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Attack of the Memes! How cultural parasites can subvert human interests

Boudry, Maarten and Hofhuis, Steije (2016) Attack of the Memes! How cultural parasites can subvert human interests. [Preprint]

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Are there any such things as mind viruses? By analogy with biological parasites, such cultural items are supposed to subvert or harm the interests of their host. Most popularly, this notion has been associated with Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “selfish meme”. To unpack this claim, we first clear some conceptual ground around the notion of cultural adaptation and units called ‘memes’. We then formulate Millikan’s challenge: how can cultural items (‘memes’ or whatever you want to call them) develop novel purposes of their own, cross-cutting or subverting human purposes? If this central challenge is not met, meme talk will be vacuous or superfluous. First, we discuss why other attempts to answer Millikan’s challenge have failed. In particular, we put to rest the claims of panmemetics, a somewhat sinister worldview which treats all of culture as swarms of selfish agents. Next, we reject a more reasonable, but still overly permissive approach to cultural parasitism, which equates mind parasites with biologically maladaptive culture. Finally, we present our own answer to Millikan’s challenge: certain systems of misbelief can be fruitfully treated as selfish agents developing novel purposes of their own. Such mind parasites are designed to spread in a viral-like manner, without any regard to the interests of their human hosts. As a case study, we discuss the witch hunts of early modern Europe. In this particular case, adopting the meme’s eye view promises to shed new light on a mystery that historians and social scientists have been wrestling with for decades.

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Item Type: Preprint
Boudry, Maarten
Hofhuis, Steije
Keywords: meme’s eye view; mind parasites; cultural adaptation; misbeliefs; witch persecutions; maladaptive culture
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Cognitive Science
Specific Sciences > Psychology
Depositing User: Maarten Maarten Boudry
Date Deposited: 12 May 2017 13:20
Last Modified: 12 May 2017 13:20
Item ID: 13036
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Cognitive Science
Specific Sciences > Psychology
Date: 27 October 2016

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