Friday, February 21, 2020

Memetics – How Ideas, Behaviors, and Narratives Spread

By FractKali on deviantart
What is a fruit? It’s something sweet and healthy that grows on a plant. It’s food. It is a symbol of prosperity. At least, that’s what a fruit is to us. But what is a fruit to a plant? It is a vessel for seeds, which are eaten by animals and carried far and wide, so that the plant may have many healthy offspring. All the animals think about is the tasty snack, unaware of what is happening behind the scenes.

The plant, however, doesn’t think anything at all. It’s just doing what it is programmed to do by its genes, which have been designed by evolution to spread and propagate into the future. In doing so, they have hit upon a strategy: you make use of other living things, tailoring yourself to use their behavior to your advantage. Animals like eating sweet, juicy, colorful things, so surround your seeds with sweet, juicy, colorful fruit.

Here’s another question that seems completely unrelated, but as we will see, it is very similar: are we in control of our actions? We consider ourselves, at least in Western societies, as rational creatures, making decisions based on information and logic. But, as we talk about frequently on this blog, that’s not generally true. Rationality is a skill that requires regular practice and exercise. On the other hand, our natural means of determining what to believe and how to act is through our narrative senses.

As we go about our days, we perform routines, talk, hang out with friends, and do all kinds of things. In the background of these actions and interactions, ideas and behaviors are being shared and absorbed, often without us taking notice of them. Some ideas and behaviors are able to use our psychology, notably our narrative senses, to spread themselves. Like genes being selected to use the natural environment to propagate themselves, ideas and behaviors are selected to use the human psychological environment to propagate themselves. It’s evolution by natural selection, and instead of genes, the carriers of information, behaviors and ideas, are called memes.

When you see the word “meme,” you might think of pictures with silly captions found on social media. But those are just one type of meme out of a vast ecosystem encompassing trends and fashions, the arts, sayings, beliefs, opinions, quirks, habits, and more. As genes come together to make biological organisms, memes come together to make memetic organisms. We have talked about one type of memetic organism before: narratives. Philosophical outlooks, religions, ideologies, mythologies. All of these are adapted by natural selection to propagate themselves, and their slightly altered offspring, into the future.

As in biological evolution, the memetic ecosystem has tremendous diversity. There are parasitic narratives that harm those they spread to, like Nihilism and strict moralities. There are symbiotic narratives that have a mutually beneficial relationship with those they spread to, like rationality and some versions of most religions. Some narratives vie for dominance, such as political ideologies and tribal religions. Others spread by showing kindness and bending with the wind. Some appeal to truth, others to trickery.

The memetic ecosystem is similar in a lot of ways to the idea of a spiritual realm. We are being influenced by immaterial forces, which, though blind and unconscious, act as if they have goals. Like the animals who eat fruit unaware of the role they are playing in the domain of the plant, we go about our days acting according to our routines and values, often unaware of the role we are playing in the affairs of memetic organisms.

This may seem troubling, but it’s not bad. The influence of memetics is not something that needs to be fought, but a critical part of the process of culture and the everyday experience of being human. And unlike the animal who is totally ignorant of the game of genes being played by the plants, we can learn about the game of memetics, and by knowing ourselves, our values and how we are influenced, we can become players in that game rather than mere pieces. That is why I eagerly and fervently spread the memes of rationality, narrative senses, and humility. In recognizing that our agency is not as absolute as we may like, we gain more of it.

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