The Memeing of Life: Pliny's History of Human Cognition, part 1

I frequent a number of well-intentioned sites where insightful scientists lament their inability to combat even a single mumbled phrase that Oprah, et. al., happens to drop with abandon. They hurl data into the fray only to have it swallowed in the cacophony of ignorance that takes the place of real informed discourse in this country. Somebody like Jenny McCarthy can sway the public's perception of life-saving miracles of science that couldn't be dispelled by the resurrected ghosts of Einstein, Fleming, Newton and Galileo. It's probably a losing battle.

Scientific and critical thinking's tenuous hold on humanity may well have been doomed by the Internet and cable TV- the latest and greatest forms of unfiltered mass hypnoentertainment. Why? because they combine all of the attributes of video games, television, pulp entertainment, nasty gossip, conspiracy theories, the anonymous trash talking people love to do in cars, with porn from all over the world. You know, all the stuff humans find entertaining. It's probably unbeatable until real VR comes around and then we'll all starve like those old Skinner rats who couldn't stop pushing the button connected to their pleasure centers. Ironically, the later part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries may be remembered (in museums at least) as the high point of enlightenment - the period before technical progress allowed activist monopolists like Rupert Murdock to amass vast wealth and skew the political process while simultaneously rotting our brains.
America has never loved scientists. We are a people more interested in passion than sense and logic. That's part of the reason we love athletes in America but hate scientists. We forgive the athlete a thousand transgressions yet imagine a million conspiratorial theories about the actions of scientists. Never been too clear on why that is. Maybe it's because a 5'9'' guy standing next to a 7' NBA center has an easier time understanding why he can't do that guys job. I suppose if scientists really had huge pendulous craniums with exposed brains it might help. Or maybe not. Maybe it's because sitting at home drinking a cold one, we don't worry about the geopolitical impact of a good rebound. (I do to an extent - I'm tired of getting taxed to pay for all these damn sports venues that I don't go to but that's just me.) Maybe it's some ancient tribal yearning that replaces pillaging, who knows.

Or maybe it's an ancient race jealousy and distrust from a time when things were very different and physical prowess (and the occasional spear) was all we had going for us.

It's time for the wayback machine to help us understand how all this has come to pass.
One thing is pretty clear. Scientists are a recent development in human history - or at least the persistence and reproduction of scientists is. The deep scientific rationale for this is explained below. It explains the problem faced by proto-scientists throughout the great majority of human history.

The problem we face is that proto-scientists - those that questioned assumptions, tended to be lunch for predators. Those non-curious types who ran anytime they even thought they saw a face, reproduced. The result? A race of paranoid beings who see faces in everything and who make snap decisions on gut instinct and little data - and who are loathe to physically stick around too closely to where there are scientists... Explains a lot doesn't it.

The fate of early investigators did nothing to dissuade others to abandon the cut and run model.

Humans also found that skills honed to handle predators came in equally handy during debates.
It was probably not long after that the first proto-geeks began to hide their intellect so as to avoid the big stick. It would be some time before proto-scientists would be able to contribute to significantly improved weapons design and thus gain a level of importance to the tribe.

In the memetime....

Unfortunately about the time all this was happening and mankind had begun, perhaps for the first time ever, to ask the question 'why?', generation after generation of primate ancestors reproduced offspring good at seeing faces and running away. Over time this life-saving propensity to see faces in the grass got a bit out of hand. The combination of increasing brain size, confirmation bias and Pareidolia (seeing faces in all the wrong places) resulted in the first set of easy answers to the the why question - spiritualism. Who knows what triggered it though my best guess is that it was some frustrated father who blurted out to his kids that the rock monster would come for them if they didn't tan that hide, or got tired of his kids asking him why all the time and so started making stuff up to appease them. Kind of like the Internet. Before you know it they'd start feeling weird around that particular rock and not want to turn their back on it. Their imaginations would feed their fears and when Grok, the biggest and bravest of them took a dare and climbed it - only to fall on his head, well that was the end of challenges to the rock monster for a long time.

