Thursday, November 11, 2004

Survival of the Fittest Ideas: The New Style of War -- a Struggle Among Memes

an excerpt from a speech by David Brin, Ph.D.

The following is excerpted from a speech that I gave at Brigham Young University in 1989, and later transcribed and lightly revised for publication in a small zine. Of special note is my prediction, even before the Berlin Wall fell, that our Cold War with the Soviet Union would give way to an era of dire strife with some version of frenetic, male-centered fundamentalism... such as we now see manifesting in a new century. While this early forecast may read a little rough (it was a speech, recall), it is an unusual view of our world's troubles, one that may bear further discussion. Since then I have further developed most of these themes, including the notion of criticism as an antidote to error and the idea that tolerance depends on openness.

Naturally, we needn't look at this struggle over human hearts and minds as a 'war.' I wrote it that way to be intentionally a bit provocative. Ideally, it can be 'won' by changing many of the myths that children are brought up with... that is, over the long run.

And yet... given the dramatic events we all saw in late 2001, doesn't the 'war' metaphor seem even more apt than it did over a decade ago?

For more on these topics, see my 1998 nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? Note especially where I talk about the coming century becoming an "Age of Amateurs."

What we are fighting for is a world in which people don't have to fight anymore. One in which we appreciate our differences. That seems worthwhile enough.


Can we take a momentary break from exploring the future, and take a dip into the world of biology?

A well-known scientist-author, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, described how everything from our bodies to civilization may have arisen out of a billion-year-old contest among nearly invisible clusters of DNA, competing against both nature and each other.

Most of us are used to envisioning evolution as having to do with macro creatures -- like plants, microbes or animals -- whose bodies and behaviors prove their 'fitness' value by surviving and reproducing across countless generations. By this reckoning, DNA is no more than a tool, like the creature's eyes or limbs -- a repository of codes, a passive library of biochemical and cellular tricks -- serving the needs of an individual or species. But in a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, things can be viewed the other way around. Our complex bodies and behaviors may only serve as the pragmatic implements used by genes to facilitate their own replication.

Yes, this bizarre-sounding idea is taken seriously, in fact, by a majority of the world's experts in Darwinian selection. While many of them won't take it quite as far as Dawkins does, it certainly is a widely-accepted viewpoint to see evolution as a competition between bundles of coded genetic information, written along the chromosomes of living beings.

Of course, molecules don't contemplate "goals." Still, even prim biologists are known to anthropomorphize, now and then, because the effects of natural selection often do look eerily as if different genetic heritages have been striving against one another for niches in the ecosystem, instead of just stumbling into them by happenstance.

Let's put it this way -- if, by fortuitous chance, a bundle of genes happens to produce an organism with the right attributes, enabling it to live and pass on more copies of the genes, then naturally many those copies will also share the original successful trait and have an improved chance of making copies... and so on.

For our present purposes, let's use biology as a launching point, skipping on to a strange and delightful concept that Dawkins extracted from this notion of natural selection among genes. In a side musing that has since been widely discussed, he suggested similarities to other kinds of self-replicating systems -- like computer viruses -- that use information to be both infectious and prolific.

Extending the notion still farther, Dawkins hypothesized living bundles of ideas that he called memes.

Just like genes and computer viruses, memes are packets of coded information, but no longer contained in strings of molecules or software code. Rather than operating inside computers or living cells, memes take action inside human minds. Furthermore, these aren't just ordinary ideas. Like successful genetic codes, they must have the trait of making copies of themselves.

Again, it's already been shown that information can do this -- the code itself, if played back in a receptive environment, can force that environment to offer up resources for self-reproduction. If it happens in a cell or a computer, why not the rich environment offered by our brains?


Suppose I read, or heard, or somehow picked up a new concept -- say the very one we're discussing at this moment, the notion of memes. Now I guess you could say this idea was successful at "infecting" me, because I've continued thinking about it, giving it continued existence, or life.

