The Toxoplasma of Rage

This is a long walk, but it's pretty great:

Replicators gonna replicate.

What would it mean for a meme to have a life cycle as complicated as toxoplasma?

Consider the war on terror. It's a truism that each time the United States bombs Pakistan or Afghanistan or somewhere, all we're doing is radicalizing the young people there and making more terrorists. Those terrorists then go on to kill Americans, which makes Americans get very angry and call for more bombing of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Taken as a meme, it is a single parasite with two hosts and two forms. In an Afghan host, it appears in a form called 'jihad', and hijacks its host into killing himself in order to spread it to its second, American host. In the American host it morphs in a form called 'the war on terror', and it hijacks the Americans into giving their own lives (and several bajillion of their tax dollars) to spread it back to its Afghan host in the form of bombs.

From the human point of view, jihad and the War on Terror are opposing forces. From the memetic point of view, they're as complementary as caterpillars and butterflies. Instead of judging, we just note that somehow we accidentally created a replicator, and replicators are going to replicate until something makes them stop.


Imagine Moloch, in his Carthaginian-demon personification, looking out over the expanse of the world, eagle-eyed for anything that can turn brother against brother and husband against wife. Finally he decides "YOU KNOW WHAT NOBODY HATES EACH OTHER ABOUT YET? BIRD-WATCHING. LET ME FIND SOME STORY THAT WILL MAKE PEOPLE HATE EACH OTHER OVER BIRD-WATCHING". And the next day half the world's newspaper headlines are "Has The Political Correctness Police Taken Over Bird-Watching?" and the other half are "Is Bird-Watching Racist?". And then bird-watchers and non-bird-watchers and different sub-groups of bird-watchers hold vitriolic attacks on each other that feed back on each other in a vicious cycle for the next six months, and the whole thing ends in mutual death threats and another previously innocent activity turning into World War I style trench warfare.


(Also, wasn't The Toxoplasma of Rage a Public Enemy song?)

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17 Responses:

  1. If campaigners against police brutality and racism were extremely responsible, and stuck to perfectly settled cases like Eric Garner

    "Perfectly settled," ho ho ho. I'm guessing this little think-piece was written...three weeks ago, roughly?

  2. Tom Lord says:

    Isn't this just warmed over post-Hegel German idealism? You know, we are all under the sway of dialectically developing theses and antitheses; the world is ruled by neatly opposed Ideas that we make manifest in brutal reality: terrorist and radical islam; cops and robbers; cowboys and injuns; good guys and bad guys; dogs and cats; yin and yang; blah blah and yadda yadda yadda.

    It is a line of thinking that makes people stupider for having read it and taken it seriously. Stripped of the mystification ("toxoplasma", "memetics") is there anything left but "the power of positive thinking"? If only we just change the concepts, then maybe all the fighting just melts away....

    No. Marx was right about the German Ideology. It is true that the history of the material world is indeed shaped by the confrontations of opposed forces but this process is grounded in material reality, not ideas.

    The reproductive cycle of ideas is a physical process that takes place in hosts that need to eat, that need shelter, and so on. Ideas need fuel. Ideas are subordinate to the laws of thermodynamics. Ideas are the epiphenomenon, not the motive force.

    If a social process reproduces itself -- becomes a "replicator" -- it must be consuming more-coherent energy and it must be externally shedding waste heat.

    That material consumption and literal metabolic processing is the social replication / reproduction process. It's not the ideas traveling from host to host that is necessary and sufficient. It's the movement of grain and oil and the systems of production of food and electricity.

    The "west" does not attack certain Islamic societies repeatedly because westerners got spooked into a cycle of abuse at first sight of the unfamiliar Other. Radical islam does not resist the west because it has been hypnotized by the obverse side of our narratives of terrorism.

    No, the west attacks to expand its domination of the processes of resource extraction and production. It attacks because capitalism, to balance its thermodynamic books, must expand and grow or die. Where societies on the receiving end of this expansion are disinclined to abandon alternative systems of social production the west encounters resistance.

    Nothing is easier to see than this: If our enemies tomorrow declared themselves to be poor but honest workers, eager to apply for jobs, anxious to adopt the property laws of their colonizers then overnight the conflicts would end.

    Short of that kind of surrender the "west" must constantly attack to protect "order", to keep trade routes open, to protect and expand capital now and forever.

    The first stage of disappointment Ideologues encounter is when they are forced to recognize that the world is not ordered by their own personal ideas.

    And so Ideologues invent concepts like mimetics. If the world is not under my Ideas at least it is still ordered by somebody's Ideas with which mine can compete in the pure realm of long-form blogging.

    The second and harder stage of disappointment for Ideologues is to eventually realize that the world is not ordered by Ideas at all.

    Dialectical Idealism and Historic Materialism reach very different sorts of conclusions. The Ideologue hopes to end war, finally, by writing a well received, best-selling book. The Materialist is more apt to try to end war by demanding a shorter work-week, say a reduction from the 40 hour standard to 20.

    • Demcanulty says:

      I don't really see how refusing to understand how modern media works enhances your ideas or your conclusion.

      • Tom Lord says:

        You seem confused. Have you been having difficulties lately?

