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  Meme theory: Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?
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   Author  Topic: Meme theory: Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?  (Read 12357 times)
David Lucifer

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Meme theory: Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?
« on: 2012-07-14 11:55:07 »
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Mankind's greatest inventions are all the result of individual flashes of inspiration – or are
they? Jonnie Hughes argues that, instead, ideas are subject to evolutionary principles, and
we humans are little more than their hosts.

author: Jonnie Hughes
date: Saturday, 14 July 2012
source: The Independent

Do you have ideas, or do ideas have you? What exactly are ideas? Are they divine sparks of
inspiration, the accidental by-products of our weird ape brains, neuronal fireworks displays
that find meaning in our lives – or are they more than all these things?

One idea that I've spent the past three years of my life investigating is that ideas are, to a
very real extent, 'alive' in their own right – surviving, reproducing, evolving, going extinct,
just like living things.

It sounds a harmless proposition, but the implications are quite startling. If ideas are just like
living things, then they are subject to Darwinian rules – inherently selfish entities, doing
anything and everything they must to survive and propagate. And in this scenario, what are
we? Little more than their hosts, their habitats? Vehicles to carry them from one parasitic
generation to the next, coerced accomplices to their wild ambitions? If this idea has any
substance at all, it will upset a lot of people.

It's not my idea, you understand. 'Meme theory', as it has been labelled, evolved in the minds
of people including biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett and psychologist
Susan Blackmore, years before it entered mine. But at some point I, too, became infected
and, in 2009, I decided to do what every good vehicle should do and take its passenger for a

Like Darwin, I ventured abroad, into the cultural wilderness of America, to search out firsthand
evidence that ideas are subject to natural selection. As I crossed the prairies, I
classified the changing moustaches of farmers, plotted the evolution of the cowboy hat,
dated American barns, and charted a taxonomy of tepees. In doing so, I found the evidence I
needed to suggest that ideas do evolve just like the finches and tortoises that Darwin
discovered in the Galapagos.

What's more, I found that viewing our world through 'meme goggles' is like suddenly spotting
that vase in the optical illusion with the two faces. Your focus shifts from the human beings
to the things in between – the countless living ideas that skip through our seven billion
brains, each one competing for space in our cerebrums and the chance to procreate through
our tongue and wrist movements. The mêlée of a new form of life is revealed. It's quite a
view! Let me give you a few glimpses, with examples from my notebook.

The cowboy hat

A great demonstration of the logic of meme theory comes when you ask the question "Where
did the idea for the cowboy hat come from?". There are three answers to this question, each
more provocative than the last.

The textbook answer is that John Batterson Stetson invented the cowboy hat in the 1860s
after joining the gold rush to Colorado. The son of a hatter, Stetson noticed the Wild West
was short of bespoke headwear. At that time, cowboys had a choice of floppy felt hats,
raccoon skins or Derbies. None were perfect for a life in which the rain, wind, dust, sun and
cold took turns to torment. So Stetson stitched together fur felts to make a wide-brimmed
hat with a tall crown. It looked ridiculous, but it was stiff, waterproof, and cool. He marketed
it as 'The Boss of the Plains' and it took the West by storm.

Answer number two: the fact is, The Boss of the Plains didn't look anything like the cowboy
hat we know today. The crown was a uniform dome, with no peaks or dents. The brim was
flat, no rolled edges. So Stetson didn't invent the cowboy hat – the cowboys must have.
The crucial factor is that The Boss was a pricey hat, so each cowboy only ever bought one.
They were worn until they fell apart – each night under the stars, rolling the brim, each "yeehaw"
denting the crown.

Soon enough, in the railhead towns, all the true cowboys wore
battered hats, so an aesthetic was born that represented the untamed West – the pursed,
rolled cowboy hat. Anyone wanting to blend in had to have one. Stetson and other
manufacturers obliged, evolving their ranges over the years to reflect this desire. What we
regard today as the cowboy hat is a product of the climate, the hard Western life and the
purchasing selections of a hundred thousand cowboys.
Answer number three: who invented the tiger? No one. The environment, by acting upon
thousands of generations of proto-tigers, selecting some and not others, for whatever
reasons, created the tiger we know today. That's how meme goggles see the invention of
the cowboy hat.

Upon production, Stetson's hat entered a design journey through the selections of a century
of cowboys. But it would be wrong to think that the cowboys collectively planned the route.
They chose their hats for 'whatever reasons' – practical considerations, aesthetic
judgements, unfathomable yearnings – no two selections alike. The hat simply bounced
through this environment, its form changing subtly for forgotten reasons with each
generation. End result: a mindless, unplanned ascent to the hat we know today.
Through meme goggles, no one invented the cowboy hat. If anything, it invented itself.

