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Memetics

Memetics is the idea that culture is parallel to biology. In memetics concepts, systems, religions, cultures, art forms, &c. – all known as memes – live and spread through populations as do viruses and parasites – which is to say, genes – making the history of human ideas the record of a kind of natural selection.

Memes and viruses are understood to be parallel, but not perfectly analogous. While bodies have immune systems to defend against viruses, the only immunity to be had against one meme is prior infection with another, stronger one.

Memetics analogizes the meme very awkwardly – the meme in the mind is at once like the fetus in the womb, the bear in its cave, a virus in a cell (or a computer), and a fire in a burning house – but that awkwardness, though doubtful, does not disprove it. Powerful analogies are often awkward when new: how is the moon like an apple? or a cannonball? or a dancer?

The appeal of the idea of memetics, as the prospectus of a science, is threefold.

1​. Unlike all other systems of psychology, memetics bootstraps itself. Other systems must present themselves, at least implicitly, as the transcendental descents of reason into the human sphere of sublunary irrationality: so that the only idea a person may have which is not determined by the unconscious is the idea of the unconscious, or not serving instinct, the awareness of instinct. But memetics is proud to be a meme. It not only provides for, it demands the co-existence in one mind of the rational and the irrational, at every level.

2​. Memetics offers hope. The idea that we are only hosts to memes might be taken as our final doom to unreason; but in advocates of memetics it revives old hopes for the perfectibility of man. The psychology of the Enlightenment was powerless before the twentieth century. No one could satirize the battlefields or the camps, blame them on bad education or persistent superstition. They seemed failures of reason itself. But memetics restores the old hope: it is an idea powerful enough to account for mass insanity, and for true evil, without surrender before them; an epidemiology promising cures or inoculation against the vectors of unreason; at least a pyrology directing backfires and firebreaks.

3​. Memetics explains everything. This is a point of appeal, but also a weakness. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 may be analyzed as a meme, one which drove out old memes about theodicy; but why should it have had that effect? We may say, because it was true – the earthquake happened, when it should not have. Then why the success of the meme of, say, Spiritualism? We may only say, because it is not true – because it is agreeable and convenient. But why should truth win because it is hard to bear, then lose because it is hard to bear? This kind of paradox is basic to human nature; it is difficult to establish a consistent standard of fitness against which survival could lead to selection.

I think that memes, in some sense, probably exist. Granting, then, that elementary memes exist: are all, or even most, ideas analyzable as descendants or compositions of these elements? I see three problems: (1) ideas do not compete; (2) ideas are hard to kill; (3) ideas are more than memes.

1​. We adopt, even if we do not understand it, every new idea we encounter that we do not explicitly deny. This is only obvious to those who speak, write, or create enough to have a real-time sense of their own intellectual processes; but it happens to everyone. The bringing out of the contradictions between these ideas is an action which consciousness must undertake. If memes are not competing, they are not being selected; but what competition there is among ideas, is not inevitable (some lazy people simply hold contradictory ideas), not universal (some people can tolerate combinations of ideas which others could not), and not continuous (one can adopt an idea with the intent of examining it later). In religion syncretism is the default, which religious hierarchies exist to combat. If there is an ecosystem of ideas, its only motor is conscious human will. Even granting that a single transmissible meme could viably contain contradictory ideas, it is still unclear: what pressure drives selection? Ideas do not compete.

2​. It is nearly impossible – sometimes, it is impossible – to expunge an idea once it has been accepted. The analogy between a meme and a living thing is strong for ephemera, but weak for ideas. A complex living thing is hard to make, but easy to kill. We know how hard it is to start fashions, how quickly they die. But the effort required to cry down an idea in another, or to overcome it in yourself, is disproportionate by an order of magnitude to the effort required to spread or adopt it. True, infections and infestations are not easy to deal with; but their resistance is because of their simplicity – being simple, they are easily copied, and have leeway to mutate. But something which is both complex and difficult to destroy is unprecedented in life as such. Once again, the idea of selection is not obviously applicable. Ideas are hard to kill.

3​. It is astonishing how forcefully, how suddenly a new idea can impress itself on a person, or a whole age; how throughly and quickly it can be adopted. This is familiar from science, where a new idea – a new principle, new technique, new approach – sets a generation of scientists casting around for new ways to apply it. Consider natural selection misapplied to sociology and history, resulting in Social Darwinism, or the sudden-onset obsession of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with mathematical axiomatization.

Both ideas, of course, snapped from overextension. Evolution was parted decisively from progress, and Gödel pointed out the cliff ahead of mathematics. Memetics can explain the fire; but not the dryness of the wood – how quickly it catches, and how quickly it burns out. Memetics does not require that a meme be viable in the long term; but in these cases the meme burned out, while the idea survived it. Contrast the early nineteenth century attempt to reduce the world to so many fluids – etheric, magnetic, electric, caloric – where the idea died with the meme. There is a necessary distinction here. Ideas are more than memes.

If we wish to see what a society that had become the vehicle of an idea would look like, we will not find it anywhere in civilized history – even in the ancient theocracies of Egypt or Persia. These regimes contained the ideas which, mixing and developing freely in Greece, would return with Alexander to destroy them.

We should look, rather, to tribal societies. Anthropologists have freed themselves enough from the ideas of the nineteenth century to cease to regard such societies as primitive; but it is also the nineteenth century which gives us the notion that extant tribal societies resemble our ancestors. Colonial ethnologists looked for occupants for the lowest rung on the ladder which Europe had surmounted. They found them in tribal societies, exhibiting conservatism across millennia. But there is an obvious flaw in that reasoning – those societies do not change; the ones that gave rise to ours did so by changing. Now, we know that conservative cultures can share their descent with civilizations – the same groups of people who were ancestors of the Amazon Indians were also ancestors of the Maya, the Inca, and the Anasazi. But were the ancestors of both more like the former, or the latter? We suppose that the uncertainties and anxieties of civilized life must be the degenerate offspring of a tribal life Edenically serene. It is equally possible that the oldest, nomadic societies were relatively dynamic. Some, settling under relatively easy conditions, carried on that dynamism into the first cities (and it is a curiously underappreciated discovery of archaeology that the first cities, like Jericho, predate agriculture). Others, settling under circumstances which turned against them, or settling under hard circumstances because they had lost their best lands to settlers, under the pressures of survival, preserved their ideas only as memes.

Memetics has not been successful, either as an idea or as a meme. As an idea, its applications savor of adolescent facility in reduction; as a meme, its appeal has been too narrow, the explanations it provides too pointed and too mocking, to transcend the perspective which originated it. I stoop to kick it while down only because I think it should be woken up. Memetics is not adequate to all that has been asked of it; but though inadequate, it is not incoherent; and difficult as it would be to explain how memes work, it would be still more difficult to explain their absence.