Saturday, June 28, 2008

On Cultural Evolution

Seed Magazine posted a very interesting article by Paul Ehrlich (of the Center for Conservation Biology, Stanford University), Cultural Evolution. The article looks at whether or not culture evolves through a function of natural selection the same way that genes do. For what it's worth, I tend to believe in meme theory (Ehrlich isn't a fan of this approach) and that it plays a role in cultural evolution, so I find these discussions incredibly entertaining.

Does human culture evolve via natural selection, as our genes do?

Illustration by Studio Commonwealth

Biologists have a pretty good idea of both how flies become resistant to DDT and how humans and primates have diverged over time. That's because the mechanism underlying these processes is the same. Using evolution we can understand how organisms generally change their stores of genetic information (DNA and RNA), alter their observable characteristics, and diversify.

We do not understand how cultures evolve nearly so well. The majority of human evolution does not involve changes in our DNA, but rather alterations in the gigantic library of nongenetic information, the culture, that our species possesses. This library is orders of magnitude larger than that of our genetic information, and the elements on its diverse shelves usually have meaning only in connection with other elements. Indeed, there has been a long, bitter debate about whether it is sensible even to use the term evolution to describe changes in culture. After all, culture is composed of overlapping phenomena from languages, religions, institutions, and socially transmitted power relationships to the information embodied in artifacts ranging from potsherds to jumbo jets. The study of cultural change encompasses not only the disciplines of biology and the social sciences, but areas of the humanities as well.

Despite the great difficulties of building a comprehensive theory of cultural change deserving of the label of "evolution," progress in that direction has begun. We are finally starting to understand the patterns of culture change and the role of natural selection in shaping them. And since everything from weapons of mass destruction to global heating are the results of changes in human culture over time, acquiring a fundamental understanding of cultural evolution just might be the key to saving civilization from itself.

Read the rest of this fascinating article.

For another take on this topic, the current episode of Blogging Heads TV also features Paul Ehrlich talking about his new book, The Dominant Animal.

Here is the publisher's statement about the book.

In humanity’s more than 100,000 year history, we have evolved from vulnerable creatures clawing sustenance from Earth to a sophisticated global society manipulating every inch of it. In short, we have become the dominant animal. Why, then, are we creating a world that threatens our own species? What can we do to change the current trajectory toward more climate change, increased famine, and epidemic disease?

Renowned Stanford scientists Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich believe that intelligently addressing those questions depends on a clear understanding of how we evolved and how and why we’re changing the planet in ways that darken our descendants’ future. The Dominant Animal arms readers with that knowledge, tracing the interplay between environmental change and genetic and cultural evolution since the dawn of humanity. In lucid and engaging prose, they describe how Homo sapiens adapted to their surroundings, eventually developing the vibrant cultures, vast scientific knowledge, and technological wizardry we know today.

But the Ehrlichs also explore the flip side of this triumphant story of innovation and conquest. As we clear forests to raise crops and build cities, lace the continents with highways, and create chemicals never before seen in nature, we may be undermining our own supremacy. The threats of environmental damage are clear from the daily headlines, but the outcome is far from destined. Humanity can again adapt—if we learn from our evolutionary past.

Those lessons are crystallized in The Dominant Animal. Tackling the fundamental challenge of the human predicament, Paul and Anne Ehrlich offer a vivid and unique exploration of our origins, our evolution, and our future.
Watch the discussion at the Blogging Heads site.

Can a Robot, an Insect or God Be Aware?

Scientific American posted a good article last week that examines the field of experimental philosophy. In Can a Robot, an Insect or God Be Aware?, the authors take a look at just how broadly we are willing to define consciousness.

Here is the beginning of the article:

Can a lobster ever truly have any emotions? What about a beetle? Or a sophisticated computer? The only way to resolve these questions conclusively would be to engage in serious scientific inquiry—but even before studying the scientific literature, many people have pretty clear intuitions about what the answers are going to be. A person might just look at a computer and feel certain that it couldn’t possibly be feeling pleasure, pain or anything at all. That’s why we don’t mind throwing a broken computer in the trash. Likewise, most people don’t worry too much about a lobster feeling angst about its impending doom when they put one into a pot of boiling water. In the jargon of philosophy, these intuitions we have about whether a creature or thing is capable of feelings or subjective experiences—such as the experience of seeing red or tasting a peach—are called “intuitions about phenomenal consciousness.”

The study of consciousness (see here and here) has long played a crucial role in the discipline of philosophy, where facts about such intuitions form the basis for some complex and influential philosophical arguments. But, traditionally, the study of these intuitions has employed a somewhat peculiar method. Philosophers did not actually go ask people what intuitions they had. Instead, each philosopher would simply think the matter over for him- or herself and then write something like: “In a case such as this, it would surely be intuitive to say…”

The new field of experimental philosophy introduces a novel twist on this traditional approach. Experimental philosophers continue the search to understand people’s ordinary intuitions, but they do so using the methods of contemporary cognitive science (see also here and here)—experimental studies, statistical analyses, cognitive models, and so forth. Just in the past year or so, a number of researchers have been applying this new approach to the study of intuitions about consciousness. By studying how people think about three different types of abstract entities—a corporation, a robot and a God—we can better understand how people think about the mind.
Read the rest of the article.

Mirror Neurons: How Do We Connect with Others Through These "Smart Cells?"

This is a cool podcast from NeuroScene. He seems to do one every couple of months or so, but they are pretty good. This one, obviously, is on the rapidly emerging field of mirror neurons.

To many in the neuroscience community, mirror neurons represent the biggest discovery of the past twenty years. These “smart cells,” which activate when we perform actions and when we see other people performing the same or complementary actions, seem to provide us with a common neurobiologic dynamic for our understanding of how we learn, empathize, and interact socially and culturally with other human beings at a fundamental level. In addition, mirror neurons may also be the key to understanding and treating a variety of social interaction disorders such as autism, social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

In this podcast, we speak with Dr. Marco Iacoboni, Director of the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Dr. Iacoboni is currently leading some of the most advanced research on the human mirror neuron system and its role in both social behavior and social disorders.

Be sure to listen in on this provocative interview where we discuss Dr. Iacoboni’s new book, Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with Others (May 2008, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and delve into the fascinating details of one of the most exciting new areas of scientific discovery.
Go to the site to listen or download the podcast.