In thinking an idea, you in a sense cause the idea to live.

But a virus or bacterium that just sits inside its host organism doesn't accomplish much. Flu viruses make us sneeze because those viruses which stumbled into that trait spread their progeny far and wide, giving them, in turn, further chances to proliferate.

How would a living idea proliferate? By somehow getting its host not only to think about it, but also to spread copies... by telling other people!

And now, if you've been paying attention, you'll realize that's just what I've been doing the last few minutes for one particular meme... the meme of memes! By telling you all about it, I am doing the memic equivalent of coughing on you. Infecting you with the infectious, self-replicating organism of an idea... the very notion of these infectious ideas. And if it's a successful self-replicating notion, some of you will go tell others. And so on.

Of course this is not the first time this has happened on the planet. We do it all the time. In fact, life would be dull, if not impossible, if we didn't share ideas we had heard -- mutating and adapting them to our purposes along the way.


Intriguing. Now imagine that some of these self-reproducing ideas pick up a few other attributes. Say a notion becomes helpful to its hosts in some way -- for example a belief in washing hands before eating -- resulting in better health and survival of more children. The meme of bathing could also facilitate its own spread by causing more people to enjoy being around its human host, helping the good-smelling host to become more successful and influential in his or her community. This, in turn, helps the meme to spread. (If more people listen to your host, then the host's store of devoutly-believed memes will spread!)

Imagine now that some memes acquire yet another trait. Some might cause their host organisms, or host tribes, to try to keep other memes out! To expose their children to only those ideas the parents already have within their heads.

If a meme fell upon the trick of making its hosts behave in such a way, it would thus secure the territory of many human minds for itself and its progeny and keep away competitors for all time.

Sound like a bizarre science fiction scenario?

Or is it, rather, a pretty good model of what we've seen going on around us, in nearly every human society where citizens have been taught to believe certain things and to hold alien ideas in suspicion?

Examples abound. Take the dogmatic exclusion rules of most religions. Can we look again at the Inquisition, or the Tokugawa extirpation of Japanese Christians, or the Holocaust, in new light? One of the Iranian Ayatollahs once said of America -- "We don't fear your bombs, we fear your pagan ideas."

Or take the Soviet Union. What's going on in Russia today (ed. note: this was early 1989) may be considered the meme-equivalent of AIDS! After all, consider which people over there seem most infected with our western worldview. Certainly not vast portions of the population as a whole, who often seem sullen, resentful of change, and xenophobic. No, it appears to be the aristocracy, a lot of guys at the top, Gorbachev and even some large elements of the KGB, who are now turning off the jamming devices. The 'immune system' of former Leninist Russia -- the memic equivalent of white blood cells -- who used to keep out anything that contradicted Communist purity, has changed sides! Border guards who once confiscated videotapes were the equivalent of antibodies. But now their orders are to "let anything in. Come on! Infect us!"

Under such circumstances, how much longer will their outer barriers last?


Some of you have heard me talk before about how, in my opinion, there are presently four major worldviews battling over the future of this planet. Now, so long as you're willing to take all this with a grain or two of salt -- and remember, this is only a model, a metaphor -- I'd like to give you an updated version.

These four combating worldviews have little to do with all those superficial slogans that people have let themselves get lathered about in this century. Things like communism, capitalism, Islam. We have seen wars and death aplenty, but they weren't fought over such simpleminded ideologies. Not really.

Rather, I am talking about deeper themes that pervaded human psychology since the dawn of time. All four of the antagonistic memes that I'm about to describe can be shown to have appeared in all historic cultures, sometimes coexisting under conditions of high tension. Or else they have taken turns, dominating or setting the tone for entire civilizations.

There is, first off, a worldview best called Paranoia.

