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Appendix A - The New Replicators 
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Post Appendix A - The New Replicators
I noticed that there wasn't a thread for this section, which is sort of a shame, because it gives a reasonably more in depth examination of the meme concept than provided elsewhere in the book. I'll have more to say on the subject later, but for the moment I'm running out of time.




Thu Jul 13, 2006 2:21 pm
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Post Re: Appendix A - The New Replicators
I've been thinking and talking about memes a lot in the last couple of days, and more and more I've come to the conclusion that an extensive discussion of the topic is going to be crucial to our understanding of Dennett's arguments. Memes have been popular fodder for biological discussion of culture in the last decade or so, but I get the sense that both writers and readers have played loosely with the idea, resulting in some serious misunderstandings.

Anyway, here's a start towards understanding the proper application, and the misuse, of memes.

Notes...
One problem in the application of evolutionary theory to cultural features lies in Darwin's second term, as provided by Dennett's "Encyclopedia of Evolution" article (p. 341 of "Breaking the Spell"), namely that evolution requires "a severe struggle for life." I'm not at all sure that the conditions in which memes exist really qualify. Dennett and Dawkins do a poor job of distinguishing between volitional conflict -- eg. life struggling to sustain itself -- and impelled conflict -- eg. words are brought into struggle. I'm not even certain it makes sense to speak of bringing cultural tokens into struggle: are synonymous words really in competition with one another? That's a crucial distincion, I think -- memes must be regarded as being wholly operated upon rather than essentially operative. Genes, on the other hand, are operative, self-impelled. Living things really do struggle to survive; the fact that memes do not, cannot, is bound to effect our interpretation of their existence (if we're inclined to grant them existence).

That brings us to a second, more important consideration: what are memes. Dennett provides a definition that is essentially a defense of the idea, but he omits a very important feature. Memes are nothing if not unit of retrospection. That is, we recognize any given token of information or culture as a meme only after it has persisted for some time. To some extent, the same is true of genes; that's a point made explicit in Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", but which gets lost because most people talk about genes as something discrete in contemporaneous situtions. They're not; a gene is a variable unit that we fabricate in order to demarcate segments of DNA which are relatively stable in transmission over multiple generations. The same is true of memes, but that similarity shouldn't mask the differences while it does point to the limitations of the meme as a concept. Two important differences, I would say, are the problem of embodiment -- genes are always associated with the material of DNA, even if that association lacks precise numerical definition -- and the operational problem mentioned above. Dennett raises the question of embodiment, and acknowledges the complication it introduces, but doesn't treat it as a serious threat to the validity of the meme. Later on, I'll give some reasons for thinking that it does. As for the operational problem, we can put it in more precise terms. DNA is important in the biological scheme because it encodes a set of instructions for growing bodies. Genes are expressions of discernable traits in the whole, important to the evolutionary perspective primarily because they can be passed as relatively unity blocks from parent to offspring. Can the same be said for memes? Is there such an easily definable operation for memes, or does their use vary according to implementation? And assuming that difference, how can we maintain the analogy between genes and memes.

Leading to a third point: that memes as a concept are justified by their use. The idea was coined in order to make cultural features amenable to the methods of evolutionary biology. This was done by constructing an analogy between tokens of culture or information (birdsong, language tokens, recurring images, etc) and genes as arbiters of physiological information. But how much variance are we to permit between the terms of that analogy before we're compelled to reject the analogy altogether? In other words, if it turns out that cultural tokens are really quite unlike genes, then are we really justified in maintaining memes as a functional concept?

The functionality of the meme breaks down even more, I think, once you recognize that they don't self-replicate, and that they must, therefore, be taken as a rather small substrate of a much larger system. That makes them far more difficult to trace, to distinguish, to make use of. If their primary justification as a concept is to allow us to study the diffusion and proliferation of ideas, then inscrutible complexity makes for a serious objection to their implementation at all. And that brings us directly back to "Breaking the Spell", which is increasingly looking like an attempt to follow the "God" meme -- a project that Dawkins suggested in "The Selfish Gene".




