Monthly Archives: April 2011

Phylomemy of the Synoptic Gospels

Warning: prepare for a hyperlink BONANZA.




1. the development or evolution of a particular group of memes.
2. the evolutionary history of a group of memes, especially as depicted in a family tree.

Say what you want about Richard Dawkins, but the meme idea he presented in The Selfish Gene is pure genius. Especially astute was his observation that memes mutate and compete in the same ways as genes, even if their modes of propagation differ.

Religion, the greatest meme in recorded history, is prone to the same indels and evolutionary branchings as genes. For example, consider the image below, which exudes a distinct sense of monophyly; relative to the book of Mark, Luke and Matthew exhibit orthology as well as adaptive radiation.

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As shown above, while large portions of Mark exist in both Luke and Matthew, the same proportionality does not apply in reverse; Luke and Matthew contain considerable amounts of unique information not present in Mark. Mark, for instance, begins with Jesus’s baptism and makes no mention of his early life. Luke is the only gospel to contain adoration by shepherds at the Nativity of Jesus, and only Matthew mentions Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents“.

Given these features of the synoptic gospels, most biblical scholars agree that Mark was probably the earliest (some also hypothesize that it is the most accurate) biblical rendition of Jesus’s life (a hypothesis known as Markan priority). Three hypothetical “lost” texts/oral traditions have also been proposed to explain unique material in Luke and Matthew; these are called Q, M, and L.

The Two-Source Hypothesis

found on: Two-Source Hypothesis posits that a lost document (called Q) contained the extra material found in Luke and Matthew. If this was indeed the case, Luke and Matthew are fraternally related as progeny unto two parents: Mark and Q. Using literalistic genetic analogies, alleles of Q got passed to Luke that were not passed to Matthew and vice versa. The same is true of Mark, though in lesser extent.

So here’s where things get complicated with regard to the gene-meme analogy. Depending on the source complexity of memes, they can be modeled via genetic or speciation frameworks. Operating within a purely Markan priority model, Luke and Matthew can be seen as offshoot derived species of a common ancestor: Mark. However, by incorporating Q, a species-level representation ceases to be perfectly analogous to traditional, branching cladogenesis. Instead, a form of reticular hybridization presents itself; members of different “species” hybridize to form conglomerate meme offspring–in this case, Luke and Matthew.

The Four Document Hypothesis

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A second, more convoluted take on the phylomemy of Luke and Matthew is the Four Document Hypothesis, diagrammed above. Under this model, hypothetical L and M documents or oral traditions contribute unique elements to Luke and Matthew, respectively, in addition to the more common traits derived from Mark and Q. This hypothesis also permits wiggle room for an Antiochian Document and Document of Infancy, which would contribute respectively to Matthew and Luke via reticular hybridization (like everything else here, it seems). When it comes to memes, those that persevere appear to be the amalgamative ones.

Certainly, memes may often survive by hybridizing; however, no single gospel includes all the information contained within Mark, Matthew, and Luke (partly because incredible storytelling discontinuities and other inconsistencies would result). This is where adaptive radiation comes into play; speciation of the parent memes occurs as a result of adaptive necessity.

Back in the day, there wasn’t a single audience for Christian memes, but many, including Romans, Christians, Jews, and other groups. The Gospel of Mark and Gospel of Luke are thought to appeal to the Christian audiences, with Mark serving as a baseline of educational tidbits and Luke as a sort of “expansion pack” that also frames Romans in a positive light. Matthew, by contrast, hearkens strongly to the Jewish cause, poising Jesus as the prophesied Jewish Messiah and portraying his roots in a similar fashion to Moses’s (i.e. the “Massacre of the Innocents” mentioned earlier). The distillation of these three gospels from multiple and reticularly hybridizing parts, it would seem, is a function of broadened environmental adaptability, just as we see in evolutionary biology. The more audiences are appealed to, the more likely meme survival becomes.

Of course, nowadays, memes take on slightly different forms. Evolution is cool like that.

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The Epic Implausibility of Sandworms

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Some commendable attempts have been made to describe cryptozoological creatures in a highly technical manner. D&D’s Draconomicon, for instance, details things specific even as dragons’ eyelids, explaining that a variant nictitating membrane masks the innate glow of their eyes. Frank Herbert, esteemed author of first five Dune novels, had an eye for such detail when he brought Arrakis to life and populated it with fantastic creatures like the great sandworm. However, Herbert’s details are sometimes… well, some of them don’t make tons of sense.