Ecstasy Is the Key to Treating PTSD

When ecstasy was pulled from research in 1985, having by then become a popular street drug, there was a lot of promising data to suggest that MDMA might be highly useful in a therapeutic setting. Like all government hysteria around drugs, it was listed as a schedule-1 controlled substance, along with LSD (and the other hallucinogens) and marijuana, all of which have demonstrable medical uses -- and none of which are addictive (though this might be changing with the newer, stronger weed on the market).

Schedule 1 Findings required:

(A) The drug or other substance has high potential for abuse.
(B) The drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.
(C) There is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

No prescriptions may be written for Schedule I substances, and such substances are subject to production quotas by the DEA.

Now 25+ years later, researchers are finally being allowed to resume studies of the drug. And it turns out that it might be highly useful in treating the tens of thousands of veterans coming back from Iraq with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It's worth pointing out that one of the concerns in using MDMA for therapy is the damage to the serotogenic system that occurs in the brains of users, which still show serious effects (reduced 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) content and [3H]paroxetine-labeled 5-HT transporter density by 40-60%) in the frontal cortex, striatum, and hippocampus up to 1 week later.

However, the administration of alpha lipoic acid comepletey eliminates all damage to the serotogenic systems. Using the proper precautions, MDMA can be completely safe for therapy.

This is from AlterNet.

Ecstasy Is the Key to Treating PTSD

By Amy Turner, The Times of London UK. Posted June 27, 2008.

At last the incurably traumatized may be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And controversially, the key to taming their demons is the 'killer' drug Ecstasy

An Ecstasy tablet. That's what it took to make Donna Kilgore feel alive again that and the doctor who prescribed it. As the pill began to take effect, she giggled for the first time in ages. She felt warm and fuzzy, as if she was floating. The anxiety melted away. Gradually, it all became clear: the guilt, the anger, the shame.

Before, she'd been frozen, unable to feel anything but fear for 10 years. Touching her own arms was, she says, "like touching a corpse." She was terrified, unable to respond to her loving husband or rock her baby to sleep. She couldn't drive over bridges for fear of dying, was by turns uncontrollably angry and paralyzed with numbness. When she spoke, she heard her voice as if it were miles away; her head felt detached from her body. "It was like living in a movie but watching myself through the camera lens,"she says. "I wasn't real."

Unknowingly, Donna, now 39, had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And she would become the first subject in a pioneering American research program to test the effects of MDMA otherwise known as the dancefloor drug Ecstasy on PTSD sufferers.

Some doctors believe MDMA could be the key to solving previously untreatable deep-rooted traumas. For a hard core of PTSD cases, no amount of antidepressants or psychotherapy can rid them of the horror of systematic abuse or a bad near-death experience, and the slightest reminder triggers vivid flashbacks.

PTSD-specific psychotherapy has always been based on the idea that the sufferer must be guided back to the pivotal moment of that trauma the crash, the battlefield, the moment of rape and relive it before they can move on and begin to heal. But what if that trauma is insurmountable? What if a person is so horrified by their experience that even to think of revisiting it can bring on hysterics? After hysterics, the Home Office estimates that 11,000 clubbers take Ecstasy every weekend. Could MDMA the illegal class-A rave drug, found in the system of Leah Betts when she died in 1995, and over 200 others since really help? Dr Michael Mithoefer, the psychiatrist from South Carolina who struggled for years to get funding and permission for the study, believes so. Some regard his study approved by the US government as irresponsible, dangerous even. But Mithoefer's results tell a different story.

MDMA was patented in 1912 by the German pharmaceutical company Merck. To begin with, it was merely an intermediate chemical used in creating a drug to control bleeding. In the 1920s MDMA was used in studies on blood glucose as a substitute for adrenaline. The Merck chemist Max Oberlin concluded that it would be worth "keeping an eye on this field." Still, no further studies were carried out until 1952, when the chemist Dr Albert van Schoor tested the toxicity of MDMA on flies. "Flies lie in supine position, then death," he recorded.

MDMA's therapeutic potential wasn't realised until 1976, when the American chemist Alexander Shulgin tried it on himself. He noted that its effect, "an easily controlled altered state of consciousness with emotional and sensual overtones," could be ideal for psychotherapy, as it induced a state of openness and trust without hallucination or paranoia. It quickly became known as a wonder drug, and began to be used widely in couples therapy and for treating anxiety disorders. None of these tests was "empirical" in the scientific sense no placebos, no follow-up testing but anecdotally the results were almost entirely positive.

Word, and supplies, of the new "love drug" got out, and in the early 1980s it became popular in the fashionable clubs of Dallas, LA and London, where it was known as Ecstasy, X or "dolphins." As use became widespread, the US authorities panicked, and by 1985 MDMA was an illegal, schedule-1 drug. UK laws were even tighter: MDMA, illegal under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, was categorised class A in 1977, carrying a sentence of up to seven years for possession.

Criminalization put paid to MDMA research almost overnight, at least until Mithoefer's current program began. But it didn't stop the ravers. The drug was popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s for its energizing, euphoric effects. There are no official figures for that period, but the UK Home Office estimates that in 2006/7, between 236,000 and 341,000 people in the UK took Ecstasy. Experts say the drug is far less fashionable now than in its heyday in 1988, the second so-called "summer of love."

The MDMA used in the studies the drug Dr Mithoefer gave Donna and other patients was the pure chemical compound, not the black-market Ecstasy bought by recreational users. " A lot of Ecstasy pills aren't MDMA at all," says Steve Rolles of the drug-policy reform group Transform. "They may be amphetamines, or unknown pharmaceuticals, or they can be cut with almost any drug in pill or powder form. That's when you magnify risks associated with taking a drug that's already toxic. Plus, people use it irresponsibly, mixing it with other drugs, not drinking enough water or drinking too much."

The images of Leah Betts and Lorna Spinks lying in hospital on life-support, bloodied and bloated, are familiar to all of us we know drugs cost lives. But has MDMA's reputation been tarnished so badly that its potential medical value has been overshadowed? That question is the reason that Donna agreed to speak to The Sunday Times about her MDMA treatment. "It's so important people know what it did for me, what it could do for others," she says. Her voice trembles: it isn't easy to talk about what she went through.

