Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gravity, The Occult and Original Sin


"'Gravity', interpreted as an innate attraction between every pair of particles of matter, was an occult quality in the same sense as the scholastics' 'tendency to fall' had been."  (from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,Thomas S. Kuhn).


Before Newton, an Aristotelian explanation persisted that stones fell to earth because it was their "nature driving them towards the center of the universe".  With the discoveries and new perceptions which preceded Newton, Aristotle's explanation began to seem like a hollow word play, devoid of actual explanation and so Newton coined a new concept without the concrete evidence to substantiate it, try as he might.  Newton's Principia was adopted by some, but the theory of copuscularism was still widely accepted. 

Try as they might, investigators could not uncover a mechanical explanation of gravity.  So they were faced with the same challenge: Newton's "gravity" did not provide any further explanation for a falling rock than Aristotle's "nature" and they could demonstrate no proof of it.  Cautious scientific minds remained skeptical about "gravity".  However, they soon found they could not practice science without the Principia nor could they reconcile the Principia with corpuscular standards and so the theory of gravity gained ground.  It was a slight change in language which allowed scientists to think outside of the outdated, previous paradigm. 


Meme theory is playing a slightly different tune but with a familiar chorus.  The concept of "meme" was coined by an evolutionary biologist (Dawkins)  who cautiously subscribes (as any scientist thoroughly inculcated by "normal science" should) to the existing paradigm of mental health.  Why shouldn't he?  These ideas were formulated and tested using scientific methods.  It would be hubris for him, an evolutionary biologist, to go ransacking and questioning the presumable foundations of another scientific discipline. 


Dawkins takes the conservative route.  He looks at the existing framework of mental health, what he knows of human history and biology and he sees otherwise decent, healthy people behaving in arrogant, hateful and destructive ways.  He perceives this behavior is due to the beliefs they hold and their unwillingness to question them.  He theorizes there is a percentage of people who just aren't quite right in the head who have traditionally played the role of shaman and priest, leading the rest of humanity astray.  He places memes in the service of the existing mental health framework, when memetics should be rewriting the mental health paradigm


Without the framework of the new memetic paradigm we attribute odd and undesirable behaviors to a flaw in an individual's neurobiology. Memetics offers a second, primary cause: contagious ideas.


Dawkins inherited a very traditional meme.  In accepting the mainstream psychological paradigm (build from the de-mythologizing of a Western religious paradigm of human nature), Dawkins mirrors the beliefs of those who adamantly disagree with him. 


"Mental illness" is a re-working of "original sin", just as "gravity" was originally a reworking of "nature".  


"You have the wrong ideas.  Here are the right ideas, accept them from my authority.  Repent.  Seek help.  Acknowledge your failings and you can be treated, though never fully cured. "  Only without the resurrection of the dead, life everlasting and a hope of social justice, it's a rather bitter pill to swallow.  Believers don't see the hope of Science and Reason when they hear Dawkins speak: they hear something too familiar, too stripped bare to be comfortable with. 


The current mental health paradigm is not an elite conspiracy.  It's not an evil scheme to make psychologists and drug companies rich.  It's a naturally evolved outcome from the application of science to the individual mind in the petri dish of Western Civilization.  It's unpleasant but we can work through it.  We are in the crisis stage of an obsolete paradigm. 


The current Mental Health paradigm preserves the traditional explanation of human nature because there was (until now) no alternative to replace it with.  Normal Science doesn't throw paradigms out, it tries desperately to make them work until they shatter under pressure. 


It's time to embrace human nature in all that fascinates and troubles us; it's time to move forward.  'Meme' allows us to investigate cultural bits of the human experience and distinguish them from the human actors.  We stop talking about who coined and invented what idea (and what their mother must have done to cause it) and instead consider the movement and mutation of the ideas themselves. 


So as long as we don't have a means of measuring and testing memes, they remain "philosophical".  "Meme" is just a new word for "thought", "idea" or "word".  But without using the term "meme" we get caught in the current paradigm.  "Meme" is a thought tool on the cusp of becoming a theory.  And like every adolescent, it's development will be an awkward and fascinating journey.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Domesticated Homo Sapiens



We developed a symbiotic relationship with memeplexes from the start.  Language domesticated us.  Memeplexes played a  parenting role, stabilizing our food supplies, developing architecture.  As we domesticated other species, we domesticated ourselves, through cooking and tool making and telling stories. 


We are poorly adapted to survival in the wilderness.  We need tools and often companions to gather and hunt dinner.  We need shelter and clothing to protect us from the elements.  We quickly learned to create synthetic environments (the city being a prime example) and these environments changed rapidly (compared to geologic and ecologic change) and our natural bodies and brains have struggled to adapt with them.


We domesticated ourselves, selecting mates for their mechanical and linguistic aptitude, social skills, reputation and creativity.  Creativity is an interesting one because it involves a flexibility of the mind, playfulness, a juvenile trait.  And something curious happened: our features became rounder, eyes became wider, brows less prominent and our jaws shrank.  These smaller, juvenile features demonstrate the paedomorphosis of humanoids to modern humans. 


