In my last post, I outlined the concept of memes as coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. A meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom or an idea, for example.
Sometimes we say that ideas have a life of their own, and that is exactly true. They parasitize first one brain and then the next, and like any good parasites they have evolved diverse ways to ensure their survival.
Some ideas are what we’d call good memes. They survive by giving benefits to their human hosts, who are then happy to transmit them to others. “It is better to give than to receive” is one such meme.
Others are evil, manipulating their hosts through superstition and fear. I have earlier written of a tribe in Venezuela who believed that if twins were born one was good and one was evil. The meme directed the parents to leave the evil one to die in the jungle, at the direction of the witch doctor. Sadly, the parents were slaves to their memes, as we all are.
Memes are at war, and our souls are the spoils of war. In the case of the Venezuelan Indians, the meme of child sacrifice was defeated by memes of Christianity as carried by missionaries. One might say that an invasive species did some good.
So who will win: the good memes or the evil memes? Will the human race fall back to the Dark Ages, or is our future brighter than that?
I am optimistic, and here’s why.
Humans are physically weak creatures. We want to succeed but the only way we can do so is to cooperate with each other. We’re also relatively smart, so we do observe the world and eventually figure things out.
One thing we’ve observed is that the most successful societies are dominated by good memes. These societies have encouraged democratic participation by their citizens; valued women; elevated family and monogamy; developed effective and relatively corruption-free judiciaries; built an ethos of relatively honest dealing in business, as well as laws to punish dishonesty when it arises; and (most of all) shunned the extreme, gratuitous violence that so characterized society 500 years ago. On that last point, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Also, do watch his TED talk on the subject.
We have a long way to go, but we have also come a long way.
People whose societies don’t have those beneficial memes tend to invite them. China is opening up. Last year, we saw the Arab Spring. The world is becoming more free; societies are becoming more just. The good memes are winning.
The march of history is largely one-way in this respect. There may be fits and starts (as in Russia), but the trend is very clear. People want to be prosperous and happy, which only happens when the good memes dominate.
Thus, the ecosystem in which memes develop is changing. A successful society based on cooperation, honesty and tolerance cannot long host memes of phobia, criminality and bigotry. Even in my lifetime we have seen once-unimaginable gains in civil rights; the removal of stigmas; better treatment of the handicapped; and a “not gonna take it anymore” attitude toward formerly sacrosanct powers such as priests who sexually abuse children.
And then there’s the small matter of truth. People have now seen that the scientific method finds the truth more reliably than does dogma and blind faith. There are pockets of resistance, but Reason has been steadily marching forward ever since the Enlightenment. I can tell you from personal experience that once people have awakened from a lie, they don’t want to go back to sleep, no matter how pleasant the dreams were.
As society ratchets upward from the violence (you really do have to listen to that TED talk), superstition and bigotry of the past, evil memes are being squeezed out of their habitat. Simultaneously, the ecosystem is expanding for memes of cooperation, reason and tolerance.
If we were solitary creatures, the outcome might differ. It all comes down to biology. Fortunately, in yet another miracle of emergence, our weakness must beget cooperation, reason and tolerance. It has been a long, slow climb, but whether you look back 50, 500 or 5,000 years the trend is clear. I see no reason why it won’t continue.