The bunny ears sign used to be a way of calling someone a cuck. In fact they're not bunny ears at all, they're cuckold horns. The original meaning has been lost, and today clueless children across the world use it as nothing more than a vaguely teasing gesture. This is an amusing case of a wider phenomenon I like to call memetic defoundation.

A general formulation would look something like this:

  • Start with a couple of ideas of the form "[foundation] therefore [meme]"1
  • [foundation] is forgotten, disproved, or rendered obsolete
  • [meme] persists regardless

Dead beliefs

Organizational decay is a hotspot for memetic defoundation. Luttwak tells us of a unit in the Rhine legions led by a Praefectus Militum Balistariorum long after the Roman army had lost the ability to construct and use ballistae. Gene Wolfe uses this effect in The Book of the New Sun to evoke the image of an ancient, ossified, slowly crumbling civilization: my favorite example is a prison called the "antechamber" where the inmates are still served coffee and pastries every morning.

E. R. Dodds offers another example in The Greeks and the Irrational, where he describes the decline of religion in Hellenistic times:

Gods withdraw, but their rituals live on, and no one except a few intellectuals notices that they have ceased to mean anything.

Scott Alexander comments on the relation between science and policy: "The science did a 180, but the political implications stayed exactly the same."

John Stuart Mill writes that memetic defoundation "is illustrated in the experience of almost all ethical doctrines and religious creed" and argues that free speech is necessary to prevent it, as open debate preserves the arguments behind ideas:2

If, however, the mischievous operation of the absence of free discussion, when the received opinions are true, were confined to leaving men ignorant of the grounds of those opinions, it might be thought that this, if an intellectual, is no moral evil, and does not affect the worth of the opinions, regarded in their influence on the character. The fact, however, is, that not only the grounds of the opinion are forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the meaning of the opinion itself. The words which convey it, cease to suggest ideas, or suggest only a small portion of those they were originally employed to communicate. Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost. [...] Truth, thus held, is but one superstition the more, accidentally clinging to the words which enunciate a truth.

Sometimes a meme will spread because it captures a true relation, but will use an unrelated foundation to do so. Greg Cochran suggests that Christian Science (a sect that avoids all medical care) developed as a response to the high fatality rates of pre-modern medicine. But the meme only spread when the foundation was put in theological rather than medical terms. What really matters for defoundation is the implicit relation that is captured (pseudoscientific medicine → avoid medical care) rather than the explicit one (sickness results from spiritual error → avoid medical care). When medicine improved, the true basis of the meme was gone, but of course that did nothing to change people's religious beliefs.

Finally, many (including Schumpeter,3 Santayana,4 and Saint Max5) have identified an instance of memetic defoundation in the relation between Protestantism and political liberalism (in the most general sense of the word). In broad strokes, the argument is that liberalism dropped God but kept the Protestant morality. Moldbug6 erroneously places this transition after WWII, while Barzun argues it happened 300 years earlier7. Tom Holland thinks this is an awesome development,8 while others are more skeptical. My old buddy Freddie makes the same diagnosis in Twilight of the Idols:

In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one’s position in a fear-inspiring manner as a moral fanatic. That is the penance one pays there. – With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality. For the latter is absolutely not self-evident: one must make this point clear again and again, in spite of English shallowpates. Christianity is a system, a consistently thought out and complete view of things. If one breaks out of it a fundamental idea, the belief in God, one thereby breaks the whole thing to pieces: one has nothing of any consequence left in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know what is good for him and what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows. Christian morality is a command: its origin is transcendental; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticize; it possesses truth only if God is truth – it stands or falls with the belief in God. – If the English really do believe they will know, of their own accord, ‘intuitively’, what is good and evil; if they consequently think they no longer have need of Christianity as a guarantee of morality; that is merely the consequence of the ascendancy of Christian evaluation and an expression of the strength and depth of this ascendancy: so that the origin of English morality has been forgotten, so that the highly conditional nature of its right to exist is no longer felt.

Things are in the saddle

Which brings us to the question of how memetic defoundation happens. In Nietzsche's model you start with the foundation and the meme is derived from it, but once the ideas have been entrenched deeply enough, the foundation can evaporate without affecting the meme. Like a fish doesn't notice water, people no longer notice the assumptions behind their beliefs. I call this the foundation-first model.

But I think he's wrong: in some cases, including the question of Christianity, the correct approach is a meme-first model. In this view, the foundation is simply a post-hoc justification (or a spandrel) glued onto a preëxisting meme. That is not to say the foundation is irrelevant, just that its role in supporting the meme is viral rather than logical.

Where did the meme come from? In his brilliant essay The Three Sources of Human Values, Hayek argues that ideas come from three sources:

  1. Consciously directed rational thought
  2. Biology
  3. Cultural evolution

We can use this classification to look at memetic defoundation. The first case is the easiest: the Roman army uses siege weapons, so someone in charge creates a siege unit and a Praefectus to lead it (a clear foundation-first instance). Eventually it loses those capabilities, but the structure remains.