Sat Jul 15, 2006 1:30 pm
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Post Impelled or Compelled, Does It Make A Difference?
MA: Dennett and Dawkins do a poor job of distinguishing between volitional conflict -- eg. life struggling to sustain itself -- and impelled conflict -- eg. words are brought into struggle.

I'm not certain if impelled conflict makes sense either. Being impelled means being urged or forced to action through moral pressure. To say that words can be impelled would imply moral sensitivity within linguistic structures. If words are impersonal units of language, then how can they carry personal moral characteristics? Do words decide courses of action, weigh alternatives, wrestle with their consciences, feel guilt, embrassment, shame, pleasure or pain? Still, there may be room for compelled conflict where forces of attraction or repulsion are at work with words or cultural artifacts.

MA: That's a crucial distincion, I think -- memes must be regarded as being wholly operated upon rather than essentially operative.

If we replace impelled with compelled, and posit a force of attraction or repulsion between memes, wouldn't that mean they can be operative? Perhaps linguistic structures strike chords, create reverberation, generate responses within a receptor which operate below/beyond conscious attention? In other words, they are operational but neither impelled or volitional?

We don't have to posit personal choice or moral conscience within these structures, but we can see the possibility of compelled responses between structures. Could part of the compelled responses involve imitation or replication of one set of memes for another? Some responses may be nearly exact replications, or partial, or something altogether different.


Edited by: Dissident Heart at: 7/15/06 6:20 pm



Sat Jul 15, 2006 4:06 pm
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Post Re: Impelled or Compelled, Does It Make A Difference?
Dissident Heart: I'm not certain if impelled conflict makes sense either. Being impelled means being urged or forced to action through moral pressure.

Impelled can also have a morally neutral meaning, as in the second usage in this entry. But if it helps to clarify my point, you can go back and read "compelled" where I've used "impelled".

If words are impersonal units of language, then how can they carry personal moral characteristics?

That highlights another point I've been meaning to make, which is that one of the side-effects (or, possibly, intended consequences) of viewing cultural tokens as memes is that it divorces those tokens from both their content and meaning. To the evolutionary biologist, the meaning of an idiom is beside the point; what matters is only how that meme "self-replicates" itself, how well it persists in the struggle for continued existence. From that perspective, "units of language" may well seem impersonal, but I think that's rarely the case in actual usage and transmission.

The proliferation of the term "Rosebud" in Orson Welle's "Citizen Kane" might illustrate the point a little better. The mystery surrounding Kane's last word leads some people to conclude that its meaning is, ultimately, inconsequential. But all sorts of meaning surrounds it, almost all of it personal. The final shot of the film suggests (without explicitly articulating) its meaning to Kane, but equally as important to its proliferation is its meaning to the reporter-protagonist of the framing story. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that, because the meaning isn't shared, the word has no meaning to the reporter. But without the sense that it was important as a key to understanding a near-mythic figure of greatness, such an innocuous word wouldn't drive the man to embroil himself in the mystery of its meaning to Kane. And without the complex of associations summoned up by the movie itself -- and for those who haven't seen it, but the place in the broader culture taken by the movie -- I doubt that I could bring it up as an easily recognizable example.

I'm not sure the the perspective offered by memes can really take all that into account. It contents itself with "the fitness" of "rosebud" as a meme, and considers the possiblity that the meme might serve itself even as it works against the interests of the people who transmit it. I'd say that the proliferation of a token like "rosebud" is absurd without considering the personal meaning it takes on for the people who transmit it.

If we replace impelled with compelled, and posit a force of attraction or repulsion between memes, wouldn't that mean they can be operative?

What force of attraction or repulsion would that be? My contention is that the individual's attraction or repulsion to any facet of culture is as much the result of the associations they bring to bear as it is to anything within the "meme" itself. You have to bear in mind that memes, like genes, are only discernable (or rather, distinguishable) by looking retrospectively at the proliferation of a facet of culture over generations of its iteration. That broad, retrospective view tends to obscure the psychological forces at work.

We don't have to posit personal choice or moral conscience within these structures, but we can see the possibility of compelled responses between structures.