Take the best recent example: one can understand Russian traditional xenophobia and dread of enemies lurking on the horizon, given their history of repeated invasion at least once per generation, for a thousand years. Under these conditions, a people might school themselves, through every myth and fairy tale, to support even a monstrous leadership if it promises to keep the Enemy at bay. Still, this meme made for an uncomfortably brittle and capricious superpower. If Paranoia had won, or even lasted much longer, the world would probably become a cinder, sooner or later.

The great enemy of Paranoia is peace. Without constant threat and suffering, human beings eventually start thinking in terms of comfort and personal ambition. And yet the fearful meme is still carried in the mythology that Russian parents pass on to their children. That part of it may take a long time to go away.

Second on our list of competing themes is Machismo.

Machismo is the most powerful worldview -- the leading meme -- in many parts of the world.

Wherever you see women oppressed and the environment ignored, wherever professionalism and skill are downgraded in favor of strutting and male-bonded loyalty groups, it's a good bet that Machismo sets a culture's major chord. And don't underrate it! Macho-chiefdom was an effective social pattern, especially in countless natural hunter-gatherer tribes. Much that is noble and heroic came out of such clans, including probably most of our ancient legends. A later version -- feudalism -- appeared wherever and whenever humanity came up with both agriculture and metallurgy, with such reliable consistency that it has to be something basic. In other words, it may be the most 'natural' human self organizing system. Nevertheless, if this meme prevails, we and our planet will die.

Today, different versions of Machismo are dominant in wide areas of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and several other zones as well. For example, in the Iranian language, Farsi, most of the traditional fairy tales that are recited to children apparently focus on one dramatic theme, above all others, that of revenge, a motif you can also see repeated in 1001 Arabian Nights. Nor is this trait limited to any one subculture. Almost every social lineage on the planet passed through a macho phase, e.g., the feudal era in Europe, which gave us the occidental myths collected in Grimm's Fairy Tales. Consider how many of them centered either on revenge or on premises of prickly male honor, or else on rescue themes with strictly defined sexual roles. Or take Latin America where, I am told, mothers in some places are still known to sit their little sons on their knees and tell them -- "Someday you'll be a macho guy. You'll deflower virgins and seduce other men's wives. But if this happens to your wife or sister, you must cut her throat." This may sound bizarre to many of you, but I have double checked. Moreover, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as an aberration.

Again, as worldviews go, Machismo has a long tradition, a lot longer than ours. It is also hot-tempered and deeply threatened by modernity. Watch, as time passes and the elevation of women progresses. We shall see how this meme reacts to the insistent pressure of western values, perhaps erupting in harsh reaction. It may burst from Machismo's Latin or middle-eastern or south Asian variants -- too soon to tell which. Let's hope not all of them.

When this happens, the underlying fever will probably go undiagnosed and unnamed. Western pundits and leaders will probably focus unduly on superficial details like religion or nationality. Wherever it manifests, the real cause, lying much deeper down, will probably be ignored.

How about a side bet? Here's a prediction regarding the first meme we mentioned -- Paranoia (specifically the Russian/Soviet variant). We'll see, in the course of the next decade, if it really is on the way out, or if its lasting power has been underrated, giving rise to powerful new surface forms. There are plenty of fresh symbols that might suffice, replacing both czars and communist stars.

Assuming it does continue to fade: keep an eye on how the other three culture families devour what remains of the old Soviet Empire, as some of its parts hurry to join the domain of the West, some tumble into the Machismo orbit, while still others become Eastern with stunning rapidity.

Next... the battle of the four worldviews. Which will conquer our minds and hearts?

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Source: David Brin's Official Website (Brin is a science fiction author of considerable renown)


Blogger Mimus Pauly said...

For the longest time, I didn't believe in memes. Then this "reality-based community" thing started popping up all over the Internet, courtesy of some fool who demonstrated his foolishness to Ron Suskind. So I placed a little stock in meme theory -- but not much.

And then fifty-nine million people went and voted for George W. Bush.

That did it. I'm a believer.

November 13, 2004 at 1:34 AM  

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