spaceballs_poster.jpg Been a while. Teaching. Sorry. Links:

Can Anthropologists and other Cognitive Scientists live together? at Cognition and Culture.

Astroturfing the scientific databases: spamming the lobster eye at Pharyngula. Adnan Oktar, AKA Harun Yahya, is spamming biological websites.

Lady Greenfield makes a silly claim. Computers cause dumbitude, yadda yadda.

Attack of the cloned soldier worms by Ed Yong.

By our genes, though not alone by Razib Khan, makes the point that culture and environment and genes work together, at least in humans, based on Dave Dobbs post on the topic. Razib also has one on Gypsies on a genetic island.

My friend Adam La Caze has a paper in Biology and Philosophy on evidence based medicine (which isn’t).

Ian Musgrave (also a friend) shows how anyone can show that Galileo was right. He’s also featured in‘s report on a discovery he made with some others: Mercury has a tail. Yay Ian!

Yet Another Friend™ Chris Nedin argues that Proterozoic Sponges Claim Doesn’t Hold Water.

Receding gums: What ails Australia’s iconic trees?

What is life? A slowing of entropy, according to Ernesto Di Mauro. Here’s a review of his article on the generation of long chain RNA polymers in water.

The Group: On George Price, a review of several books on the author of the Price Equation, and altruism.

Falciparum malaria came from gorillas.

Bad Faith (In Science): Darwin As All-Purpose Boogey Man? John Farrell at HuffPo.

Inventing excuses for a Bible story, and getting them published in a science journal? That thing you heard on radio about the parting of the Red Sea being actually something that happened at the Nile delta, it’s, well, rubbish.

A late review of Storm World by Chris Mooney.

Once more, but with facts: The Pope, Nazis, and atheism by Phil Plait.

The Scientific Tourist In London: #15. Thomas Fairchild And The First Hybrids by Matt Brown (who’s doing a really good job playing the Doctor).

The future of internet censorship, by the EFF/EFA.

The Book That Nobody Read? Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus.

Marine Snow: Dead Organisms and Poop as Manna in the Ocean by Hannah Waters at Small Things Considered.

How important is hybridization? Jerry Coyne talks evolution, for a change.

Does This Man Deserve Tenure? Not according to David Bell. Mark Taylor is “unbelievably misguided”.

Why I no longer believe religion is a virus of the mind. Sue Blackmore has a deathbed conversion…

Women in science blogging.

The strange-face-in-the-mirror illusion. This is a wonderful blog you should all subscribe to.

Opinion: Mutations of citations. Using phylogenetic sequence analysis to track errors in citations.

The giant’s shoulders: September 2010 edition.

Obama Continues to Advocate Indefinite Detention. Oy.

Brian Switek’s on a tear: The Pelican’s Beak: Success and Evolutionary Stasis. How Doth the Hypercarnivorous Crocodile…

Minatures from the Ottheinrich Bible. Great for lecturers!

11 thoughts on “Linkballs

    1. I was referring to her losing the “mind virus” meme of religious memes. That one always bothered me, because the notion that the relation of a class of replicators (or, as I prefer, reproducers) to its environment or host must always be maladaptive, a tragedy of the commons, or some other exploitative relation that leads to harm for the environment or host is very much pre-Darwinian thinking. Evolution, we should all know by now, means that there will always be a range of relations, from pure exploitation through to commensualism, so even if we think religion evolves as independent reproducers, we should expect that in some cases it will be commensual or approach it.

      Actually the idea that religion is like a disease is fruitful. Consider Paul Ewald’s work on this: the fitness of a pathogen or parasite will covary with that of the host if the rate of propagation is roughly equal; when the genetic interests of the host and pathogen coincide. In such cases, religion/disease will tend to benefit the host it relies upon. This shouldn’t be a surprise. That it is, tells us much more about the agenda of the “religion is a mind virus” crowd than it does about the evolution of religion. I’m glad Sue has freed herself of that prejudice.


      1. Not the best choice of words, though. If a supposed “disease” is benefiting a host, it isn’t a disease by definition. “Microbe” or “symbiote” is a better term, no?