The American barn

The history of the cowboy hat suggests how idea selection comes about, but what about
idea variation, the second vital ingredient of Darwinian evolution. Without variation, after all,
there is nothing to select.

As I drove across the plains, a perfect case of idea variation materialised on the side of the
highway, with examples every few miles – the American barn. American barns are icons of the
West – big, often red, their doors at the gable end, their roofs crooked in cross-section, like
a broken stick. It's an ingenious design because the roof maximises the volume of storage
space available for crops to overwinter. Where did it come from? The American barn is a
composite of the barns the Germans and English built on the east coast, with a crooked roof
borrowed from Dutch houses for good measure.

But although the mongrel barns on the highway are clearly now the same 'species', no two
are exactly alike. They have differing door designs, roof lengths, window heights, build
materials. What causes this variation? The normal response is to say they vary because the
farmers wanted them to vary. But, once again, these goggles question that assumption.
Most of the barns I see are pre-industrial, 'raised' by a community, rather than designed by
an architect. Picture the scene at one of these barn-raisings: dozens of men and women,
some with experience, others without; plenty with strong opinions on what to do when. As
the barn goes up, these opinions will be voiced, discussions entertained, decisions made. The
availability of funds and building materials, the lie of the land, the wind direction will all play
their part.

Ultimately, the barn will come together only upon the negotiation of all these opinions and
contributing factors – a unique barn realised imperfectly: the result of a never-to-be
repeated interplay between competing instructions, the peculiarities of the environment and
a pinch of good old-fashioned randomness – just like you or I.


Coca-Cola is perhaps even more American than apple pie, and the reason for this tells us
something about the ways ideas inhabit our brains. Invented as a non-alcoholic version of a
French 'coca wine' (cocaine and wine, together at last) by John Pemberton in 1886 upon the
passing of a prohibition law in Georgia, its potential began to be realised only when Asa
Candler founded the Coca-Cola Company in 1889 to market the product. Candler understood
that the key to selling a product was not the quality of the product, but the quality of the
idea of the product. He made certain that the Coca-Cola brand was visible in as many places
as possible – on buildings, on ashtrays, on bumper stickers – so that Coke would become part
of America's routine experience. Today, Coke now stands for America, or the idea of America.
The power of this association is revealed by MRI scanners. Measure the activity of the brain's
pleasure centre as people drink different colas, and Coke comes way down the list. But
measure the prefrontal cortex – the centre for self-identity – and it lights up like a candle.
Coke remains number one not because it's more pleasurable, but because Candler's brand is
the one we associate with our personality.

The American accent

Inheritance is the third vital ingredient of Darwin's evolution. Whenever I opened my mouth
on my pilgrimage through America, a significant component of my cultural inheritance became
apparent. Whereas they say "Pass the budder", I say "Pahss the butta".
We all collectively inherit accents as mindlessly as we collectively select hats or bring about
variations in barns. We unthinkingly imitate the muscle movements that create the word
sounds that surround us when we're young. Americans sound like Americans because they
were raised among Americans.

In some ways, today's Americans sound more like yesterday's English than today's English. In
the 17th century, when the American colonies were formed, almost all English accents were
'rhotic', meaning that they pronounced the letter 'r' like a pirate. It is our accent that has
'drifted' in the interim, turning mainly non-rhotic as our association with the soft-tongued
Europeans grew. By the time the Antipodes was colonised, our 'r' sounds had all but
disappeared, hence the Australian accent is non-rhotic too. In the States, only New England,
which had a tight relationship with Britain into the 18th century, lost their 'r's with us.

The tepee

Looking at hats, barns, accents and soft drinks, it's possible to see how Darwin's evolution
could be at work in the secret world of ideas. But how do they all come together to create
the grand patterns that Darwin found in the biosphere? Can we discern a cultural 'tree of

I reckon I've found one branch – a radiation of tepees equivalent to the radiation of Darwin's
finches. Every one of the 20-plus Indian tribes on the Great Plains has a unique tepee. They
vary in their arrangement of poles, their doorways, the design of their cover, the shape of
their smoke flaps, and a dozen other ways. But this variation is different to the variation in
American barns. The differing traits of the 20-plus tepees never intermingle – there are no
mongrel tepees – they are all separate 'species'. The obvious question is, "Why so many
varieties?" and "Is there no such thing as the perfect tepee?".

Again, it's tempting to suggest that, for whatever reason, the tepees were designed to be
different by the Indians themselves – that human ingenuity was in the driving seat. But if
ideas do evolve like living things, the isolation of the tribes alone would account for much of
this radiation. Separated from each other by language, geography or distrust, the Plains
tribes were scattered like an archipelago of cultural islands. As Darwin discovered, a
foundation species will radiate into a cluster of daughter species in such circumstances, and
so it is here.