Biologically instilled tendencies and values are more challenging to analyze: their aims tend to be inaccessible to introspection or hidden through self-deception. And they are not necessarily moral judgements: it could be something as simple as folkbiological classifications predisposed to certain patterns, which then influence values.9

Behaviors and social structures generated by cultural evolution also tend to be opaque: they were created by a process of random variation and selection, then sustained by a distributed system of knowledge accumulation and replication—no individual understands how they work (and they generally don't even try to, simply attributing them to custom or one's ancestors). Henrich details how the tendency of modern westerners to search for causal, explicable reasons is an anomaly.

Even when we try, we don't always succeed: the age of reason didn't necessarily make culturally evolved behaviors transparent. For example, traditional societies in the New World had various processes for nixtamalizing corn before eating it, which makes the niacin nutritionally available and prevents the disease of pellagra. It took until the 1940s(!) and hundreds of thousands of deaths until scientists finally understood the problem. And that's a simple nutritional issue rather than a question of complex social organization. As Scott Alexander puts it:

Our ancestors lived in Epistemic Hell, where they had to constantly rely on causally opaque processes with justifications that couldn’t possibly be true, and if they ever questioned them then they might die.

In a world filled with vital customs and weak explanations it's important to make sure nobody ever questions tradition—thus it is safeguarded by indoctrination, preference falsification,10 ostracism, or the promise of divine punishment. And now we have a second level of selective forces which are shaped by the needs of the memes: they mould their biological and social substrate to maximize their spread. And what are the traits they select for? Conformity, homogeneity, mimesis, self-ignorance, lack of critical thought: the herd-instinct. An overbearing society for a myopic, servile species domesticated under the yoke of ideas. That is the price we pay for the "secret of our success".11

Now consider what happens after a rapid shift in our environment (such as the introduction of agriculture, large-scale hierarchical societies, or the industrial revolution): both biological and cultural evolution are slow processes, and the latter has built-in safeguards to prevent modification. That is how we end up with a lag of ideas: baseless memes designed for a different habitat. Like a saltwater fish thrown in a lake, modern man depends on ideas he thinks are universal when they are really made for a different time and place. Hayek:

The gravest deficiency of the older prophets was their belief that the intuitively perceived ethical values, divined out of the depth of man's breast, were immutable and eternal.

What kind of ideas are most likely to take hold? "Doctrines intrinsically fitted to make the deepest impression upon the mind"12 that also increase fitness. Successful cultural adaptations tend to capture true relations, in false yet convincing ways. This is why religious memes are particularly susceptible to defoundation, and why most defoundation is meme-first. While many of these ideas may appear altruistic, they are really "subtly selfish" as George Williams put it—otherwise they would not have survived.

For example, G. E. Pugh in The Biological Origin of Human Values talks about the ubiquitous sharing norms in primitive human societies. Christopher Boehm in Hierarchy in the Forest (a work that blatantly plagiarizes Nietzsche) discusses the "egalitarian ethos" of primitive societies and its evolutionary origin, which expresses itself as a "drive to parity", which became possible to enforce with the evolution of tool use and greater coordination abilities:

Because the united subordinates are constantly putting down the more assertive alpha types in their midst, egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy.

The collective power of resentful subordinates is at the base of human egalitarian society, and we can see important traces of this group approach in chimpanzee behavior. [...] It is obvious that symbolic communication and possession of an ethos make a very large difference for humans. Yet it would appear that the underlying emotions and behavioral orientations are similar to those of chimpanzees, as are group intimidation strategies that have the effect of terminating resented behaviors of aggressors.

To re-work Nietzsche's argument into a more plausible form: the drive to parity came first. Christian morality is simply a post-hoc justification of this innate tendency, in a highly contagious and highly effective prosocial package. God is now dead, but that does nothing to change our evolved moral intuitions, so this drive simply finds new outlets: humanism, democracy, liberalism, socialism, etc. As this shift of ideas happens, we inevitably bring along some old baggage.

The sentiments necessary to thrive in a band or a tribe are not those that we need today, but they are largely those we are stuck with. Modern civilization and its markets are inhuman and unintuitive (if not actively repulsive) and exist largely because we are able to suspend, disregard, and master our innate impulses. Seemingly new ideologies directed against the market are nothing but an atavism: the incompatibility between our innate tendencies and the external environment explains their peculiar combination of perpetual failure and perpetual popularity.

Clean sweep

Counterintuitively, the memes can be strengthened by abandoning the thing they're (supposedly) based on. You can attack Christianity-the-religion-and-ethical-system by attacking God: if morality comes from God, when you take down God you also take down his morality. But it didn't work out that way in practice: people dropped the God but kept his system; where do you attack now? In theory "that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." In reality, that which is asserted without evidence is difficult to refute regardless of the evidence.13

Another issue, as I argued above, is that we don't comprehend them, either because of self-deception, limited introspection, or the blind forces of cultural evolution. The solution to both of these problems is the genealogical method. The ultimate aims of our values and customs lie in their (genetic or cultural) evolutionary history; by understanding their development we can understand their purpose and the selective forces that shaped them. Through genealogy we can reach truths we have been designed not to see.14

Which brings us back to Nietzsche. How should one argue against God? Forget the old debate tactics, he says in Daybreak 95, and just treat it as an anthropological problem:

In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God – today one indicates how the belief that there is a God arose and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous. – When in former times one had refuted the 'proofs of the existence of God' put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted: in those days atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep.

