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Static Memes and Irrationality

PAS wrote to the FI Discussion Group [emphasis added]:

The most relevant thing that I don’t get about the memes material [in The Beginning of Infinity] is how & why a meme like beating irrationality into kids:

  • Arose in the first place: Don’t static memes initially arise out of attempts people make to solve problems? What problem would beating irrationality into your kid solve?

  • Developed such an extraordinarily high degree of skill knowledge that people are super highly effective at enacting it: What other memes have a super high level of evolved skill knowledge like this?

  • Experiences universal replication across all of the human race: Religion (in general, never mind a specific religion) isn’t 8 9’s pervasive. Wearing clothes isn’t 8 9’s pervasive. What other memes are as pervasive?

The Beginning of Infinity Memes Recap

A meme is an idea that replicates. We'll focus on ideas that are pretty good at replicating from older people to younger people for multiple generations.

David Deutsch had an original insight: there are two replication strategies used by memes. A replication strategy is the thing the meme is doing that gets it replicated.

1) Rational Memes

Rational (aka dynamic) memes are replicated because they are useful. People want to share them in order to solve problems. They are part of progress.

The concept here is pretty simple. Someone has an idea and think it's good, so he shares it. If other people see the value, they learn it and share it too. If it's good enough, it gets shared a lot, including to the next generation.

2) Static Memes

Static (aka anti-rational) memes disable the holder's creativity to prevent criticism of themselves. They are not adapted to be useful, but block effective thinking about that. Their focus is on making the host unable to reject the meme.

Rather than offering rewards, benefits and value to get voluntary cooperation, a static meme goes for more of a mind control style of strategy. If someone can't think critically about it, that is a way for a meme to survive.


Rational memes survive criticism by having valuable knowledge, static memes prevent criticism to survive.


Let's set aside the original origins of static memes and consider the last three thousand years of human history. Most humans have lived in static societies. In short, they lived the same lives as their grandparents, who lived the same lives as their grandparents.

Change and innovation have been the exception, not the rule.

What's going on there? What blocks progress? What blocks new ideas? What suppresses creativity?

People already know a bit about this. Their understanding of what's going wrong goes under the heading "irrationality". Irrationality covers a wide range of problems including:

  • obedience to authority
  • judging ideas by prestige of the speaker
  • lack of confidence to contradict traditional ideas
  • superstition
  • mysticism
  • wishful thinking
  • judging by emotions instead of reasons
  • bias
  • dishonesty about ideas
  • jumping to conclusions
  • not seriously seeking the truth
  • not really making an effort to solve problems
  • procrastination, laziness
  • faith

Why is irrationality like this so powerful and common? Because it prevents criticism of itself. These bad ideas have the special property that they get in the way of fixing themselves.

These are errors that mess up error correction itself.

Irrationality is a matter of static memes. This is a list of ideas which are passed on to the next generation and which block criticism. They are passed on not because they are useful, but because the people with these ideas are unable to think well their value and make rational choices about whether to replicate them.

The concept of static memes provides information and technical details (see The Beginning of Infinity) about what's going with irrationality. It helps clarify a phenomenon you already knew is really big. (PAS mentions religion in his question. Irrationality is a superset of the religious irrationality he brought up.)


With that context, I'll go over the questions:

Don’t static memes initially arise out of attempts people make to solve problems?

No. They arise due to evolution.

Think of an initial set of ideas (meme pool, like gene pool). The ideas are really bad and primitive. Many are getting discarded pretty randomly. None replicate very reliably.

Then by random variation, one of the ideas starts blocking people from discarding it. Not entirely, just a little bit so it gets discarded at a lower rate than other ideas. This gives it an evolutionary advantage, and further random variations that make it harder to discard give it even more evolutionary advantage.

Static memes evolve along those lines, not out of (rational) problem solving attempts.

What problem would beating irrationality into your kid solve?

Offering problem solving value is not the mechanism by which static memes replicate, spread, stick around, get enacted, etc...

What other memes have a super high level of evolved skill knowledge like this?

Consider the history of static societies on Earth. Think about how effective they've been at preventing change and innovation. Think about how rare and special Western civilization is. The large scale consequences of a super high level of evolved knowledge are visible here.

What other memes are as pervasive?

All kinds of details of static memes vary by culture. What stays the same across cultures is the replication strategy. That's a matter of logic. Since we call that replication strategy "irrationality", then irrationality is pervasive across cultures.


Elliot Temple on January 17, 2016

Comments (3)

"Let's set aside the original origins of static memes..."

i'm interested in this.

do you have more to say about it?

Anonymous at 5:50 PM on January 17, 2016 | #4563
> Think of an initial set of ideas (meme pool, like gene pool). The ideas are really bad and primitive. Many are getting discarded pretty randomly. None replicate very reliably.

> Then by random variation, one of the ideas starts blocking people from discarding it. Not entirely, just a little bit so it gets discarded at a lower rate than other ideas. This gives it an evolutionary advantage, and further random variations that make it harder to discard give it even more evolutionary advantage.

This gives some indication. And see BoI. Then please ask a question with more explanation of your problem situation in it.

Anonymous at 5:59 PM on January 17, 2016 | #4564
>>What problem would beating irrationality into your kid solve?
>Offering problem solving value is not the mechanism by which static memes replicate, spread, stick around, get enacted, etc...

Can't it be both?

Like beating children suppresses criticism, which helps it persist.

But it can sometimes serve the purpose of making children obey, which is serving a (horrible) purpose, so in lieu of better options would also help it persist.

Anonymous at 3:08 AM on May 8, 2016 | #5196

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)