The War of the Memes

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.

7 responses to “The War of the Memes

  1. There are two memes I see in your post, that are so imbedded in there, it is like the sea we swim in… that is perhaps unseen?

    One is the Manichaeistic concept of good vs evil

    The other is the “myth of progress”
    “Our core narrative, the story into which every serious thinker is required to fit his or her thoughts, is the narrative of progress—the story that defines all of human existence as a single great upward trajectory from the caves to the stars, and insists that the present is better than the past and the future will inevitably be better still.”

    Overall, I guess I ask the question is it even possible to think outside the confines of our memes?

    • I hadn’t heard of Manichaeism. According to the link you supplied, it teaches “the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and an evil, material world of darkness. Through an ongoing process which takes place in human history, light is gradually removed from the world of matter and returned to the world of light from which it came.” I don’t believe (and I hope my post does not reflect) that the material world is evil and good resides in another, spiritual world. Perhaps you were pointing out that I believe in good and evil, and that is correct.

      I have not defined good and evil, and at this point I’m not sure how how I would do so. For a post on memes, an informal understanding is all we need. “I don’t know how to define evil, but I know it when I see it.” As you said, it’s the sea we swim in.

      I’d like to be more rigorous in the future, and I’m reading a book that might sharpen my thoughts: Sense and Goodness Without God, by Richard Carrier. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

      After your quote about the myth of progress, the Archdruid continued, “…for most people the present is significantly worse than the past — standards of living for most Americans, for example, have been declining for more than thirty years — and the future promises to be even worse than the present.” He may be right. I don’t claim that every thirty-year period will see an improvement in our economic standard of living. However, I do claim that we are making fairly steady progress in improving the way we treat each other (at least in the Free World), which was the subject of my article.

      His Lord-of-the-Rings take on our current situation doesn’t ring true for me. I do not agree that the world is “dominated by a vast, slowly decaying empire” that feeds on the blood of the Earth. Even if it is true, the vast empire is a lot less evil than the empires that have gone before. Read Pinker’s book or listen to the TED talk I cited and let me know whether you agree.

  2. Yes, in its simplest form, what I was talking about is seeing the world through the paradigm of “good and evil”. What if the world just is? Is the carnivore evil because he causes suffering in the prey? Is the planet evil because it does not provide endless food and creatures starve? Is not that one of Dawkins’ main points… that things just are, and not for reasons of good and bad?

    As far as the myth progress and Greer’s perspective on the current situation as a decaying empire feeding on the blood of the Earth… perhaps the pertinent question is not if or not we immediately agree with him, but rather “What does he see, that has him come to that conclusion?”
    I would encourage you to read the book “The long Descent” by JMG, if you want to really understand what he is saying. Blood of the earth is oil and natural resources. Decaying empire, is the USA in its twilight as the dominant world power. He sees history through a paradigm of cycles of civilizations rising and falling, rather than as a clear linear advancement of “progress.” Its an interesting way to see things, and quite different from what we are taught in our culture, which is usually that the current civilization is the ultimate and best one!

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