Judaism as Memetic Model

Judaism is a useful ethno-religion for modeling mitochondrial/viral meme interactions because it is relatively small.

Depending on which study you read, the US has between 4 and 6 million Jews, neatly split into four main groups:

"Jewish Denominational Affiliation" graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.
Jewish Denominational Affiliation” graphic courtesy Pew Research Center.

A bit confusingly, Orthodox are the most conservative and Conservatives are more moderate. Reforms are liberal, and “No denomination” is mostly atheists who are, of course, the most liberal.

Orthodox have a TFR (total fertility rate, or children per woman,) of 4.1.

Conservatives have a TFR of 1.8.

Reform have a TFR of 1.7.

Atheist Jews have a TFR of 1.5. (source)

(Here I have to stop and point out an error in the source, which claims that “TFR”=total number of children per adult, when TFR is defined as childen per woman. The US TFR of 2.2 means the average woman has 2.2 kids, not that the average woman has 4.4 kids.)

Back to our data. We can see immediately that only Orthodox Jews have a TFR above replacement (approximately 2.) Let’s run through the numbers, just for fun (using a compromise starting number of 5 million total Jews):

Generation 1: 500,000 Orthodox Jews; 900,000 Conservative Jews; 1.75 million Reform Jews; and 1.5 million atheist Jews.

Generation 2: 1,010,000 Orthodox; 810,000 Conservative; 1.488 million Reform; and 1.125 million atheist Jews.

If this trend continued, by Generation 5 we’d have: 8.8 million Orthodox; 530,000 Conservative; 776,000 Reform; and 356,000 atheist. From 10% Orthodox to 84% in just a century; from 30% to 3% atheist.

In reality, though, this doesn’t happen, because many of the children of Orthodox Jews don’t stay Orthodox: “Fewer than half of Jews raised in Orthodox homes have remained Orthodox, with more than 20 percent leaving the religion altogether.”

But this finding requires a caveat, the authors are quick to add: those who left Orthodoxy in droves came of age in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The 1980s and 1990s have been a lot kinder to the Orthodox denomination; fully 83 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 who were raised Orthodox are still Orthodox.

!! If that doesn’t look like the less-devout boiling off, leaving a more genetically-inclined-to-Orthodoxy core, I don’t know what does.

Among Jews who were raised Conservative, the number who have left Jewish observance rises to 30 percent; among Jews raised Reform, 35 percent.

Notice that no one talks about Reform Jews becoming Orthodox, because very few do. Orthodox Jews may know how to have children, but their beliefs are simply unattractive to anyone who isn’t raised Orthodox. By contrast, Reform Jews can’t replenish themselves, but their ideas are attractive to non-Reform Jews.

In other words, Orthodoxy is mitochondrial; Reform and atheist Judaism are viral.

Here’s a graph for you:

Denominational switching among Jewish Americans, courtesy of the Pew Research Center
Denominational switching among Jewish Americans, courtesy of the Pew Research Center

I love a good graph.

Okay. So let’s recalculate Generation 2:

1,010,000 Orthodox => 48% O, 15%C, 11% R, and 26% A (as a practical matter, “no denomination” is pretty darn close to atheist,) or 485,000 O; 152,ooo C; 111,000 R; and 263,000 A +

810,000 Conservative => 4% O, 36% C, 30% R, 30% A, or 32,000 O; 292,000 C; 243,000 R; 243,000 A.

1.488 million Reform => 1% O, 6% C, 55% R, 37% A, or 15,000 O; 89,000 C; 818,000 R; 551,000 A.

and 1.125 million atheist Jews => mostly atheists.

For a total of 532,000 O; 533,000 C; 1,172,000 R; 2,182,000 A.  In case you’ve forgotten, Gen 1 had:

500,000 O; 900,000 C; 1,750,000 R; and 1,500,000 A.

The numbers aren’t extreme (which makes sense, since the average TFR is close to 2,) but notably, even though 52% of Orthodox children elected to go be something else, Orthodox is the only Jewish denomination that actually managed to grow. Conservative and Reform numbers, despite influxes from Orthodox Judaism, (and, for Reform, from Conservatives,) fell. Atheist Jews, of course, had a significant rise.

Carry on this pattern for several generations, and you get a Judaism that is increasingly split between Orthodox on one hand and atheism on the other.

Now suppose that the more recently observed trend of younger people staying Orthodox at higher rates than previous generations holds true, and the future looks even grimmer for the Conservatives. I’m not going to work out the math, because you can probably estimate for yourself what an 83% retention rate combined with a 4.1 TFR looks like–a very Orthodox Judaism. And very atheist.

I suspect that Christianity (at least white, American Christianity; Ugandan Christianity is totally beyond my knowledge zone,)  is following a similar pattern, with a large increase in atheists on the one hand, massive losses from the moderate center, and the most conservative elements almost hanging on:

I wanted a graph that went back further in time, but this is what I found.
Courtesy of Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape

I suspect that the “unaffiliateds” include both atheists and people who believe in god or spirituality in some sort of vague way, but not enough to actually attend a real church.

