Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Manifesto (in response to Jim)

Dear Jim. I do not expect you to read this whole thing. If you do read it, I don't expect you to be convinced of anything or join me in my polyamorous anarchist commune. I do want to say this: if you can paddle to the other side of this ocean of text, you'll know me like only ~4 other humans do.

My blog is really really simple. My posts are about a page long, or shorter, and they have a Flesch-Kincaid reading level of about 8th grade. Except when they don't. I have bipolar Flesch-Kincaid disorder.

Anyways, I can't come out and say everything because nobody cares and nobody is going to read a 100-page boring thing. That's not going to get to the top of reddit, or get passed from friend to friend through tweets. So I can write something simple and popular that's imprecise, or something complicated and precise that no one will read. Today I'm going to try for in-between.

Here's the deal: babies cry when they're still, and we have to rock them to shut them up. What they're really bitching about is their genetically ingrained need to feel like they're strapped to the backs of their foraging mothers. If mommy stops moving, it is, indeed, a very good reason to scream. We are fish out of water, monkeys in space suits, whatever. Something really weird has happened to us, and we're living a life that we did not evolve to live. Memetic evolution picked up and worked faster than genetic evolution, and now we're out of step, doing things that are not physically and psychically ergonomic, in the service of the Darwinian viability of the memes themselves, and not our genes. We were originally the creatures for whom the striving was done. Nowadays we're total substrate. We're the console that another game is being played upon.

Darwinism isn't benevolent. It's cold, and holocausts and daisies look the same to it. Even when genetic evolution was in the driver's seat, natural selection didn't care about us. Its logic is the cold inevitable, tautological logic of a boulder falling: what happens will happen, one thing follows the other, the thing that wins best wins. Did humans become smart, or compassionate towards people in their in-groups because these things are noble and just and reminded natural selection of a poem it once read? No way. Humans with empathy towards people in their in-groups worked better in groups, so they had more babies and were better at killing whoever attacked them, and in the end they were the only ones left. Cold as it was, though, when genetic evolution was in the driver's seat, you could be damned sure that it would never result in, say, all of us tearing our eyes out banging our heads against trees. Now that memetic evolution has taken over, there are no such comforting guarantees.

A meme is a virus of the mind. Memes can save lives and destroy them. Just as there's no intelligent, loving, neo-platonic teleology driving genetic evolution, there's nothing necessarily sinister and evil about memetic evolution. It is what it is. Sometimes I like what it is. Sometimes I don't. Let's say there's a meme, a sticky mind virus, that convinces its hosts that they must convince everyone they know that the moon is inhabited by cave-dwelling unicorns, and that those who refuse to believe must be killed. Does this work in the interest of the virus's host? Does it make him happier, or help him to feed, flee, fight, or fuck? Nope. Does natural selection care? Nope. A meme such as the lunar unicorn meme could conceivably come to dominate the earth. Because it would be all that was left, after the people who refused it were killed. This is just a lunatic example of how one imaginary meme could take over, but I think it makes the point that since we're just the CPUs that memes are running on, it's way less important that anything they do is very beneficial to us.

So humans have been around for 100,000 years or 2 million years or whatever, depending on what you want to call a human (I like calling Neandrathals humans), and we lived one way for most of it, and then something got going a mere 14,000 years ago and now we ALL live very differently. Civilization was born, and it was a bundle of memes that completely re-tooled human organization and relationships and behaviors.

A bunch of stuff gets invented at the same time. Weirdly. In independent places. Writing, religion, government, specialization of labor, farming, etc. People have various ideas about why this might be. "Well, farming created surpluses, so everyone didn't have to be involved in food production, so one guy could just be the house builder, but then you needed writing to record how much food he was owed", whatever. Anyways, a memetic complex went gangbusters, and it took over the world. Remember that this thing isn't necessarily your friend. It just is what it is. One of the ways that archaeologists can determine whether a skeleton belongs to pre- or post- sedentary shift times is by looking for signs of malnourishment. Early sedentary people are typically malnourished. Their forbears were not. Pre-sedentary people worked four hours a day and sang and told stories with the rest of it. Post-sedentary people cut pieces off of their children and work 12 hour days. It's also worth mentioning that post-sedentary people ultimately develop penicillin. That's a fact that's not lost on me, and I've talked about it on my blog. Civilization gave us things. Having a healthy and strong slave is better than having a sick and weak one. Memes can further their own survival by helping us, their hosts. A very viable survival strategy for a meme would be to keep its hosts as physically healthy as possible. Being as emotionally healthy as possible, though, is probably a minus from the Darwinistic viability standpoint of most memes, for reasons that I'm just going to totally skip over.

But anyways: the sedentary shift, or more accurately the cambrian explosion of memes and their symbiotically attached institutions that roughly accompanied it, is the cardinal HOLY SHIT, DID THAT JUST HAPPEN moment of all of human history, and no one even knows about it or talks about it, and I wish I could make it the mission of my life just to scream about it from rooftops.

