The Giant Cultural Parasite
I remember the exact day that I first encountered the theory of memetics. I was lying on a picnic table bench across from my wife in Bishop, CA in July of 2017. We had just finished the High Sierra Trail and had hitchhiked to town only to find that our reservation for the car rental that would get us back to the other side of the Sierra Nevada had been superseded by a military contract which had co-opted every rental car within a 100 mile radius. So we had done what any self-respecting person would do when faced with insurmountable obstacles and a large swath of uninterrupted time ahead of them: we went to the local used bookstore and bought books.
I don’t remember what books my wife bought, but I picked up two: Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, and the book that changed the way I looked at the world, Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.
Dennett might best be described as an Evolutionary Philosopher. He theorizes that the human mind may have evolved into its current state of self-awareness as the result of memes (ideas or thoughts that spread from person to person within a culture). It’s an utterly fascinating argument that flips causality on its head (which is a mental model I’ve taken great delight in using to understand the world ever since), but it was also my first introduction to the field of memetics, which deals with the way that ideas take hold in the human mind and spread to create culture. As I began to understand more of the theory, I became consumed with noticing memes everywhere. I started to see the way they shaped how we think and speak, how we behave, and the very structure of our society and legal system. I also began to see why our own minds sometimes seem out of our control. It started to become very clear why so many problems in society, even those things that we all agree are problems, are so difficult to change.
Over the past 4 years, I’ve gone down a deep rabbit hole to collect ideas related to the theory of memetics. I’ve learned the basics of evolution from Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins (who gets credit for coining the term memetics), and Robert Wright. I’ve read about the memetic view of culture and consciousness from philosophers like Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Dennett, Aaron Lynch, and Brian Eno (yes, that Brian Eno), and looked with new eyes at the work on culture and ideas of Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, and Cory Doctorow, in addition to others. I’ve even taken a cue from Darwin (and Charlie Munger, and Shane Parrish), and tried my best to look for counterexamples that might disprove the theory. So far it has held its ground.
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to attempt to draw a line all the way from the repeating patterns that naturally emerge in the physical world all the way up to the complex, self-propelling culture that seems to be out of human control. I’ll pull from the fields of Artificial Intelligence, economics, marketing, education, politics, psychotherapy, and religion. And I’ll attempt to make a case that the systems that make up our world have grown in complexity to the point where they have their own goals—goals that are at odds with human happiness and may not even require human survival.
This is as much a project in distilling and clarifying my own learning as it is about sharing my own take on this theory with others. Most of the ideas belong to men and women who are far smarter than me, but I have generated a few of my own ideas by logically extending the arguments of others. I would not be surprised if many or all of those ideas have already been thought or perhaps even disproven by someone else. I make no claim to completeness in my research, but I think I’m at a point where I can write a cohesive first take that sheds some new light on the world. And I may even venture a few ideas about where to go from here. Along the way, I’d appreciate if you’d let me know if there’s anything that seems difficult to follow or that seems to make an illogical leap, or if you can point me in the direction of additional books/essays/videos on the subject, or if you have counterexamples that you think I should consider. I’m considering this a “first draft” of these ideas, and hoping that I can strengthen them with appropriate pushback.
Next week, I’ll dive in with an explanation of how naturally-occurring patterns like waves eventually resulted in the self-replicating patterns that were fated to eventually take over the world, and we’ll go from there. It ought to be quite a journey.
Part 2: Patterns
Let’s begin with water.
Imagine a clear pond. Smoothly polished stones lie at the bottom. Small trout hide in the dappled shadows, waiting in quiet repose. All is still. Further out, the soft morning light reflects green mountains off the surface, and the golden shoreline is so uniform as to blur reflection and reality. The pond is a perfect mirror, a portal into another world indistinguishable from our own.
You toss a stone. It hangs at the top of its parabolic arc for a last moment of stillness, then plunges into the pool below. At the moment of impact it the pond sucks it under with a splurch, spitting a small column of water upward and catapulting a single drop into the air as the reflected world in the face of the pond disintegrates with a shudder. The fish scatter before the first concentric rings of waves have reached the shore.
You watch as those rings spread from the point of disturbance and cover the entire pond. They oscillate long after the moment of impact, and each one travels the entire distance to the shore to lap at its edges with a soft pulse of splashing waves.
These circles, waves, and oscillations are all patterned expressions of a single action.
Let’s replay what happened from the point of impact.
The stone slammed into molecules of water, which sent their force into more molecules of water. The force moved outward in every direction, creating a sphere of pressure that displaced the water and made space for the stone to pass through. The cross-section of the pressure sphere that intersected with the surface of the pond appeared as the first circle. As the stone continued to fall and exert pressure on the water below, the space behind it backfilled with water, which collided into itself and sent a column skyward. This first circle and column is the initial reaction.
Let’s pause here.
Reaction is a first principle, one of the axiomatic laws of the universe. In fact, it’s Newton’s third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. While the force of the stone pushed on the water, the water pushed back on the stone with equal force. That’s sort of a weird thought for most of us, and I encourage you to take a minute to ponder how the floor below you right now is not only supporting you, but is actually pushing up against you with a force exactly equal to the gravity that’s pulling you down. Later on, this law of reciprocality will become important in unexpected and fascinating ways.
Okay, back to our pond. Why do the rings continue to form after the initial impact? The answer is in that column of water that we’ve left suspended in the air. Pressure forced it up, momentum kept it going, but gravity slowed it, and will continue to pull until it returns back to the surface of the lake.
The column of water slows, stops and returns in a parabolic arc that shares several features with the arc of the stone you tossed into the water. That’s because the same force (gravity) created both arcs. This might be obvious, but it’s important to point out: Constant forces lead to predictable, repeatable results.
As the column of water reaches the surface of the pond, it exerts pressure on the water that has filled in where the stone passed through. It creates another sphere of pressure, and the backlash sends the water back up. Momentum, gravity, pressure, reciprocation; momentum, gravity, pressure, reciprocation. It’s a cycle that would repeat itself endlessly if not for other forces—like the surface tension of the water—that dampen the effect and scatter its energy to other places.
What’s so important about this example is it shows how easily patterns replicate themselves. The single act of force provided by the stone creates several self-replicating patterns: oscillations, waves, circles and spheres.
We see self-replicating patterns throughout nature: crystals self-organize their atoms in latticeworks; oscillations between the seasons express themselves in the concentric rings of trees; bees create hexagonal honeycombs. Each is an example of simple mathematical rules that self-replicate into complex patterns.
Our pond gives us one example of how replication occurs on a small scale, with only a few forces in play. In the next chapter, we’ll talk about how additional forces create greater complexity, leading to the self-replicating patterns we call life. As we follow the thread all the way up to consciousness, memetics, and the systems that drive our culture, we’ll watch as these same laws and natural properties recur again and again at different scales. Those recurring laws will be the key to understanding why systems seem to have a life of their own—a life that is often at odds with human purposes.