Which is why, towards the end of my trip, I could wander the pop-up town of the Tepee
Festival at Crow Reservation in Montana, spotting the tepees of different tribes. The Crow
tepees reached skyward with flailing poles, their foliage intact. The Sioux tepees were squat
and trim, with special pockets for their smoke flap poles. The Blackfoot tepees were broad
and proud, decorated in wild dyes and flashy iconography.

And standing there in front of these remarkable manifestations of culture, I flipped back from
focusing on the vase to again focusing on the human faces. The Plains Indians wandering the
festival, proud, happy, rightly celebrating their culture – they, as we, are the perfect idea
machines: huge memories for storage, equipped with scintillating communication tools and an
insatiable desire to share ideas. If the countless species of living ideas were to get together
to design a creature to help them propagate, they couldn't build a better one. And maybe
that's no coincidence. We are all idea junkies. Perhaps the ideas, which have inhabited our
minds since those early days in East Africa, have made sure of that. (Just an idea.)
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Re:Meme theory: Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?
« Reply #1 on: 2012-07-16 22:55:31 »
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Quote from: David Lucifer on 2012-07-14 11:55:07   

Mankind's greatest inventions are all the result of individual flashes of inspiration – or are
they? Jonnie Hughes argues that, instead, ideas are subject to evolutionary principles, and
we humans are little more than their hosts.

author: Jonnie Hughes
date: Saturday, 14 July 2012
source: The Independent

Do you have ideas, or do ideas have you? What exactly are ideas? Are they divine sparks of
inspiration, the accidental by-products of our weird ape brains, neuronal fireworks displays
that find meaning in our lives – or are they more than all these things?<snip>
<snip>have made sure of that. (Just an idea.)

[fritz]I really like this idea and Googling "ideas are subject to evolutionary principles" provides and endless list of hits from a multitude of place discussing this idea. Kinda of a recursive inclusion if you will

But then all at once I found myself giggling like a little school girl when my mind went a step to the left. (Left is the dark side ... sad when one feels compelled to point out ones attempts at humour).

Since religion is an idea; and it is proposed all ideas are evolutionary then: RELIGION, DOG, and all the sorted BELIEFS are a result of EVOLUTION and "evolutionary principles", well does that not just bring a smile to your face, the irony that is.
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Re:Meme theory: Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?
« Reply #2 on: 2012-07-16 23:04:45 »
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Seems this supports the ideas evolve mechanism.



Evolutionary Epistemology

Source: eNotes
Date: na


Evolutionary epistemology widens the scope of traditional epistemology by inclusion of considerations of the evolutionary origins of human cognitive capacity. The roots of evolutionary epistemology extend back to Charles Darwin's idea of natural selection, set forth in 1859, and to subsequent vivid discussions of the evolutionary origin of human rational capacity put forth by Darwin's followers. Contemporary evolutionary epistemology is based on the work of three seminal thinkers: Karl Popper, Konrad Lorenz, and Jean Piaget. Evolutionary epistemology is an interdisciplinary and constructive theory that aims to unite philosophical views on human knowledge with theories of both human origin and life in general.

Evolutionary epistemology suggests that human cognitive capacity is the result of evolutionary development and can be understood only with the help of evolutionary theories that describe the development of this capacity. In fact, evolution itself is understood as a cognition-gaining process: Thus, Gerhard Vollmer suggests that "knowledge is an adequate reconstruction of the outside structures in the subject, and cognition is the process leading to knowledge" (p. 70). Consequently, knowledge can be seen as a tiered phenomenon: On each level, only those responses "fitting" their environment are retained for the future. On the genetic level of knowledge, basic information about the environment is captured in the physical construction of the body by natural selection of those characteristics fitting the environment. A second level is preconscious cognition, which includes reflex-based responses to sudden environmental changes. The third level is that of rational knowledge, in which a person's reaction to the environment is guided by rational judgment.

Lorenz used these principles of evolutionary epistemology to critique the Kantian concept of a priori: If cognition is a capacity acquired through the evolutionary process, it is, to any given individual, ontogenetically a priori. However, the origins of human cognitive capacity and knowledge as products of evolutionary processes reach back to nonhuman ancestors, and in that sense should be viewed as phylogenetically a posteriori. Thus, human cognitive functions are shaped by the environment that is known. Furthermore, human knowledge, including its a priori component, is provisional: It is neither infallible nor arbitrary. Its success lies in examining the long-term "fit" between the world and physical/mental appropriations to the world, as found in neural and mental structures of the knowing subject. Therefore, evolutionary epistemology subscribes to hypothetical realism, a special type of realism which claims that human knowledge of the external world is a well-founded and reliable hypothesis about external reality. While it is possible to see the parallel between biological evolution and conceptual evolution (the later being the evolution of ideas) as literal, the real strength of evolutionary epistemology is in applying it analogously to all processes involved in the acquisition of knowledge.

