Memetics 102

With the development of writing, precise data could be stored outside our bodies.  Carving stone and clay gave us the perception that words endure forever.

We became enchanted with the power of written language.  Numbers and history became important.  We became less aware of how text, like artifacts, do not simply impart new information to a reader but instead are perceived through the lens of  previously acquired information.

We began to dream of permanence.  This illusion built upon itself.

We altered our environments and developed symbiotic relationships with domesticated species.

We also domesticated ourselves.

Perhaps it's more appropriate to say: the memes domesticated us.

Memeplexes provided food, clothing and shelter as well as companionship.  They enabled us to settle in large cities and maintain them.  We were able to accomplish more together than we ever could alone.

There were trade-offs.  (There always are.)

We weathered the agricultural and industrial revolutions.  We transitioned from feudalism to capitalism.  We co-evolved with religions, helped them spread, exchange ideas and compete for minds and resources.  Different political systems evolved to meet the environmental demands of different geographies.

Cultural evolution was (unfortunately or fortunately) an idea born before its time.  It arose within the context of European Imperialism and Malthusian fears of overpopulation. It came endowed with an inheritance of political revolution, Enlightenment ideals, religious revivals, technological innovation.

Evolution equaled development and progress.  "Primitive" meant something less, something "sub".  Such ideas evolved into the conglomerate labeled "Social Darwinism" (erroneously named as Darwin did not originate this idea) based on now-dead and decaying branches in biology, and diverse hypotheses in criminology, sociology and scientific racism.

Biological evolution had the previous genetic work of Mendel and the taxonomy of Linnaeus.  It weathered the ensuing storm and was able to disconnect from debunked pseudo-scientific hypotheses.  It became the foundation for modern evolutionary science (which has greatly exceeded the limited vision of Darwin).

However, Cultural Evolution could not simply disengage.  It was inextricably tied to the concepts of Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism and the like.  Lacking the idea of a replicator, Cultural Evolution was left open to breed with ideas like predestination and colonial economics, creating a particularly nasty hybrid with the stamp of "rational", "scientific" and "progressive".  There was backlash.  A new social consciousness, based on Anabaptist principles and communal economic ideals, highlighting the equality and brotherhood of all mankind was taking hold.  The first incarnation of Cultural Evolution proved too inhumane and too dogmatic to withstand the gentler inclinations of human nature.

The power of this concept, this second replicator, is its ability to help investigators step aside from personal bias and culturally based judgements.   It gives us enough distance to analyze events and cultural shifts without resorting to ad hominem explanations.  It asks us to dig deeper and comprehend how complex ideas have evolved to motivate collective human actions.

We can step forward, from the initial revulsion when faced with traumatic cultural phenomena of Neo-Nazis or Aztec human sacrifice and instead investigate how these movements emerged and were conserved within a human population.  By understanding the pathology, we can problem-solve prevention.

Memetic theory is a thought tool.  Like any tool it can be utilized for peace or sectarianism.  Please do not overlook Memetic theory because you cannot relate to some who have supported it.  Memetics is no more a tool for vociferous atheists than it is for ardent adherents of one religious tradition or another (though--as with any good tool--some may try to horde it for themselves alone).

Memetics allows us to further comprehend how complex social phenomenon develop from the same selective environmental pressures which shape biological evolution.  That is all.  It is up to each of us to struggle with how we will integrate this knowledge with our beliefs and values.

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