A little background on sandworm biology will help to put things in context. Giant sandworms represent one part of a three-phrase life cycle including the minuscule sand plankton and water-whoring sandtrout. These creatures were introduced to the once watery planet Arrakis, and the extremely water-happy sandtrout exhausted Arrakis’s water supply until it transformed into a desert planet: hence the name “Dune”. Once a sufficiently dry climate is achieved, relatively small (by D&D standards) sandtrout are able to metamorphose into sandworms, which can reach upwards of 400 meters in length and up to 100 meters in diameter. Curiously, water is poisonous to the sandworms despite development from the watermongering sandtrout.

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Nice units, guys.

Sandworms subsist chiefly on members of their own life cycle: sand plankton. Their excretions ultimately give rise to spice, or melange. Despite their size, sandworms are able to tunnel with great speed above and below the sand. Humans known as Fremen are able to ride the sandworms by drawing them to the surface of sand and then using hooks to expose delicate tissues underneath the sandworms’ ring segments. To avoid getting sand under their ring segments, the sandworms subsequently rotate so that a rider hooked on thus will be on top of its steed.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense for water to be poisonous to sandworms since they develop from water-filled, water-based organisms (sandtrout). Wouldn’t they continue to be water-based and end up poisonous to themselves?

Water’s a pretty essential component of life as we know it as well as most life in the Dune universe. However, it’s not the only possible liquid upon which life could be based; ammonia is another possibility given that it is polar, amphoteric, and reacts with itself to form its acid and base conjugates NH4+ and NH2. These properties, especially acid base chemistry, enable ammonia to act as a solvent to various compounds; in fact, it dissolves organic compounds more effectively than water. Nevertheless, in terms of probability, water is a more likely to serve as life-giving fluid, so to speak; in mass fraction in parts per million, oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium. Nitrogen is fifth. Also, in order to justify water being poisonous to sandworms on the basis of ammonia or some other liquid serving as the universal-solvent-life-giving-whatever, the transition from sandtrout to sandworm would have to involve drastic biochemical changes that, honestly, would be hard to facilitate without a universal constructor.

Since the combustion of ammonia exothermically results in water and nitrogen oxide, the reverse process might… sort of… very faintly… possible… but… oh it’s just such a stretch, seriously folks. Replacement of all aqueous organic compounds with ammono-analogues would have to take place, something which could be done with enzymes (replacing OH groups with NH2, in large part), but replacing all water in the body with ammonia? Or maybe we’re to take things literally and assume that sand is the replacement universal solvent, introducing a new macrocosm of biological mechanisms. Ehh… fine. Let’s just go with it for now, while acknowledging water being poisonous to an organism that developed from what is literally referred to as a “living cistern” is pretty implausible.

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Another eyebrow-raising detail of sandworm biology concerns their sand-swimming abilities. Recall that sandworms can grow in size to 400 meters in length and 100 meters in diameter. Now, think about sand. Anakin would eloquently say, “it’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere”. But more to the point, you don’t sink into sand when idly sitting on it. Stick a finger into the sand, however, and it can be fully submerged. On the other hand, a pole far longer than your finger but equivalent in width requires greater force to submerge fully. Likewise, a stack of average-diameter plates as tall as your finger proves difficult to push into the sand. Now imagine a 100 meter wide sandworm face-planting into a desert. Does this seem a likely burrowing situation?

Thing is, sand isn’t water (this is one of many revolutionary insights conceived in the 21st century). Large objects can’t just dive in and out of it and do beach ball tricks. African elephants’ feet, in fact, are evolved specifically in accordance with this fact; their increased diameter (as compared to Asian elephants) reduces the degree to which elephants sink into sand while they’re lumbering about in the desert. So if you’re a fan of Shadow of the Colossus, now you know to do a skeptical Spock eyebrow in response to the 9th and 13th colossi (incidentally, both colossi happen to be totally awesome, just like sandworms; sand just makes things cool, even if plausibility vanishes. PS: was I the only one amused by how much easier it was to beat the 13th colossus in Hard Time Attack Mode versus Normal Time Attack? He had the same health but they increased the time you had to beat him. It was truly hellish beating that bugger on Normal Time Attack…). And don’t forget Skorpanok, though he’s a little more feasible in terms of sand-swimming given his size and relative surface area. He’s also a wiggler, like many desert-burrowing lizards and snakes, which could improve his ability to displace sand and travel within it… erm. Excuse me. Tangents. My sincerest apologies.