Animism was the probable result from being able to see all those angry faces in anything and everything. It certainly made for a lot of mystical items strewn about. It was probably hard to go about without bumping into one of them with potentially dire consequences. Possibly resulted in the first cases of agoraphobia. Trouble was when you picked up one of these items it was hard to distinguish from other rocks and such. But the answer to why one rock had power and one did not was obvious! There was something invisible in the rock. True some rocks like URANIUM did have invisible powers but I doubt that was true of most mystic rocks and trees, etc. I suppose pure happenstance may have resulted in an icon to the god of alopecia being made out of yellow cake but a truly functioning icon was probably rare.

It wasn't too long before resourceful types tried to bribe the inanimate objects in order to gain favor. After all, you could often bribe a big warrior to prevent them from killing you, why not the rock? That was the true downfall of man, for while spirituality could only really be something personal between an individual and his or her perceptions of the universe, adding coin and offerings to the process began to tweak the senses of a new kind of predator who could seek profit from all these individual transactions. But that was still in the future.

Before long this habit of giving offerings to anything with a face became a bit of an inconvenience since many rocks trees and mountains had faces, so the world waited for some spiritual equivalent to United Way - some process of giving thanks with a single payment. The stage was set for the industrialization of spirituality. The problem with spirituality was then as it is now; it's a lot of work. But if a 'kit' could be provided well perhaps it would easier, at least for those who wanted to be part of something greater but didn't have time to work it out for themselves. The stage for Religion, the out sourcing of spirituality, was set.

Some guys had already figured out that clouds held faces too (and bunnies, and horses, etc.)

Then it hit them! All the faces in the rocks trees and mountains are just manifestations of the cloud faces! There is only one real face! We need only pay tribute to one. How do I know? OH, because the cloud face speaks to you through me. And thus was an industry born. Self help kits were fine, but the real money would be, as any entrepreneur knows, in recurrent revenues.

As the brokers of this misty being the middle men got to relay the costs of doing business to the masses, (who lapped it up because one large payoff was better than having to pay each rock and tree), fancy hats could now be afforded. But of course payola is never a one time event. Why the brokers seemed to be getting along so splendidly while the poor starved to make their offerings was one of those 'inscrutable mysteries' they kept prattling on about.

(I dare you to come up with a more simple explanation for the shift from poly to monotheism ;))

Once brokers got into the act spirituality was doomed for most. Once people looked to others for finding their own purpose in the cosmos, it was a sure recipe for abuse. Whether there was or was not a force in the universe to be blamed for placing our airway in close proximity to our esophagus became less interesting to the brokerage services than the trimmings of power they were coming to enjoy. The shtick had to be refined over time as some people began to question the costs of providing for these guys who dressed well but didn't seem to do too much else. Particularly when compared with all the other guys who demanded payment for piece of mind... But they were clever.
Keeping things mysterious helped with blaming the victim for any failures.

Before long the mystics began to bet one another about what they could get some guy to do if they asked, and they were pretty amazed with what they could actually get away with. This was a pretty sweet gig for many centuries. Of course new franchises would pop up from time to time to compete but savvy mystics would nip them in the bud whenever possible. Extending the paternal umbrella of 'Because I said so'" to a greater sphere of questions resulted in greater riches. Eventually the big box religions would come to be, but that was something for the future. Unfortunately, the biggest loser in all of this was the very spirituality that had spurred people's interest in the organized processes of religion in the first place. In place of help with the answers to life's journey they got institutions of great power that became interested mostly in keeping theirs. And as the old saying goes, power corrupts.... If there ever was a deity in there somewhere it became harder and harder to find and often less and less the point.

That was how it remained for centuries. But a something was brewing beneath the surface. Or rather in the night sky. All those little pinpoints of light and faint hazy smudges had held many answers to questions not yet asked. But that was about to change...

(But how, you might ask, (if not then go away now) has the Internet and cable TV doomed our race? The next set of diagrams contained in part 2 explain it all.)


Anonymous said...

Interesting hypothesis.