        "I don't really see how refusing to understand how modern media works enhances your ideas or your conclusion."

    • jwz says:

      Reducing everything to thermodynamic debt is probably a pretty good way to run an industrial revolution, or hold together a seafaring empire, but you and I currently live in a world where a whole lot of people place more value on the organization of ideas than on the organization of atoms. If you want to go with a strict classical physics interpretation of economics, I assume you'd also object to money being anything but highly structured metals and crystals, instead of the consensual hallucination that it is, appearing and disappearing from the frothing void if only enough people believe, like some quantum-mechanical Tinkerbelle.

      A slavish devotion to thermodynamics is what gives us hot messes like the music industry. Home taping is killing the expansion of spacetime!

      • Tom Lord says:

        "you and I currently live in a world where a whole lot of people place more value on the organization of ideas than on the organization of atoms."

        Sure, people have all kinds of thoughts.

        I'm just saying that if some social dynamic keeps replicating (like visiting frequent violence on muslims in certain parts of the world) that there has to be some underlying material cycle that's driving it. Someone is getting fatter off the process. It's not just something that arose because we collectively thought bad thoughts.

        If that material component is missing for a set of ideas then those ideas might reverberate or echo through society for a while but they don't replicate.

        Conversely if the self-reproducing material cycle is present, then peoples' ideas about what they're doing in that cycle can vary wildly. Toxoplasma lifecycle is a great analogy for a thing that doesn't actually happen with ideas -- not as described in that post, anyway.

        "A slavish devotion to thermodynamics is what gives us hot messes like the music industry."

        I'd say "thermodynamics" "industrialism" because a lot of the weirdness seems to flow from attempts to use the state's power to create artificial commodities out of otherwise non-rival goods.

        • jwz says:

          Sure, people have all kinds of thoughts.

          Well that's the point -- value is what people think it is. It's only measured in calories/heat when you're still stuck on the lower rungs of the hierarchy of needs. (Which obviously lots of people are, but arguing about Hegel has little caloric value.) So because information can have value decoupled from thermodynamics, thinking about how ideas propagate is not just navel-gazing and obfuscation.

          • Tom Lord says:

            "thinking about how ideas propagate is not just navel-gazing and obfuscation."

            Yes but Scott Alexander's up the wrong tree. For example, he says at one point:

            "This follows about three months of most of America being at one another’s throats pretty much full-time about Ferguson."

            As far as I can recall those three months never happened.

            There was no period of time when "most of America" or even "much of America" were "at one another's throats ... about Ferguson". He infers (for no good reason) that there was such a time from the existence of a few blog posts and a Pew poll.

            So what did happen? Very early on activist communities developed a very strong case against Wilson in the killing of Mike Brown. The case was quickly popular with activists not because it was controversial but because it was so open and shut: the evidence against (the then unnamed) Wilson is very strong strong and public officials from the start have been reacting very badly.

            Using established networks, activists quickly brought together fairly militant, improvisational protests first in Ferguson and then in other cities.

            In response to that organized protest (by relatively small numbers of people) public officials obligingly over-reacted to suppress with excessive force, thereby creating a spectacle that mass audience news outlets had to keep up with.

            It followed, as usual, that extremely abstracted, distorted presentations of the situation in Ferguson appeared on the nightly news. I think you could safely say that by that point most Americans had heard of the Mike Brown killing but none of this stuff of America being at one another's throats.

            Scott is maybe trying too hard to find some kind of memetic explanation for the supposed spread of an idea that did not actually occur -- at least in nothing like the way he describes.

            Awareness of Mike Brown spread for very material reasons. Activists were able to converge on Ferguson and to establish lines of material support (supplies, shelter, etc.). Their evolving protest strategies are effective at provoking violent over-reaction by the state. Mass audience news outlets could not skip over the result. Who needs memetics? This was an on-the-ground power play.

            • crowding says:

              As far as I can tell, Scott Alexander seems to write from a social bubble of People who Care about Politics on the Internet, and the "at each other's throats" stuff is true... for the peculiar mixture of SJWs, anti-SJWs, liberals, libertarians, neoreactionaries, and Yudkowskians that inhabit his bubble.

    • Laura Rubin says:

      Wow, someone's been Markov-chain training another bot on /r/AcademicPhilosophy/?

    • James says:

      Photovoltaic solar power (along with power-to-gas and gas-to-liquids tech) is going to break the "thermodynamic" cycle of resource seizures, radicalization, and blowback by 2023. Cheap and abundant energy will make a lot of nice things happen, prevent a lot of terrible things that most everyone has been used to in the past century, and it will make a lot of marvelous things much more likely; maybe even a sustainable 90% middle class globally at present population levels. But it will also make plenty of stupid things much more likely, for example it might not help much with nuclear terrorism nonproliferation.

  3. demcanulty says:

    Actually, I think you've just clarified something useful for me. Thanks!

    • demcanulty says:

      This was meant to be a reply to Tom Lord much earlier but I apparently failed to navigate to the correct reply page and now it seems rather odd sitting out here. For the record, I'd like to note that in my opinion, "Home taping is killing the expansion of spacetime!" ought to be made into something like a campaign button or a bumper sticker so that more people can be made aware of it.

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