of evil things. But they do plenty of good things, too, and have throughout history. So I don't get it.

In any case, I would never claim to be superior to atheists. I don't really think I'm superior to anyone, but I CAN'T be superior to atheists. It's impossible. I AM an atheist. I can't be superior to myself.
posted by grumblebee at 5:07 AM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


In short, you're not in great company if you're pushing that particularly barrow.

liza, FTW!
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:14 AM on September 20, 2010


delmoi: But we didn't know that 60 years ago. Does that mean biology wasn't a science at that point? Obviously not. People talked about genes before anyone knew what DNA was.

The claim made by Dawkins and other advocates of memetics isn't that memetics is the quantitative genetics of 60 years ago or the early evolutionary biology of 90 years ago, but that the contemporary theory of evolutionary biology can make predictive claims about human behavior by treating memes as analogous to genes. Handwaving away the problems by saying that we need to have a better "operational definition" of the meme defeats the whole purpose of applying the concept of the meme to human social behavior.

Neither Mendel nor Darwin knew what genes were actually made of. Which according to the "logic" in this thread means they weren't doing real science. Obviously, that's idiotic.

Darwin had testable hypotheses. Mendel had testable hypotheses. Fischer, et., al. had testable hypotheses, all of which were producing revolutionary results by the 1950s. The defense of memetics here is that memes are not "operationally" defined to an extent that permits the construction of testable hypothesis. Which is fine, but that means, memetics is not a science until it creates testable hypotheses.

And the failure of memetics to create testable hypotheses about human social behavior is ludicrous when you realize that Charles Darwin was running psychology experiments in the Victorian era. We have 150 years of testable hypotheses about human social behavior. It's hard, but it's not that hard.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:17 AM on September 20, 2010


ersatz, I was referring to modern Christianity's lack of formal, personal rituals.

Ah, got it.
posted by ersatz at 5:19 AM on September 20, 2010


It just occurred to me that I might have fucked up by using the word "bad," which is ambiguous. I meant it as a synonym for "evil," but it can also mean "faulty." When I talked about people who categorize religion as "good" or "bad," I didn't mean people who categorized it as faulty or not-faulty. I meant people who categorize it as good or evil. History makes it clear (at least I think it does) that it's not exclusively either.
posted by grumblebee at 5:21 AM on September 20, 2010


It does strike me as interesting that we don't see the argument taken the other way. Advocates of memetics never seem to argue that since genes and photons are both information, that we can do away with quantum theory.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:28 AM on September 20, 2010


Cliff Notes: Existence of memetic theory still unproven, existence of god still unprovable, militant atheists angrily fly into a semantic rage when called militant, and many Christians don't bother reading the whole thread before commenting. Good morning!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:44 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


KirkJobSluder: could you be more specific about competing theories that explain why and how certain cultural artifacts spread? What are they? How are they threatened by memetics?

TIA
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:49 AM on September 20, 2010


Can someone come up with a theory as to why I, despite being non-religious & pro-science, become more pro-religion & anti-science reading these kind of threads on MeFi?

('Cos you're a dick' was finally disproved by Murphy et al, 2007)
posted by i_cola at 6:17 AM on September 20, 2010


PA: I wouldn't say that any of the existing theories are threatened by memetics, if, as its advocates claim, the meme hasn't been operationally defined.

Well, probably the big one is Diffusion of Innovations which looks at adoption of an innovation at the population level. Key components to that theory are issues of authority and social status, and it's proven nicely predictive of things that came after its initial publication like the Internet.

But heck, even something as quaint as radical behaviorism makes predictions that people are likely to repeat behaviors that have positive consequences. I think radical behaviorism falls short in looking at things like authority and status though. Which is why you have both theories and theoretical work looking at authority and status in social psychology.

A big factor lacking in the meme is the idea of intertextuality. Coca-Cola spends billions of dollars associating a logo with Christmas. Semiotics can deal with the fact that a symbol might be overloaded with multiple associative meanings.

And then there's information transmission theory which recognizes the high rate of noise in communication and the gap between encoded and decoded meaning. A basic problem with the concept of the meme is that quantitative genetics reveals that natural selection is highly conservative because most genetic errors are detrimental. The error-prone nature of communication is arguably a feature and not a bug.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:40 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some more thoughts.