Look around you. Look at EVERYTHING. Look at monogamy. There are monogamous animals. Like French angelfish. Do you know what biological monogamy is? It's like the biological need to eat or sleep or whatever else. It's involuntary! French angelfish don't beat each other up and shame each other into being monogamous. My god, when they pair, their brain switches off attraction for other fish. Would anyone in their right mind surmise that this is what happens with humans? Of course not! The promise of hellfire has to be inculcated against non-monogamy, and even that doesn't work! Is monogamy beneficial or better in a million ways? I'd say no, but whatever the answer, that's not my point. My point is “Look around you: we are fish out of water, and ruled by memes that we know do not care about (or necessarily work against) our best interests.”

This thesis, or the ghost of an intuition that everything in society false and slaving, comes out in so much of our dreams and art, and it's a very very old and pervasive theme, so much so that it's boring to talk about. The Matrix, whatever.

Lao Tsu felt it. Rousseau said that man was born free and yet everywhere in chains. Rousseau thought hard about it, and then Marx even harder. Marx's greatest most amazing contribution to human thought was the idea that the pillars of civilization (church, state, school, and factory) were maladaptive.

Other people see it. Archaeologists pretty much all went red-flag at some point because of what they saw. Rosenburg says that language itself took a weird turn around the sedentary shift (possibly constraining our array of possible thoughts a la Wharf-Saipir), and wonders if we can re-program ourselves and work our way out of it. Lloyd deMause, in his Origins of War in Child Abuse, gives a haunting and psychiatrically-sound telling of human history that accounts for all manner of war and injustice in terms of the childhood traumas that we've all faced this side of the sedentary shift, which messed our minds up so bad that we do things on an individual and civilizational level that an un-warped soul would not. Reading the book gives you the same “God I'm an idiot, why didn't I see that myself” feeling that Darwin does. Graeber gives a rigorous treatment to the economic side of this whole thing in his book Debt.

Even the Freudian/Jungian subconscious is pretty plainly described to be the part of us that goes underground because of trauma, because of the memetically-determined demands of our parents.

From all these disciplines, and from our subconscious screams that come through with thin disguises from our movies, and from introspective geniuses like Osho, you get these varied proverbial blind-men's-accounts of the same elephant (-in-the-room), and with enough accounts, you start to get a pretty good sketch going, and it makes sense, and it gives you chills.

So why do I care? What do I want? I don't want to be stone-age. I do want civilization to be scaffolding, and something we tear down after we've built penicillin and, oh, I don't know, mind-uploading immortality. In the interim I don't want people yelling at my kids about the kind of pants they wear, or breaking relationships and trying to inflict emotional trauma on them over their sexuality or whatever they can't help but believe is true about the moon and its unicorns, given the evidence.

(This post's thesis is the driving force behind this entire blog. You'll see pieces of it, over and over from different angles in (you can click the following, they're links) Utopia's scaffolding, The Evils of Codification, Why God Hates German Words, Why humans can't draw, Bitcoin, Wikileaks, and the Rise of In-Spite-of-Archy, An impromptu short story, for Paindancer., . . ., P = NP: An Apocalypse, What I believe. For Dad, and Jeff, The 8 things I know that it seems like nobody else gets, Words That Shouldn't Exist (Part 1), Bitcoin and Esperanto, and Blind spots)

Oh god, I completely forgot to talk about the Pirahã of Brazil. Ok, maybe next time.


  1. Ken, you narrate your view of history very elegantly: the "Cambrian explosion of memes" may become one of my favorite phrases.

    Cutting right to the chase: you treat memes as a virus rather than an organic function of language and reasoning, which are organic functions of us, which are organic functions of evolution. Like all natural things, this is capable of betraying us or saving us, but it isn't extrinsic to us, as you seem to think.

    I'm no stranger to the psychohistorical / linguistic theories you advance in support of your idea. I dabble a bit as a historian of feeling and events: medieval literature and history, to be precise. But I think you make some assumptions based on your differentiation between "genetic evolution" and "memetic evolution," and I think you're a little too uncritical of some of the sources you regard as lights in the dark: you call deMause "psychiatrically sound," but that strikes me as naive in the extreme. His insights are no doubt inspirational, but they are not entirely illuminating, because they are (like all social / psychological theories with narrow targets) not nearly comprehensive enough. He's less like Darwin than he is like Freud.

  2. To descend to cases, monogamy is no less "natural" for us just because it nests in the neurological processes that identify it as beneficial. Rational thought is not unnatural, nor is logic or reasoning somehow extrinsic to us, and neither is language. If at some point it became clear that monogamy served a useful purpose in our survival, I object to the idea that this was like a virus that fed on us, extrinsic to our consciousness.

