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In Other Contexts


Here are more examples of convergent evolution acting on clusters of memes.

This may sound stupid, but I'm entirely convinced that there's a locus for ideas about how to stretch. I learned some stretches in gym class way back in high school and college, but now the locus is mostly occupied by yoga. So, when I'm warming up for a game of ultimate frisbee (the only real-world team sport I've ever liked), and I see someone doing some weird stretch that I'm familiar with, I always imagine ve must have learned it in yoga, but then I ask, and find out, no, it's just some stretch.

Similarly, I'm mostly convinced that there's a locus for ideas about meditation and relaxation. The things I'm going to say below will actually show propagation, not convergence, but I'm sure one could find convergence, too, if one were less lazy than I. Anyway, for me the meditation/relaxation locus is also mostly occupied by yoga. At the end of a class it's traditional to lie down for a few minutes and focus on relaxing the muscles. That practice is very similar to the practice described in The Relaxation Response … but that's not surprising, really, since the author was intentionally adapting and simplifying other practices. How are the two different?

  • In yoga, one lies down instead of sitting. I imagine that the sitting part is derived from Zen.
  • In yoga, one focuses on the sound of the breath without thinking of it as being a word. (And, no doubt the word was originally “om”, not “one”.)
  • The idea of relaxing from the feet up is apparently not part of classical yoga. (It's not mentioned in Light on Yoga, for example.) Ironically, the idea was part of the first yoga class I took … I assume that was due to contamination from The Relaxation Response or something similar.

    Actually, we didn't just relax from the feet up, we visualized being slowly filled with a fizzy liquid. I've never run into that idea since, and have no idea where it came from, but it works for me, and I still do it. One especially funny aspect is that the color matters … the liquid has to be light blue, like the sky. As it happens, that's also the heraldic color I use in Myth.

I highly recommend any version of the practice, by the way. Also, speaking of meditation, in Mind Maps there's an interesting variant that applies to the mind rather than the body.

Now let's get back to the point, which is convergence. In Alleles and Loci, I said (in different words) that there was a locus for beliefs about the fundamental nature of the universe, and I named some of the different alleles. Well, guess what? There's one allele, or kind of allele, that I didn't name, because … well, because I didn't think of it right then. But, there's a good reason for that, which is that the allele has pretty well gone extinct. But enough suspense … what I'm talking about is polytheism.

It's a shame that polytheism has gone extinct, because it seems to be a prominent target for convergent evolution. I'm certainly no expert, but as I understand it, primitive cultures almost invariably are polytheist, with different gods for different natural phenomena, like the sun, the moon, the sea, thunder and lightning, and so on. That's the point I was trying to make in Religion, when I said that weak forms arise spontaneously.

Monotheism, I think, follows naturally from polytheism, but the process is less like convergent evolution and more like radioactive decay. It's easiest to see if you think in terms of the quality function. If you turn the function upside down, so that maxima become minima, then polytheism is a valley, a fairly stable minimum, but with a pass leading out of it down to another, deeper valley, which is monotheism. So, the state of the system oscillates around polytheism until a random fluctuation happens to give it an energy and a trajectory that are sufficient to take it over the pass and thence down to monotheism. Or, if you like, you can think that quantum mechanics applies, so that the system gets to monotheism by tunneling, with some half-life. (That would be a good test case for memetics, to compute that.)

Since in reality we only have one example of production of monotheism, it's hard to draw any other conclusions about what the process is like. (We have several forms of monotheism, but they all come from the same root.) All we know is that the half-life of polytheism must be pretty long, since we do find primitive cultures that practice it.

Speaking of religion and convergence, I should also briefly mention the idea of confession. The name comes from Catholicism, of course, but the idea is a convergence target that gets hit from many different directions. One can confess, or write in a journal, or draw mind maps, or talk to a psychoanalyst or to any disinterested observer, and the beneficial effect is the same: roughly, it gets things off your mind.

Now that I think about it, confession seems a lot like bundling, like an individual meme that performs a function and can be part of many different clusters. On the other hand, there's definitely some kind of locus there, that can be occupied by various incompatible clusters—confessing, for example, is redundant with writing in a journal, at least psychologically.

Now, for once, I've saved the best example for last. You're familiar with the Ten Commandments, I suppose? Here's a selection of three of them. They appear in Exodus 20 : 13–17, but I'm quoting them from Bartlett's because I want to show the King James version.

Thou shalt not kill.
Thou shalt not steal.
Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, [etc.].

Next we return to the subject of yoga. As the quotations in Description of Yoga explain, yoga is more than just a physical discipline; among other things, it defines five “great commandments transcending creed, country, age, and time”. Here are three of them.

ahimsa (non-violence)
asteya (non-stealing)
aparigraha (non-coveting)

The first, ahimsa, differs from not killing in subtle ways that I'll save for another essay; and the two that I'm not talking about don't exactly correspond to any of the Ten Commandments; but still, you have to admit the resemblance is striking. This is convergence in detail, not just in broad outline.

(The resemblance could be due to propagation, not convergence. However, to settle that question, you'd have to know a lot more about the history of ideas than I do; and even then you might not be able to make any definite statement.)


  See Also

  Doctrine of Ahimsa, The
  Physical Awareness

@ September (2004)