In 1993, Donna was brutally raped. She was a single parent living in a small town in Alaska, working as a dental nurse for the Air Force. She was due to work an early shift the next day and her two-year-old daughter was staying with a friend for the night. She was alone at home. At midnight she opened the door to a stranger who said he was looking for his dog. He asked if her husband was at home, and a second's hesitation was enough. He burst in, backing her up against the fireplace in the living room. Donna picked up a poker to defend herself. He said: "If you co-operate, I won't kill you. I've got a gun." And he reached into his jacket.

"I dropped the poker and that was it,"she says. "I thought, this is how I'm going to die. No life flashed before my eyes, I didn't think about my daughter. Just death. I left my body and I stayed that way. The next thing I remember, the cops were coming through the door with a dog."

She endured the rape with her eyes squeezed shut. That she hadn't physically struggled would later form a large part of the guilt and shame that contributed to her PTSD. "I guess a lot of women would say, Someone would have to kill me before I'd let that happen.' Well, I did what I thought I had to do to survive," she says. When she heard a shuffle of feet outside the door she screamed for all she was worth. Her attacker beat her. Two policemen, probably alerted by a neighbor, broke down the door and arrested the man, then drove Donna to the Air Force hospital where she worked. "Of course it was full of people who knew me," she says. "It was completely embarrassing. And after that, nobody knew what to say. People avoided me, they looked at me funny. It was miserable."

Afterwards, convinced that getting on with life was the best thing for herself and her child, Donna carried on as usual. She was embarrassed that people who knew her also knew about the rape, particularly as she was still working at the hospital. But she couldn't remember much of the attack itself, and didn't try. So she was surprised when, four years later, her symptoms started to kick in. "I had no idea it was PTSD. I couldn't understand why I was so angry, why I was having nightmares, flashbacks, fainting spells, migraine, why I felt so awful, like my body was stuffed with cotton wool. Things had been going so good."

She started drinking heavily and went from relationship to relationship, finding men hard to trust and get close to. Convinced that she was dying and wouldn't live to see her next birthday, she went to the Air Force psychiatrist. " And that's where it started take this pill, that pill. I've been on every kind of antidepressant Zoloft, Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil. Wellbutrin made me feel suicidal. Prozac did the same. The pills were just masking the symptoms, I wasn't getting any better."

Yet she met her "soul mate," Steve, and married him in 2000. "When I first saw him I thought, This is the man I'm going to spend the rest of my life with.' We were like one person, finishing each other's sentences,"she says. They muddled along, with Donna putting on a brave face. She had two more children. But getting close wasn't easy: "The longer we were married, the worse I got."

Once, Steve and Donna were watching TV when she had a vivid flashback to the night she was raped. "I looked at the door, I saw it open, and that feeling came over me all over again.

I thought, My God, why won't this go away?' Steve tried to understand, but unless you've been through this, you don't know what it's like."

Donna moved to South Carolina in 2002 when Steve also in the services was posted there. She began seeing a psychiatrist called Dr Marcet, who diagnosed her with PTSD and attributed it to the rape. It helped to know that whatever it was had a name and a cause: "I was like, why hasn't anybody told me this before?"It was Marcet who referred her to the Mithoefers.

Donna had never taken Ecstasy before. "I was a little afraid, but I was desperate. I had to have some kind of relief. I didn't want to live any more. This was no way to wake up every morning. So I met Dr Mithoefer. I said, Doctor, I will do anything short of a lobotomy. I need to get better.' "That's how, in March 2004, Donna became the first of Mithoefer's subjects in the MDMA study. Lying on a futon, with Mithoefer on one side of her and his wife, Annie, a psychiatric nurse, on the other, talking softly to her, she swallowed the small white pill. It was her last hope.

Read the rest of this lengthy and informative article.

Rachmaninov Plays Chopin Nocturne Op. 9 No. 2

Frederic Chopin's Nocturne In E-Flat, Op. 9, No. 2 played by Sergei Rachmaninov, an historic piano performance presented here as a video with a single image of Rachmaninov sitting at the piano.

Chopin is one of my favorite composers.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Hulu - Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was one of my favorite shows a while back. NBC screwed around with the scheduling a couple of times, then put it up against CSI Miami, dooming it to failure, and cancellation.

I haven't bought it on DVD yet, but now I don't have to -- I can watch all the episodes with limited commercials at Hulu. Very cool -- technology is great.

Hulu has a whole mess of free television and movies.

Satire - Pretend You Give A Shit About The Election

A great morning show spot from The Onion News Network. Too bad this is a little too close to the truth.

TED Talk - Tony Robbins: Why We Do What We Do, and How We Can Do It Better

Tony Robbins at TED Talks. Here he looks at the invisible motivations for what we do. He says he is not a motivational coach, he is the "WHY" guy -- why do we do the things we do?

There's a funny segment where he interacts with Al Gore in the audience -- and shapes his lecture based on that -- on the fly.
Tony Robbins might have one of the world’s most famous smiles; his beaming confidence has helped sell his best-selling line of self-help books, and fill even his 10,000-seat seminars. What’s less known about the iconic motivational speaker is the range and stature of his personal clients. From CEOs to heads of state to Olympic athletes, a wide swath of high-performing professionals (who are already plenty motivated, thank you very much) look to him for help reaching their full potential.

Robbins’ expertise in leadership psychology is what brought him to TED, where his spontaneous on-stage interaction with Al Gore created an unforgettable TED moment. It also perfectly demonstrated Robbins’ direct -- even confrontational -- approach, which calls on his listeners to look within themselves, and find the inner blocks that prevent them from finding fulfillment and success. Some of his techniques -- firewalking, for example -- are magnets for criticism, but his underlying message is unassailable: We all have the ability to make a positive impact on the world, and it’s up to us, as individuals, to overcome our fears and foibles to reach that potential.

Robbins has won many accolades for his work -- including his memorable performance in the Jack Black comedy Shallow Hal. (It was a small but vital role.) His Anthony Robbins Foundation works with the homeless, elderly and inner-city youth, and feeds more than 2 million people annually through its International Basket Brigade.

Do you agree? Check out the comments for this video. Not everyone agrees.