What compels the responses? As I see it, there are basically three available arguments. One is, the memes themselves, which is a suggestion that I see half-articulated here and there, but I'm not terribly sure how it would work -- I think the implication might arise merely as a consequence of the awkward perspective that the meme argument compels us to take. The second is, by our biological make-up. I think that accounts for our adequacy to cultural effects -- in other words, without a particular biological make-up, we couldn't fathom, say, language, or a tune, at all -- but the fluidity of cultural experience makes it dubious as an explanation for individual responses. To put it into perspective, why does a person have no reaction to any given meme (say, a line from a lovesong) one day, and some reaction the very next? I'm not suggesting that choice play an inordinate role in understanding these responses, but rather than associations on the level of personal experience and attitude better account for the differences in response from person to person and for differences in individual person over extended spans of time. And the third is, culture itself, which takes us into territory which suggests that we are inexorably conditioned to respond to culture in particular ways. But there are, I think good reasons to reject this sort of Pavlovian view of culture in particular instances, even if a statistical view makes it look as though people can be conditioned to behave in precise ways.




Sun Jul 16, 2006 12:57 pm
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Post Re: Impelled or Compelled, Does It Make A Difference?
MA: To the evolutionary biologist, the meaning of an idiom is beside the point; what matters is only how that meme "self-replicates" itself, how well it persists in the struggle for continued existence.

I think the use of struggle is limiting. Perhaps it's not entirely a struggle for existence (without denying the obvious examples where it does exist), but sheer exhuberance and overabundance...memes flowing, colliding, bombarding one another; redirecting the course of each other, forcing an imprint, creating a likeness and image with contact, dependent upon the force and repetition of impact?

Is it true that meaning is beside the point for the evolutionary biologist, or is it that conflicting meanings are always part of the equation? In other words, the initial memetic configuration (the intended meaning of the one initiating the idiom) will always generate competitive configurations alongside more conducive, less altering ones. The meaning may stay relatively consistent (dependent upon force, repetiton) or will transform into something different. Actually, unless we are willing to argue for exact replication, there will always be degrees of mutation in the configuration, thus no meaning is entirely consistent.

MA: It contents itself with "the fitness" of "rosebud" as a meme, and considers the possiblity that the meme might serve itself even as it works against the interests of the people who transmit it. I'd say that the proliferation of a token like "rosebud" is absurd without considering the personal meaning it takes on for the people who transmit it.

It may be that if we follow Dennet's memetic thesis completely, we are left with absurdity: language, meaning, culture, ideas...simply colliding memes rambling through space meaning nothing.

Something to be included with the personal meaning of the token transmitter is the personal meaning of the one who receives the token.

I think an important element in this discussion (surprise) is conflict within and between cultures, classes, genders, etc. The dominant class delivers a memetic configuration, for example Nigger, as a way to demarcate what is human, acceptable, clean, intelligent from what is beastly, repulsive, dirty, and stupid. This meme keeps groups of people in their proper places, at least as far as the dominant class determines it. It is meant to humiliate and disempower a class of people into continued submission.

The dominated class of people receive the meme in multiple ways. Some utilize it and believe it...they accept its original meaning and internalize the meme into their self-identity and submit to their humiliation and subjugation. Some disbelive it, but still utilize it with a different meaning...they reject its original intention and reconfigure its application as a term of endearment, with newfound solidarity, as an act of defiance against the dominant class who originated the memetic structure.

In the context of this dynamic, the memes in question can be shown to work against all of the persons who utilize them. Perhaps it can be marked down as simply poor judgement, terrorized subjugation or racist ignorance that keeps the meme in motion...or it could be the onslaught of a memetic tsunami that swallows entire populations and generations of people.

MA: My contention is that the individual's attraction or repulsion to any facet of culture is as much the result of the associations they bring to bear as it is to anything within the "meme" itself.

I think this brings us to a fundamental question regarding what it means to be a person, an individual. We are really trying to understand where culture stops and the individual starts, or vice versa. Who or what is the person that adopts or reconfigures the memetic structures that surround them? Of course, the word Person is a cultural token...and anthropologists have libraries of examples where this token means different things to different communtites.

