The Giant Cultural Parasite

Introduction and Overview

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to find that our reservation for the car rental that would get us back to the other side of the Sierra Nevada had been superseded by a military contract which had co-opted every rental car within a 100 mile radius.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.

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