These drops are just over the past 7 years; looking further back, in 1948, nearly 70% of Christians described themselves as “Protestants” (including both mainline and Evangelicals;) today, that’s dropped to 38%. (I think Black Protestant churches and the Mormons are doing fine, however.)

I don’t want to get into the details of the changing Christian landscape, because that’s way too much to cover in the tail end of a post, but the pattern looks very similar, especially the precipitous drop in the Catholics and Mainline Protestants (the Christian moderates and liberals.) Evangelical Protestants don’t have the birth rates of Orthodox Jews, otherwise they’d probably be doing a little better.

Moldbug proposed that Reform Judaism is Judaism infected with the Progressive virus, where Progressivism itself is a viral form of Mainline Protestant (ie Puritan) Christianity that has shed its specifically theistic aspects in order to compete in our officially a-religious political sphere.

But how much could just be convergent memetic evolution, given an identical meme-vironment?

The Progressive Virus

Last week, I referenced the idea that Progressivism is a meme virus, rather than a meme mitochondria, an idea I want to explore in a bit more detail. How do we know Progressivism is viral rather than mitochondrial?

Simply put, because Progressives do not reproduce themselves. Mitochondria can only reproduce themselves by being passed on to your offspring, and thus are incentivised to maximize your reproductive success. (Or that of close relatives of yours who also carry your mitochondria, like siblings.)

By “reproduce themselves,” I mean “have enough children to keep their population from declining,” or about 2 kids per couple. (Technically, the average has to be slightly higher than 2 just because occasionally, terrible tragedies do occur, and kids die.)

This is the point in the conversation where Progressives jump in and insist that they really do reproduce themselves. Maybe not personally, of course, but they totally have some gay friends who are going to get on that IVF and have a whole bunch of children now that gay marriage is legal.

I have actually seen this argued.

Of course, any common idiot on the street has noticed by now that there’s no atheist equivalent of the Duggers, and that Mormons have a lot of kids. But if you can’t believe your own lying eyes, maybe statistics will help:

From Jayman's Blog, "Liberalism, HBD, and Solutions for the Future
From Jayman’s Blog, “Liberalism, HBD, and Solutions for the Future

Only conservatives are above replacement. Everyone else, especially the extreme liberals, is being replaced by the children of conservatives.

If you don’t believe Jayman, because he’s too conservative or liberal or whatever for your ad hom tastes, here’s data from NY Mag, which definitely takes a liberal slant:

From NY Mag, "Tell me a State's Fertility Rate, and I'll Tell You How it Voted"
From NY Mag, “Tell me a State’s Fertility Rate, and I’ll Tell You How it Voted

If you’re curious about time, it wasn’t always like this:

From Jayman, "The Liberal/Conservative Baby Gap: Time Depth"
From Jayman, “The Liberal/Conservative Baby Gap: Time Depth” Confusingly, conservatives are BLUE in this chart, and liberals are RED.

Mass media, birth control, abortion, etc., are all very recent inventions.

(In case you’re wondering, this is a world-wide phenomena:

Total Fertility Rate by Country (Wikimedia file)
Total Fertility Rate by Country (Wikimedia file)

Afghanistan (TFR around 7) is not known for its progressive views on women’s rights or homosexuality. In Nigeria (one of the purpleist on the map,) homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death. In the slightly less purple Democratic Republic of the Congo, same-sex marriage is banned by the constitution.

A few other maps for comparison:

Picture 8 Trafficking of Females Green 2

1280px-Religion_in_the_world 800px-Analfabetismo2013unesco

Sources: WomanStats Map; Wikipedia: Religiosity, Literacy Rates. H/t Suchanek.

At least currently, all of the “nice” countries that people want to live in or move to have below-replacement fertility.)

But lest I be accused of comparing apples to oranges, let’s go back to our own countries.

What happens when conservatives outbreed liberals? The simple answer is that liberals get replaced.

If you still don’t believe me, I’ll run through it step by step. (If you do believe me, you can skip this part.)

Let’s suppose we start with a town of 10 liberals and 10 conservatives. The liberals have a TFR of 1 (1 child per woman,) for 5 total children. The conservatives have a TFR of of 3, for a total of 15 children. The second generation is therefore 5:15 liberals:conservatives. In the second generation, Liberals have 2 or 3 kids (it’s hard to actually have 2.5 kids,) and conservatives have 22 or 23 kids. Fourth generation, 1 liberal kid, 33 conservatives.

And yet, a quick glance at voting trends in the US over the past 70 years indicates that the country has been moving steadily more liberal. Take, for example, the shift over the past few decades in favor of gay marriage.

Liberals remaining 50% of the electorate isn’t just an artifact of having a 2-party system; liberals have been convincing people to become more liberal. Conservatives, meanwhile, haven’t been convincing people to become more conservative.

Meme mitochondria propagate vertically–from parent to child–not horizontally, and are unattractive to people who weren’t raised with them. Meme viruses propagate horizontally–from peer to peer–and so must be attractive to others.