In Defense of Compassion

Why, you might reasonably ask yourself, do I want to blog in defense of compassion? After all, most of us would agree that of all the feelings we engage in, compassion is probably one of the most universally respected.

In fact, I had never even questioned the supremacy of compassion as a way of life until I read How an Emotion Became a Virtue – it took some help from Rousseau and Montesquieu, over at In Character. Clifford Orwin argues that compassion is little more than an emotion, and as such, an inferior state if we define virtue as the "perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion." That isn't how I define virtue, but that will become more clear below.

As I read the essay and felt myself recoiling from its arguments, I decided that blogging a response to it would be a good exercise in discovering just what I mean by compassion in my own life.

Here is the beginning of his argument:
Compassion today is widely regarded as a good, and those who display it as good people. Indeed, many see compassion or some related virtue (e.g., empathy) as the core of goodness, as the virtue of virtues. It’s not only a private but also a public virtue, much cherished in our politicians. Even in international affairs, of all places, the apex of virtuous action is widely taken to be “humanitarian intervention” or the use of force to relieve suffering. Compassion has not always enjoyed so lofty and uncontroversial a status; will it someday once again relinquish it?

That compassion is natural to human beings there is no question. But does it pertain to our higher or to our lower natures? As even or precisely those who take compassion for a virtue acknowledge, it is an emotion. Can an emotion be a virtue? Yes, if the keynote of virtue is naturalness in the sense of spontaneity or authenticity. No, if what defines virtue is the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. For this reason the long history of thought about compassion (stretching back at least 2,500 years now) has revolved around just this issue.

I. The thinkers of classical antiquity for the most part struck a dispassionate or even disapproving stance toward compassion.

They recognized its power and therefore its utility in political life, but doubted its reasonableness and therefore its justice. It figures in Plato’s Republic primarily as a threat to justice (cf. Republic 415c, 606a–c). Aristotle treats it not in his Ethics, his account of those virtues for which human beings are to be admired, but in his Rhetoric, his exposition of those passions by which those lacking virtue are swayed. Since for both thinkers virtue consists of the proper (which is to say rational) disposition toward the passions, it follows that pity, as a passion, is not to be confused with the virtues. Just as virtue requires us to get a handle on our other passions, so it requires that we become masters of our pity.

To better understand the ancients’ position, consider that the locus of the virtues as they understood it was not the “self” (a distinctly modern notion) but the soul, and the relevant opposition was that of soul and body. For them concern with the “self” or our particularity was an expression of concern with the body. Such concern was natural, even inevitable, but it wasn’t virtuous; good character consisted in surmounting it.

Compassion, however, displays precisely such selfish concern. As was already evident to Aristotle, we tend to pity most those who most resemble ourselves or whose misfortunes most resemble our own (Rhetoric II.viii.13–14). Like “identifies” readily with like, much less readily with unlike. This suggests that our pity for others is a vicarious expression of our fears for ourselves.

Moreover, those least able to bear the sufferings of others are commonly least able to bear their own (Republic 606a–c). But self-pity is a vice, not a virtue. In the classical view the virtuous man will display a certain hardness toward others, demanding of them as he does of himself that they bear their sufferings like men. And yes, we can expect women to be more compassionate than men, because they are weaker and more fearful than men. None of which should be misinterpreted as an endorsement of cruelty or a complete repudiation of pity. But again the classical view was that the virtuous must master their pity even as they do their other passions, indulging it only insofar as it is just and reasonable to do so (Republic 516c, 539a, 589e, 620a). Reverence for pity there was none.
From here, Orwin goes on to make several, it seems to me, erroneous interpretations of history and philosophy. Such as this:
“Modern” compassion, then — and what we mean by compassion is something distinctively modern — stands in an ambivalent relationship to Christianity. On the one hand its triumph drew on the extraordinary prestige enjoyed by charity under the Christian dispensation. On the other, it implied a powerful critique (and rejection) of Christian otherworldliness.
His position here is that Jesus' disposition to "Love one another as I have loved you," is beyond the reach of mortal humans -- that this is not within the capacity of human beings, only God. I disagree. Why would Jesus have offered this teaching if he did not feel it was within our grasp as mortals to follow it?

The morality of compassion, then, is an aspect of an early modern naturalism. As such it took aim not only at Christian supernaturalism but also at that classical rationalism that Christianity had co-opted in the form of Scholasticism. Much as we might suppose that a morality of compassion signifies some kind of idealism, it in fact participated rather in the new realism of modern thought. The ancient philosophers had themselves recognized that their rational morality was in a crucial sense utopian: as a morality for the fully rational, it necessarily excluded the vast majority of human beings. It was an ethics by philosophers for philosophers, but philosophers are nowhere more than a tiny minority.
Again, he is supposing that most people are not capable of realizing this form of rational morality. Granted, at the time many people were not, but that is the role of philosophy -- to lay the groundwork for the evolution of culture and its values. We have grown into that perspective and beyond it.

On the Spirit of the Laws had appeared in 1748; already by 1755 the hitherto completely obscure Rousseau had displaced Montesquieu as Europe’s leading intellectual celebrity by turning his teaching on its head. In Rousseau’s hands compassion (his counterpart to Montesquieu’s humanity) figures not in the vindication of the emerging liberal/commercial way of life but as the core of a radical critique of it. Stated most simply, Rousseau was the founder of the modern Left, and compassion figured prominently in his articulation of this fateful new moral and political sensibility.
With that I agree to an extent -- Rousseau is the beginning of modern liberalism in many ways. I tend to reject Rousseau's recourse to naturalism, or the noble savage. Rousseau took a good impulse -- to yoke reason and passion -- and took it too far in his rejection of reason in favor of the "natural man."

I don't, however, reject his views on compassion. I don't disgard the whole project because he made a few pre/trans fallacy errors.

But wait, there's more:
With democracy, by contrast, the tight bonds of caste having fallen away, we respond to one another directly as human beings. Where all are more or less the same and equal, each readily identifies with the other, and so with his misfortunes. (Tocqueville was a profound student of Montesquieu and Rousseau, and there are few passages of his work where their influence is so evident.) Few things so impressed Tocqueville about Americans as their ready sympathy with each other’s troubles. Of all peoples the Americans could most be counted on to come to the assistance of their fellows, at least in cases involving no great inconvenience to themselves (II.iii.4).

