The CAGW Memeplex; a cultural creature

The hypothesis for a single, simple, scientific explanation underlying the entire complex social phenomenon of CAGW.

UPDATE: as of 1st November, this Post is up at Climate Etc the blog of atmospheric scientist Judith Curry:
UPDATE1: as of 2nd November, this Post is up at ‘Watts Up With That’, the most viewed climate site on the planet:

Whatever is happening in the great outdoors regarding actual climate, inside, truly inside, in the minds of men that is, overwhelming evidence indicates that Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is a self-sustaining narrative that is living off our mental capacity, either in symbiosis or as an outright cultural parasite; a narrative that is very distanced from physical real-world events. The social phenomenon of CAGW possesses all the characteristics of a grand memetic alliance, like numerous similar structures before it stretching back beyond the reach of historic records, and no doubt many more cultural creatures that have yet to birth.

Having painted a picture of CAGW from a memetic perspective in fiction last December, see the post:, I realized that many people instinctively sense the memetic characteristics of CAGW, and typically express this in blogs or articles as relatively casual comments that cite memes or religion. Yet these folks appear to have no real knowledge of how truly meaningful and fundamental their observations are. Hence I have provided a comprehensive essay which attempts to fill in this knowledge gap, and indeed proposes that the entire complex social phenomenon of CAGW is dominated by memetic action, i.e. CAGW is a memeplex. Note: a ‘meme’ is a minimal cultural entity that is subject to selective pressures during replication between human minds, its main medium. A meme can be thought of as the cultural equivalent to a gene in biology; examples are a speech, a piece of writing (‘narratives’), a tune or a fashion. A memeplex is a co-adapted group of memes that replicate together and reinforce each other’s survival; cultural or political doctrines and systems, for instance a religion, are major alliances of self-replicating and co-evolving memes. Memetics101: memeplexes do not only find shelter in the mind of a new host, but they will change the perceptions and life of their new host.

An amusing depiction of a serious entity; the narrative colony creature that is the memeplex of Catastrophic Antrhopogenic Climate Change

Because the memetic explanation for CAGW rests upon social and evolutionary fundamentals (e.g. the differential selection of self-replicating narratives, narrative alliances, the penetration of memes into the psyche causing secondary phenomena like motivated reasoning, noble cause corruption and confirmation bias etc.) it is not dependent upon politics or philosophies of any stripe, which tend to strongly color most ‘explanations’ and typically rob them of objectivity. Critically, a memetic explanation also does not depend on anything happening in the climate (for better or for worse). CO2 worry acted as a catalyst only; sufficient real-world uncertainties at the outset (and indeed still) provided the degree of freedom that let a particular ‘ability’ of memeplexes take hold. That ability is to manipulate perceptions (e.g. of real-world uncertainty itself), values, and even morals, which means among other things that once birthed the CAGW memeplex rapidly insulated itself from actual climate events.

Homo Sapiens Sapiens has likely co-evolved with memeplexes essentially forever (Blackmore), therefore they are a fundamental part of us, and indeed no characteristic of CAGW appears to be in the slightest bit new, quite the contrary. Underlining this ancient origin, one class of memeplexes folks are familiar with is: ‘all religions’. Yet these fuzzy structures are by no means limited to religion; science has triggered memetic themes before and extreme politics frequently does so, and there have even been historic memeplexes centered on climate. This does not mean CAGW is precisely like a religion, but being similarly powered by self-replicating narratives creates the comparable characteristics that many have commented upon.

Using a great deal of circumstantial evidence from the climate blogosphere and support from various knowledge domains: neuroscience, (economic) game theory, law, corporate behavior, philosophy, biological evolution and of course memetics etc. the essay maps the primary characteristics of CAGW onto the expected behavior for a major memeplex, finding conformance. Along the way, contemporary and historic memeplexes (mainly religious) are explored as comparisons. The essay is long, book-sized, because the subject matter is large. I guess an essay describing all of climate science would be very long, so one exploring the entire memetic characteristics of CAGW plus I hope enough context for readers to make sense of that, is similarly so.

The context is extremely broad, ranging from why pyramid building evolved in Egypt to a passionate cry against kings, priests, and tyranny in a radical women’s journal of the early nineteenth century. From the impact of memeplexes on the modern judicial system courtesy of Duke Law, to the ancient purpose of story-telling and contemporary attempts to subvert this, along with a plot analysis of the film Avatar. From the long and curious tale of an incarnation of the past is always better meme currently rampant on the internet, to the evolutionary selection of fuzzy populations in biology and the frankenplex multi-element cultural creature that is CAGW. From the conflict related death-rates in primitive tribes versus modern states, to analysis of corporate social responsibilities after the Enron and banking sector crises. From memetic chain letters that stretch back to the hieroglyphs (Letters from Heaven), to the analysis of social cross-coalitions via game theory within the perspective of economics. From the concept of ‘the Social Mind’ courtesy of neuro-scientist Michael Gazzaniga, to pressure upon religions by aggressive atheism as promoted by Richard Dawkins. From modification of theistic memes in the Old to the New Testament, to notions of Gaia and telegraph wires and wing-nuts. Plus memetic sex, witchcraft, cults, Cathars, concepts of salvation, Communism, hi-jacking altruism, Lynsenkoism, lichen, psychologizers, National Socialism, de-darwinisation, that ugly term ‘denier’, and much more.