Such an extension was established by Karl Popper. His philosophy transforms the principle of elimination of "unfit hypotheses" about reality (occurring on the planet since biological evolution began) to an abstract level of scientific hypotheses. The resulting system claims to provide the basis for the objectivity of knowledge: While social circumstances influence the expressions of beliefs, the beliefs themselves are not caused by these circumstances alone but have an objective component.

These principles of selective retention of fitting structures, both physical and mental, lead to a very high efficiency in the entire cognition-gaining process: Only successful variations are retained, thereby becoming a basis for future selective processes. Cases where blind chance seemingly operates in evolutionary processes are in the system of nested hierarchies, preselected by past successes. These principles are applicable to all levels and forms of knowledge-gaining processes, but at the same time do not allow for the reduction of culture to biology. What is emphasized is the parallel to knowledge-gaining processes in biological and cultural evolution.

Consequently, evolutionary epistemology is capable of examining the formal structure of any kind of human knowledge, including areas traditionally barred from scientific study, such as religions. Donald T. Campbell suggests that, from a scientific point of view, human sociocultural inheritance is as reliable as biological inheritance.
Impact on science and religion

Campbell's proposal was theologically appropriated by Ralph Wendell Burhoe, who attempted to employ the ideas of evolutionary epistemology to relate scientific and religious thought. For Burhoe there is, in principle, no difference between the discernment of the validity of religious beliefs and the discernment of the validity of scientific claims: Knowledge in both areas is acquired through methods described by evolutionary epistemology. Therefore, natural sciences should no longer claim methodological and epistemic superiority over religion. Burhoe, however, went even further, stating that "religious belief systems characteristically involve man's relation or adaptation to some ultimate realities" (p. 30). Implicitly, such a claim points to the reality of God: If one presupposes that selection processes take place through confrontation with reality, and result in the acquisition of information about selecting reality, then "adaptation to ultimate reality" can be translated into "acquisition of knowledge about an independently existing God."

Theologically, evolutionary epistemology represents an important new methodological tool. While it does not fall into the trap of natural theology by attempting to argue about God on the basis of knowledge of the world, it advocates that the acquisition of religious knowledge follows the same principles as the acquisition of knowledge of the material world. Since the reliability of cognitive claims is based on the methods used to derive them, religious claims are no longer epistemically inferior to any other kind of knowledge.

Critics of evolutionary epistemology argue that survival and reproduction are the only ends of evolutionary development, and that selected knowledge is not true information about reality but merely a situationally successful resolution of a given situation. The success of such a solution is understood by these critics without relating it to reality. While it is correct that knowledge-gaining processes described by evolutionary epistemology do not lead to true knowledge but rather to truly reliable hypotheses, this charge is based on the faulty presupposition that long-term solutions based on evolutionary selection could result from false assessments of external reality.

Other critics lament that evolutionary principles are inherently egoistic and, consequently, that the realm of ethics and religion can not be described by evolutionary epistemology. This criticism is, again, based on the faulty presupposition that evolution's primary value is mere survival. Evolutionary epistemology, however, redefines evolution as a knowledge-gaining process that makes the outcome of the evolutionary process dependent upon what has been retained and what is learned.

Recently, the findings of evolutionary epistemology have been confirmed by new trends in several disciplines. The most promising discipline is evolutionary psychology, along with new studies in human development and paleontology. While the slowly emerging picture of human cognitive ability seems to be inviting theology as a dialogue partner, advances made during the last two decades of the twentieth century suggest that theology will benefit greatly from including evolutionary epistemology among its methodological tools.


Burhoe, Ralph Wendell. "Natural Selection and God." Zygon 7 (1972): 303.

Campbell, Donald T. "On the Conflicts Between Biological and Social Evolution and Between Psychology and Moral Tradition." Zygon 11, no. 3 (1976): 16708

Elman, Jeffrey L.; Bates, Elisabeth A.; Johnson, Mark H.; Karmiloff-Smith, Annete; Parisi, Domenico; and Plunkett, Kim. Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford Books, 1996

Lorenz, Konrad. "Kant's Doctrine of the A Priori in the Light of Contemporary Biology." In Learning, Development, and Culture, ed. Henry Plotkin. Chichester, UK: Wiley, 1982.

Mithen, Steven J. The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion, and Science. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.

Piaget, Jean. Biology and Knowledge. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 1971

Popper, Karl Raimund. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.

Vollmer, Gerhard. "Mesocosm and Objective Knowledge: On Problems Solved by Evolutionary Epistemology." In Concepts and Approaches in Evolutionary Epistemology: Towards an Evolutionary Theory of Knowledge, ed. Franz M. Wuketits. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1984.


Source: Encyclopedia of Science and Religion, ©2003 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved. Full copyright.
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