I'd like to see more international studies, especially studies in areas where atheism, or at least non-church attendance and belief, are the norm. Are religious Swedes, for example, happier than non-religious Swedes? I suppose I'm asking if the fact that, in America, Canada, etc the religious poll as being happier is, at least in part, due to the fact that by being religious they're conforming to societal norms while atheists are less happy due to the fact that they know that society as a whole is largely opposed? Also, I personally have lost a job due to being an atheist in a place where Christianity is normative, that tends to produce a bunker mentality on my part and I'm sure it isn't conducive to happiness.

I'm also interested in seeing studies on volunteerism and charity from places where neither are strongly linked to religion. If an atheist is opposed to donating money to a religious charity that tends to reduce their opportunities for charity. Similarly there are fewer entirely non-religious volunteer groups than there are religious volunteer groups.

Charity and volunteer work are often included as part of otherwise religiously advertised and motivated efforts. Many of the people I know who have gone on mission trips, the primary purpose of which is the conversion of foreigners, have also done practical things for those they are ministering to, which could put the entire mission trip into the volunteerism category and put the donations for the mission trip into the charity category.

I'll also observe that people tend to go along with the group, if a person is at church and the church is, in addition to dispensing religiosity, asking for donations for a good cause I don't think its particularly surprising if the church goers donate to the good cause.

Which makes me wonder if perhaps there is a place for atheist church equivalents. Perhaps a Humanist Meeting and Philosophic Education and Debate society of some sort? "This year we'll be going on a mission to spread Humanism in Guyana and to help a village build a sewage system please donate!"

If, as the evidence seems to suggest, there is a benefit to parts of religion I think we'd be well advised to see if it is possible to get the beneficial parts without also getting the harmful parts.
posted by sotonohito at 7:06 AM on September 20, 2010


It's stupid because it smacks of saying "Oh, you can't *possibly* believe that - there *must* be some other, underlying reason, (probably some Freudian psycho-sexual hang-up) of which you are currently in denial."

Yeah... no. Your response is beyond inadequate. Your post "smacks of" smacking of someone else's smacking of. At least when grumblebee said that he/she had a subjective impression of someone who said X, he/she made clear that it was a subjective impression. You are actually judging grumblebee as stupid because of what his/her post "smacks of" -- this is utter folly and utter hypocrisy, and you owe grumblebee an apology.
posted by thesmophoron at 7:44 AM on September 20, 2010


Can someone come up with a theory as to why I, despite being non-religious & pro-science, become more pro-religion & anti-science reading these kind of threads on MeFi?

Because, given the current status quo of this little so-called "progressive community" known as Metafilter, pro-religion arrogance gets you absolutely nowhere and fast, whereas a little pro-science arrogance is less likely to lead to immediate wrist-slapping? Hell, state your provocation with enough pith and wit, and you get a bucketload of favorites.

So, the pro-religion types tend to come across as nicer on the whole and, more to the point, more careful in the posing of their arguments.

Put yourself into a community where the status quo leaned the opposite way and I suspect you'd find a more or less opposite situation: a tendency toward hubris and arrogance from some of the true believers, tact and sensitivity from any non-believer who cared to stick around.
posted by philip-random at 8:02 AM on September 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Memetics is not a complete Theory but an analogy. It is the observation that beliefs are affected by "natural selection." What I think is confusing a lot of people here is that beliefs are ALSO affected consciously by people, who act as six billion Intelligent Designers. Those two facts are not mutually exclusive.

Think of a jingle. It acts as a virus by "infecting" listeners, who find themselves unconsciously humming or singing it. Perhaps they misheard, and a slightly modified jingle is born and, perhaps, passed on to others. The analogy of the jingle to virus or parts (words, notes, etc.) of the jingle to genes is obvious. But clearly a person might hear the jingle and decide to alter it. Maybe he adds or changes a word, making a clever pun. Maybe he samples it for a hip-hop track. Maybe he just decides to create a completely unrelated jingle. None of that is inconsistent with memetics, because memetics doesn't claim to explain every creation or alteration of an idea.

