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Ch. 11 - Memes: the new replicators 
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geo wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
Consider the origins of Christianity. The mythicist view is that the Gospels are a fiction that was written in Alexandria with the conscious express purpose of establishing a new religion by inventing a mythical saviour who would press all the buttons needed for mass appeal.



I have always suspected that Jesus was a real person the same way Robin Hood was a real person. The man who became "Robin Hood" existed, but his real life story was likely much more mundane and it has been embellished to the point where it has become complete fiction. It seems to me that for a myth to have that kind of staying power it probably started as something more or less true. Part of the appeal would be that it really happened. And only through the retelling process, the Chinese whispers Robert speaks of, does it become increasingly fictionalized.

We see that today in movies or books that purport to be "based on true events." The authors invent dialogue and add events to help the story along. Actors will probably look nothing like their real life counterparts. The story is more fiction than fact even before it leaves the storyboard. And, yet, people are intrigued because it is passed off as true.

I suspect we will never know if Jesus really existed. I still think a real man probably served as a template for him—maybe a rabble rouser just as Robin Hood was—but we will never know for sure. On the other hand, it seems not so unlikely that a religion could be completely fabricated. Look at scientology, which is so bizarre and sci-fi-esque that it could have been made up by a science fiction writer. Oh right, it was.


I have had a number of liberal Christians (even clergy) relate a similar belief. They often propose that the story of Jesus is truthful even if not factual. It's a philosophy that at first blush seemed like total BS. I did some reading on it and thought that the argument might have some merit, but then after contemplating it a while I'm back to thinking it's rationalizing with semantics.

I'm curious what others think of this argument and of what Dawkins might think og it.


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Thu Oct 22, 2009 8:53 am
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I'm sure characteristics were taken from a person or many people to fabricate the man, even if it was just a random dude the author had in his head while writing that part of the bible. This is how writers create characters. I don't think there was ever a Jesus as legitimate as there was a Robin Hood. There's way too much fairy tale and fabrication.



Thu Oct 22, 2009 10:42 am
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Interbane wrote:
I'm sure characteristics were taken from a person or many people to fabricate the man, even if it was just a random dude the author had in his head while writing that part of the bible. This is how writers create characters. I don't think there was ever a Jesus as legitimate as there was a Robin Hood. There's way too much fairy tale and fabrication.


Right. If there was a Jesus or some guy who perhaps fell afoul of the Roman authorities, the story ended up being seriously embellished. People like a good story anyway, but once those with a religious agenda got involved all semblance of truth would have been compromised additionally by emotional bias.

The other possibility is that the story was written down precisely as it happened. Miracles and other impossibilities aside, it would probably be the first accurate history ever written down. :mrgreen:

Likewise, there is little or no evidence to support Robin Hood's historical existence.

From Wiki: ". . . The oldest references to Robin Hood are not historical records, or even ballads recounting his exploits, but hints and allusions found in various works. From 1228 onwards the names 'Robinhood', 'Robehod' or 'Hobbehod' occur in the rolls of several English Justices. The majority of these references date from the late 13th century. Between 1261 and 1300 there are at least eight references to 'Rabunhod' in various regions across England, from Berkshire in the south to York in the north.[22]

The term seems to be applied as a form of shorthand to any fugitive or outlaw. Even at this early stage, the name Robin Hood is used as that of an archetypal criminal. . .


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Thu Oct 22, 2009 12:43 pm
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For what it's worth, I'm going to try to post some of my thoughts about the last few chapters of The Selfish Gene before starting The Extended Phenotype. I usually hate to highlight or mark books in any way, but I underlined a lot in this book, either ideas that seemed provocative or simply when Dawkins shows us really interesting ways of looking at things.

The idea that Dawkins leaves us with at the end Ch. 11 is one he brought up earlier: that we can rebel against our selfish genes and by doing so behave in a genuinely altruistic manner. For someone like Dawkins, this idea seems almost ridiculously optimistic.

"We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a 'conspiracy of doves', and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."

I would say the challenge of conspiring against our selfish genes is the "sit down and discuss" part. The world is getting smaller, but political boundaries remain formidable obstacles to cooperation across borders. In the past, world wars have provided the impetus for individual nations to come together and work towards a common goal. Currently we're seeing an interesting phenomenon with global warming—a collective desire across nations to reduce greenhouse emissions. It seems that we've propagated (through memetic means, Dwill?) the idea that there is at least a potential danger of a global warming threat. But actual solutions to the problem remain out of reach. Dawkins has mentioned that using birth control as an individual way of rebelling against our selfish genes. It seems to me at a time where environmental degradation is so widespread and species are vanishing that reducing our numbers would be a true altruistic move for the human race (or at least a long-term survival strategy).


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geo wrote:
Dawkins has mentioned that using birth control as an individual way of rebelling against our selfish genes. It seems to me at a time where environmental degradation is so widespread and species are vanishing that reducing our numbers would be a true altruistic move for the human race (or at least a long-term survival strategy).

Let's see, at your tender age, Geo, can you remember Stewart Brand, the guy who launched The Whole Earth Catalogue in the late 60s? He's still around, actually, and has a new book in which he says some surprising things, for a counter-culture type. One of them is that the population problem is not to worry about, because population-wise the trends are negative worldwide (or soon will be.) So the population will level out by the end of the century. Maybe not decline, though.

I am struck, too, by Dawkins' lack of belief in genetic determinism, at least regarding how we will act toward each other and the environment. He knows more than almost anyone about genetics, and regards the nuts and bolts of it as binding on every creature. Yet in contrast to those who are more ignorant of genetics, this does not make him say we're doomed to act in accordance with our blindly self-propagating genes. Do you think he's forcing this cheerful face a bit? I think it is an act of beauty whenever we do act against biological programming geared toward individual survival or success.