We shunned and executed those among us who were too aggressive and assertive...something we also did to other species in the process of domestication. 

Memeplexes extended childhood, even empowered people to experience lifelong "immaturity"  (meaning a dependency on the society & memeplexes to feed, clothe and shelter).  This has increased physical security and leisure time, meaning an increased potential for learning and an increased opportunity for creativity.  This has also increased life expectancy, material goods and food security.


Memeplexes are so intricately intertwined with us that we find it difficult to imagine our existence without them.  They often encourage deference to the group consensus, belief in supernatural entities and other practices which complicate our lives as much as they may help.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Minds We Create--Domestication

[This post is human-centric.  No big surprise there, since a dog clearly did not write this.  Bias is ok as long as we work in awareness of it.  For a more accurate insight into the process of domestication check out this article on dog domestication and borrow The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan from your local library.]


Whether we domesticated them for food, labor, defense or companionship (or a combination of all) we have shaped not just the physical attributes but the cognitive functions of domesticated species. 


We have made dogs and cats docile, perpetually juvenile, compared to their wild counterparts.  This has even extended vocal communication in cats.  Feral adult cats and wild cats rarely vocalize while their domestic relations mew dependently for every meal.  Dogs remain playful long after physical maturity, extending their learning as well as their adolescence.


Darwin aptly articulated the physical variations human selection of plants and animals creates among domesticated species.  The same can be said of the cognitive capacity and protomemes of domestic animals compared to variations within their species and in comparison to their wild relatives.  A Pit Bull's response to physical threat is quite different from a Sheltie's. The adult Wolf's means of acquiring dinner are quite different from the Papillon.


Cats have retained more independence as their main function was pest control and they needed little encouragement to fill that niche.  Dogs on the other hand depended on reading social signals and moods of humans.  Because of this dogs developed an ability to read human facial expressions, and respond to verbal and non-verbal cues (which most cats, as any roommate of one will know, feel too intelligent to do on any reliable basis).  Dogs even developed the ability to point (for hunting purposes) and to decode human pointing (something most creatures, even those closely related to us, cannot do). 


This shaping of cognitive and emotional function extends to farm animals as well and explains why animals in confined, industrial environments respond in ways similar to human psychological disorders.  We shaped them to function in a pastoral environment, complete with social stimuli, human husbandry and natural cycles, then rapidly changed that environment.  Since we control the breeding, even after the species has lost its ability to mate independently, such as with Angus cows (where natural mate selection is not permitted) and Domesticated turkeys (where the birds were bred to have so much meat they are physically incapable of breeding), these animals have lost all ability to adapt or go extinct, caught in a vicious cycle of human manufacture, driven by markets rather than gene-environment interplay. 


But there is another brain/body which we have domesticated with even more complex outcomes: Our own. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Cuttlefish and Octopus

For the last several posts we've talked about brains and intelligence in a very vertebrate-centered way (though we did briefly address the protomemetic intelligence of bacteria, fungi, ants and bees).  Let's take a side-exploration on the banyan-tree-of-life and explore cephalopods.  These creatures lost their protective shells early on which placed selective pressure on them to become agile hunters and crafty escape artists. 


There was no pressure exerted on the octopus to develop social networks and they rarely interact (except to mate and eat each other).  Their intelligence is cumulative over a lifetime, but not shared.  They easily adapt to artificial environments and show incredible mechanical aptitude.  They do however have incredibly advanced neural and optic systems which allow them to mimic venomous species and inedible environments, triggering reactions in predators which aid in their survival.  This is a protomemetic exchange, but it is a very advanced one, changing rapidly as different environments and threats are encountered on an individual, not collective, basis. 


Look at it this way: You, as a human, need other humans to survive (or needed their help to survive until you could create an illusion of being totally self-reliant).  The octopus is so flexible in assessing new situations and has been so well-adapted through the whole of evolutionary history that it never was required to become social. It has avoided the convoluted complexities of social interaction due to a quirk of selective pressures. 


Cuttlefish have developed slightly differently. They compete for mates with elaborate displays.  Smaller males who can't compete with larger ones will "cross dress" to avoid conflict with large males and get closer to females.  So they have a slightly stronger social interaction.  They therefore must have had a high enough population density at some point in evolutionary history to trigger and reward competitive and seductive mating behaviors.  Cuttlefish will also turn their skin into an elaborate pulsating display to stun prey.  These displays are protomemetic communication, triggering instinctive responses in others that aid their survival and reproduction.   


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dolphins

Selective pressures usually oppose ever-larger brains.
Survival depends on the conservation of energy and big brains are calorie hogs.  Therefore big brains are rare.  They do things that (as far as we can tell) smaller brains don't have the computing power for. 

Dolphins have the capacity for abstract thought and complex memetic communication, complete with regional dialects.  How did such a brain develop?




