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Memes Ganging Up on Us

Ville Kokko

Posted on May 5, 2019 13:24

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Selfish memes can survive in human culture by forming into larger units that offer mutual protection.

Last week, I wrote about how a kind of natural selection among ideas, memes, can cause harmful or inaccurate ideas to spread and survive. This time, I want to look at another way in which undesirable memes can survive: by relying on protection from other memes and each other.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Water M. Miller Jr., and the Hyperion quatrology by Dan Simmons are both stories set in a far future where a cataclysmic destruction has faced the Earth. Aside from that, there’s more or less just one thing that they have in common: in both, the Catholic Church is nearly the only thing to survive in its original form. In Hyperion this is more extreme, as while the whole Earth has disappeared in the disaster, the original Vatican still exists, because the whole thing was physically transported to another planet.

A cultural unit as big as a whole religion is not one meme. It is, to use an expression I got from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, a memeplex, consisting of a large number of memes tied together. The memes still can, and probably do work together in terms of survival. I think of it as something like a multi-cellular organism.

The Catholic Church is known as a bastion of tradition, which in the terms used here means a preserver of memes. Is this bad? I mean, since I’m talking about bad memes and bring up the Catholic Church as an example, I might seem to be saying it’s a bad memeplex. Well, I'm not saying the Catholic Church on the whole is bad. However, what must be acknowledged is that it’s giving some bad memes great protection, especially irrational and immoral “moral” ones.

Memes get selected for survival, and especially as parts of memeplexes, they can build themselves both reproductive efficiency and protection against being abandoned. All by natural selection, of course. When it’s about time they died, they can resist it this way. Perhaps the worst part of this is that so-called moral norms might well be ones that have especially good defenses when they’re part of the system that forms the values of the community. Moral norms are in the habit of getting outdated and really affect people’s lives, so this is a serious issue.

Of course, there are also universal moral norms that are resilient memes in their own way, and that have been invented way back and should be remembered. Even these are subject to the decay mentioned earlier, though. The basic ideas may not be totally lost, but they may be totally lost on some people, like the Americans who can’t tell Ayn Rand’s values from those of Jesus.

Ville Kokko

Posted on May 5, 2019 13:24

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