The qualification is significant. Not democracy but aristocracy is the home of heroic, self-sacrificing virtues. Democrats are good-hearted, but they’re also people in a hurry, necessarily preoccupied with their own business. The obverse of compassion is what Tocqueville calls individualism. As men become more equal and alike they also become more isolated, more preoccupied with their own affairs. Tocqueville presents enhanced compassion as merely the most attractive aspect of that loosening of bonds that is the fundamental social fact of democracy. It’s because we all know what it is to bowl alone that we commiserate readily with solitary bowlers. If in aristocracy conventional bonds of caste enjoyed a more than natural force, in democracy the natural one of common humanity proves fleeting and frail. Compassion is particularly to be cherished as the sole force tending naturally to unite human beings whom almost everything else in democracy conspires to dissociate.
He seems to be arguing here that Americans, in their praise of individualism as the highest good, are by nature only compassionate insofar as it does not cost them anything or any inconvenience. But that rings false to me.

Look at how Americans respond to natural disasters. Look at the rural tradition of volunteer fire brigades. The list could go on and on.

He also seems to be arguing that only the wealthy elites -- the aristocracy -- engage in compassion. I disagree. The aristocracy is compassionate only when it does not inconvenience themselves. Again, Oriwn seems to have it backward.

Finally, he takes recourse in Nietzsche:
Although Nietzsche often described himself (and has been described by others) as an immoralist, his ultimate objection to compassion was an ethical one. The core of humanity was its ambition to greatness, and all greatness depended on suffering. The modern project of compassion, then, taken as the elimination of suffering, was ipso facto a campaign against humanity as such in favor of a descent into the subhuman.

Nietzsche’s teaching thus echoed the Christian one in raising the question of whether human suffering was simply bad. (For if not, then the modern ethics of compassion cannot be regarded as simply good.) Yet Nietzsche also recalled the classics in suggesting that for human beings to reach their full potential they must master their compassion in the name of higher considerations. It seems that we would be rash to regard these questions as settled.
As I reached the end of this argument for the second time, it finally dawned on me why I find it so "wrong-headed." It smells an awful lot like the objectivism of Ayn Rand. Specifically, it seems to be proposing the superiority of the virtues of of rational egoism and individualism.

In opposition to Orwin's views, allow me to present some other perspectives (and yes, I am arguing by recourse to authority):
Abraham Joshua Heschel:

A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair. [New York Journal-American, April 5, 1963]
Albert Einstein:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Thomas Aquinas:

I would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it.

Thomas Jefferson:

The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.

Vaclav Havel:

Genuine politics -- even politics worthy of the name -- the only politics I am willing to devote myself to -- is simply a matter of serving those around us: serving the community and serving those who will come after us. Its deepest roots are moral because it is a responsibility expressed through action, to and for the whole.

Viktor Frankl:

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

HH the Dalai Lama:

Compassion is the radicalism of our time.

HH the Dalai Lama:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Keshavan Nair:

With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate, and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity.

Mairead Maguire:

We frail humans are at one time capable of the greatest good and, at the same time, capable of the greatest evil. Change will only come about when each of us takes up the daily struggle ourselves to be more forgiving, compassionate, loving, and above all joyful in the knowledge that, by some miracle of grace, we can change as those around us can change too.

Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream -- a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality.

Molleen Matsumura:

Reason guides our attempt to understand the world about us. Both reason and compassion guide our efforts to apply that knowledge ethically, to understand other people, and have ethical relationships with other people.

Pema Chodron:

When you begin to touch your heart or let your heart be touched, you begin to discover that it's bottomless, that it doesn't have any resolution, that this heart is huge, vast, and limitless. You begin to discover how much warmth and gentleness is there, as well as how much space.

It strikes me that nearly all religious traditions have some form of practice centered on compassion. Here is a generalized version applicable to any tradition:
The Basic Practice

Compassion is a feeling deep within ourselves —a "quivering of the heart" — and it is also a way of acting — being affected by the suffering of others and moving on their behalf. Buddha and Jesus are the most well known exemplars of compassion, and it is the central ethical virtue in the two religions that developed from their teachings.

The spiritual practice of compassion is often likened to opening the heart. First, allow yourself to be feel the suffering in the world, including your own. Don't turn away from pain; move toward it with caring. Go into situations where people are hurting. Identify with your neighbors in their distress. Then expand the circle of your compassion to include other creatures, nature, and the inanimate world.

Finally, as a Buddhist, compassion is central to my practice and to my life. I am not always as compassionate as I would like to be, but I try. Here is a Wikipedia view of compassion in Buddhism:

The Buddhist tradition

"Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others. It crushes and destroys the pain of others. Thus, it is called compassion. It is called compassion because it shelters and embraces the distressed." - The Buddha

Compassion or karuna is at the transcendental and experiential heart of the Buddha's teachings. He was reputedly asked by his secretary, Ananda, "Would it be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is a part of our practice? To which the Buddha replied, "No. It would not be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion is part of our practice. It would be true to say that the cultivation of loving kindess and compassion is all of our practice."[citation needed]

The first of what in English are called the Four Noble Truths is the truth of suffering or dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or stress). Stress is identified as one of the three distinguishing chacteristics of all conditioned existence. It arises as a consequence of the failure to adapt to change or anicca (the second characteristic) and the insubstantiality, lack of fixed identity, the horrendous lack of certainty or anatta (the third characteristic) to which all this constant change in turn gives rise. Compassion made possible by observation and accurate perception is the appropriate practical reponse. The ultimate and earnest wish, manifest in the Buddha, both as archetype and as historical entity, is to relieve the suffering of all living beings everywhere. [1]

The noted American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi states that compassion "supplies the complement to loving-kindness: whereas loving-kindness has the characteristic of wishing for the happiness and welfare of others, compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering, a wish to be extended without limits to all living beings. Like metta, compassion arises by entering into the subjectivity of others, by sharing their interiority in a deep and total way. It springs up by considering that all beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering, yet despite their wishes continue to be harassed by pain, fear, sorrow, and other forms of dukkha."[citation needed]

At the same time, it is emphasised that in order to manifest effective compassion for others it is first of all necessary to be able to experience and fully appreciate one's own suffering and to have, as a consequence, compassion for oneself. The Buddha is reported to have said, "It is possible to travel the whole world in search of one who is more worthy of compassion than oneself. No such person can be found."