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Unlike Skorpanok, sandworms aren’t wigglers. So if we’re to permit the nonsensical notion that they can still “swim” through sand, some other mechanism must be at work. The most obvious choice would be something like setae, bristly projections that could latch onto grains of sand in mass sums and displace it, creating quicksand-like regions that might permit tunneling. Given the ridiculous size of sandworms, however, they still wouldn’t be getting anywhere very fast. Maybe, when submerged, they rapidly ingest sand and shoot it out their backsides to help propel themselves forward, but this doesn’t explain how they’re able to move quickly on top of sand.

Which brings us to another point of sandwormian implausibility: According to the Dune books, they can be goaded by Fremen into traveling up to 80.47 kmph (50 mph). The unitless ratio of a sandworm’s speed to its length is then 201.175. To put these numbers into perspective, let’s consider the sizes, environments, and velocities of real animals. The blue whale, which reaches up to 33 meters in length, can swim through water at 50 kmph (though only in short bursts). These values yield a speed-to-length ratio of 1515.152: greater speed relative to length as compared with the sandworm.

Admittedly, a length-to-speed ratio assumes an over-simplified model of organismal speed. Also, the comparison of a blue whale to a sandworm, while the best Earth has to offer in terms of creatures of enormous size, is inappropriate because whale travel through water, a far more permissive medium than sand. In addition, they use fluked, paddle-like flagellar means of propulsion as opposed to… whatever it is that propels sandworms through sand.

As such, let’s use a more apt model like the earthworm (regular old American earthworms, not the blue monstrosities found in Australia), which can tunnel through soil as well as inch across on dry surfaces–still not a great comparison, given that soil is generally moist, cohesive, and contains many more pockets of air than would the dry sand of Arrakis. Earthworms travel faster for increases in length, however; the relative increase in speed for every increase in length follows what looks like a square root curve (at least from 3 data points). This concerns worms of tiny proportions, just a few centimeters long. Extrapolating the effect a sandworm’s size would have on its speed (based on the graph below), a 400 meter-long sandworm should travel at 21.275617 (centimeters / second) = 0.765922212 kmph. Not exactly demon speeding. But more importantly, definitely not 80.47 kmph, as is declared in the Dune books.

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Using the proportionality constant 0.02727 for mass-to-length yields the values 2.7272*(10^-10)m, 0.0010909m, and 0.00245455m for the worms' lengths in the graph above.

Here's the same data plotted with worm lengths and an exponential regression trendline. Also, Excel is rubbish.

Oh, but we’re not done yet. Recall that Fremen use hooks to pry open the ring segments of sandworms as they hurtle on by at ridiculous, impossible velocities. By exposing delicate tissue underneath the ring segment, the sandworm rotates to avoid getting sand in the area. So, the sandworm, whose surface plates are tough enough to render them impervious to just about anything short of nuclear weaponry, is bested by a couple of ski poles wielded by puny humans. Furthermore, its ring segments are oddly susceptible to being pried open from the front even though sandworms tunnel forward through vast, rough, heavy volumes of sand. Adaptation-wise, wouldn’t the carapace be sheeted in such a way as to prevent objects traveling in opposite directions relative to the sandworms (like huge masses of sand) from invading their delicate underlayers? Of course, if they were sheeted in such a way, Fremen would have no way of harnessing them as vehicles, and the Dune story would take a bit of a hit… Oh well. Better to make dollars than sense.

Sophomoric Superimposition of Meaning on Rebecca Black’s “Friday”

Derided as the ultimate example of artificial, substance-less music in the modern era, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” has received extravagant backlash for what, in reality, is the shrouded outcry of a young, vulnerable girl living under the shackles of a coerced identity. From her treatise on the regimented, inescapable onslaught of days to the forced pitches of the song’s Auto-Tuning, Black’s Rousseauean social angst permeates every facet of her musical debut. Tragically, the exuberance she must assume to fulfill cultural expectations likely masks her endeavor to be heard. In this analysis, “Friday”‘s true artistic intentions shall be revealed through an examination of the fatalistic themes suggested by the song’s title, its lyrics, the music video’s blatantly artificial construction, and the automated behavior of the actors in the video.