Progressivism is therefore propagating virally.

To be fair, ideas that began virally can become mitochondrial. Christianity in its early stages was viral, but later became mitochondrial. For an idea to become mitochondrial, it has to confer greater survival benefits on people who hold it than on people who don’t. Right now, Progressivism isn’t doing that.

The interesting question, therefore, is what Progressivism will do over the next 50-100 years. Remember that this situation of liberals not reproducing themselves is (most likely) a novel result of recent technological innovations. Will society keep moving leftward as Progressivism keeps spreading successfully to the conservatives? Or will future conservatives, having been born to the conservatives least susceptible to Progressivism in the first place, become, essentially, “immune”?

Or will the immigration of people with much higher birthrates and very different values render the whole business moot?

Mitochondrial Memes pt 4

The obvious difficulty with treating ideas like viruses is that while most viruses are detrimental to one’s health, ideas are quite useful; indeed, you won’t survive very long without ideas of some sort.

So while some ideas may be of the turn-you-into-an-infertile-spore-shedding-zombie variety, there must be some that actually promote human health and welfare.

This is where the mitochondria come in. Mitochondria, like viruses, are foreign invaders. But unlike (most) viruses, mitochondria are here for the long haul. They don’t reprogram our cells to reproduce them and infect others with out mitochondria; the only way they get to reproduce is if we reproduce. (I’ve never even heard of mitochondria getting cancer.)

It’s not exactly that viruses want to kill you; they just don’t really care whether you live or die. Cholera hijacks all of the liquid in your body to carry itself into the local water supply, to be drunk by its next victim. Your need for that water is irrelevant. (Cholera is therefore the kind of disease that can only thrive where water supplies are regularly contaminated with feces; remove the feces from the water supply, and the disease will have to find some new way to reproduce or die out.)

Some ideas will definitely kill you. The idea that lead makes a good material for dinner plates; or mercury will confer immortality; or that if you slaughter all of your livestock, god will drive the invaders from your lands and make more animals magically appear, for example. Other ideas impact your fitness indirectly, say, by decreasing the number of children you have. If you become a celibate Shaker, there aren’t going to be a whole lot of your children running around.

But other ideas are really good for you, like the germ theory of disease. The number of Mormons has grown quite a bit over the past 200 years, in part, because it convinces its adherents to have lots of children.

From an evolutionary perspective, it is easy to see that people whose ideas lead to survival are likely to out-compete people whose ideas kill them or render them sterile, which is why we now have more Mormons than Shakers, even though the reverse was once true. (Note that evolution does not care whether you think Mormonism or Shakerism is more “correct” or “true” or “pleasant.” It only matters that Mormons exist in greater numbers than Shakers.)

Ideas that succeed and reproduce by helping you survive and reproduce, therefore, I call “meme mitochondria”. Ideas that succeed and reproduce by getting you to pass them on to your friends I call “meme viruses.” (Unfortunately, “viral meme” is already taken.) Yes, I hashed this all out back in Mitochondrial Memes, but I’ve gotten complaints that the post needs updating, so here we are.

For the first 199,500 years or so of human history, the vast majority of information passed from parent–or local elder–to child. (We can also call this “vertical” meme transfer.) Hardly anyone was literate, and books were extremely expensive and rare. In this environment, memes had to be mitochondrial. There was simply very little opportunity for horizontal meme transfer. Any memes that didn’t lead to reproductive success tended to be out-competed by memes that did.

The mitochondrial meme, therefore, cares about your reproductive success (and, keeping in mind the details of family genetics, the success of relatives who share copies of your genes.) It doesn’t care anything about people who don’t share your genes–indeed, any mitochondrial meme that cared about the fates of people who don’t share your genes more than your own would be quickly replaced by ones that don’t.

Of course, some memes did manage to spread virally during this period–the major world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam come immediately to mind. But within the past 500 years, the amount of information being horizontally transmitted has exploded.

And in the past 15 years, it has exploded again:

From Another Damn Blog, The Explosion of Digital Data
From Another Damn Blog, The Explosion of Digital Data

In other words, we are in a completely novel evolutionary meme-environment. Never in human history have we had so much horizontal data transmission; indeed, if we have not had more data transmission since 2000 than in the entire prior history of the world, we will soon.

Mitochondrial memes don’t have to sound good to outsiders; they just have to work for the people who have them.

Meme viruses have to sound good enough to people that they get picked up and passed on. Meme viruses, therefore, are a lot more likely to sound fun to people who don’t already believe in them.

Meme Mitochondria prioritize your evolutionary success, but don’t really care if you enjoy the process, and don’t care about anything else.

Meme viruses prioritize sounding good, but don’t care whether you live or die. Even a meme-virus that kills you will succeed if it gets you to spread it to others.

A meme virus does not have to kill you, of course, just as a meme mitochondria does not have to kill everyone around you. The germ theory of disease started off being spread virally, but it’s a pretty sound idea and you should wash your hands before eating.