How about this. Religion is conformity, science is dissolution.

We have only ourselves to thank for keeping logic and reason down.
But as you rightly point out we love us some aesthetics. Religion = smells, bells and if we're so blessed, a piece by Bach.

It's the intellectual equivalent of an ample chested beauty who's easy on the eyes and easy to get in bed. Or on the female side, a muscular dim bulb with a chiseled jaw. Assuming heterosexuality of course ;-)

Science is the antithesis of all that. But now that it has funding, there's some hope.

Reason, she has a chance.

Of course I can't just leave it at that. As a "believer" of sorts I find religion to be a bit more complicated than just an intellectual floozy training us in Pavlovian behavior.

But I doubt my hypothesis would be nearly as entertaining.

mac said...

I like the cartoon suggesting religin is merely an extortion scheme.

I've felt that way for some time myself. IT'S not that different than gangsters co-ercing us for money...except we all accept that the gangsters are BAD.

Stacy S. said...

The diagrams/pictures are not working for me. :-(

As far as the transition to monotheism - I believe it came out of necessity. A big lie that encompassed traditions and stories from many different religions.

(So everyone could get along)

Asylum Seeker said...

Well I loved the pictures!

But I felt that you left out the most interesting part of all: the relevance of discerning "faces" above all else to mankind which is actually needed to better function in society. And how those very societies serve as a buffer against pure natural selection, by serving as a method of defense for those select few proto-scientists who would otherwise by viciously maimed by tigers, pandas, and snapping turtles due to the absence of beneficial paranoia. They could've been with us for a long time, but it wouldn't matter too much because in order for them to actually be in a good position for survival, they would have to be confined to relatively safe region where their curiosity is moot, and thus would have to rely mostly on second-hand information for things that modern day scientists would be able to easily and (usually) safely examine themselves.

Skepticism of those second-hand accounts from those seeing human agency everywhere around them would just have such a limited amount of information to safely act upon that it would be an effective block on learning. In addition, in tight knit communities, it would probably be social suicide, as may be shunned for such distrust in other people's word.

And, yes, I do like your explanation of monotheism. Gets the idea behind across in a very simple manner.

Michael Lockridge said...

This all reminded me of a short story I intended to write. So, I wrote it.


The Medicine Man's Apprentice.

It might fit into the theme of things. Give it a look.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

And how those very societies serve as a buffer against pure natural selection, by serving as a method of defense for those select few proto-scientists who would otherwise by viciously maimed by tigers, pandas, and snapping turtles due to the absence of beneficial paranoia.
that is in part 2!

Asylum Seeker said...

Well, then I take my last comment back and replace with "Spoiler Alert!".

GearHedEd said...

Pliny said:

"...It's time for the wayback machine to help us understand how all this has come to pass."

Funny you should recall the "wayback machine". As I was reading this post, I remembered some things from my childhood in the '60s. Notably, that there were some very pointed cartoon shows back then, specifically, the Bullwinkle show and Underdog.


Listen: Bullwinkle was right-wing propaganda for the kiddies. Who were the heroes? Brainiacs, historians and law enforcement characters. The villians? Russian agents.

In Underdog, the (left-wing)propaganda was even thicker, with the heroes as downtrodden, poverty stricken, and journalists; and the villains were *gulp* scientists!

I'm wondering if maybe the internet isn't such a bad thing, if it allows sane-minded individuals like we think we are (arrgh! subjectivity sucks!) to discourse freely on whatever topic strikes our grey matter.

Anonymous said...

Pliny, what steaming stack of crap. Only the wackos agree with anything you write, any shrink would send you and GearHedEd to a rubber room.

GearHedEd said...


It seems we've stirred some discontent, Pliny!

GearHedEd said...

Hey, Mr. Anonymous...

If you're implying that the the magical fairy tales in the Bible are facts, then you might want to step away and look at the crap YOU spew.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...


Personal satire is not to everyone's taste.
Thanks for stopping by - don't feel obligated to stay.

Asylum Seeker said...

The troll trolls at midnight.