Some background will help to illuminate the puppeteering behind the creation of “Friday”. Rebecca Black’s mother paid a a hefty $4,000 to ARK Music Factory for a song and video, effectively strongarming 13 year-old Black into a position of celebrity. She was offered several pre-written songs to choose from, only one of which– “Friday”– did not pertain to romantic love, a sensation Black had yet to experience. As such, given her innocence, “Friday” was Black’s only choice.

Focus on Friday alludes to the cultural significance of the day itself. In traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology, Friday is the sixth day of the week upon which Elohim/God/Allah created human beings and commanded them to “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it”. Wielding a directive as his first interaction with human beings, Elohim/God/Allah sets a precedent for behavioral submission to certain expectations. Human beings are effectively prohibited from making choices, a transgression which is punished with exile from the Garden of Eden. This social despotism carries over to human beings themselves, who create their own social institutions for control of one another. Within this model, Friday represents the day upon which social coercion was invented and human choice, criminalized. Similar to Rebecca Black having only the illusion of choice for which song to perform, human beings have only the illusion of choice in life. They must abide the constraints of innocence or suffer the ignominy of a self-driven, choice-based life.

The repetition used throughout “Friday” suggests the toll of regimented obligations, as seen in the passage, “Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs / Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal”. These anaphoric segments reiterate forced duties through usage of a conventional dialect contraction of “Got to”, a phrase which implies necessity. It is, by extension, necessary that one “be fresh… have [one’s] bowl, etc.”. From a purely survivalistic perspective, having one’s bowl seems trite. Portrayal of such trivial elements of life as mandatory highlights the influence of a binding convention of behavior, requiring that people, or at least teenage girls named Rebecca Black, be fresh and have their bowls.

What, then, is the punishment for defying these mandates? Specifically, what would happen if Rebecca Black were not to have her bowl after becoming fresh and going downstairs? Presumably, the pillars upon which her strict schedule (as indicated by flashes of her weekday obligations at the beginning of the music video) would crumble. Every part of her existence, even minute elements like having her bowl, is necessary to support the delicate construct of her lifestyle. Her lifestyle, in turn must be equally mandated; pursuing another route would result in undesirable social consequences steep enough to preclude any such miss-stepping, a contemporary equivalent to expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

In many ways, this modern Garden of Eden represents, for Black, the social expectations imposed upon adolescents. They are expected to have hormones which encourage sexual pursuits. They are expected to maintain appearances that enable these pursuits. Such expectations necessitate abiding social conventions that define these appearances: namely, physical fitness and attractive countenance. In this case, the maintenance of one’s countenance is implied in when the lyric “Gotta be fresh” is coupled in the music video with a transformation of Black’s bed hair into sleek, straightened hair. This cosmetic routine along with having breakfast cereal (likely part of a personal regimen devoted to a fitness-promoting diet) are likely measures taken to assure sexual success and social acceptance.

The binding nature of the phrase “Gotta [socially mandated action]” appears once again in the refrain, as seen in the lyric, “Gotta get down on Friday”. By implying obligation in reference to fun experiences (“getting down”),  the same social necessity attributed to having one’s bowl is so attributed to having fun. As such, even hedonistic pursuits are framed as forceful impositions of the ruling social convention. This notion is reinforced when one examines the mechanical behavior of those partaking in the so-called “fun”; both in scenes where Black is presented in the car with her friends as well as in the subsequent party, all the kids present behave mechanically–as though they are merely going through the motions. This surreal, mechanical behavior could be due to the low-budget nature of the acting in the music video’s production, but in deference to authorial intent, the automated nature of the kids’ motions coupled with monotonous repetitions of “Fun, fun, fun” as well as “Partyin’, partyin'” suggests routine, not enjoyment. In the same way that the oppressive school-related weekdays shown in the beginning of the music video imply regimented obligations like homework and exams, the weekend, similarly sequenced in “Tomorrow is Saturday / And Sunday comes after … wards”, implies that mandated fun is equally oppressive.