Long-term, of course, people who are resistant to memes encouraging short-term enjoyment at the expense of long-term genetic success will outbreed people who are susceptible to such memes. Progressives, with their well below replacement fertility, will be replaced by Muslims with well above replacement fertility. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with Progressivism or Islam.

This does not necessarily mean that Progressivism will die out. As long as Progressivism can continue spreading to the children of people who believe in having lots of kids, Progressivism can continue to exist. Catholic priests don’t generally have children, either, but Catholics still manage to convince some of their members to join the priesthood. But Progressives will be replaced.

Mitochondrial Memes (Part 3: Viruses want you to spread them)

Memetics is the study of how ideas (“memes”) propagate, using the evolution and transmission of viruses as its model. Ideas, like viruses, infect their hosts (human brains), then are transmitted to new hosts (other people.) A “successful” idea is one that spreads to lots of people, just as a successful virus is one that infects lots of people.

A new environment or technology can change the way memes propagate or the types of memes that are successful.

Note that this has nothing to do with the factual content of the idea, nor does it require humans to purposefully intend to make ideas more or less successful. More successful ideas will simply spread, whether anyone wants them to or not.

For example, as Moldbug writes on the evolution of modern Progressivism from mainline Protestantism:

The combination of electoral democracy and “separation of church and state” is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity. . . .

If you have a rule that says the state cannot be taken over by a church, a constant danger in any democracy for obvious reasons, the obvious mutation to circumvent this defense is for the church to find some plausible way of denying that it’s a church. Dropping theology is a no-brainer.

and Foseti elaborates:

The series begins by treating progressivism as a sort of infection of the mind. Assume progressivism is a virus that is solely concerned with spreading itself into as many minds as possible. We see the idea’s evolution, in which it starts as a fundamentalist religious belief and ends up discarding theism so as to better propagate itself in an officially secular system of government. Shed of overt theism, Progressivism “can be propagated by American official institutions, which are constitutionally prohibited from endorsing its ancestor or competitor [ie theistic Christianity].” The devil’s greatest trick . . . and so on.

In other words, the new environment (an explicitly non-theistic political arena) favors moral ideas that are not explicitly theistic.

Viruses are interesting things. They have a lot of the characteristics of living things–like DNA–but not all of them, and so are considered non-living or semi-living things. Critically, a virus cannot reproduce on its own–it must take over a living organism and hijack its reproductive mechanisms to begin producing copies of the virus.


Viruses (and other infections,) of course, do not “want” anything, because they are not sentient. But anthropomorphization is a convenient shorthand. Viruses which are spread far and wide “succeed;” viruses which infect one person and never infect anyone else “fail.” Therefore, chances are good that any virus you catch wants to be spread.

The common cold, for example, makes you sneeze, spreading the virus from your nose and mouth to all of your friends and family.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce in the digestive tracts of felines but lives comfortably in just about any warm-blooded host, affects the brains of infected rats and mice to make them less fearful of cats, making them more likely to get eaten by cats, thereby transferring the parasite to its preferred home.

Horsehair worms infect crickets and then compel the crickets to drown themselves so the worms can reach water; liver flukes hitch a ride inside ants, directing them to the tops of blades of glass, where they are devoured by cows–the liver fluke’s destination. (source, with some interesting examples of pathogens that affect plant behavior.)

Immediately after infection, the flu virus makes people more sociable–and thus more likely to spread the virus to other people–before it floors you for the rest of the week. The awkwardly named IIV-6/CrIV virus is an STD that infects crickets, then makes them super-horny, spreading the STD to other crickets. Interestingly, the virus also shuts down the crickets’ immune systems, preventing them from having the “normal” cricket-responses to infection. Thus the crickets did not act or feel sick while going on their sex binge–until, you know, it turned their guts blue and killed them.

Alas, googling “Does AIDS make people horny” has returned zero hits I am actually willing to click on. But it stands to reason that STDs would increase their chances of successful transmission by making their hosts have more sex.

Memes also want you to spread them.

Any meme that can convince you to spread it–say, a meme that claims that it is immoral not to spread it–is a meme that is more likely to be successful than one that encourages you to keep your opinions to yourself.

“If you send this letter to 7 of your friends, you will have good luck! But if you break the chain, you’ll have nothing but bad luck for 7 years!”

“98% of people won’t repost this picture! Are you one of the 2% that’s brave enough to do it?”

One of the interesting things about the past 500 years or so of human history is that we have gotten better and better at spreading information. Not just chain letters and funny cat pictures, but also objectively valuable information like medical advice, scientific studies, cookbooks, and YouTube videos on how to get a small object out of your shower drain. (Get a vacuum cleaner, put a nylon stocking over the tube part, and suck it up.) Even thirty years ago, this blog would have been impossible–I would have had to content myself with slowly reading an encyclopedia, writing out my thoughts by hand, snail-mailing them to a few friends, and then waiting for a response.

If Voltaire were alive today, he’d write a blog instead of all those letters.


To be continued.

Some thoughts for homeschooling parents

You can’t build up immunity to a disease by never experiencing it.