One other note in opposition to Orwin -- to me, compassion may be an emotion, but it is not a lower emotion such as anger or fear. It is a higher emotion, like love. By many standards, emotions of all kinds are lesser than reason, but reason without compassion is corrupt and selfish. We -- human beings -- are better than that. When Jesus asked us love others as he has loved us, he knew that we are capable of that highest form of love.

Utne Reader - The Future of Creativity

Utne has a feature on The Future of Creativity posted at the website.

Here are the essays they have included:
For more, read "Why Essays Are So Damn Boring," "Bright Ideas from Baltimore’s Citizens," "The Creativity Conceit," "Art + Science= Inspiration," and "Putting the Arts Back into the Arts."
The main article, however, is worth the read. It's an indictment of the lack of imaginative play in kids' lives today. If you have kids, you need to read this.
Adult life begins in a child’s imagination,” said poet Dana Gioia, speaking before the graduating class of Stanford University in June 2007. “And we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.” By that, Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, meant that we’ve pawned off the task of imagination to commercial manufacturers of marketing and entertainment. They feed us an endless stream of stock imagery and flashy distractions—“content” that comes predigested and does little or nothing in the way of encouraging us to form our own mental images, ideas, or stories.

Gioia’s speech lamented a cultural impoverishment that he said was evident in a widespread lack of interest in the arts and artists, a situation that he blamed on the media’s preoccupation with entertainers and athletes. Indeed, some members of Stanford’s graduating class were rather unimpressed with the selection of Gioia as speaker: They didn’t think he was famous enough. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t really show up on TV—or YouTube or MySpace or anywhere that might have given him some credibility or at least name recognition among the graduates. It’s hard for scientists, writers, painters, and thinkers to compete with the continual stream of spectacle produced by the likes of Britney Spears and David Beckham, in a market where young people spend 44.5 hours each week in front of computer, TV, and video-game screens.

Much has been discussed about whether all these hours of screen time have contributed to the explosion of ADD, aggression, autism, and obesity in children and teenagers. What I’d like to consider is what kids are not doing during those 44.5 hours of screen time (besides not reading Gioia’s poetry) and how it could haunt them in later life.

“We’re engaged in a huge experiment where we’ve fundamentally changed the experience of childhood,” says Ed Miller, senior staff member for the Maryland-based Alliance for Childhood. “We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. We’re robbing kids of their birthright: the access to free, unstructured play of their own making.”

Note that Miller—who has worked as a professor, policy analyst, and editor of the Harvard Education Letter—didn’t just say “Kids are not playing like they used to.” By “free and unstructured play,” he means activity that is unencumbered by adult direction and does not depend on manufactured items or rules imposed by someone other than the kids themselves. He is referring to the kind of play that is not dependent on meddling or praise or validation from well-meaning parents on the sidelines. In fact, free and unstructured play is so encompassing for children that the entire adult world evaporates; children lose themselves in their own world completely. Most anyone who’s ever jolted a child out of this state with a call for lunch or bedtime would attest that the child’s reaction is akin to being awakened from a dream.

This type of play, both potent and transporting, has all but disappeared from contemporary childhood, Miller observes. And cognitive scientists, who investigate the basic logic that allows children to learn so much about the world so quickly, are worried. Basic logic also “allows children to envision possible future worlds, very different from the worlds we inhabit now, and to bring those worlds into being,” says Alison Gopnik, an international leader in the field of children’s learning and author of The Scientist in the Crib (Harper Paperbacks, 2000). “This ability to imagine alternative possibilities and make them real—literally to change the world—is a deeply important part of our evolutionary inheritance.”

Read the rest of this article.

I'm totally on board with this assessment. If I had kids I would be deeply troubled by the pressure my child would feel from peers and media to engage in highly structured "play," in the form of video games, team sports, and whatever else.

Miller and Gopnik describe the kind of play we had when I was a kid. Whether we were playing in the yard, or later building "forts" in the woods, or reading a book, we were engaged with our imaginations.

I suspect that kids don't really play that way anymore, and that is a huge loss for them.

Leonard Cohen


Shambhala Sun has posted a feature on Art and Buddhism (a collection of older articles on this topic). A couple of the articles are about Leonard Cohen, one of my favorite musicians.

Here is Pico Iyer riffing on Cohen's Blue Alert.
Thanks for the Dance


Pico Iyer considers Leonard Cohen—the ladies’ man, the balladeer, the Zen poet, and the essence of cool with a new love giving voice to his songs of parting and old age.

Through the long hot nights of summer and early autumn I have been listening to the ten newest songs from Leonard Cohen, almost unbearably sad in their themes and beautiful in their bareness, yet turned sultry and smoky and rich with a full-bodied looseness thanks to his collaborator in life and in art, Anjani. The songs on Anjani's album (as it is officially), Blue Alert, are all about goodbye and "closing time" and passing away from the scene. “Tired" is the word that recurs, and "old," and the picture that Cohen uses for himself on the back cover (as the album's "producer") makes him look out of focus and almost posthumous, fading from our view. Yet when such songs of parting and old age are delivered by a young, fresh, commanding woman singer, they take on a much more complicated resonance. Sweet as much as bitter, with the echo of spring in the dark of early winter.

The album has stayed with me, almost every evening, because the paradoxes with which Leonard Cohen has always played so mischievously, so meticulously, take on new flesh and blood here, and show us a man—with a woman beside, and inside, him—who has passed through his stress and is not going anywhere except toward a final nowhere. The ceremonies of farewell have been mounting in recent years on his recordings. On Ten New Songs, in 2001, Cohen featured his co-singer, Sharon Robinson, on the album cover with him, and her husky, aromatic back-up often drowned out his aging growl. On his last album, Dear Heather, in 2004, he offered a drawing he'd made of a sylph or Muse (who looks very much like Anjani) on the cover—no picture of himself—and on at least two songs let Anjani more or less take over. Now he releases a whole collection of new songs in camouflage, as it were, delivered by his companion, and as if to say that it doesn't really matter who or where they come from. It's almost as if the songs, looking at death with a voice that never cracks, taking leave of everything with a due sense that much has been enjoyed, issue from someone already absent, or were sent in by his ghost.