Subtle confessionals of the weekend’s dark associations can be gleaned from lines like “Gotta get down on Friday”. “Getting down” ambiguously suggests either engaging in pleasurable acts, particularly dancing, or becoming depressed. In the context of the model presented here, engaging in pleasurable acts like dancing fulfills social expectations without regard for individual interests. The mandated nature of these expectations may, in fact, render such acts intrinsically unpleasant, or a source of depression. This negative attitude towards weekend fun represents an inversion of traditional TGIF tropes, replacing such positive outlooks with “Oh no, it’s Friday” (ONIF). Equally oppressive is the repeated time motif seen in lines like “The time is goin’ / Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin'”, “Makes tick tock, tick tock, wanna scream”, and “I want time to fly”. Of all physical laws, time is the most exigent: slowing when one wants it to speed up, fast when one needs more of it. To boot, time is harshly unidirectional and consistent, with the conventions that define it (like days of the week) creating inescapable cycles of repetition.

The obsolescence of choice recurs in the lyrics “Kickin’ in the front seat / Sittin’ in the back seat / Gotta make my mind up / Which seat can I take?”. Already, socializing with friends who ride in a convertible–very conventionally “cool”–takes priority over riding the bus to school. When a social outlet presents itself, other options cease to be relevant. When Black contrivedly ponders what seat to sit in, it becomes obvious that this choice, too, is nonexistent. The express phrasing of her pondering “Which seat can I take?” does not suggest desirable options so much as feasible ones. Notice that she does not say, “Which seat do I want to take?”, a query would would indicate that the speaker’s actions are guided by her desires, not some binding construct. In explicitly questioning which seat she “can” take, Black accents the futility of world she lives in, but also questions the institution that imposed the futility of choice.

There can be no coincidence that Rebecca Black’s last name hearkens to establishment of Black Fridays, days upon which catastrophic events happened. The song’s superficially exultant view of Friday clashes with this institution of Friday horrors, suggesting an undercurrent of fear towards weekly times dedicated to fun. Presented above was the notion that fun, when obligatory, could turn unpleasant and ironically unfun. The prospect of engaging in such pretense could be fear-inspiring, certainly, but how might it be catastrophic, like a Black Friday? Recall that social protocols require that young teenage girls adhere to standards of physical attractiveness that, presumably, assure their sexual success as they enter adolescence. As far as “catastrophic” events go, the loss of virginity is an easy candidate, especially for young females. Various perspectives compete for dominance in the sphere of female virginity, for example: chaste puritanism, 60’s and 70’s-inspired sexual revolution, and the social climate created by peers responding to these and other perspectives–not to mention a given teenage girl’s personal sexual propensities. Internal conflicts regarding sexual rite of passage have the potential to become some of the most emotionally tumultuous experiences– in the case of “Friday”, the weekend party associations with pressured sexuality underscore a profound fear, creating a sense of social rape.

Weaving together the ideas presented above, a mosaic of helplessness in the face of social laws emerges. Imposed control, lack of choice, hijacked identity / innocence, the inevitability of what time brings, and fear of the inevitable all follow naturally. In the same way that Rebecca Black was made a slave to a song and music video she did not envision but merely identified with over unfamiliar romanti-sexual material, “Friday” represents the enslavement of the human race to their own social contracts. This system wherein social deviance is punished and obedience rewarded is reflected in the plainly artificial nature of “Friday”‘s musical form: Auto-Tune enables a song master to remove any natural deviations or “errors” from a recording, forcing conformation to an melody through technological means. The great irony is that what was once considered deviant, despite being “natural” (having a libido, for instance, is quite natural) can be mandated, thus framing prudes, straight-edgers, innocent adolescents, and other “squares” as social invalids.

If credit is due to a particular individual for conceiving “Friday”, Patrice Wilson, co-founder of ARK Music Factory and writer of “Friday”, should be the prime candidate. His system of control mirrors the themes of “Friday”, which comment on social control, something which he partakes in by co-founding a label responsible for controlling aspiring musical acts. The notion of enabling musicians by providing them with pre-written songs where they will act according to a script in a music video is the perfect meta to the theme of “Friday”, an eloquent cherry on top of a social rape cake. Of course, this cake presents itself as an exuberant, Friday-loving cake because it, too, must abide social conventions. To tell the truth about internal conflicts would defy social constructs. Therefore, the cake is a lie.

See, “Friday” is a pretty deep song, mmkay?