February 17th 2013
Posit that humans are just the reproductive organs of ideas, and our minds little more than churning pools of interchanging notions. In short, standard meme theory. We might be hosts whose carefully formulated egos are nothing more than the emergent terrain of an ancient memetic battleground - one imagines long wars between the myriad incarnations of fear and laziness for control of our weary brains. The memes with the most dominant survival characteristics must have long since evolved - likely candidates being caution, hope, and solidarity. In this paradigm, the most prolific ideas are the hardiest survivors of thousands of years of crossbreeding, their properties now the building blocks of more complicated and fragile abstractions like justice, ambition, and melancholy. The simplest ideas might occupy the lowest and most important rungs of an intellectual ecosystem, akin to our humble meat-space phytoplankton.
However, how do ideas like self-destruction and asocialism breed, if their character makes their owners shun reproducing? The answer may lie in the non- intuitive fact that the reproduction of ideas need not be necessarily coupled with the reproduction of humans. Have you found yourself slighted when cut off on the highway, and thus spurred to cut another off in the same way? Some ideas may predispose their hosts towards not mating, and yet be potent enough to spread from individual to individual. Biologists have even identified similar processes in the field, where individual bacteria swap genetic material without reproducing. They call this act Horizontal Gene Transfer, and it may be a more widely applicable concept than they know.
More broadly, the reproduction criteria for a meme have little to do with the host at all, beyond causing the host to express behaviors that cause others to adopt that same meme. In Biology, in order for a lethal virus to survive, it must assure that its genetic code is passed on before it destroys its host. This seemingly ironclad Darwinian rule of the natural world need not apply to the spread of ideas. Consider again that for ideas to be exchanged, humans do not even have to meet face to face, or even be alive simultaneously. How many suicides were born decades before they occurred, spread posthumously by another carrier, like an oak desperately dropping acorns in the death throes of a fire. The striking tragedy of a suicide is more than just sadness, but the idea’s resilience in the minds of its witnesses. The kernel of the idea sits idly for years in the intellectual field of a man’s mind until the fire of anger or loneliness causes the undergrowth to clear enough for the seed of suicide to sprout. Perhaps I erred, then, in suggesting that the most popular memes are hardier than their less successful cousins.
What is the nature of our relationship with ideas? In some cases it seems parasitic, especially with self-destructive ideas. The will to self-destruct manifests itself at great personal cost to its host. Other ideas seem symbiotic, like tribalism and love. Through expressing themselves in us, these ideas not only heighten their own odds at survival, but bring us happiness and safety as well. Still others seem hard to classify, like asceticism and other highly abstract pursuits. It seems evident that humans and ideas need each other to survive, but beyond that, their relationship is murky.
Perhaps the binary of parasitism and symbiosis is unhelpful. What if ideas owe each other more allegiance than they owe us, and vice versa? We readily accept the notion that the wolves who prey on the slowest of deer place a selection pressure on the herd for speed. Might not some ideas prey on the most susceptible of humans to ensure the fitness of the rest for peaceful occupation by their memetic brethren? In that same vein, it could be said that humans choose which ideas to pollinate, optimizing for ideas that appeal to ourselves the most.
Ideas cooperating to produce a fitter human herd seems pat, but could the truth be darker? What if our mostly Darwinian universe decreed that there must be wolves to cull the weak human symbiotes and untenable ideas equally from the herds of both humans and ideas. These wolves scent out their human prey, the infirm harborers of unfit ideas, and stalk them until they fall. The complete destruction of their prey has a threefold result: the thinning of the least fit humans, the purging of divergent ideas remaining in those hosts, and the birth of an ever so slightly deadlier predator from the wreckage of its victim.