Thu Oct 22, 2009 7:18 pm
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Robert Tulip wrote:
I think you over-estimate the power of individuality.

Perhaps. But when you include the element of the intensity or strength of the belief along with differences in understandings, I think the variations are numerous. Meme theory can't account for the variation in intensity, can it?-- a variation that is enormously significant.
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Conformist societies encourage everyone to be the same, and have been quite successful in this. Group identity has a powerful evolutionary attraction.

Are you advocating group selection, against Dawkins and modern genetic theory? Oops, I see from the lines below in your post that you are. I also personally do not believe that any goal-directed behavior such as that of humans can be under the influence of evolution in a Darwinian sense (which is the only sense in which I wish we'd use the word!)

I've done my ranting against memes and should desist. Can it suffice to say that, since memes have not been shown to be a scientific idea, to use that terminology is equivalent to the choice of applying a certain critical theory in interpreting literature? The critic is using a lens which he or she believes illuminates meaning. But it is an option to do so, and for one to not follow suit just reflects a different taste.



Thu Oct 22, 2009 7:44 pm
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DWill wrote:
Let's see, at your tender age, Geo, can you remember Stewart Brand, the guy who launched The Whole Earth Catalogue in the late 60s? He's still around, actually, and has a new book in which he says some surprising things, for a counter-culture type. One of them is that the population problem is not to worry about, because population-wise the trends are negative worldwide (or soon will be.) So the population will level out by the end of the century. Maybe not decline, though.


I do vaguely recall the Whole Earth Catalog, DWill. Never heard of Brand though.

Yes, it's true that birth rates are falling all over the place, even in some developing countries where you would not expect to see such a trend. I think the UN is predicting population to reach a plateau of 9.2 billion souls in 2050. Unfortunately that's almost 2.5 billion souls more people than are currently alive. That's a lot of people. But really you could hardly expect a faster transition to zero population growth. That's only forty years away.

In another story, zero population growth will supposedly wreak havoc on the world's economic systems, so either way we're in for a rough ride.

From strictly an environmental angle, someone could make the argument that the world is already well past its carrying capacity. (If that's true, we'll find out soon enough.) Maybe an optimum number of humans could be worked out, say half of the current number. Population targets would be set and people would happily work together for the sake of the planet to reach those goals. That seems to make sense, although seemingly impossible to carry out.

DWill wrote:
I am struck, too, by Dawkins' lack of belief in genetic determinism, at least regarding how we will act toward each other and the environment. He knows more than almost anyone about genetics, and regards the nuts and bolts of it as binding on every creature. Yet in contrast to those who are more ignorant of genetics, this does not make him say we're doomed to act in accordance with our blindly self-propagating genes. Do you think he's forcing this cheerful face a bit? I think it is an act of beauty whenever we do act against biological programming geared toward individual survival or success.


Dawkins strikes me as someone with a rather internal locus of control. The knowledge of genetics and the humans species from an individual gene perspective is empowering. Did you get that feeling while reading this book? I think that's why Dawkins occasionally comes out with these "well, we could direct our species if we wanted to" mentality. He has already mentioned that we could increase our lifespans if we could only all agree not to have children until much later in life. But I guess these are only mind experiments. That kind of cooperation between humans goes against our genetic programming. There are no feasible ways to make that happen that I can see, but who knows?


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Thu Oct 22, 2009 8:45 pm
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DWill wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
I think you over-estimate the power of individuality.

Perhaps. But when you include the element of the intensity or strength of the belief along with differences in understandings, I think the variations are numerous. Meme theory can't account for the variation in intensity, can it?-- a variation that is enormously significant.
Memetics is about the evolution of ideas and beliefs. Hence the fact that a belief is held with great intensity by some and with little intensity by others is a feature of the memetic map, how the phenotype of the meme plays out in the world.
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Conformist societies encourage everyone to be the same, and have been quite successful in this. Group identity has a powerful evolutionary attraction.

Are you advocating group selection, against Dawkins and modern genetic theory? Oops, I see from the lines below in your post that you are. I also personally do not believe that any goal-directed behavior such as that of humans can be under the influence of evolution in a Darwinian sense

Yes, DWill I am advocating group selection, and argue that rationality is evidence of human group selection. As the main mutation which produced homo sapien, group selection through rationality seems to me to have a good case. The issue now is that group selection on a global scale is needed to prevent human extinction. Clearly, a gene for group preservation would be superior to its allele. We have such genes that form our brains.

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memes have not been shown to be a scientific idea
Memes have been shown to be scientific. Logically, the paths by which an idea evolves and mutates are memetic. We can map these paths to see how the laws of evolution constrain the evolution of ideas. Etymology is a memetic science - seeing how words evolve over time while holding either a stable or a changing meaning.



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Robert Tulip wrote:
Yes, DWill I am advocating group selection, and argue that rationality is evidence of human group selection.


Dawkins gives the example of the welfare state which is seen as "unnatural" meaning it goes against our selfish nature. The welfare state promotes group selection. Most of us would probably agree it's a good thing and an important function of society to take care of those who need it.

Edit: As for genetic determinism, isn't that becoming obsolete in the human race? Aren't we changing things so fast that only a meme-based system can keep up. Maybe our genetic evolution has reached its apex and it's up to us to move forward ("memetic determinism?" If we don't it seems we're going to crash and burn. Maybe it's not knowledge of evolution which Dawkins mentions as the turning point of a species, but some point in time when species takes charge of its own destiny.


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Fri Oct 23, 2009 8:29 am
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