Through the fossil record and genetics, we are able to piece together the development of Dolphins, like forensic scientists recreating a crime scene.  Thirty-nine million years ago, odontocetes (an order inclusive of toothed whales, beaked whales, sperm whales dolphins and porpoises) diverged from the ancestral Archaeoceti group.  For the ancestors of modern dolphins, body size decreased and brain size increased.  Echolocation emerged which helped locate food and networked individuals more effectively.  The interplay of selective pressures and the survival advantage created by these new survival strategies spurred the growth of the Dolphin brain.  This interplay led to another growth spurt around Fifteen million years ago.  The more a dolphin depended on communication to survive, the more environmental pressures selected for big brains.

Researchers are still trying to "crack the code" of Dolphin language, which due to its complex relationship with the ocean environment and Dolphin experience, has not been as easy to decipher as researchers in the 1960s had hoped.  But researchers are increasingly aware that when a problem seems unsolvable, it often means we need to approach it in a new way, asking different questions and questioning assumptions.





Dolphins are creatures like us, who clearly have memetic communication built on top of protomemetic communication.  Understanding the protomemetic framework which creates structure for memetic communication is our first step in decoding Dolphin language. 




Monday, October 20, 2014

Do You Remember Dinosaurs? (A Fun Sidenote on Memetics)




Dinosaurs was on air when I was in preschool, and Dad just loved it.  That's what I'd started to call him, "Dad" instead of "Daddy".  My oldest brother was home from college and wouldn't play along with calling him "Daddy" anymore.  (Can you blame him?)


When I asked my brother why he called Daddy that, he said "Daddy" was ok for a little kid but he's grown up, so he calls Daddy "Dad".  I thought, "I'm not little!"  So I started calling Daddy "Dad" and Mommy "Mom".


Dad liked Dinosaurs because it was about an average working guy with a well-educated, liberal wife, two teenagers and a baby and of course, the grandma.  We were a multigenerational family too. 


I just loved the show!  It looked almost like Sesame Street, only with a lot of Oscar the Grouches and all the big people watched it.  I wanted to be big too!  So every time Dad watched Dinosaurs I'd go into the living room. 


Pretty soon the predictable happened.   After all, I was the baby of the family and the star attraction of the show was: Baby.  I started picking up on Baby's bad habits like doing something mildly destructive then saying "I'm the baby, gotta love me!"


There was a girl sitting next to my second brother on the couch.  She had blond hair and a nice smile.  I stood in front of them, leaned into my brother and said, "So, are you gonna kiss her?"  He turned beet red and made a quick exit.  Maybe she was a baby sitter?  Who knows. 


Long story short my bed time was moved to half an hour earlier & I started sneaking downstairs to watch Dinosaurs from the stairwell.  Mom or Grandma would catch me and send me back to bed.  And so the narrative was created and stuck, that Dinosaurs was something for big people that I was not allowed to have yet. 


So, when I started school and the teacher asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn't say a princess or a firefighter, I said "Dinosaurs.  I want to watch Dinosaurs!"  And that was my introduction to paleontology and all those cool dino names and dreaming of excavations in our backyard to resurrect the bones and bring the characters to life.  By the time  I was in first grade, the idea of the TV show had melted away but the love-affair with everything prehistoric was hopelessly implanted forever in my brain.  It helped me fall in love with time travel stories and creative writing, Einstein, Geoscience and the theory of natural selection. 


Morals of the story: 


Memes start implanting in our brains at the start of language acquisition, long before rational thought processes develop. 


Ideas grow, scaffolding onto existing ones, melding in complex ways even in extremely young brains.


Never assume someone is too young or too uninformed to take an interest in your subject, assume you're teaching it wrong. 


For memeticists and other scholars: Don't look down your nose at the artists and comedians.  They are your allies: they can reach audiences you will not. 



Saturday, October 18, 2014

Protomemes vs. Memes



I want to avoid endless coinage of terms because as mentioned previously, endlessly coining terms without a methodology for testing memetics just convolutes the conversation and wastes energy. 


However, when our minds get hung up on the improper use of a term or the lack of clear definitions, it becomes necessary to alter the dialogue with a little linguistic innovation.


Saying other living organisms have memes goes too far for some...it's  a deviation from the definition of meme (a bit that transmits culture).


Bacterial colonies and ant colonies do not have culture.


The chemical memes talked about earlier are transmitters.  They carry information from one individual to another, creating a network of communication and giving the network a stronger survival advantage than the individual.   But calling them real memes may be going too far.


Or perhaps we can call those chemical signals, body postures etc. "memes" but call the bits that form human culture "true memes" so we can tell them apart? 


(But then you get tangled up with the emotional weight applied to the word "true" and the devaluation of the regular "meme" which is widespread in nature and deserves equal attention).


So KISS me baby: Keep It Simple & Stupid.


Don't overcomplicate things if you don't have to.


This is what we'll do:


The chemical memes, postures, etc. which are network signals and form the scaffolding for cultural memes will be called "proto-memes" from now on.  This shows their pre-emergence and critical role of scaffold for human cultural memes.  The cultural memes we'll keep calling memes.  There we go, simple and devoid of emotional weight.  Let's keep going.