    Obviously there can (and should) be vigorous debates about the continued utility of monogamy, but the fact that those debates (like ours) take place in the shared medium of language shows that the meme of monogamy has not unnaturally imposed itself on us, but has arisen from our capacity to articulate (and therefore to remember) what works and what doesn't, what always does and what sometimes does and what never does.

    If it's true that civilization is maladaptive, I think it worth asking, what set the standard by which one construes the "mal"? Your final paragraphs offer some strange insights: if you want to upload your mind, I would hardly want to stop you, but I find it peculiar: what in the world would make you think that you would not be subjected then to memes-run-rampant, unanswerable as they would be to the natural world that kills all that goes too badly wrong?

    I love your ideas here. But I think you might be the victim of some weird memes of your own. But I wouldn't be too embarrassed: memes are natural.

  3. One other thing:

    I also don't want people yelling at your kids about the kinds of pants they wear, or about lunar unicorns, or about their sexual preferences.

    I do expect, though, that when your kids don't pull their weight in their community, they'll be reminded. I expect that when they use offensive language, somebody should tell them. I expect that when their laziness or ingratitude or their natural needs overcome their good judgment, they shall be reminded. Not because I hate your kids, but because I think that social formation is a key to survival, and it'll be a lot harder for them to achieve it when they're twenty-five and wishing they could figure out why their prospective employers are so reluctant to talk to them.

    How one does that socialization says a lot about the person doing the "correction" and you / deMause are not wrong that a lot can go haywire (and he's mainly concerned with what goes deeply wrong). But I don't think the problem is in the meme ("You should wear pants in public") or in the very idea that a child must learn, unfortunately sometimes through guilt, that life is unforgiving.

    That's just a cognitive need of the collective that, like everything, can be argued, but which I don't think so much insidious as utilitarian. Personally, having lived in the Deep South in summer, I'd like to renegotiate the details about both guilt and wearing pants, but I doubt I'd make much progress: I expect everybody knows that if I went without pants, all the other men would perish from envy and Southern Womanhood would live in a perpetual state of fear and desire, and it's just not conducive to survival. One understands the utility, therefore.

    And as I look for a job, I'm kind of glad my parents once told me, "Hey. We don't go out au naturel." I was sensitive to shame, and didn't risk it, even before I understood why it was necessary. I still feel a twinge of guilt and shame when I go out without pants. Guilt and shame are still my friend that way.

  4. Biological monogamy can be a lot more like human monogamy then you might think. Birds are one of the best known monogamous species there is, but it turns out they often cheat on their mates when their mates aren't around. There are even examples in nature whee a male songbird will start doing his mating song, while his female mate will screech over him to make sure no other female birds can hear him.

  5. no one is contesting the validity of evolution? HMMMMM.

    jim makes good points but i think some benefit of the doubt could be had while reading ken

    im not convinced he was saying memes were extrinsic, memetics is just a good model to speak about idea propogation. i doubt he would say idea's exist outside of minds. we're made of bacteria+viruses, anyone want to argue that's not us? i see the conversation reducing to demarcation problem and psychological identity issues. oh well.

    everything is natural, nuff said. people usually just mean "significant portion of humans do X, X is natural", not very interesting distinction. how about a gene/environment that predisposes someone to X. details are fun.

    jim was pretty good at seeing the subjective nature of "maladaptive", but it's probably best to separate the memetically given negative connotations of "virus" as well. it's use is of "a thinggy that replicates" and isn't or shouldn't be used to suggest all memes are bad, badness is relative, and it's kinda self-evident that ken likes some ideas that propogate. nature dont give a teleological crap, thats just us projecting.

    jim's on point. if we upload minds, $50 says memes get waaay worse. in fact, i think we can/will have intelligently designed mind-viruses by yours truely ;) memes move at light speed in the digital world. no more tin cans and string these days.

    im not sure if ken can have his cherry picked memes and eat it too. however, i think we can try to minimize the "bad" memes. (e.g., lets kill all the people who think there are unicorns on mars, oh but first lets find out what made them suceptable hosts, oh being human, ok so we have to infect them first with reason)

    yeah parents should teach kids about the memes and the rules of the game of life, but they should also tell the kids how those rules came to be, and that they can be bent, and how to manipulate others who don't understand such things. the eff word is "just" a word, but it does different things to different people. good to know.

    how about this, just like evolution is blind and we can make it "better" using artificial selection/intelligent design. we do the same thing with memes. memetic evolution is blind as well, i think ken notices that and is argueing that humans should attempt to fix up it's badturns, whatever those may be.

    human X finds various ways to model the universe, human X likes A things and dislikes B things. human X tries to convince human Y using somewhat shared model that A is good and B is bad. human Y does the same thing to human X.

    thanks both of you for hosting some great memes, you've been great hosts tonight.

    oh and, jim has a big weiner.

    -human Z (dont you dare geolocate my IP either)

  6. I wish I could geolocate your IP. Freaking blogspot doesn't give me good logs.