Imagine the world a thousand years from now. Suppose people can just design up a biological creature on their computers and print it out. Suppose they can take an ox and a giraffe and blend them to create an ox-giraffe. Would that mean that the theory of evolution is false? Or just that it's incomplete?

That's what the world of memes is like today. Ideas can be reproduced with modifications and ideas that are more "fit" are more likely to thrive and reproduce, but ideas can also be consciously created, modified, and blended by intelligent designers. Memetics doesn't capture the totality of idea creation and transmission, but it is a useful analogy because it helps us think about why some ideas thrive "in the wild" and others don't and also about how some of our ideas came to be.

It especially helps us think about things like reproductive strategies of ideas. For example, many variants of Christian memeplexes include ideas like "faith without evidence is good" and "birth control is bad" and "teach your children to believe" and "bring the message to those who haven't heard it" and even "believers of competing memeplexes are going to hell." Memetics should make any open-minded Christian wonder if those ideas come ultimately from God or if they just naturally evolved in the way that penises and immune systems evolved.

Understanding memetics means that we can be on the lookout for such ideas in our own thoughts and make sure that we believe things because they are true rather than because they have evolved to be especially believable and transmissible.

KirkJobSluder offered an interesting argument using cladistics, but I wonder how one could look at the tree of Christian denominations, for example, and not see memetics at work (alongside conscious design by people like Luther.) Or the tree of musical genres or the tree of languages, etc. Perhaps people are confused because biological beings are limited to reproducing only with especially similar beings, while memetic beings can "mate" with quite disparate beings. We can't yet make ox-giraffes, but any guy with a computer can blend calypso with hip-hop. That doesn't mean memetics is false, just as evolution won't become false once we can make ox-giraffes.
posted by callmejay at 8:10 AM on September 20, 2010


Suppose people can just design up a biological creature on their computers and print it out. Suppose they can take an ox and a giraffe and blend them to create an ox-giraffe. Would that mean that the theory of evolution is false? Or just that it's incomplete?

It would mean that it doesn't explain those changes to those creatures. That's how science works. You have something that needs an explanation, you create a theory to explain it. Memetics right now is just a theory in search of a problem to solve.
posted by empath at 8:14 AM on September 20, 2010


"It's a field of study that's produced bupkis."

Do you realize how massively arrogant it is to conclude, based on your ignorance of something, that it doesn't exist?

The basic idea behind evo psych--behavior and mental processes are affected by natural selection--is sound. It has generated theories which have generated hypotheses. Off the top of my head:

Seems like there would be a huge fitness advantage (natural selection) to caring for babies (mental processes and behavior). What, exactly, triggers those caretaking behaviors? Duh, right? It's a baby.

But that's not how it works. These behaviors aren't triggered by the existence of a baby. They are triggered by a set of features, which human babies have to a greater or lesser degree, known as the "baby schema".* We respond to this set of features whether or not there is a baby involved. We respond differently based on the degree to which someone or something conforms to that schema. Not just humans, but that set of features in photos, videos, dogs, cats...

Take that and generate hypotheses about the domestication of animals, the domestication of people, child abuse, altruism, adoption, attachment, post-partum depression...

There you go, evo psych. And that's just off the top of my head.


*This idea stems from research that Lorenz was doing on sign-stimuli. Example: geese roll eggs into their nest. The rolling behavior is NOT triggered by an egg, but by a set of stimuli that may or may not indicate that an egg is present.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:14 AM on September 20, 2010


callmejay: No, what I think is confusing people is that natural selection in the biological sciences isn't just a bunch of fuzzy, ill-defined woo that you can point at jingles and religions and say, "yep, that's natural selection."

Natural selection since the 1940s is a fucking quantitative theory that's based on two basic assumptions:
1: descent with modification is the primary form of heredity
2: P = G + E
3: G > E.

If you've violated any of those assumptions, you're no longer talking about natural selection. By pointing to synthetic works that borrow from multiple lineages (calypso-flavored hip hop), you've violated the assumption of descent with modification. Therefore the analogy breaks.

the young rope-rider: The basic idea behind evo psych--behavior and mental processes are affected by natural selection--is sound.