Next page (2) for more…

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4 Responses to The CAGW Memeplex; a cultural creature

  1. Martin Clark says:

    Thanks – very interesting.
    I have long been regarded as a heretic in my profession (town & regional planning) due to my annoying habit of drawing attention to the many shibboleths that the profession is subject to, and, to make matters worse, I’m a climate skeptic. Does this limit my ability to earn a living? No. I’m trying to take it easy but am still swamped with work. People seek my help because I am not a servant of either meme.
    I picked up on your 12 characteristics of religions and decided I’d better start by checking my own against this (I am a Baha’i).
    1) The religion is exclusive, members cannot belong to other religions (which are defined as false).
    Correct to a degree, except it is not permissible to define other religions as false.
    2) The religion supports a formal priesthood.
    False. Authority is vested in elected assemblies. Individuals do not have authority.
    3) The religion‟s principles are encouraged / enforced (orthodoxy).
    Well, they are stated, and mostly encouraged. Most are transcendent criteria, eg science and religion are one, independent investigation of truth … difficult for some to follow, impossible to “enforce”.
    4) The religion‟s narrative presents a universal peril, avoidable, for adherents at least, only by full belief and promotion of the religion.
    No. Perils exist, of course. Human destiny evolves. That’s what it has done and will continue to do.
    5) Believers are encouraged to self-identify with the religion‟s principles.
    Er … yes. Is that a problem?
    6) Believers have a superior status over non-believers.
    No. This is actually prohibited.
    7) Believers win praise for spreading the word and making conversions of others.
    8) Believers are offered rewards (e.g. the above salvation) and enlightenment; if not in this life or incarnation, then „the next‟.
    Not really – far more open-ended.
    9) Believers are offered simplification. Faith is promoted over inquiry: faith in arbitrary texts / persons / principles (be these in reality good, bad or indifferent regarding current circumstances).
    It may be the case that some adherents seek simplification, but the “message” is basically the opposite. Humanity has reached maturity. Imitation is no longer condoned.
    10) The religion imposes guilt on poor conformers.
    In some instances possibly.
    11) The religion‟s communal interests take precedence over the interests of any individual believer (the import and urgency of number 4 being used to support this).
    Up to a point, and where possible, but number 4 doesn’t support this.
    12) The religion may turn a blind eye to, or even actively encourage, persecution of individuals from competing religions.
    Again, this is prohibited.

  2. andywest2012 says:

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for dropping by. You have my sympathy re shibboleths and skepticism. It takes courage to remain independent and speak the truth as you see it against the pressure of peers and arbitrary consensus.

    I came across the Baha’i faith when doing research for a novel once a few years back, so I know the roots (a splinter group of a splinter group of Twelver Shi’ites circa late 19th century), but not too much else. Never thought I’d meet (so to speak) someone from that faith.

    The template may be a bit generic and clumsy regarding any specific religion, and biassed towards western / christian faith, but I have to say that from your very forthcoming answers the Baha’i faith seems extremely mature (in the best sense, i.e. of understanding and tolerance etc) and pretty laid back compared to most others. The absence of a firm salvation contract is very interesting. Perhaps all this has armed you well for the perception of more aggressive regimes, like climate change alarm.

    I’m not religious myself, but I have to say from limited data you supply, the Baha’i faith would seem like a better prospect than any others I’ve come across, if one required a route to a deity.

    Glad you found the work interesting and appreciate your feedback,
    Cheers, Andy

  3. Stuart B says:

    OK Andy, I am checking in here prior to diving into your essay, plus the pointers outwards. This is entirely new to me as an established area of study. I am hoping that eventually I will feel I know enough about it to make intelligent comments. That may be some time away. I was myself raised in the paradoxical and frustratingly baffling discipline of Experimental Psychology, with a strong presumption in favour of psychological reductionism. (I still capitalise it, it seems that significant to me). At the boundary between science and philosophy, I always felt that, aside the specific and sometimes highly provisional body of knowledge accumulated by a very ‘young’ science, the lasting impact on my own condition was a certain cheerfulness in the face of ignorance and uncertainty. Maybe even that these conditions are perennial, inevitable, and more pervasive than we like to think. I am interested in explanation, plausibility, deniability and the scientific project. I am currently wondering whether systematic intellectual endeavour is comprehensible via memetics. I am also interested in whether memetics and its outputs are to be understood or evaluated within any prior intellectual framework, or is it sufficiently novel and powerful to require a correspondingly innovative critique. You can see I’m struggling here…
    Anyway, I will try to understand what you are presenting, and hope to come back with something worth saying.

    Stuart B
    (on Judith Curry, sab)

  4. andywest2012 says:

    Hi Stuart,

    thanks for dropping by and for your feedback. Due mainly to my time restrictions there isn’t actually a great deal of posting or interaction on this site, and most is devoted to my other passion of writing science fiction. But any comment is certainly appreciated :)

    Memetics is a young and so somewhat still contested science which has already had some ups and downs, but should most definitely be viewed within the wider (and older) discipline of ‘cultural evolution’. The latter for instance sets a baseline for Darwinian processes within cultural trends, whether weaker or stronger, in which there seems high confidence with or without memetics as the more specific mechanism. In fact you may be well-armed to enter this area; it seems to me (from admittedly only a slice of a very large literature) that a weak point with all cultural evolutionary theories is that we don’t really know what is happening deep in the pysche, where macro cultural influences turn into some level of personal belief and action. So maybe you’ll be able to fill-in the missing bricks ;)

    I probably won’t get much or any time for blogging over the next 3 weeks, but hope you enjoy the reading.


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