I don't think this is necessarily a side track away from the issue. I do think where we draw the lines and make the borders for individual personhood profoundly shapes our entire take on this subject. I mean, a question worth asking is: is there really any Self responding to and reconfiguring memetic presentations in the world? Or is the Self just one more drop in the memetic ocean?

How you view the Self largely determines the three alternatives you offer for explaining responses between memes. If the Self is personally directed and self-propelled, then we know who the primary mover and agent is in the equation: the individual thinking, choosing, responding to alternatives, interpreting and reinterpreting meaning, finding value, making priorities, etc.

If that is the case, then we can agree with you that memes are entirely acted upon, not independent actors themselves. We can also agree that our biological make-up sets the parameters in which Self acts, but considering the wide variety of cultural expressions, there is something about Personal experience that is not entirely subject to biological necessity. Finally, even though cultural patterns and imprints are profound, they are not the best explanation for individual behaviors that escape statistical analysis.

How do we know the Self is an actual individual Person, and not a configuration of mutliple memetic structures, biological necessities, or cultural patterns?




Mon Jul 17, 2006 1:05 pm
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Post Re: Impelled or Compelled, Does It Make A Difference?
Dissident Heart: I think the use of struggle is limiting.

That's Dennett's term, not mine, and he's drawing it straight from Darwin. Memes are all about recasting elements of culture in the language of Darwinian evolution. By Dennett's definition, once you exclude the struggle for existence, you're no longer talking about memes.

Is it true that meaning is beside the point for the evolutionary biologist, or is it that conflicting meanings are always part of the equation?

Whether or not a meme has meaning for a particular host may factor into the biologists consideration, but the only meaning that matters in the instance of the meme is that of its fitness relative to other memes. That, as I understand it, is the great appeal of memes: that it allows you to examine culture in quantitative rather than qualitative terms, thus rendering it fit material of scientific experimentation and reasoning.

It may be that if we follow Dennet's memetic thesis completely, we are left with absurdity: language, meaning, culture, ideas...simply colliding memes rambling through space meaning nothing.

I'd say that's one definite possibility. I think it's also possible to reconceive memes, but that's likely to severely undercut their practical use. Once you start considering he permutations in meaning that occur every time another person picks up a meme, memes become nearly impossible to accurately trace -- is "Rosebud" the same meme when it occurs in a person who has seen "Citizen Kane" as it is in a person who has never seen the film but picked it up from a secondary source? If the meaning matters, then no, they're different despite their resemblance. And if the analogy that allows us to conceive memes as the cultural equivalent of genes is to play out, then I think it's necessary to recognize meaning as the function that allows for and promotes replication, just as the function of the traits built by genes promote their own replication by contributing to the fitness of the individual. It would be ridiculous to consider the replication of a gene for opposable thumbs without also considering the competitive advantage offered by that traits function. Why shouldn't the same be true of memes? Part of my contention here is that meaning is equivalent to function in the analogy between memes and genes. Dennett seems to be constructing his argument with the assumption that a meme can pass without meaning anything to its host, but so far I haven't seen any evidence that would convince me of that.




Mon Jul 17, 2006 6:06 pm
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Post Re: Appendix A - The New Replicators
MadArchitect stated that genes are active replicators and memes are not. Genes do not replicate. Genes and DNA are passive, just as a library without readers has no activity. It is RNA readers/constructors/copiers and enzymes that are the active participants. Without them, DNA is useless. Same with memes; they too are passive, until an active agent reads/instructionally constructs/or actively copies the memes.

The active agents for memes are human brains and in modern times, computer processors. Genes and Memes are uncaring bits of random information that are selected by the active agents and the environments. The agents and their current environment select the survivors. And even the survivors have an additional test of differential replication - one population gradually displacing another. And as in DNA, many genes get a free ride by not at all participating in construction of the body and merely get copied from one generation to another, just as packets of memes do. The one advantage to all those useless non-participating genes is it increases the "Hard Drive" size of DNA, and that random mutations can reactive inactive regions to come back into the game of selection. A larger "hard drive" increases the probability of some regions being reactivated through mutations.