Ok, how is this different from every other psychological meta-theory of the last century? Everyone acknowledges that natural selection influenced our cognition. The problem is that without a) related clades from the same period, b) strong evidence that G > E for a given human behavior or c) actual identification of the genes involved, you can't say much beyond, "yep, that probably evolved."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:48 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


empath: It would mean that it doesn't explain those changes to those creatures. That's how science works. You have something that needs an explanation, you create a theory to explain it. Memetics right now is just a theory in search of a problem to solve.

Right, but it still explains the changes that came about through natural selection. Similarly, memetics explains the changes that came about through natural selection in ideas. I don't see how one could look at a modern religion and decide that it was designed wholly by man or by God. Memetics explains certain facets of ideas better than any alternative I'm aware of.


KirkJobSluder: Natural selection since the 1940s is a fucking quantitative theory that's based on two basic assumptions:

My first sentence was "Memetics is not a complete Theory but an analogy." I get that it's neither quantitative nor a theory. I'm just saying it's useful.
posted by callmejay at 9:09 AM on September 20, 2010


And even in biology, of course, descent with modification is an oversimplification. Hell, sexual reproduction violates pure descent with modification, let alone microorganisms swapping genetic material or what we're going to do in the next thousand years.

Speciation (in the mating sense) is just a side-effect of the difficulty of biological reproduction -- it's not essential to evolution.
posted by callmejay at 9:15 AM on September 20, 2010


Whoops three basic assumptions. But the point remains that if you violate any of those assumptions you're no longer talking about the same theory, but to grind on specific points.

Imagine the world a thousand years from now. Suppose people can just design up a biological creature on their computers and print it out. Suppose they can take an ox and a giraffe and blend them to create an ox-giraffe. Would that mean that the theory of evolution is false? Or just that it's incomplete?

Actually yes, such a discovery (as opposed to a false chimera via convergent evolution) would be evidence that falsifies current evolutionary theory. In fact, we're faced with such a situation in looking at the early archaic where analytical tools based on descent with modification can't account for promiscuous lateral transfer of genetic information and the lack of information about that epoch. But yes, the paleobiologist of a million years from now who discovers an epoch filled with chimeras would be forced to falsify Darwinian natural selection as the mechanism behind that diversity.

KirkJobSluder offered an interesting argument using cladistics, but I wonder how one could look at the tree of Christian denominations, for example, and not see memetics at work (alongside conscious design by people like Luther.)

Because memetics, with its focus on the inherent fitness of the meme, is blind to politics and contexts. Memetics can't explain why there are approx. 300,000 Methodists in England, and 8,000,000 in the United States (short answer, political discrimination against nonconformists and colonial policies). It also can explain why Islamic science saw widespread adoption in Europe but Islam did not, (hint, one of the first acts of the Reconquista of Isabella was to translate plundered libraries into Latin.)

Right, but it still explains the changes that came about through natural selection. Similarly, memetics explains the changes that came about through natural selection in ideas. I don't see how one could look at a modern religion and decide that it was designed wholly by man or by God. Memetics explains certain facets of ideas better than any alternative I'm aware of.

Really, because the politics and culture of the time has proven to be both necessary and sufficient for explaining the protestant reformation and the counter-reformation.

Hell, sexual reproduction violates pure descent with modification, let alone microorganisms swapping genetic material or what we're going to do in the next thousand years.

*Rolls eyes.* No it doesn't, and this is basic freshman-level biology we're talking about here.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:22 AM on September 20, 2010


I wonder how much of the modern usage of the term "militant atheist" can be attributed to Douglas Adams. He used to describe himself as a "militant atheist" because, he explained, if he just said "I'm an atheist", people would respond, "Oh, you mean you're an agnostic, right?", which angered him no end. No, he bloody well did not mean he was an agnostic; he meant atheist, and so he tacked on the "militant" adjective to hammer home his point.

The term itself has a longer history than that, reaching back into the 1800's, but it seems to have a more specific application with the "new atheists" (or whatever lame-ass label the media has chosen to give Dawkins, et al.). My impression has always been that the movement (if you can call it that) is something that has its roots in the UK and can't help but think these two things are related.
posted by charred husk at 9:34 AM on September 20, 2010


*Rolls eyes.* No it doesn't, and this is basic freshman-level biology we're talking about here.