I hear a lot of people around these parts vowing to homeschool their kids because of this that or the other public schools are doing–usually something related to modern liberal politics. They’re afraid of their kids learning about gay marriage, or social justice, or something similar, so they decide that the solution is just to keep the kids at home where they can learn without the agenda.

Now, to be clear, I have nothing against homeschooling–all of the evidence and studies I’ve seen on the subject indicate that it is a perfectly fine way to educate a kid, so long as the parents are mentally healthy, not-abusive, etc. If you happen to live in an area where there aren’t a lot of other people around, then you might want to consider conventional schools just because your neighborhood makes it difficult to associate with other humans, but otherwise, I see homeschooling as just another method of educating a kid. If your goal is merely to provide your kid with the best education possible, this post is not for you.

However, if your goal in homeschooling is to prevent your kid from learning about broad social trends, political ideologies, or ideas you don’t like, anecdotal evidence suggests you will fail.

Your kid will grow up, they will leave the house, and then they will learn about all of the stuff everyone else believes. If everyone out there believes X, and your kid is even remotely neurologically normal, then your kid will learn about X and start believing it.

Remember, the vast majority of normal people pick up their ideas and beliefs from the other people around them. This is not a bug. This is a very important ability. Other people are treasure troves of useful information about how to stay alive and not die. Imitating others is how you learned to talk, which things are good to eat, and how to behave in new situations. If you’re standing near a road with your friend, and they suddenly jump back, it’s in your interest to jump back, too.

Inability to properly imitate others is extremely problematic and one of the basic symptoms of autism.

So, like I said, if your kids are remotely normal, they will pick up the values of the dominant culture upon exposure. And then they will decide that you were a looney nutcase.

I’m going to talk about the personal experiences of 5 people I know who were homeschooled by conservative Christians. I’m not cherry-picking; they are all the homeschooled people I know.

One went to Bible college, got pregnant, dropped out, and got married. This person still professes Christian faith, but believes far more in materialism.

The second dropped out of college, became a die-hard SJW, and changed genders. I doubt they are still Christian, and they regard their parents’ faith as a cult.

Third completed college, but has become a die-hard SJW. Has a very dim view of conservative Christianity. No children.

Fourth became an atheist liberal who believes in gay marriage and abortion.

Fifth became a die-hard SJW who hates conservative Christianity, thinks their parents were culty, and makes pornography.

If you want an in-depth look at how this happens, I recommend the webcomic Dumbing of Age.

What happened?

In all of these cases, the parents homeschooled to keep their kids isolated from certain ideas, ideologies, or behaviors. The kids graduated with very little experience of the world. They did not have a thorough understanding of how the world works, the philosophies out there, and why, exactly, their parents disagreed.

As a result, when exposed to the meme-viruses of the world, they get infected. They have no defenses.

In my experience, the vast majority of conservatives cannot articulate a coherent explanation for their beliefs, and do not attempt to explain their underlying reasoning to their kids. Many of them, I suspect, simply believe as they do because of habit, convenience, or because everyone else in their area does. Liberalism, by contrast, has put a lot of effort into making arguments against conservative beliefs.

For example, let’s take gay marriage. Common conservative arguments against gay marriage are “Ew! Gay people are gross!” “God says homosexuality is a sin,” and “The purpose of marriage is to make children.”

Liberals have all sorts of counter-arguments, like, “Ellen DeGeneres isn’t icky,” “Separation of Church and State,” and “But we let infertile people get married.”

In short, if it is really important to you that your kid think gay marriage is a bad idea, you’d better have a better, more coherent argument than that. Same for everything else in your memeplex/ideology/worldview–up to and including the existence of god. You might think your proof for the existence of god is pretty solid, but most of the people your kids will be associating with will probably think rather little of your proofs.

If you can’t explain your ideology and rigorously support it, showing your kids that your explanations of how the world works is better than the dominant ones, then you’d be better off just letting your kid go to public school and then doing your best to defend any objections to the curriculum when they come up. Your kids might think you’re kind of weird (just as I thought my parents were kind of weird in the early 90s for defending the use of aerosols/CFCs and not being concerned about the hole in the ozone layer), but they won’t hate you or think you’re a loon.

That time Germany literally infected Russia with Memes

I burst out laughing at the park today at the sudden thought of Germany sending Lenin on a sealed train to Russia, the train an enormous syringe injecting the Marxist meme-virus–carried in an actual human body–that then infected and took over the whole country.

Then I remembered that the Communist regime killed tens of millions of people and stopped laughing.

Russia eventually shook off the virus, but not before shedding millions of infectious cells to other countries.

Memes and Transmission Pathways

From, Why Cultural Evolution Is Real (And What It Is)

(Because watching other people say that thing you were saying and be like ‘omg I was saying that’ and then they give it their own twist and you are like ‘oh yes I see where this is going and it gets back to the morality model’ and then the joy at how much fun it is.)

(Guys guys we are talking about memes, okay. And the big question brought up by the part I quoted is, of course, What are the long-term effects of changing transmission pathways?)

