TCS Daily


Memes of Superstition

By Sallie Baliunas - March 19, 2003 12:00 AM

"Meme" is a term invented by Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, 1976) based on a concept outlined by anthropologist F.T. Cloak in 1973, and it may now inform the current debate over global climate change.

In a deliberate parallel to genes and biological evolution, Cloak and Dawkins have argued that information-containing entities - memes (pronounced "meem," like dream) - much as genes, reproduce as they are transferred among humans and mutate as ideas change.

Memeticists are still searching to identify a meme with a physical substrate to complete the analogy with genes. An organism's genes are carried as instructions by four special molecules (called nucleotides) arranged in pairs and connected across two strands built of sugar and phosphate molecules that twist into a helix-shaped molecule called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). Some neuromemeticists speculate that the meme is the electrical impulse of a thought, although that is too vague a description for scientific rigor. Others (and for now I favor this camp) argue that memes are external to the human mind (e.g., W. L. Benzon, Beethoven's Anvil, 2001).

In any event, memes can be viewed as the sum of ideas that describe human culture. And so being, they have consequences - positive, neutral or negative - that can be repeated in history.

Let's examine some important memes related to science and weather.

Good Memes

By the latter half of the 16th Century the scientific revolution was well underway in Europe. Nicolaus Copernicus gave it impetus when he published De Revolutionibus, in 1543, reviving a meme that had been forgotten for 17 centuries - the one in which Aristarchus (280 BCE) had crazily imagined that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system.

In 1545, the Italian mathematician Niccolò Cardano used mysterious negative numbers to represent something as real as debt. In 1572, Tycho Brahe, by observing a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia, discovered that the celestial vault evolved - thus challenging the assumed, eternal immutability of the heavens. Brahe proved that comets soared beyond the moon's realm, and constructed a catalogue of the precise positions of about 1,000 stars. (Besides creating some beneficial memes, Brahe was a memorable character. He lost part of his nose in duel at the University of Rostock in 1566 and had a prosthetic fashioned of a gold, silver and copper alloy to cover the injury. Brahe also had a pet moose named Rix who died after accidentally imbibing too much purloined beer.)

In 1582, the Bavarian astronomer Christoph Clavius and Pope Gregory XIII established the Gregorian calendar to correct errors that had accumulated over centuries because the assumed value of the length of the day had been wrong.

In 1586, Dutch mathematician Simon Stevin wrote fractions in decimal notation, making their manipulation easier.

And in 1590, Dutch optician Zacharias Janssen invented the concept of the microscope.

All of these were and are consequential and beneficial memes for society.

Bad Memes

In the same period of these enlightened memes, though, society also became infected with a destructive one that led to the torture and death of thousands of women. Their pain and deaths were the response of ignorance and uncertainty to a deterioration in the weather. To stave it off, people in Europe engaged in a type of precautionary principle for the climate with human sacrifice.

What was going on?

Nearly one million years ago, the Earth's climate entered an ice age, which had not been seen in some 250 million years. That ice age has meant roughly 100,000-year-long periods of global cold and advancing glaciers between short periods of warmth and retreating glaciers.

The last major glaciation receded into the current, warm relief over 10,000 years ago. And that warm spell has propelled tremendous human advances in population and culture. Between the 9th and 12th Centuries, especially mild climate occurred over many regions of the world (although not simultaneously), in a period called the Medieval Optimum or Medieval Warm Period. Some areas were warmer then than in the 20th Century.

But by the 14th Century, the coldest period of the last 10,000 years seeped across much of the world. Again, it was neither uniform nor was it everywhere, but this brown climate - the Little Ice Age - did not recede in some regions until the 19th Century.

According to climatologist Hubert H. Lamb, the decline in climate in central and northern Europe during the Little Ice Age tended to produce lower temperatures in all seasons and increase fluctuations of extreme conditions, such as heat waves. The realm of Arctic sea ice expanded southward. The frequency of severe storms, windstorms and floods increased.

How did this end up sacrificing women?

Weather conditions were poorest in much of Europe during the latter half of the 16th Century and persisted through most of the 17th Century. For example, the frequency and intensity of floods of the Pegnitz River in Nuremberg rose in that time, becoming five times more frequent than in the 20th Century, a Czech geographer and colleagues recently noted.

That acute period's generally wetter summers, harsher winters, frequent storms and wild fluctuations in weather brought such blights as crop failures, marshland expansion, pasture and farmland destruction, starvation and disease leading to animal and human deaths. According to Lamb, England, France and the Netherlands in the 17th Century suffered wheat prices that were factors of three to five times higher compared to the average across the 13th through 16th centuries. One severe frost in May 1626 froze lakes and rivers, decimated crops and wild vegetation and was characterized by climate historian Christian Pfister as the worst in 500 years.

The seeming reappearance of winter in the late spring of 1626 was unusual. But to contemporary experts it was something even worse - unnatural. And once the extreme weather was labeled unnatural, prevailing memes drew upon fanaticism, superstition and demonology to address climate change. Authorities of that age insisted that sinners, primarily women, working in concert with the Devil, could corrupt the benign weather into hyperstorms and superfrosts with unseen, unknowable and undetectable powers; in short, witchcraft.

While burning people alive for witchery had been practiced for centuries in Europe, witch burnings for climate crimes escalated in response to ignorant, mob demands on compliant authorities, who espoused with theological certainty that only torture and institutional murder would atone for the storm-wielding moral reprobates.

University of York historian Wolfgang Behringer (Witchcraft Persecutions in Bavaria, 1997) documents societal panic triggered by catastrophic weather in the depths of the Little Ice Age. In Germany the severe frosts that decimated crops in 1626 were followed by human sacrifices: Behringer notes that 600 victims were immolated in Bamberg, 900 in Wurzburg, 900 in Electorate Mainz and 2,000 in Cologne.

That history of how destructive memes of superstition can coincide with a time of advance in science ought to inform the debate about climate change in this era.

Memes Today

The severe weather of the late Middle Ages has moderated as the 20th Century banished much of the cold of the Little Ice Age. Meanwhile, the meme that held that human sacrifice would prevent mercurial weather demons in extreme weather is also mostly gone, in part owing to science. But not entirely.

Some modern authorities who believe in catastrophic anthropomorphic global climate change claim the intense storms and floods in central Europe in the summer of 2002 were related to human burning of fossil fuels.

The facts, though, are that there was nothing unusual or unnatural about Europe's weather, especially compared to periods during the Little Ice Age. And computer simulations of climate give no clear evidence that recent or future storms would increase as a result of fossil fuel and energy use.

Recent weather catastrophes are ever-present and naturally-occurring, and to cope with them requires economic resources - which rely upon energy use. That, plus the meme that respects scientific facts.
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