In this essay I offer an alternative to biological memetics.
Why is an alternative needed?
Unnoticed by memeticists, there is a crucial difference between biological replicators and ideas: in biology, organisms are subject to natural selection; ideas, however, are created and selected by humans. This is an odd situation, which throws a wrench in the normal evolutionary model. Biologists would have to create new models, almost entirely from scratch, to take account of human peculiarities in the reproduction of ideas.
Fortunately, they don't need to. There's already a science dedicated to evolutionary processes guided by humans. This science is economics. (I just rewrote that, by the way.)
"Everyone recognizes that most people respond to costs and benefits in deciding how much to buy of simple goods such as fruit, clothing, or a car. I claim that this common-sense idea applies to all human decisions."
- Gary Becker, The Economics of Life
To simplify their work, economists often use a stripped-down model of humans that is completely rational and informed. This superhuman has been nicknamed homo economicus by detractors.
In this essay I am proposing a slight alteration to this model. I am positing that humans select both information and beliefs in the same way they select other economic goods. (Since homo economicus is completely rational and informed, he never has to select information or beliefs.)
This new model — homo memeticus — looks for the most rewarding information at the cheapest cost. When the costs of a piece of information increase, the likelihood of his "consuming" it decreases. He is utility maximizing, just as homo economicus, but he is not blessed with perfect information.
There are, however, some limits to the analogy with material goods. The market price for many ideas is negligible, allowing other costs to gain primary significance, such as the time and effort needed to understand the idea, or the adverse consequences of understanding it (maybe ignorance is bliss). These costs could apply to material goods as well, but presumably they exert more influence in the realm of ideas.
Homo memeticus also chooses his beliefs economically. Beliefs, though not traded on a market, have many costs. There are the costs of the information needed to understand the belief — for example, the time spent at church to understand Christianity, or the cost of an economics textbook to understand economic theory. There are psychological costs — for example, many people find the belief in human evolution painful, and prefer, psychologically, to believe humans were created by a god. Then there are financial costs — a business CEO will not get far with the belief that he is exploiting workers, and that the only way to rectify the situation is to transform the business into a workers' coop.
The model can be employed like so:
International trade economics is an obscure subject, filled with strange terminology and math. A good deal of time and effort is required to grasp it, not to mention the cost of buying a textbook! And the benefit to the layman is small — how many non-economists make more money or sleep better at night because they know that exports minus imports equals savings minus investments? Protectionism, on the other hand, is an easy theory to grasp. You can almost surely get the theory for free, and it gives you the mental security of knowing that our economic problems can be blamed on foreigners. Any man on the street can pride himself on having serious views about national policies with no schooling whatsoever, and without sacrificing his nationalist prejudices, thanks to protectionism.
The cheapness, simplicity, and psychological satisfaction of protectionism all play a significant role in its spread. In this area, protectionism — in spite of the almost unanimous support of free trade by economists — is the belief best suited to the stereotypical layman (a fact that bugs Paul Krugman to no end).
It is my belief that this simple model, with the help of empirical research, can explain the distribution of human beliefs. And though it is intuitive — obvious, really — it leads to surprising conclusions. More on these later.
Bryan Caplan, Rational Irrationality: A Framework for the Neoclassical-Behavioral Debate
Bryan Caplan, Rational Ignorance vs. Rational Irrationality