“How Transmission Pathways Matter

In my outline, I mentioned that the transmission pathway – vertical or horizontal – matters a great deal for the content and friendliness of transmitted cultural items.

In biology, there is already support for this model. Parasitic entities like bacteria that are limited to vertical transmission – transmission from parent to child only – quickly evolve into benign symbiosis with the host, because their own fitness is dependent on the fitness of the host entity. But parasitic entities that may accomplish horizontal transmission are not so constrained, and may be much more virulent, extracting high fitness costs from the host. (See, e.g., An empirical study of the evolution of virulence under both horizontal and vertical transmission, by Stewart, Logsdon, and Kelley, 2005, for experimental evidence involving corn and a corn pathogen.)

As indicated in an earlier section, ancient cultural data is very tree-like, indicating that the role of horizontal transmission has been minimal. However, the memetic technologies of modernity – from book printing to the internet – increased the role of horizontal transmission. I have previously written that the modern limited fertility pattern was likely transmitted horizontally, through Western-style education and status competition by limiting fertility (in The history of fertility transitions and the new memeplex, Sarah Perry, 2014). The transmission of this new “memeplex” was only sustainable by horizontal transmission; while it increases the individual well-being of “infected carriers,” it certainly decreases their evolutionary fitness. …”

Okay, right. So your meme-mitochondria will most likely protect you from dying, but don’t much give a shit if you end up killing people who are not-you or at least don’t share your genes. And meme-viruses will try to get you to not kill society at large (which is busy propagating them,) but don’t particularly care if they kill you.


1. Will modern mass-media destroy itself by accidentally destroying the people that use it? Can mass-media be a stable, long-term part of the human cultural/technological toolkit?

2. Does modern mass-media create an actually different moral meme-environment from the vast majority of the human past? Is this good/bad/neutral?

3. Will we evolve to be adapted to this meme-environment, say, by people who believe that Western Education is Sin kidnapping girls, selling them as brides, and then massively out-breeding people who “Lean In”?

Memetic Separatism => Ethnicity (part 2 of the meme posts)

So, as I was saying, before I had to run off…

Meme Mitochondrias reproduce primarily by hitching a ride on human reproduction. Success, therefore, optimizes them to encourage human reproduction.
Meme mitochondrias do not optimize for pleasure.

Meme Viruses reproduce by convincing people to adopt them.
Success, therefore, optimizes them to encourage pleasure or beneficial habits.
Meme viruses do not optimize for human reproduction.

Memes can switch forms–Christianity was originally spread as a virus, but quickly became mitochondrial. Today, with church membership waning across the US (and the Rest of the West,) American churches are campaigning actively for more Hispanic members via immigration reform–failure of mitochondrial mode leads to activation of viral mode.

Mormonism has spread particularly well because it employs both modes.

One of the conclusions I draw from this is that mitochondrial memes will tend to look rather unpleasant to people. Few people will adopt these memes if exposed to them after childhood, and many people raised with these memes will “defect”.

EG, being Amish. The Amish community has had significant out-migration over the years–about 25% each generation, from what I’ve heard–but almost zero in-migration. Being Amish simply isn’t attractive to terribly many non-Amish. (By contrast, being an American is attractive to millions of non-Americans.)

The Amish continue to exist because they have tons of children–enough children to replace the defectors (and then some.) To put it in numbers:

If the average Amish woman had 2 children, and 25% of Amish children defected during Rumspringa, the effective TFR would be only 1.5 children per woman, and the population would quickly shrink.
If the average Amish woman has 4 children, and 25% defect, the effective TFR remains 3 children per woman, and the population still grows.

We can call this process, “boiling off”. Over time, the Amish who are most inclined toward the outside world are most likely to boil off, while the most Amishy-Amish are most likely to stay, leading to an ever-more distinctive Amish population.

Genetically, the Amish and non-Amish Pennsylvanians are quite distinct, despite 25% or so of Amish out-migrating each generation.

(I have recently seen people commenting upon a quote attributed to Ben Franklin that complained about the Germans in Pennsylvania, as proof that people have historically been bigoted and over-reacted to new immigrants. I think it entirely possible, though, that Franklin was basically correct–having a bunch of people around who set up ethnically-exclusive communities and are explicitly opposed to interacting with the broader culture could actually be problematic.)

We would also expect the dominant narrative outside of any particular mitochondrial meme complex (ie ethnic culture) to be heavily influenced by the accounts of deserters–people who did not like that society. By contrast, people within an ethnic culture probably tend to like it (they tend to be the people who did not defect, after all.) Non-Amish find the Amish lifestyle boring and exhausting, but the Amish probably actually like it.

A similar case study is Judaism. Memetically speaking, Judaism is strongly mitochondrial. (It once spawned a viral offspring, called Christianity. This was very bad, as the newly infected could not recognize carriers of the parent meme as members of their viral community, and so kept trying to infect or exterminate them.)

There is an axiom in regular evolutionary science that two closely related species (or sub-species) cannot occupy the same environmental niche. Either one group will out-compete the other, thus replacing it, or the two groups will merge.

