[extropy-chat] Emotional memes, was Elvis Sightings

Keith Henson hkhenson at rogers.com
Wed Feb 7 22:07:11 UTC 2007

Transplanted from the memetics list May 2006 where it generated no comment.

In correspondence with Eugene V Kooin, the author of the comment here:

 > My main point, however, is a tribute to meme selection: the fittest will
 > survive!

He commented:


 >. . . it is hard for me to understand how many people, including
 >biologists, can have such a negative attitude (sometimes, almost
 >violently expressed) to this entire conceptual development. I suppose
 >this in itself is a peculiar phenomenon to be understood from the point
 >of view of evolutionary psychology . . .

Let's try. Examples first.

I remember with near horror a time when a very senior scientist (not in 
geology) went off on a disjointed emotional rant that was scary to behold. 
(He was shaking with rage.) I was reading *his* copy of _Scientific 
American_ at his house and made some innocent comment about an article on 
plate tectonics.

A story illustrating this effect to a T was posted here by Aaron Lynch back 
in 2004 and expanded on the Extropian mailing list. (That was where the 
Libertarians freaked out for over a decade about the whole meme concept 
seemingly because of an article I wrote for _Reason_.)

The K/T extinction event meme is another one that inspired high emotion 
against it for over a decade. Even 25 years after the 200-mile wide crater 
was found there are "partisans" who still reject the meme. 
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicxulub_Crater Drew Westen imaged the 
effects in brains for political "partisans" but I would bet long odds that 
the same brain regions were/are active in challenged K/T rejecters.

Usually the memes that get tied up with so much emotion are religious or 
political. Whatever the source, it is clear that a wide variety of memes 
can obtain this kind of binding to emotional areas of the brain. Are there 
features of plate tectonics, the "memes about memes" and the K/T event that 
group them with political or religious memes? What other memes classes have 
this binding?

In some cases, and memetics is one of them, the reaction is almost 
allergic. People often don't have an expressible meme in competition to the 
challenge meme; they just emotionally and sometimes violently reject the 
meme.  [Example, recent postings here with high emotional content.] (That 
does not mean they don't have a meme or set of memes in competition, just 
that they can't express them.)

This business of emotional freak-outs over memes is so widespread among 
humans that it must be a species typical psychological trait--though people 
vary in how much they have it.

Evolutionary psychology makes the claim that--without exception--every 
human psychological trait either evolved (example capture-bonding) or is a 
side effect (drug addiction) of some trait that *did* contribute to 
reproductive success back in the EEA (Stone Age.)

I have been baffled over this for two decades, I still am, but perhaps the 
above framing of the problem might give someone an idea about how to solve it.

The "rules" of the EP game is that you need to show how the "feature" would 
have directly improved reproductive success in the EEA for those who had 
it, *or* how the psychological trait is a side effect of some trait that 
did improve reproductive success. (Extra points if you can suggest ways to 
test it.)

Dawkins makes the case that being gullible may be a feature of children. 
You can see why believing adults would contribute to reproductive success 
(those eaten by bears didn't leave descendents).

The possibility exists that some memes get trapped in the partial freezing 
of the brain's ability to learn language that happens around puberty. (That 
might have something to do with the 13 year-old boys who read Rand.) Or 
perhaps there is a later freezing in of memes. In that case, we should be 
able to detect an age cutoff in those who opposed plate tectonics or the 
K/T extinction.

Perhaps it is some side effect of the drive for status to have strong 
emotional attachments to memes? (None of these feel right in EP terms.)

(Added the next day)

Or perhaps these emotional bindings to scientific memes (plus religious and 
political memes) are a side effect of emotional bindings to xenophobic memes.

I recently made the case that the trait to pass around xenophobic memes and 
go non-rational is an evolved species typical behavior of humans facing bad 
times. http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2006/4/17/194059/296

It may be active in some people at some level even under low stress 
conditions. Low level activation of the psychological traits behind 
capture-bonding (Stockholm Syndrome) seems to account for the rewards 
people get from BDSM sex practices.

Wars and captures were *major* selection factors in the EEA. It should not 
be a surprise if many of our deepest psychological traits were shaped by 
such selection.


Keith Henson

PS. The theory leads to the prediction that *this* theory will be met with 
violent rejection by some. :-) 

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