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Parasites of the Mind. Why Cultural Theorists Need the Meme’s Eye View

Boudry, Maarten and Hofhuis, Steije (2018) Parasites of the Mind. Why Cultural Theorists Need the Meme’s Eye View. [Preprint]

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Are there any such things as mind parasites? By analogy with biological parasites, such cultural items are supposed to subvert or harm the interests of their host. The hypothesis of cultural parasitism has appeared in different guises in the burgeoning field of cultural evolution. To unpack the notion of mind parasites, we first clear some conceptual ground around the concept of cultural adaptation and its relation to human agency. We then formulate Millikan’s challenge: how can cultural items develop novel purposes of their own, cross-cutting or subverting our own personal purposes? If this central challenge is not met, talk of cultural ‘parasites’ or ‘selfish memes’ remains vacuous. 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 cultural parasites, which are designed by cultural evolution and which subvert the interests of their human hosts. As a proof of concept, we discuss witchcraft beliefs in early modern Europe, and show how the meme’s eye view promises to shed new light on a mystery that historians and social scientists have been wrestling with for decades.

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Item Type: Preprint
Boudry, Maarten
Hofhuis, Steije
Keywords: mind parasites; cultural adaptation; misbeliefs; meme’s eye view; witch persecutions; maladaptive culture
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Cognitive Science
Specific Sciences > Psychology
Depositing User: Maarten Maarten Boudry
Date Deposited: 19 May 2018 19:11
Last Modified: 19 May 2018 19:11
Item ID: 14691
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Cognitive Science
Specific Sciences > Psychology
Date: 19 May 2018

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