A long time ago one of our ancestors got together with mitochondria to produce a symbiotic relationship at a cellular level. Within your DNA are the markers of environment, viruses and diseases you've been exposed to. Your existence as a individual is dependent upon thousands of species of microorganisms that exist just on your person alone. Parasites have been shown to affect the behaviors of other animals, and possibly humans. Our basic assumptions about how behavior, thought, language and culture evolve are undergoing rapid change. However we ought to be able to reduce ideas to some kind of mathematical equation and model their work through social networks via signals. Memetics provides as good a model as any for trying to explain how these things move from person to person. As we link people on Facebook and watch ideas spread in real time we're starting to be able to validate these models with real time information.
posted by humanfont at 9:49 AM on September 20, 2010


humanfont: Our basic assumptions about how behavior, thought, language and culture evolve are undergoing rapid change. However we ought to be able to reduce ideas to some kind of mathematical equation and model their work through social networks via signals.

Yes, I'm certain that everyone who's working in social-networks analysis and communication theory is just pissing in the wind on this point. Which highlights another limitation of evolutionary biology on this. Evolutionary biology looks at gene frequencies in population over long, multigenerational time scales. It's utterly not concerned with the welfare or success of the individual except as a statistical data point.

Memetics provides as good a model as any for trying to explain how these things move from person to person.

Well no, it's a piss poor model because it's been falsified and because it violates the key assumptions of its parent theory. It's also not a model that would do squat to explain how ideas, innovations, behaviors, practices, and values (all of which can be operationally defined) move from person to person.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:10 AM on September 20, 2010


humanfont: A long time ago one of our ancestors got together with mitochondria to produce a symbiotic relationship at a cellular level.

Yes, and how do we know this? (Descent with modification.)

Within your DNA are the markers of environment, viruses and diseases you've been exposed to.

Yes, and how do we analyze those markers? (Descent with modification.)

Parasites have been shown to affect the behaviors of other animals, and possibly humans.

Yes, and how do we look at the evolutionary history of those parasites? (Descent with modification.)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:13 AM on September 20, 2010


I mean really, if you want a strong quantitative methodology for looking at how social change happens within a group, Social-Networks Analysis is the place to be.

A big philosophical problem with memetics is that it places so much emphasis on the internal structure of the meme when we know that phenomena like status, centrality, relationship, and authority are strong predictors of adoption. And if you're a mathematical modeling nerd, SNA beats MANOVA hands down.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:27 AM on September 20, 2010


Yes, I'm certain that everyone who's working in social-networks analysis and communication theory is just pissing in the wind on this point.

That seems to be a particularly brazen assertion. Everyone? You know every person in the field of social networking and social analysis? You've read every paper written across the vast universe of corporate and academic scholars looking into this field and concluded that they are all pissing into the wind? In spite of your ridiculous generalization and overreaching claims there are real measurable and reproduceable results being generated from the analysis of social networks and information flows. Did you know that by analyzing Facebook status messages political scientists have been able to project the results of opinion polling days in advance. Information form twitter and other networks is being used to identify fashion trends and change orders for retailers. Our understanding of the human ant colony is growing every day.

Yes, and how do we analyze those markers? (Descent with modification.)

Or we do genetic sequencing of selected cells and look for specific markers that were injected by a custom made virus, or markers from a know exposure. Since there was no descent involved it isn't descent with modification. Isn't much of our analysis these days done by population sampling to look for specific markers. It isn't clear that these markers emerged in a single event from a common ancestor or were created multiple times.
posted by humanfont at 10:31 AM on September 20, 2010


humanfont: That seems to be a particularly brazen assertion.

Hint, that was a sarcastic response to your assertion that we need memetics to order to have quantitative models of information in human culture. There's a lot of wonderful things going on in the quantitative study of human social behavior that doesn't use memetics, or reference Dawkins as a footnote.

Or we do genetic sequencing of selected cells and look for specific markers that were injected by a custom made virus, or markers from a know exposure. Since there was no descent involved it isn't descent with modification.

