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Telomeres for memes
A quick biology lesson
Cells contain genes. Genes provide the code to replicate those cells. Cells replicate so the bodies they inhabit can live long enough to reproduce and pass those genes to the next generation. Sometimes this process goes wonky, and genetic mutations cause cells to begin replicating out of control. We call these cells cancerous. DNA strands have little strings of code on the ends called telomeres. Every time a cell divides, one unit of the telomere gets used up. Once the telomere is gone, the cell can no longer divide. Cancerous cells eventually stop replicating because the telomere gets used up. Telomeres, thus, protect against cancer.
Now that you’re caught up on the biology of telomeres, a refresher on memes.
Memes represent the cognitive equivalent to genes. Just like a gene spreads according to the laws of natural selection, so too do memes. We might think of memes as pictures or drawings with concise witty text shared on social media. This is just one form of meme. Religion is another form of meme. So too is political ideology. Stoicism. Buddhism. Mysticism. Paganism. These are all memes.
Unlike genes, memes can spread in two ways: vertical transmission, which is how genes spread, from parent to offspring, through temporal generations. But memes have another trick called horizontal transmission, which genes cannot do, spreading among peers living simultaneously in time. You cannot pass your genes on to your friends, but you can pass along your memes.
Like genes, memes have no agency. There is no purpose to their proliferation. An idea does not spread because it makes the world a better place; an idea spreads because it can, and ideas that spread better become more common than ideas that don’t spread as well. This might seem like a trivial point, but it is a powerful explanatory mechanism. Just like natural selection acting on genes, incredible complexity emerges from this simple concept. A platypus evolves because it does better than less-platypus like critters. A baobab tree evolves because it outcompetes un-baobaby trees and produces more baby baobaby trees than the un-baobaby trees do. God did not create the diversity of life on Earth, natural selection did. What is the memetic analogue to that statement? You’re not going to like it:
We did not choose our ideas, natural selection did.
The human agency problem
The question of human agency (AKA free will) might seem a trivial quarrel of philosophy, but it is here that it becomes centrally relevant. To acknowledge the power of natural selection is to relinquish the control of human free will in determining the ideas that we hold. In one sense, this is easy to understand - someone born into a Muslim community in Afghanistan will grow up to hold the doctrines of Islam as their own. From the outside, it is easy to see that this person never exerted free will over their Islamic faith. In fact, using our model of natural selection, it is clear that Islam spreads because it is designed to spread (designed in the Darwinian sense). Like a parasite manipulating its intermediate host to its untimely death, powerful memes possess the charming trait of manipulating their host’s mind to indoctrinate their offspring’s minds with the meme. It is for this reason we should have compassion for people who have been indoctrinated into their views. All of this paints humans as helpless memetic hosts for profligate ideas propagating through the synaptosphere.
Don’t have an existential crisis just yet, for we are not entirely powerless. Individuals like Megan Phelps-Roper (MPR) poke a glaring hole in this model of human un-agency. Born into one of Western Civ’s most bullish and tyrannical memes, MPR was able to escape with seemingly nothing at her disposal than the brunt force of human will. If you want the full story, I would recommend one of Sam Harris’ podcast episodes with her (#12, #17), but here’s the long and short of it: MPR is the granddaughter of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. In the span of just a couple of years, MPR went from picketing against fags and celebrating the deaths of soldiers overseas to outright denouncing the church altogether. The totalitarian programming of the Westboro Baptist Church in MPR’s mind was eviscerated by her force of will to become a decent person. Sure, there were influences from Twitter that played a significant role in her awakening, but ultimately it was her choice to leave the church. The will required to unravel years of programming is greater than can be explained by a few months of online interactions with strangers.
So, where does this leave us? What role does human agency have in dictating which memes we possess and which we dispense? In truth, we don’t know, and we may never know. I say, let the philosophers philosophize, I have better things to do. It seems to me that the solution is simple: at least some people have some control over the ideas they possess, moreover, there is no value in living as if we don’t. If we pretend we have free will to think for ourselves, we will make better choices as our choices will be held to account. If we act as if we are merely the synaptic vessels for memetic processes operating outside our control, we will almost certainly succumb to nihilism and amoralism. So, pretend you actually are responsible for thinking God hates fags. The world will be better off for it.
The memetic hand brake
Recall the telomere. It is a protective mechanism against pathological gene replication. What is the memetic analogue? There is none. Memes are free to spread indefinitely, with unmitigated speed and efficiency, halting only once the damage in their wake subsumes them, like an explosion consuming the one who threw the molotov cocktail. Memetic explosion is the process responsible for great wars, dictatorships, tyrannies, empires, genocides, and colonizations. Ideas do not spread with propriety and obsequious regard for their human hosts. Ideas spread with the force of nuclear fusion, and relent only once they have consumed everything in their path. Memes are white dwarfs cascading at lightspeed towards their inevitable supernovae climax, and our neurons are but the hydrogen atoms being consumed with nuclear intensity.
Free will or not, memes are the emperors of war, not the weapons.
Okay, timeout. It’s still not time for your existential crisis. There is a way out. Just as natural selection designed the telomere to mitigate cancerous cells, it is hard at work designing a memetic equivalent to mitigate cancerous ideas. The American Constitution was one such project - the canonization of a set of values designed to oppose the forces of tyrannical regimes that typified Europe and the Middle East prior. There are many such projects today, of various success and scale. The efforts of human creativity and natural selection are working overtime to oppose the unstoppable force of memetic explosivity (e.g., Ground News, Braver Angels, ThinkSpot, Theory of Enchantment). These efforts, while laudable, have one thing in common. One unifying trait that will result in their inevitable shortcoming: they are seeking to create new memetic spaces rather than pursuing to mitigate the existing one.
Imagine creating a virtual reality where cancer no longer exists. Great, cancer defeated right? Obviously not. We need solutions for eradicating cancer in the real world. Despite the best intentions of the Chloé Valdary’s of the world, their solution is not really a solution at all. It’s Westworld. It’s alternate reality. These projects will always draw the allure and support of those of us already inclined towards reason. What we need instead is a memetic hand brake. A tool to slow the spread of ideas in the synpatosphere. A cognitive governor.
What will the solution look like?
If you thought anything in this essay was unpalatable so far, brace yourself for this one. We need to eradicate social media and mainstream media from our cognitive airwaves. Twitter and CNN are the memetic equivalents to willfully living in Pripyat in the 90s (it’s relatively safe now). You’re just asking for cancer if you expose yourself to them. It’s not enough for a handful of individuals to choose to walk away. We need to evacuate the whole fucking population.
Until we eradicate the existing sources of cancer, we can’t even consider what the replacement solutions will look like. Obviously we need news and we need trusted sources of information and journalism, but the current algorithm driven models of social media and advertising fuelled systems of news media need to be wiped off the face of the planet before we can even have that conversation.
The solution, which I don’t have, must be propagated by quality, not by its intrinsic ability to spread. In fact, the solution must have telomeres built in to slow the spread of “super-spreader ideas”, because ideas that spread efficiently are not spreading because of their quality, but rather their emotional affect. The solution will ultimately look like carefully researched, thoroughly vetted, and endlessly updatable information sans narrative storytelling. It will look like science. No questions will be off limits. No hypothesis cancelled without falsification. No more tyrannical control of knowledge. We must become a society driven by reality, and we must let the chips fall where they may.