Is there no hope for an equilibrium solution, with neither replacement nor merger?

If the two groups have different behaviors, then sooner or later, one group will get the upper hand (or claw, paw, wing, or fin,) and out-compete the other, (or their behavior will steer them into a different environmental niche.) If the two groups have identical behaviors, then they will not be able to distinguish between each other as mates and will merge. (If they are genetically incapable of mating, then they will also be genetically incapable of performing the same behaviors, and we are back to out-competing.)

Among humans, people who possess similar values and behaviors (that is, culture, that is, memes,) tend to mate with each other, leading to genetically distinct groups of people.

In the absence of a physical barrier (like being on isolated island for a few thousand years,) memes create ethnicity. A coherent meme-system is a culture.
Cultures contain both mitochondria and virus memes, eg., Americans value democracy (virus) and monogamous marriages (mitochondrial).

Back to the Jews. The Jews have managed to exist for thousands of years (despite some pretty big obstacles,) and are genetically distinct from their neighbors, despite tremendous out-migration over the years. The Ashkenazi, for example, have very little German DNA, despite having lived in Germany for, what, about 800 years? (Rather, they’re about half Italian, mostly along their maternal lines, surprising no one who has ever observed immigrants.) Today, out-marriage among American Jews is estimated around 50%.

Looking at the behavior of the various major Jewish denominations in the US, the haredi Jews operate much like the Amish–they have a bunch of children, about 25% of whom defect to other Jewish denominations, and receive very few formerly-Conservative or Reform Jews into their ranks. Being haredi just isn’t attractive to people who aren’t born into it–it’s mitochondrial. However, the ranks of haredi Jews are still growing, due to their extremely high fertility rates.

Reform and Conservative Judaism, by contrast, receive continual infusions of new members from ex-haredim. However, their fertility rates are very low (by contrast.) They are dependent on “converts” in order to continue to exist. Therefore, they are viral, not mitochondrial.

The endpoint of this progression is obvious: Reform, Reconstructionist, and Atheist Jews who marry non-Jews and whose children and grandchildren cease being Jewish.

Incidentally, if you want your descendants to be Jewish, you must teach your children mitochondrial Judaism. Virus-Judaism is too similar to non-Judaism to maintain ethno-cultural separatism.

How can this be, if Jews have been so separate over the years?

Before Napoleon invaded the rest of Europe and imposed the aptly named Code Napoleon, Jews and Christians throughout Ashkenazi lands were legally forced into separate communities and professions, eg, the Prague Ghetto. This means they were forced into different niches, and just like birds cracking different nuts developing different beaks, we should expect to see the development of different norms, values, and skills suited to their particular niches (and a quick examination of the professions available in the Ashkenazi niche explains their development of higher IQs than other Europeans.)

Napoleon was defeated, but his Code remained, emancipating the Jews across much of Europe. With the legal restrictions gone, the two groups now occupied–more or less–the same niche. The two groups must either compete, merge, or find new niches.

The rates of out-migration, even in the 1800s in Germany, were apparently tremendous, at least according to the Jewish sources I have read on the matter. (My and my spouses’ DNA attests to this.) Like the Amish, would expect the out-migration to leave behind a remnant population that is less interested in being like the non-Jewish world. In the Ghetto days, a more liberal or atheist Jew would have been forced by circumstances to marry another Jews, probably one more religious than themselves, and their children would have reverted to the norm. More devout Jews would have been likely to marry not as devout as themselves Jews, again returning their children toward the norm.

Without the Ghetto, the less-religious marry out, and the more-religious marry each other, the only folks left. The probable result: a (growing) remnant population of increasingly haredi Jews on the one hand, and an assimilationist group whose meme-virus begins to look increasingly similar to the more secular branches of Christianity, like Unitarian Universalism.

For obvious reasons, the haredim will come to “represent” what Judaism “means” in people’s imaginations, because the assimilationist Jews simply aren’t distinct enough to be viewed as a separate group.

(Unfortunately, I would not be surprised to see American Ashkenazi IQ plummet over the next century toward the American norm, since being haredi selects more for ability to birth lots of children than IQ, and the most intelligent Jews tend to be atheists or something close to it.)

Or to put it another way, once the Ashkenazim and Christians begin occupying the same niche and inter-marrying, they adopt new meme viruses to support their new behavior patterns, and people and their spouses will want to adopt the same viruses so they can have the same behavior. Otherwise, it’s not going to work. If I want to send my kids to Hindu School, and you want to send them to Catholic School, we’re going to have a conflict. If we declare that Jesus is just an avatar of Vishnu, then we have eliminated the conflict. Our ideas (and thus our genes) have merged.

We can also see this working on a broader scale–eg, modern transportation makes it pretty easy for disaffected Texans to move to Massachusetts.

Conservative American culture is more mitochondrial–they have more babies, outsiders find their culture oppressive, and I bet you the children of conservatives are more likely to become liberals than vice versa.