Retroviruses don't reproduce? This is exactly how we tell the difference between endogamous retroviruses from a common human ancestor and more recent pandemics. In both cases descent with modification allows us to create testable hypotheses.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:42 AM on September 20, 2010


"Everyone acknowledges that natural selection influenced our cognition."

Because of evolutionary psychology.

The problem is that without a) related clades from the same period, b) strong evidence that G > E for a given human behavior or c) actual identification of the genes involved, you can't say much beyond, "yep, that probably evolved."



What does G > E mean? I can't parse that at all.

In some cases, it's possible to identify the genes that govern certain traits. That includes behavioral traits (i.e. more or less aggressive, fearful, etc.) Lots of animal studies on this point.

I have no idea why you would need related clades from the same period in order to do valuable work in this field.

It seems like you're limiting the value of "evolutionary psych" to "knowing for a fact exactly how and why and when humans evolved". In that case I can tell you that you are working from a very limited point of view and that no one will ever know for sure exactly when we started loving cute baby puppies or whatever. If that's your standard, sure, evo psych has produced nothing.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:47 AM on September 20, 2010


the young rope-rider: Because of evolutionary psychology.

People were talking about this before Pinker got out of elementary school. It's not a new idea.

What does G > E mean? I can't parse that at all.

If you don't know, then you have no business discussing evolutionary anything.

In some cases, it's possible to identify the genes that govern certain traits. That includes behavioral traits (i.e. more or less aggressive, fearful, etc.) Lots of animal studies on this point.

At the moment, we have only a handful of genes linked to human behavior. Not enough to encompass a general theory.

I have no idea why you would need related clades from the same period in order to do valuable work in this field.

Because that's how evolutionary biology works. (Again, this is freshman-level science here.) You look at a feature across multiple populations and make inferences as to when a trait might have developed from a common ancestor. Since the closest ancestor of humans and chimps is approx 3.5 mya, we can't make any conclusions about when a behavior might have evolved since then.

It seems like you're limiting the value of "evolutionary psych" to "knowing for a fact exactly how and why and when humans evolved".

Except that's exactly what evolutionary psychology claims that separates it from behavioral and cognitive psychology. All three admit that the human mind evolved. Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain human cognition in terms of a mythical OBE, and without fixing the three problems I cited, it can't say anything about the OBE.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:59 AM on September 20, 2010


What does G > E mean? I can't parse that at all.

If you don't know, then you have no business discussing evolutionary anything.

More constructive approach: answer the question.
posted by grumblebee at 11:02 AM on September 20, 2010


I've seen it used in particular contexts, to mean that -- in these specific environments -- the influence of genes (G) is greater-than (>) the influence of the environment (E).
posted by grumblebee at 11:05 AM on September 20, 2010


grumblebee: More constructive approach: answer the question.

I get tired of having to explain basic biology 101 concepts to people peddling pseudoscientific bullshit. As pointed out up-thread, much of the power of evolutionary biology comes from the modern synthesis that happened in the 1930s and 1940s that looked beyond mendelian genetics to statistical tools that apply across entire populations. Namely:

P = G + E, or Phenotype = Genetics + Environment.

If you want to use quantitative genetics to explore evolutionary hypotheses regarding a phenotype, you need to estimate G vs. E. Failing to do so, all it can say is, "yep, genetics plays a role, and those genes probably evolved" which is what every other school of psychology already said.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:13 AM on September 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for slogging through it as much as you have, KJS. Just reading this thread has been like banging my head against a brick wall, but your comments have been pretty informative.
posted by invitapriore at 11:38 AM on September 20, 2010


I get tired of having to explain basic biology 101 concepts to people peddling pseudoscientific bullshit.

So Richard Dawkins and Douglas Hofstadter are pseudosciencists now with a limited understanding of biology? Now you just sound like a crackpot where's your website with blinking text and retro 1997 optimized for Netscape Navigator.
posted by humanfont at 12:20 PM on September 20, 2010


humanfont: (quoted) I get tired of having to explain basic biology 101 concepts to people peddling pseudoscientific bullshit.

So Richard Dawkins and Douglas Hofstadter are pseudosciencists now with a limited understanding of biology?