Cohen has always held us by writing songs of naked desire and songs of monastic longing, and playing the one off the other: the ladies' man who is impossible because, deep down, he's reaching out for surrender. On his first album, his goodbyes were addressed to the women he was leaving to continue his quest. On recent albums his songs had very much the feel of Mount Baldy Zen Center in L.A., where, living as a monk, he really had taken leave of everything. Now, fully back in the sensual world (sharing a small house in L.A. with his daughter Lorca, Anjani just around the corner), he is writing of physical love with the wholeheartedness of someone who doesn't have other things on his mind. He's got his monastic stirrings out of his system, one feels, enough to take another being into his life. "Co-production" has rarely had a warmer implication.

The songs are tinglingly sensual, of course, full of an erotic charge and suggestiveness made keener, more piquant, I'm sure, by years in a monastery (where every swaying of a skirt, every echo of some perfume, becomes potent). In the very first song, "Blue Alert," we have a woman touching herself in the long night, and soon there are lovers lying down under a mosquito net, "to give and get," a woman with "my braids and my blouse all undone." The very slowness of the songs allows one to dwell on every drawn-out syllable. But the shock and excitement of the new work comes, in part, from the fact that some parts are written—and delivered—in a female voice. The shiver is hers, not her aging admirer's. And when she describes her "yellow jacket with padded shoulders" or how her "shoulders are bare," one gets an immediacy of detail that in Cohen's traditional work would have given way to wider philosophizing (or at least to his favorite word, "naked"). Other songs, while sung by Anjani with an ache and a sweetness and a robust sense of elegy that are all her own, sound as if they come from a man—Cohen himself—and sometimes the voice seems to go back and forth within the same song between the woman and the man. Goodbye to dualism!
Read the whole article.

Who By Fire

This article by Sarah Hampson is a cool interview with Cohen.
He Has Tried in His Way to Be Free
By Sarah Hampson

And to a remarkable extent, Leonard Cohen is succeeding. Sarah Hampson had a rare opportunity to spend an afternoon with the famed singer and poet. He’s got the wisdom of age but he’s still the essence of cool—the perfect reflection of his years of Zen.

The park is like a poem: self-contained and spare. Smokers sit on benches in the morning drizzle. Pigeons swoop over a small gazebo, under the limbs of stately trees. There is a solemn-looking house, three storeys high with a gray stone facade. It’s the only one that faces this park in the east end of Montreal, and it’s his. There are two big front doors, side by side. No numbers. No bell. No indication which one is right. You just pick, and knock.

There is more than one way into the world of Leonard Cohen, and on this day, they are all open.

Cohen, now seventy-two, novelist, poet, singer/songwriter and Buddhist monk, is highly regarded all over the world, not just in his native Canada. But he dances in our heads mostly unseen, like a beautiful idea. It is rare that he makes himself available for scrutiny.

Here he is, though, a gentleman of hip in black jeans and an unironed dress shirt beneath a pinstriped, gray-flannel jacket. Atop his thick white hair, combed back off his deeply lined face, a grey cap sits at a jaunty angle, and in the breast pocket of his jacket, instead of a handkerchief he keeps a pair of tinted granny glasses. Standing in the cramped foyer to which both front doors open, sporting a wry, knowing smile, he politely ushers you into the house (once partitioned into two dwellings) that he has owned for more thirty years.

Almost eight years ago, Cohen came down from Mount Baldy, outside of Los Angeles, California, where he had secluded himself at a Buddhist monastery under the tutelage of Zen master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi since 1993. He is back in the spotlight with new work. In 2004, he released his seventeenth album, Dear Heather. Earlier this year, expanded editions of his first three albums hit the market, as did the critically acclaimed CD, Blue Alert, that he worked on with his lover, Hawaii-born songstress Anjani Thomas. An exhibition of artwork appeared in June. He acknowledges that his increased creative activity is partly to compensate for the millions he lost in royalties at the hands of his former manager, but there’s something different about Cohen.

He seems at ease. He exudes a calmness, as if his age—and more than forty years of study with Sasaki Roshi—have brought him clarity and peace. There is nothing off limits in a discussion with him. Over a bottle of Château Maucaillou, Greek bread, a selection of Quebec cheeses, and a fresh cherry pie, bought for the occasion from the local St. Laurent Boulevard merchants, you learn that he prefers to sleep alone; that he is no longer looking for another woman; the real reason he secluded himself in a Buddhist monastery for almost five years; and that a small, faded portrait of Saint Catherine Tekakwitha, the seventeenth-century native woman and heroine of his novel Beautiful Losers, hangs on the wall in his kitchen, above a table holding a fifties radio and a telephone with on oversize dial pad. He lives in the world but his space is spare.

He will entrance you in the stillness of a moment that stretches to five hours, and in the end, because you happened to ask, playfully, he will say sure, come back any time for a soak in the claw-footed tub, one of several in his house, that sits in a closet of a bathroom under the slope of the stairs.
Read the whole article.

Dance Me to the End of Love

This one is a fan video, but it's one of my favorite songs.

Waiting for the Miracle

$2 million house 'staves off death'

This is from Wired -- this house is pretty cool. I think it was featured in the New York Times a few months ago.
Arakawa and Madeline Gins say a $2 million house they designed "staves off death." It features uneven floors, striking colors, and no doors, which the artists say boosts the immune system.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Are Memes a Load of Crap?

I just discovered the Mindful Hack site, run by Denyse O'Leary. It's quite good.

In a recent post, she cites an article over at Neuroanthropology that supports her dislike of memes. I want to offer a slight and feeble defense (I don't feel like doing a research article) of memes in this post, but I have no illusions of convincing anyone of anything.
Evolutionary psychology: Key concept of "memes" trashed as "one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades"

Wouldn't you know, Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology agrees with me that memes - hypothetical units of thought that jump from brain to brain, perhaps in accordance with Darwin's theory of natural selection - is a load of nonsense:
I think ‘memetics’ is one of the bigger crocks hatched in recent decades, hiding in the shadow of respectable evolutionary theory, suggesting that anyone who doesn’t immediately concede to the ‘awesome-ness’ of meme-ness is somehow afraid of evolutionary theory. (June 12, 2008)
Some of us are hoping that respectable evolutionary theory will somehow emerge from the fog of nonsense and Darwin-hype.
Read the rest of her post.

