We hate memes, pass it on…

Vaughn at Mind Hacks has a short post, Memes exist: tell your friends (clever, Vaughn, very clever), which links to a couple of meme-related talks at TED. Daniel linked to a lot of the TED talks back in April (TED: Ideas Worth Spreading), but Vaughn focuses on videos of Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, both of whom are ardent meme advocates.

I’ve watched both talks, more than a half hour of my finite lifespan that I will never get back (okay, I’ve wasted part of my finite life doing worse… I think), so I need to unburden myself. 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. 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.

But I digress, back to the content of the concept and Vaughn’s comments…

Continue reading “We hate memes, pass it on…”

Wired for Belief?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life brought together the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and the journalist David Brooks (yes, of neural buddhists fame) for joint presentations back in May, followed by a round-table Q&A discussion with a prominent group of journalists. The transcript of the entire event is now up, and that includes the audio as well as plenty more of the pretty brain graphics that you see here and some good event photos.

The presentations and discussions covered a wide range of topics, ably summarized and linked at the beginning of the transcript, including the physiology of beliefs and brains in meditation and prayer from Newberg and the revolution in brain research and neuroscience and soft-core Buddhism from Brooks. The discussion was also wide-ranging, going over issues such as Is religious Darwinism valid? and Brain physiology in party politics. As befits a Pew gathering, there is a considerable amount of attention focused on religion, atheism, and the like.

Newberg covers a lot of his take on the biology of belief as well as imaging research he has done on people praying or meditating. Here’s an excerpt on belief:

So our brain is trying to put together a construction of our reality, a perspective on that reality, which we rely on heavily for our survival, for figuring out how to behave and how to act and how to vote. But again, the brain is filling in a lot of gaps and helping us think certain things that may or may not really be there… So what are beliefs? Again, I apologize, but I always come at this from a scientific perspective. I am defining beliefs biologically and psychologically as any perception, cognition, emotion, or memory that a person consciously or unconsciously assumes to be true. The reasons I define beliefs in this way are several-fold. One is that we can begin to look at the various components that make up our beliefs. We can talk about our perceptions. We can talk about our cognitive processes. We can talk about how our emotions affect our beliefs. And we can also look at how they ultimately affect us. Are we aware of the beliefs we hold? Or are they unconscious? And which ones are unconscious and which ones are conscious?

And an excerpt connecting belief to the practice of religion.

The practices and rituals that exist within both religious and non-religious groups become a strong and powerful way to write these ideas into our brain. Again, go back to the idea that the neurons that fire together, wire together. The more you focus on a particular idea, whether it is political or religious or athletic, the more that gets written down into your brain and the more that becomes your reality. So that is why when you go to a church or a synagogue or a mosque, and they repeat the same stories, and you celebrate the same holidays that reinforce that, you do the prayers, and you say these things over and over again, those are the neural connections that get stimulated and strengthened. That is a strong part of why religion and spirituality make use of various practices valuable for writing those beliefs strongly into who you are.

Brooks aims to place these sorts of ideas into a social and cultural context.

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Morris vs. Hauser, or What’s Universal about Morality?

Seed Magazine featured this debate/discussion between the evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser and the documentary film maker Errol Morris in a recent Seed Salon. The two sat down to discuss morality, given Hauser’s recent book Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong and Morris’ recent film Standard Operating Procedure on Abu Ghraib. So they are coming at the question from a wee bit different angle…

Hauser wants to argue for a universal moral module (or at least emotions) while Morris is the relativist. Hauser mentions the categorical imperative and selfish genes. Morris mentions social psychology and interpretations. In their explanations they talk past one another.

But what’s interesting is that the best part of their conversation revolves around the conjunction of people and context. This people/context conjunction is a universality both miss. Given how people and contexts and their interactions vary, it’s also relative.

I think Morris and Hauser miss understanding what they agree upon because we haven’t built a very good framework to give people like Hauser and Morris other ways to talk and to think.

Continue reading “Morris vs. Hauser, or What’s Universal about Morality?”

The Emerging Moral Psychology

Dan Jones writes on The Emerging Moral Psychology in April’s Prospect Magazine, an article I came across through The Situationist. He could just have easily called it the emerging moral neuroanthropology, for here is his opening, “Philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, economists, primatologists and anthropologists, all borrowing liberally from each others’ insights, are putting together a novel picture of morality… The picture emerging shows the moral sense to be the product of biologically evolved and culturally sensitive brain systems that together make up the human ‘moral faculty’.”

Jones takes us through “hot morality,” morality guided by intuitions and emotions and not universal laws, drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt. Then we get “the tale of two faculties,” highlighting the dual processing view (emotion and cognition) of Joshua Greene. Finally we get “A Moral Grammar” via Marc Hauser. Hauser gives us a moral code based on three principles derived from 5000 people who have taken the Moral Sense Test worldwide via Internet (no snarky comments as Greg might say):

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Wednesday Round Up #13


David Freedberg, Empathy, Motion & Emotion and Composition & Emotion
Two pdfs on art and the neurosciences by the Columbia art history professor

Sam Harris et al., Functional Neuroimaging of Belief, Disbelief and Uncertainty
Pdf of 2008 article from Annals of Neurology: “truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, in more than a metaphorical sense”

John Horgan, Brain Chips and Other Dreams of the Cyber-Evangelists
Yearning for brain chips, and the problems therein

Literary Trends

Kenneth Goldsmith, In Barry Bonds I See The Future of Poetry
Welcome to our post-human future

Anne Harrington, The Inner Lives of Disordered Brains
The Harvard historian of science’s excellent take on the recent rise in neuro-lit

Jonathan Gottschall, Measure for Measure
Literary criticism needs to embrace science

Henry Bowles, It’s in the Genes: Criticism Devolved
How about criticism of the literary embrace of dubious science?!

Bob Meagher, Socrates on the Campaign Trail
Hope or fear this fall? Socrates will help guide you

Elinore Longobardi, Think Globally, Read Locally
Journalism needs to embrace anthropology

Three-Toed Sloth, Books To Read While Algae Grow In Your Fur
Books recommendations; eclectic from liberalism and math brains to comic books…

Lorenz at Antropologi, Anthropology Blogs More Interesting Than Journals?
For some of us at least… a summary from a quick-and-dirty ethnography of blogging


Liz Danzico, Telling Stories Using Data: An Interview with Jonathan Harris
“Stories should have feeling, to the extent that they want to be human.”

Michael Price, Outside Language Looking In
Children who learn signing at home: language helps organize the mind’s underlying architecture

Continue reading “Wednesday Round Up #13”

Wednesday Round Up #10


Anthropology.Net, The Social Brain Hypothesis: Are Our Brains Hardwired to Deal with Hierarchies?
Subconsciously processing dominance hierachies

Marc Dingman, Neuroimaging and the Social Ladder
Social hierarchy: can we see it in an fMRI?

Ira Flatow, Mapping the Social Brain
How the brain responds to social status

Constance Holder, A Head for Social Hierarchy
More on the work by Caroline Zink: superior players change our own thinking

Free Will

Cognitive Daily, Changing Belief in Free Will Can Cause Students to Cheat
No free will, more likely to cheat—if responsibility doesn’t count, who cares?

Foolish Green Ideas, Tight Fit
Very funny take on the “no free will” research

Brain Mechanisms

Chris/Mixing Memory, Emotion, Reason and Moral Judgment
Brain damage, moral scenarios, and general vs. personal rationality

Continue reading “Wednesday Round Up #10”