That quote has nothing to do with memetics, but rather, participants in this thread and advocates for evolutionary psychology in specific. And yes. I do think that advocates for evolutionary psychology betray a limited understanding of biology when they argue untestable evolutionary hypotheses.

Hofstadter appears to have made a handful of contributions in the 80s and the Journal of Memetics appears to be dead as of 2007. I may be a crank, but at least I have a half-dozen active peer-reviewed research journals to read.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:52 PM on September 20, 2010


There are a number of academic journals focusing on evolutionary psychology. I note that the Journal of Memetic Computing seems to have a pretty robust editorial board and be in active publication. A quick scan of Google scholar notes 5150 articles referencing "memetics" alone since 2007. A quick survey of the article space seems to indicate a wide array of peer reviewed and well established publications from reputable bodies like the IEEE and ACM. So far from being some psuedoscientific fringe, it seems that there are a broad set of psychologists, evolutionary biologists and others who have embraced this analytical approach and use it as the basis for real scientific research.
posted by humanfont at 1:27 PM on September 20, 2010


KJS and grumblebee, thanks for clarifying.

KJS, we seem to be talking about something completely different. You seem to be arguing against a single theory (or theories) that you consider "evolutionary psychology". I am asserting the value of a certain approach to animal and human psychology. I don't think this conversation will get any more productive from here on.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:36 PM on September 20, 2010


humanfont: There are a number of academic journals focusing on evolutionary psychology. I note that the Journal of Memetic Computing seems to have a pretty robust editorial board and be in active publication.

However, memetic computing is only tangentially related to using memes to understand diffusion of ideas among human populations. Limiting the search to 1) biological and social sciences and 2) title searches cuts that list to a mere 85.

This is compared to 1,500 for social networks, 1,430 just in the social sciences for diffusion, 373 for communication theory, 536 for semiotics, and 688 for communities of practice.

So woo! 80 references in 3 years and appropriation of the term for a completely unrelated branch of computer science! Woo!
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:19 PM on September 20, 2010




Here's the 84-hit meme search.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:31 PM on September 20, 2010


Yeah... no. Your response is beyond inadequate. Your post "smacks of" smacking of someone else's smacking of. At least when grumblebee said that he/she had a subjective impression of someone who said X, he/she made clear that it was a subjective impression. You are actually judging grumblebee as stupid because of what his/her post "smacks of" -- this is utter folly and utter hypocrisy, and you owe grumblebee an apology.

Ahem. I certainly wasn't judging Grumblebee as anything - just what he said in that particular instance - note the and made you appear a lot less thoughtful than your other comments would indicate you are at the end, which was specifically written to indicate I was talking about that particular fragment, not him.

In any event, I had already mefi-mailed mssr Grumblebee, just in case there was a need to clarify on either side, and he sent me a lovely, thoughtful reply to mull over, so I think it's safe to put away the pitchfork and torch, for now at least.
posted by Sparx at 2:45 PM on September 20, 2010


So Richard Dawkins and Douglas Hofstadter are pseudosciencists now with a limited understanding of biology?

Douglas Hofstader is a CS prof, not a biology prof.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:02 PM on September 20, 2010


I'd post an actual argument if I could, but even Google-aided—and with time on my hands looking up references and whatnot—I'm barely following the discussion.

Nevertheless, this thread has been a fantastically interesting read. (Special thanks to KirkJobSluder, that was some mighty fine science-dropping.)
posted by Glee at 4:16 PM on September 20, 2010


Upon closer reading of KJS I find myself drawn to his arguments. His derogatory and snarky prose threw me off and got my hackles up and I ended up misreading him.
posted by humanfont at 5:56 PM on September 20, 2010


If you don't know, then you have no business discussing evolutionary anything.

Hmmm.

Okay, perhaps I was a bit too hasty when I said that I wasn't implying Kirk was one of the folk who belittles the theists. ...This does sound like you're belittling someone, anyway...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:38 PM on September 20, 2010


I've not said much beyond religion beyond my opinion that respect needs to go both ways in this.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:36 AM on September 21, 2010


It almost seems like a divinely inspired religious crusade to absolutely positively kill memetics.
posted by ovvl at 8:53 PM on September 22, 2010


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