Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Memetic Mandate: Make More Mini-Marxists!

In a previous post, I speculated that most memeplexes (collections of self-replicating ideas) which have proved effective at perpetuating themselves over time will likely have certain properties, such as a mandate for making more minds in mint-condition – prime targets for memetic imprinting.  Here, we look briefly at faith-based proscriptions on birth control or family planning as well as prescriptions in favor of creating children and passing on your beliefs to them. 

In these post-Marxist times, the Russian people are notoriously bad breeders, with a fertility rate between 1.2 and 1.4 babies per woman, that is, fairly well below replacement rate.  Of course, this has not always been the case.  Back in the day, the old Soviet regime adopted various pro-natalist policies in order to bolster the supply of new minds and bodies with which to construct their unprecedented workers paradise. 

The thrust of early Soviet policy involved the redefinition of women’s roles through a shift of functions from the family to the wider community. Early Bolshevik ideology drew on the Marxian distinction between “productive” and “nonproductive” activities in devaluing family roles, and linked the liberation of women to their entry into public arenas. At the same time, it was strongly pro-natalist in its assumptions, committed to procreation, if not to nurturance. Childbearing was emphasized as a uniquely feminine role: child-rearing, however, would be assumed by public institutions.

Decades later, in the 1970’s, Soviet demographers and policymakers revisited the possibilities for increasing fertility:

A series of different, though not mutually exclusive, policy options present themselves for the consideration of Soviet planners. A first possible approach would rely on legal and administrative measures to alter demographic behavior. Restricting divorces, and more importantly, restricting abortions, are obvious measures of this kind, insofar as abortion remains a major method of birth control In the Soviet Union today, whose incidence exceeds in many cases the number of live births, limitations might have a small but desirable effect on present birthrates.


Placing a share of the blame for low fertility on subjective factors, a number of demographers have called for a population policy specifically designed to reinforce pro-natalist values. Advocates of this second approach favor a massive effort to persuade the public of the desirability of early marriages, high marriage rates, fewer divorces, and larger families. A veritable campaign has been launched to persuade young couples to have at least two, and preferably three, children. Western studies that point to the advantages enjoyed by only children notwithstanding, Soviet commentators deplore the “hothouse” atmosphere of small families, which nurtures an egotistical individualism at odds with a proper socialist upbringing.

Yet a third approach to population policy emphasizes material incentives rather than pro-natalist values as the key to increasing fertility. Encouraged by opinion surveys that indicate a substantial discrepancy between ideal and actual family size, a number of writers have argued that economic constraints play a critical role in declining birthrates. Expanded child-care facilities, preferential housing for families with young children, better coordination of economic and social planning to prevent the development of cities with largely male or female populations, Increased supplies of consumer durables and everyday services to lighten the burden of domestic responsibilities—all these have been urged as possible stimuli to higher urban birthrates. Attention has also been directed to the variety of family assistance programs developed in both Eastern and Western Europe. Such comparisons implicitly dramatize the inadequacies of current Soviet programs and indicate that serious consideration is now being given to new social policies which might have a more powerful pro-natalist thrust.

Excerpted from Women in Russia by Atkinson, Dallin, & Warshofsky, pp. 130-133

Of course, as an adaptive meme complex, the phenomenon of Marxist/Leninist/Soviet ideology enjoyed the advantage of central planning backed by tyrannical force.   Memes for making more miniature Marxists may mandate motherhood more immediately than memes infecting individuals in free societies which are (by their very nature) more or less limited to reinforcing pro-natalist thinking in the minds which bear them.  On that note, my next post in this series will investigate memetic mandates for motherhood in Methodism.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Multiple Multifarious Memeplexes Metastasizing Most Maniacally

While listening to a debate between Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett, I found myself wondering what it would take to engineer the perfect memeplex, a set of self-perpetuating ideas intelligently designed for replication. Suppose you wanted to design a set of ideas which replicate themselves effectively regardless of whether they comport with our usual notions of truth, justice, and the American way. You would have to engineer two crucial mechanisms into your box of ideas: A replication driver and a defense mechanism against other ideas. True and useful ideas, of course, do not need these mechanisms, as they will inevitably spread on account of their utility and can always resort to the defense of being true. What we are considering here is an intelligently-designed memeplex which does not care whether the ideas in its collection are true or false, the ideas exist only for the sake of creating copies of themselves, not for the sake of benefitting their host. They are, in other words, parasitic rather than symbiotic ideas.

In terms of replication, two basic pathways come immediately to mind:

  • Make babies and pass on your memes to them
  • Make converts and pass on your memes to them

This latter pathway may be further subdivided into persuasive proselytizing or military conquest, but these categories may well blur together, as when the missionary priests accompanied the colonial conquerors into South America and India. Note that neither of these pathways requires that the ideas passed on be true, merely that their carriers are highly effective at passing them on.

There are also two basic defense mechanisms for collections of ideas:

  • Discourage apostasy by threat of force or sanction
  • Encourage fidelity by promises of rewards

Again, notice that neither threats nor promises require that the ideas to which one must remain faithful be true, merely that the ideas be widely accepted.

So, if I wanted to create a highly effective memeplex, I would be certain to inject these four basic features into my box of ideas, along with whatever other ideas happen to be in the box. In my next post, we will look for these four fundamental features of effective memeplexes inside of several seemingly dissimilar idea boxes: Marxism, Methodism, Mormonism & Muhammadanism.