Liberal culture is more viral. Liberals often forgo reproducing entirely, preferring instead to spread their ideas by talking about them. This leads to people referring to liberals as “defectors” or “traitors”. (I would rather conceptualize them as allying, but perhaps that is me being overly optimistic.)

With no credible outside threat to force Americans to unite, liberals would rather unite with other liberals and define themselves in contrast to conservatives than cooperate with (and occasionally marry) conservatives (and vice versa.) (While liberals definitely report more positive views on interracial marriage than conservatives, I should note that the actual statistics on interracial marriage and multi-ethnic households may lean just slightly toward the conservatives–possibly because of class stratification and geography in America making liberals less likely to actually interact with ethnic minorities, and possibly because Conservatives adopt more kids, often internationally.)

1. Liberal culture assimilates with cultures not traditionally part of the American mainstream, like African American, European, or Asian cultures (eg, liberals are more likely to have adopted the Asian norm of removing their shoes upon entering the house, and are more likely to pride themselves on watching foreign movies.)

2. Conservative culture becomes a remnant, like the Amish or Haredi Jews. And like them, the Conservatives become the cultural “symbol” of what it “means” to be American.

3. Liberals become very uncomfortable with identifying as “American” because it now represents “conservative” to them. I’m pretty sure that liberals who fought in the trenches of WWII self-identified pretty strongly as “American”, and believed that America was a great and glorious country out to make the world a better place by defeating the Nazis and Japanese. Modern American liberals quite frequently report being “ashamed” of being Americans, and cringe (or mock) the sight of a bald eagle alighting on an American flag hoisted aloft by Jesus delivering the Constitution to the Founding Fathers.

Conservatives, meanwhile, wish Liberals would pack up and leave already.

4. Liberalism requires a constant influx of new believers, otherwise “liberal” will shift consistently rightward due to low liberal birthrates. (Conservatives, by contrast, are closer to replacement.) It is therefore perhaps not coincidental that liberals push strongly for the incorporation of new groups of people into the country–people who will probably vote liberal, at least for a while.

There is one complication I have basically been glossing over: genetics influence your meme preferences. People with a genetic propensity toward anger will probably prefer memes that are pro-anger/violence. People with a genetic propensity toward empathy will probably prefer memes that emphasize the importance of empathizing with others. Nice people talk about how much they like Gandhi; jerks appreciate Hitler. People with larger amygdalas have stronger disgust reactions and are more likely to be conservatives and neophobic. People with smaller amygdalas think that eating raw fish sounds like it could be fun, rather than revolting. Some people are more genetically inclined to pick up new ideas, while others are more “immune” to them.

An interesting case of “immunity” is the general Western reaction to Christianity in the past few decades. Westerners are leaving Christianity in droves, (much like Judaism,) but Christianity will likely continue in this country because the new population of Hispanics is much less immune.

Mitochondrial Memes (part 1)

I have been enamored with the “meme” concept of ideas–that ideas spread like viruses, and their propagation can be understood via metaphorical evolutionary theory–ever since I first heard it.

So I was thinking this morning, that “virus” is not the only way a meme can propagate. Mitochondria are foreign DNA that long ago hitched a ride in our cells, to our mutual benefit. Mitochondria might once have been virus-like, but now they are just passed from mother to child.

Many of people’s cultural norms, like religious beliefs and political orientation, correlate strongly with their parents’ norms, suggesting that they are passed down in some way from parent to child. Obvious examples are the continuing conservatism of the American South, which has been notably more conservative than the North for over 200 years, and the remarkable stability of patterns of religious affiliation across the globe–not many Pakistani kids are going to convert to Neo-Paganism in the next decade. We shall call the way these values are transmitted “mitochondrial”.

So we may think of “meme viruses” and “meme mitochondrias”.

This construction immediately suggests that “viruses = bad”, but I think that is over applying the metaphor. After all, I can immediately think of meme viruses that I think are good, like the shift in attitudes toward smoking over the past few decades, or meme mitochondira that I think are bad, like homophobia.

A better set of inferences would be that long-term, mitochondria memes must encourage people to have children in order to be successful (otherwise they will be out-competed by mitochondrial memes that do encourage people to have more children.) So, for example, if one group of people believes in having only one child on whom they dote excessively, and they manage to pass this idea on to their child who passes it on to their grandchild, while another group of people believes that birth control is evil and manages to pass that idea on to their children, the doting people will be outbred by the anti-BC crowd.

Successful viral memes have to be good at convincing people to adopt them, so they have to sound good. Having lots of children sounds like a ton of work, so most people are not terribly convinced by that meme if they are not already inclined to it; watching TV or going to a club right now sounds like fun, so lots of people can be convinced to do these activities. Viral memes can exert a significant dampening effect on their hosts’ reproduction, so long as they still manage to spread via conversation.

Shakerism comes immediately to mind as a meme virus that could not attract enough people to overcome its depressive effect on fertility, mostly because “never have sex” is not much fun. By contrast, “Use birth control” might be a sustainable meme virus despite its depressive effects on fertility, because it allows people to do lots of fun things.