Saturday, February 26, 2005

Viruses of the Mind?

Once again I have come across what I think is an extremely worthwhile passage from The Meme Machine. Some background will aid understanding. A meme is 'an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.' (OED). Blackmore stresses that a meme is whatever is passed by imitation. She defines imitation broadly, but does distinguish it form classical conditioning, operant conditioning and social learning. For simplicity’s sake, think of a meme as an idea or practice. On with the excerpt…

“When we look at religions from a meme’s eye view we can understand why they have been so successful. These religious memes did not set out with an intention to succeed. They were just behaviours, ideas and stories that were copied from one person to another in the long history of human attempts to understand the world. They were successful because they happened to come together into mutually supportive gangs that included all the right tricks to keep them safely stored in millions of brains, books and buildings, and repeatedly passed on to more. They evoked strong emotions and strange experiences. They provided myths to answer real questions and the myths were protected by untestability, threats, and promises. They created and then reduced fear to create compliance, and they used the beauty, truth and altruism tricks to help their spread. That is why they are still with us, and why millions of people’s behaviour is routinely controlled by ideas that are either false or completely untestable.”
- Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, page 192-193


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