There is a fundamental difference in genes and memes. Genes are highly evolved with great fidelity copying and proof-reading machinery and the precursors to DNA left no chemical fossils for us to observe. I believe the precursors to modern DNA were quite chaotic with poor fidelity just as memes are today and had many methods of replication. In due time the genetic mechanisms with higher fidelity in copying won out over the rest and wiped the evidence of the other options out of our view, leaving a deep mystery that Intelligent Designer proponents prey upon. The future generations of modern computers may create memes with high fidelity equivalent to today's genes, and, perhaps after the passing of man, will have obliterated all historical evidence to the ascension of modern high fidelity memes that may some day question their origins.

Modern memes will have instructions for "readers" to replicate machines to hold more copies of binary memes. In some sense we are almost there. Man and crude machines do exactly that today. But I am talking of a future of nanotechnology where self contained machines can replicate independently and evolve more rapidly than life and take advantage of new substrates of existence, such as outer space and inhospitable planets. They can also send "seeds" that will travel at sub-light speed and can endure immense time and long term exposure to radiation. Once they set up "camp", they will connect to the cosmic Internet to relay and receive information and become one large organism. Man is long gone and obsolete at this point.

But in order to kick start this, man must survive the coming bottleneck of resource and energy depletion in this century. If we do not, we go back to the primitive stone and iron age and start over with tiny scattered populations that may be genetically unstable. The memes that ride with us will have to wait another day to break free of genes, if ever.

Memetically yours

Monty Vonn
Meme Wars!




Sun Jul 30, 2006 12:26 pm
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Post Re: Appendix A - The New Replicators
Actually, I think a great deal of the discussion concerning memes can find practical application in the spread of information over a relatively stable system like the Internet. And I have very little objection to the application of the meme model to Internet diffusion. But the meme model becomes so complicated when applied to other systems -- like that of human minds and social interaction -- and even more so across systems -- as when we talk of memes passing from language to visual media, as to render the entire model completely unusable save as a rhetorical tool. And I think that's how it's being applied in most cases. In fact, I'd say that Dennett's book serves well enough as an example of the meme models use as a rhetorical tool. He spends the first third of the book exhorting religious believers to consider religion through the lens of scientific enquiry, but thereafter the bulk of the book seems dedicated to conjecturing about religion in reference to a model that is all but inapplicable in actual experimentation.

A few comments in reply to Meme Wars' last post:
Meme Wars: MadArchitect stated that genes are active replicators and memes are not. Genes do not replicate. Genes and DNA are passive, just as a library without readers has no activity. It is RNA readers/constructors/copiers and enzymes that are the active participants. Without them, DNA is useless. Same with memes; they too are passive, until an active agent reads/instructionally constructs/or actively copies the memes.

You have a good point, there, but it doesn't strike me as entirely contrary to the point I was trying to make. DNA and RNA are part of an integrated system, and even if we reject the loose statement that genes are self-replicating (which is, after all, Dennett's claim; not mine) we may at least take it as short hand for noting that genes are part of a larger, discernable system that is self-replicating. Even Dennett himself is willing to admit that memes are part of no such easily definable system. A system may be implied between a meme and a computer, or a meme and a mind, but that system is hardly integrated such that the functions of information storage and replication are inseperable from one another without destroying the systems viability as a self-replicating unit. Moreover, the existence of such a system, in this case, depends on the definition of the meme, which is in no ways as obvious as the existence of the gene -- and the existence of the gene is, itself, far from obvious save in the continuum of recent biological history.

All of which is to say that the issue here is that of self-replication. To say that the gene itself is not self-replicating only obscures the question: in Dennett's article, the viability of the meme model is premised in part on the assertion that memes are, like genes, "self-replicating". To say that genes are not "self-replicating" only pulls the carpet our from underneath Dennett's entire argument.

[Future?] memes will have instructions for "readers" to replicate machines to hold more copies of binary memes. In some sense we are almost there. Man and crude machines do exactly that today. But I am talking of a future of nanotechnology where self contained machines can replicate independently and evolve more rapidly than life and take advantage of new substrates of existence, such as outer space and inhospitable planets.