Let's examine Downey's position a little more:
Let me just make this perfectly clear: I teach about evolutionary theory. I like Charles Darwin. I have casts of hominid skulls in my office. I still think ‘memetics’ is nonsense on stilts on skates on thin ice on borrowed time (apologies to Bentham), as deserving of the designation ’science’ as astrology, phrenology, or economic forecasting.

What’s hard for me to understand is that I LIKE some of Daniel Dennett’s work, and I can’t cite Dennett’s other work confidently when he has picked up a ‘meme franchise,’ and is plugging away with the ‘meme’ meme, making it appear that I’m down with this later material. Blackmore, on the other hand, is a reformed para-psychologist, so she’s, at worst, made a lateral move in terms of respectability. I get particularly irritated during her talk because I think she does an enormous disservice to Darwin’s Origin of Species, but I will try not to late my irritation show too much (even though our regular readers know I won’t be able to manage). I wasn’t going to really heap scorn on Blackmore until I read her own account of TED on the Guardian’s website; gloves are now off.

And this:

Worst of all, memetics sucks the air out of the room for a serious consideration of the ways that culture, knowledge, technology, and human evolution might be interrelated. That is, like a theory of humours and vapors in illness, it provides pseudo-explanations in place of just getting the hell out of the way of serious thought. Memeticists often, perhaps intentionally, seem to generate confusion between what they are doing and what Gerald Edelman christened ‘neural Darwinism,’ a very different discussion of the physiology of neural conditioning; it’s unfortunate guilt by association for the latter, which seems to be grounded in actual evidence.

Finally, he gives 10 problems with the field of memetics (I'm just giving the bullet points, so go read his fine blog for the more detailed explanations of these problems).
1) Reifying the activity of brains
2) Attributing personality to the reification of ideas
3) Doesn’t 'self-replicating' mean replicating by one’s self?
4) The term 'meme' applied to divergent phenomena
5) Could memes transfer stably?
6) A host will not evolve traits in order for parasite to benefit
7) Trivial examples as analogy to ideological change
8) Gradual cultural transmission not like infection
9) Objective 'science' inconsistent with normative judgments about memes
10) Resistance to memetics is not 'anti-Darwinism'; Darwinism not a religion
Dan Dennett gets a lot of flack in Downey's post, so here is his TED Talk on memes:

I like Dennett, even though I generally disagree with his premises on the mind and consciousness.

I'm going to go out on a limb here -- materialists aren't generally going to buy into memetics because memes are not objects that can be measured or isolated in a lab. Simple as that. Memes are subjective material, something that anthropologists can study, maybe even psychologists and philosophers, but not neuroscientists or biologists. I'm actually quite amazed the term came from a biologist -- Richard Dawkins.

Here is a definition of memes, since we haven't actually covered that small detail yet.
[A meme is] a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene' . . . it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory' or to the French word même. . . .

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagage themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, p.206)
Personally, I don't see what is so difficult to understand or accept about this concept. Dennett is maybe the most respectable proponent of memetics, and certainly the most articulate. Here are some of his views on memes, taken from a much longer and more comprehensive defense of memes.
The important point is that there is no necessary connection between a meme's replicative power, its "fitness" from its point of view, and its contribution to our fitness (by whatever standard we judge that). The situation is not totally desperate. While some memes definitely manipulate us into collaborating on their replication in spite of our judging them useless or ugly or even dangerous to our health and welfare, many--most, if we are lucky--of the memes that replicate themselves do so not just with our blessings, but because of our esteem for them. I think there can be little controversy that the following memes are, all things considered, good from our perspective, and not just from their own perspective as selfish self-replicators:

such very general memes as:






environmental awareness


and such particular memes as:

The Prisoner's Dilemma

The Marriage of Figaro

Moby Dick

long weekends

returnable bottles

the SALT Treaties

undergraduate major

Other memes are more controversial; we can see why they spread, and why, all things considered, we should tolerate them, in spite of the problems they cause for us:

colorization of classic films

teaching assistants

grade point averages

advertising on television

Hustler magazine

Still others are unquestionably pernicious, but extremely hard to eradicate:


hijacking airliners

computer viruses

spray-can graffiti

Genes are invisible; they are carried by gene-vehicles (organisms) in which they tend to produce characteristic effects ("phenotypic" effects) by which their fates are, in the long run, determined. Memes are also invisible, and are carried by meme-vehicles--pictures, books, sayings (in particular languages, oral or written, on paper or magnetically encoded, etc.) A meme's existence depends on a physical embodiment in some medium; if all such physical embodiments are destroyed, that meme is extinguished. It may, of course, make a subsequent independent reappearance--just as dinosaur genes could, in principle, get together again in some distant future--but the dinosaurs they created and inhabited would not be descendants of the original dinosaurs--or at least not any more directly than we are. The fate of memes--whether copies and copies of copies of them persist and multiply--depends on the selective forces that act directly on the physical vehicles that embody them.

So here are the main points about memes, from my perspective (for more information on some of these ideas, see the memetic lexicon) :
1. Memes are unique bits of cultural information.
2. Memes require hosts, or more commonly known as human minds.
3. Memes replicate in several ways: (A) By overt imitation, meaning we choose to perpetuate it, (B) By covert infection, generally through education, (C) By coercion, such as marketing or viral campaigns, or (D) By any other form of cultural medium.
4. Memes act like viruses, they are contagious. The most successful memes, such as Christianity, have built-in virus protection to prevent being displaced by other memes (in the case of Christianity, the protection is the fear of eternal damnation).
5. Memes rely on hospitable cultural environments for their survival. The communist meme can only survive in small pockets in this country due to an inhospitable environment.
6. Memes can evolve and mutate in order to survive, and also suffer from memetic drift, with increasing errors in the replication.
Relying on purely Darwinian theory is not the best approach for memetics to be taking in the public sphere. Certainly, there are some parallels, but only by analogy, which was what Dawkins was doing in the first place.

In the end, I won't convince any materialist, especially arguing in a blog post by recourse to experts. But for me, the bottom line is this: Is the theory useful? For me, the meme theory is useful in a variety of ways.