It is this approach that we should deploy against foundationless memes. Don't bother with arguments attacking the foundation or the meme itself, rather go for a "clean sweep". The case of Christian Science mentioned above is a perfect example: providing theological arguments against it is futile (and fundamentally aiming at the wrong target). But understanding how it came to be makes the situation crystal clear.

The Hansonian approach of noticing a disconnect between stated and revealed preferences is also useful for spotting these memes in the first place. Hanson combines both techniques in his analysis of The Evolution of Health Altruism.

What if some lies are useful and life-preserving? What if such lies are fundamentally necessary for societies to work well? Isn't this just a naïve overexpression of the drive to truth? That may well be the case, but just because some lies are useful does not mean that the particular lies we live by right now are the best ones. In fact the tyranny of mediocrity that flourished in our recent evolutionary past appears to be fundamentally incompatible with the modern world (not to mention the world of tomorrow). Understanding is a precondition for designing superior replacements, or as Nietzsche put it "we must become physicists in order to be able to be creators".

Genealogy allows us to understand the selective forces at play, and once we understand that we (and by we I refer to a tiny minority) have the power to overcome our self-ignorance and ingrained limitations in order to choose from a higher point of view. Not a position of "transcendent leverage", but at least an informed valuing of values, consistent with the world as it is.

  1. 1.I deliberately avoid the use of "assumptions" and "conclusion" because they're not always assumptions and/or conclusions.
  2. 2.He also supports an early version of steelmanning for the same purpose: "So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up."
  3. 3."Though the classical doctrine of collective action may not be supported by the results of empirical analysis, it is powerfully supported by that association with religious belief to which I have adverted already. This may not be obvious at first sight. The utilitarian leaders were anything but religious in the ordinary sense of the term. In fact they believed themselves to be anti-religious and they were so considered almost universally. They took pride in what they thought was precisely an unmetaphysical attitude and they were quite out of sympathy with the religious institutions and the religious movements of their time. But we need only cast another glance at the picture they drew of the social process in order to discover that it embodied essential features of the faith of protestant Christianity and was in fact derived from that faith. For the intellectual who had cast off his religion the utilitarian creed provided a substitute for it.", Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy
  4. 4."The chief fountains of this [genteel] tradition were Calvinism and transcendentalism. Both were living fountains; but to keep them alive they required, one an agonised conscience, and the other a radical subjective criticism of knowledge. When these rare metaphysical preoccupations disappeared—and the American atmosphere is not favourable to either of them—the two systems ceased to be inwardly understood; they subsisted as sacred mysteries only; and the combination of the two in some transcendental system of the universe (a contradiction in principle) was doubly artificial.", The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy
  5. 5."Take notice how a “moral man” behaves, who today often thinks he is through with God and throws off Christianity as a bygone thing. [...] Much as he rages against the pious Christians, he himself has nevertheless as thoroughly remained a Christian — to wit, a moral Christian.", The Ego and His Own
  6. 6."Progressive Christianity, through secular theologians such as Harvey Cox, abandoned the last shreds of Biblical theology and completed the long transformation into mere socialism. [...] Creedal declarations of Universalism are not hard to find. I am fond of the Humanist Manifestos, which pretty much say it all. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is good as well. No mainline Protestant will find anything morally objectionable in any of these documents."
  7. 7."The outcome of what has been reviewed here—late 17C critical thought, the events of 1688, and the writings of Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu— may be summed up in a few points [...] the political ideas of the English Puritans aiming at equality and democracy were now in the main stream of thought, minus the religious component.", From Dawn to Decadence
  8. 8.His book Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World is all about this topic. "If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America, has left God dead – then how are its values anything more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth?" Holland also likes to quote the Indian historian S. N. Balagangadhara: "Christianity spreads in two ways: through conversion and through secularisation."
  9. 9.Henrich has a very interesting paper with Scott Atran: The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions. "Most religious beliefs minimally violate the expectations created by our intuitive ontology and these modes of construal, thus creating cognitively manageable and memorable supernatural worlds."
  10. 10.I highly recommend Timur Kuran's Private Truths, Public Lies, his analysis of how social pressures cause people to display and sustain false beliefs is brilliant.
  11. 11.Nietzsche also brings up another related issue: the incompatibility between the older animalistic values and the new ones imposed by selective forces downstream of cultural accumulation, turning man into a "sick animal". But that's a story for another day.
  12. 12.Mill, On Liberty.
  13. 13.It might be interesting to approach this from the POV of Zizekian "ideology". Perhaps the issue is a kind of a-priori faith (because belief by conviction isn't really—it has already been mediated through our subjectivity) which disintegrates once you instrumentalize the idea. Of course people are resistant to instrumentalizing sacred values. From The Sublime Object of Ideology: "Pascal's final answer, then, is: leave rational argumentation and submit yourself simply to ideological ritual".
  14. 14.There's a Chesterton's Fence aspect to all of this: you need to understand the lie before you try to tear it down.