In that case, I see no reason not to treat those "memes" as machine equivalents to genes. But only in that case. The scenario you're describing is one in which there is an integrated, unitary relationship between the stored information and the mode of replication. The stored information will, in fact, have some agency in its own replication in that it will contain instructions motivating that replication and describing its procedure, just as the genome provides the instructions for the replication of the entire system in which they are contained.

And it should be recognized that the scenario we're describing here is an emasculated form of the meme model as presented by Dennett and Dawkins. The rhetorical use of the meme model as they present it depends on the diffusion and conflict of "wild memes". They've introduced memes into their arguments in order to make the diffusion and survival of ideas in human culture amenable to the methods of biological science, the first step of which is to divorce the structure of the idea from its content and meaning. Once you start talking about limiting memes to unitary systems of replication, you take the ball out of their court. That is, in order to make memes self-replicating in the same sense that Dennett talks about genes being self-replicating, you incidentally strip the idea of its original rhetorical application. The meme model would still be useful (or would become fully useful, as I think it's too unwieldy in its current unlimited form to have much practical application) as a way of understanding the diffusion and development of information in these relatively closed systems, but its application to general cultural traits would still be dubious at best, and would likely suffer by comparison to the far more precise study of self-replicating digital machine systems.




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Le GuinThe Genius of the Beast by Howard BloomAlice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll Empire of Illusion by Chris HedgesThe Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner The Extended Phenotype by Richard DawkinsSmoke and Mirrors by Neil GaimanThe Selfish Gene by Richard DawkinsWhen Good Thinking Goes Bad by Todd C. RinioloHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. DanielewskiAmerican Gods: A Novel by Neil GaimanPrimates and Philosophers by Frans de WaalThe Enormous Room by E.E. CummingsThe Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar WildeGod Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher HitchensThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama Paradise Lost by John Milton Bad Money by Kevin PhillipsThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson BurnettGodless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists by Dan BarkerThe Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienThe Limits of Power by Andrew BacevichLolita by Vladimir NabokovOrlando by Virginia Woolf On Being Certain by Robert A. Burton50 reasons people give for believing in a god by Guy P. HarrisonWalden: Or, Life in the Woods by Henry David ThoreauExile and the Kingdom by Albert CamusOur Inner Ape by Frans de WaalYour Inner Fish by Neil ShubinNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThe Age of American Unreason by Susan JacobyTen Theories of Human Nature by Leslie Stevenson & David HabermanHeart of Darkness by Joseph ConradThe Stuff of Thought by Stephen PinkerA Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled HosseiniThe Lucifer Effect by Philip ZimbardoResponsibility and Judgment by Hannah ArendtInterventions by Noam ChomskyGodless in America by George A. RickerReligious Expression and the American Constitution by Franklyn S. HaimanDeep Economy by Phil McKibbenThe God Delusion by Richard DawkinsThe Third Chimpanzee by Jared DiamondThe Woman in the Dunes by Abe KoboEvolution vs. Creationism by Eugenie C. ScottThe Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanI, Claudius by Robert GravesBreaking The Spell by Daniel C. DennettA Peace to End All Peace by David FromkinThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey NiffeneggerThe End of Faith by Sam HarrisEnder's Game by Orson Scott CardThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonValue and Virtue in a Godless Universe by Erik J. WielenbergThe March by E. L DoctorowThe Ethical Brain by Michael GazzanigaFreethinkers: A History of American Secularism by Susan JacobyCollapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared DiamondThe Battle for God by Karen ArmstrongThe Future of Life by Edward O. WilsonWhat is Good? by A. C. GraylingCivilization and Its Enemies by Lee HarrisPale Blue Dot by Carl SaganHow We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God by Michael ShermerLooking for Spinoza by Antonio DamasioLies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them by Al FrankenThe Red Queen by Matt RidleyThe Blank Slate by Stephen PinkerUnweaving the Rainbow by Richard DawkinsAtheism: A Reader edited by S.T. JoshiGlobal Brain by Howard BloomThe Lucifer Principle by Howard BloomGuns, Germs and Steel by Jared DiamondThe Demon-Haunted World by Carl SaganBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee BrownFuture Shock by Alvin Toffler

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