      2. I know what you meant. I just couldn’t help myself. You did say ‘deathbed’, afterall. It’s a very interesting point you make. In effect we should expect religions that spread primarily vertically to be more adaptive. Which sounds plausible.


      3. I was referring to her losing the “mind virus” meme of religious memes.

        Except that she hasn’t, really. What is a meme that is not also a virus? Aren’t all memes parasitical by definition? (I think Dennett still uses the term this way).


        1. Dennett does, AFAIK, but Sue has been a bit different in her interpretation. For a start she doesn’t think memes parasitise us; she thinks we are our memes. So the question is not whether religious memes are pathological, but whether they have a positive or negative effect on our biological fitness; the standard story has been they are deleterious. Sue is realising they are not necessarily either deleterious or adaptive.


      4. For a start she doesn’t think memes parasitise us; she thinks we are our memes.

        This seems to me to be a distinction without a difference. Dennett says memes parasitize our brains, and that our minds are the result of that parasitization. (“A human mind is itself an artefact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes”). Which is to say “we are our memes.” It’s the same position. Getting rid of the word “virus” just makes it even less tenable than it already was.

        The problem Dennett and Blackmore both come up against is that there’s no way to characterize memes as harmful except in subjective terms of what they don’t like. (Dennett sometimes flirts with admitting that rational inquiry is superior to obsequiousness because it is, for him, a virtue.) The Darwinian angle is a complete non-starter. Friendship, monogamy and universal human rights are all “maladaptive” by ESS logic. All social constructs have a “cost” (demanding “large amounts of money and time” or imposing “health risks”). The evaluation of those costs must happen in the moral realm, which memetics has no capacity to analyze because it denies the ontological existence of personal agency. You cannot simultaneously say that “we” are the products of successful ideological replicators, and that “we” must advocate the embrace of more beneficial alleles of these replicators. Neither the advocacy, nor the embrace, are possible by the logic of memetic theory.


  1. I am struggling to understand what a meme is and what makes it diffrent from the motifs I study.

    One of which is the Vak Vak or talking tree, a motif, which appears most concentrated in the middle east and forms part of a body of narratives that influence the development in the West of the Wild man and the man-like -ape .

    Dennet views it as an example of the type of meme which is the ancestor of the gods. It’s an entertaining motif and is used in Arabic scientific and philosophical texts as an illustration to draw attention to the texts, which in most cases bares no relationship to the image.

    All of the material I have come across relating to the Vak Vak is intended for entertainment. Although as with the Arabic manuscript tradition it is used to make serious works of philosophy, cartography and medecine appeal to a wider reader.

    I think what stuns me the most is the evidence base used. Sue Blackmore in explaining the diffrence in here piece between science and religion (science rejects ideas that don’t work and moves on) seems to suggest the meme belongs to science. As an arts student you naivly expect to see a much higher standard of research, fieldwork and in the case of these type of motifs a fully developed taxonomy.

    Its biologies strengths in taxonomy and rigorious feildwork, research and testing that makes it somewhat exciting as a subject to tackle these issues.

    Here is a transcript of Dennet on the origin of the talking tree from a lecture.

    “So here is a little sketch of a sketch, of what might happen.

    Ok, you and you’re friend are out in the woods, walking along in the dark, you can hear a noise, “Oh, Oh, what was that, what, what. Oh my god. Oh my god, that tree, I could have sworn that tree said something” (Laughter).

    “Oh come on you think theirs a talking tree!”

    “Well it seemed like a talking tree for a moment.”

    “A talking tree! You think that the uh, you think theirs a talking.”

    “Well it seemed (?).”

    “ Hey, Fred he thinks he’s seen a talking tree, he claims he’s heard a talking tree (?)”

    This is fantasy. As is the notion that the meme leads directly to the Gods.
    The Vak Vak has a range of cultural ideas attached to it throughout its development. It also helped to make scientific texts memorable but it’s not acceptable to suggest that it leads directly to the ideas contained within them I think.

    Although I suspect some religious fudamentalists would be more than happy to make that claim.


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