Parasites of the mind. How cultural representations can subvert human interests

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Boudry, Maarten; Hofhuis, Steije
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Are there any such things as mind viruses? By analogy with biological parasites, such cultural items are supposed to subvert or harm the interests of their host. Most popularly, this notion has been associated with Richard Dawkins’ concept of the “selfish meme”. To unpack this claim, we first clear some conceptual ground around the notions of cultural adaptation and units of culture. We then formulate Millikan’s challenge: how can cultural items (‘memes’ or whatever you want to call them) develop novel purposes of their own, cross-cutting or subverting human purposes? If this central challenge is not met, talk of cultural ‘parasites’ or ‘selfish memes’ will be vacuous or superfluous. First, we discuss why other attempts to answer Millikan’s challenge have failed. In particular, we put to rest the claims of panmemetics, a somewhat sinister worldview according to which human culture is nothing more than a swarm of selfish agents, plotting and scheming behind the scenes. Next, we reject a more reasonable, but still overly permissive approach to mind parasites, which equates them with biologically maladaptive culture. Finally, we present our own answer to Millikan’s challenge: certain systems of misbelief can be fruitfully treated as selfish agents developing novel purposes of their own. In fact, we venture that this is the only way to properly understand them. Systems of misbelief are designed to spread in a viral-like manner, without any regard to the interests of their human hosts, and with possibly harmful consequences. As a proof of concept, we discuss witchcraft beliefs in early modern Europe. In this particular case, treating cultural representations as “parasites” – i.e. adopting the meme’s eye view – promises to shed new light on a mystery that historians and social scientists have been wrestling with for decades.