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Monday, August 24, 2009

I have a meme. And so do you and you and you...

There has been a lot of discussion in the last few years about the decline of western civilization. Whether western civilization is actually in decline or is merely changing, is debatable. The perceived decline however is without question. A Google search of news and opinion pieces since 2001 will bring up a stagger variety or theories and viewpoints on the subject. They nearly uniformly agree however that western civilization is not as strong as it once was. This begs the question, why do so many people see their own society as failing? Can it all be just written off as a natural tendency to look back to the “good old days” or for every generation to be convinced that the children of the next generation are degenerate? No, I don’t think so. The theory of memetics, (for a succinct rundown of the theory - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memetics) offers an interesting possible answer. Memetics posits that ideas, beliefs, skills etc are transmitted through society much the same way genes are transmitted within a population. On this foundation, it’s easy to see why the current state of western society would be worrying to a lot of people. Our society used to be based around communities, churches, regions etc that all held if not identical then fairly similar overlapping histories, beliefs and cultural norms. The individuals that came and went from these in groups did little to upset the whole and there was continuity over generations.
Fast forward to today, we have had the upheaval of two world wars, the rise and fall of western communism, and the social revolutions of the 1960s bringing entire classes of society onto more even footing. Following this we have experienced the technological explosions of the information age and the breaking down of geographical barriers by the internet. We are, without a doubt in a unique stage of human societal development. Western society in particular has seen the cultural equivalent of the Cambrian Explosion. Instead of the few long standing traditional memetic pools that characterized society in the past, we now have uncounted new smaller isolated memetic pools. Some still try to hold onto remnants of the tradition and belief structures of their origins but others create their structures out of whole cloth as can be witnessed in some of the neo-pagan communities that pick and choose belief structures from any ancient religion they come across or simply make up what they can’t find. We also have groups, united be behavior, considered to be aberrations in times past coming to forefront and creating their own communities with their own memes. Now, instead of a few pools of cultural norms, we have a large number of smaller, rapidly changing ones. These pools are necessarily shallower and form a less cohesive population.
When put up against societies that have for one reason or another warded off some of the affects of modernity and retain a larger and deeper memetic pools, western society will seem weak. And from a Darwinian standpoint, it is because it is being out competed. Like genes, memes are only as valuable within the pool as they are good at getting themselves replicated. Religion, which can act as societal glue is a subset of the overall meme pool that is particularly good at self replication. Religion also makes a good example for how western civilization is being out competed.
Compare the solid social driving force of millions of Muslims with a fairly close matched belief in a god that encourages the destruction of the infidel and punishes the faithful who fail with a loosely knit group of communities who tacitly believe in a broad spectrum 'gods' who go by the same name but barely compare in actuality. Throw in all of the communities and individuals who believe in all of the diverse neo-pagan religions; add the agnostics and atheists and you have a meme pool that is very broad but shallow. It is easy to see how a more cohesive group can pass on its values more easily than a diverse grouping of subgroups. The values of the diverse subgroups are only getting passed to a small number and may well get absorbed into another completely different group via marriage a deliberate change of lifestyle.
It could be argued that western society is falling victim to its own enlightenment; that the supremacy of the individual as the rightful unit of memetic transmission is not a positive adaptation. Without the community at large to uphold set standards, we will be out-competed by less individualist and more dogmatic societies.

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About Me

I am a husband and a father of two. I work as a network administrator. I am interested in religion and philosophy, though mostly from an external perspective.