DAVID BRIN's world of ideas

Survival of the Fittest Ideas: The New Style of War -- a Struggle Among Memes

By David Brin, Ph.D.

In the Beginning

Can we take a momentary break from exploring the future, and take a dip into the world of biology?

A well-known scientist-author, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, described how everything from our bodies to civilization may have arisen out of a billion-year-old contest among nearly invisible clusters of DNA, competing against both nature and each other.

Most of us are used to envisioning evolution as having to do with macro creatures -- like plants, microbes or animals -- whose bodies and behaviors prove their "fitness" value by surviving and reproducing across countless generations. By this reckoning, DNA is no more than a tool, like the creature's eyes or limbs -- a repository of codes, a passive library of biochemical and cellular tricks -- serving the needs of an individual or species. But in a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, things can be viewed the other way around. Our complex bodies and behaviors may only serve as the pragmatic implements used by genes to facilitate their own replication.

Yes, this bizarre-sounding idea is taken seriously, in fact, by a majority of the world's experts in Darwinian selection. While many of them won't take it quite as far as Dawkins does, it certainly is a widely-accepted viewpoint to see evolution as a competition between bundles of coded genetic information, written along the chromosomes of living beings.

Of course, molecules don't contemplate "goals." Still, even prim biologists are known to anthropomorphize, now and then, because the effects of natural selection often do look eerily as if different genetic heritages have been striving against one another for niches in the ecosystem, instead of just stumbling into them by happenstance.

Let's put it this way -- if, by fortuitous chance, a bundle of genes happens to produce an organism with the right attributes, enabling it to live and pass on more copies of the genes, then naturally many those copies will also share the original successful trait and have an improved chance of making copies... and so on.

For our present purposes, let's use biology as a launching point, skipping on to a strange and delightful concept that Dawkins extracted from this notion of natural selection among genes. In a side musing that has since been widely discussed, he suggested similarities to other kinds of self-replicating systems -- like computer viruses -- that use information to be both infectious and prolific.

Extending the notion still farther, Dawkins hypothesized living bundles of ideas that he called memes.

Just like genes and computer viruses, memes are packets of coded information, but no longer contained in strings of molecules or software code. Rather than operating inside computers or living cells, memes take action inside human minds. Furthermore, these aren't just ordinary ideas. Like successful genetic codes, they must have the trait of making copies of themselves.

Again, it's already been shown that information can do this -- the code itself, if played back in a receptive environment, can force that environment to offer up resources for self-reproduction. If it happens in a cell or a computer, why not the rich environment offered by our brains?


[image from past is prologue blog]

Ideas That Live / Ideas That Spread

Suppose I read, or heard, or somehow picked up a new concept -- say the very one we're discussing at this moment, the notion of memes. Now I guess you could say this idea was successful at "infecting" me, because I've continued thinking about it, giving it continued existence, or life.

In thinking an idea, you in a sense cause the idea to live.

But a virus or bacterium that just sits inside its host organism doesn't accomplish much. Flu viruses make us sneeze because those viruses which stumbled into that trait spread their progeny far and wide, giving them, in turn, further chances to proliferate.

How would a living idea proliferate? By somehow getting its host not only to think about it, but also to spread copies... by telling other people!

And now, if you've been paying attention, you'll realize that's just what I've been doing the last few minutes for one particular meme... the meme of memes! By telling you all about it, I am doing the memic equivalent of coughing on you. Infecting you with the infectious, self-replicating organism of an idea... the very notion of these infectious ideas. And if it's a successful self-replicating notion, some of you will go tell others. And so on.

Of course this is not the first time this has happened on the planet. We do it all the time. In fact, life would be dull, if not impossible, if we didn't share ideas we had heard -- mutating and adapting them to our purposes along the way.


[image from Where's Walden blog]

Memes -- Shedding Light on History

Intriguing. Now imagine that some of these self-reproducing ideas pick up a few other attributes. Say a notion becomes helpful to its hosts in some way -- for example a belief in washing hands before eating -- resulting in better health and survival of more children. The meme of bathing could also facilitate its own spread by causing more people to enjoy being around its human host, helping the good-smelling host to become more successful and influential in his or her community. This, in turn, helps the meme to spread. (If more people listen to your host, then the host's store of devoutly-believed memes will spread!)

Imagine now that some memes acquire yet another trait. Some might cause their host organisms, or host tribes, to try to keep other memes out! To expose their children to only those ideas the parents already have within their heads.

If a meme fell upon the trick of making its hosts behave in such a way, it would thus secure the territory of many human minds for itself and its progeny and keep away competitors for all time.

Sound like a bizarre science fiction scenario?

Or is it, rather, a pretty good model of what we've seen going on around us, in nearly every human society where citizens have been taught to believe certain things and to hold alien ideas in suspicion?

Examples abound. Take the dogmatic exclusion rules of most religions. Can we look again at the Inquisition, or the Tokugawa extirpation of Japanese Christians, or the Holocaust, in new light? One of the Iranian Ayatollahs once said of America -- "We don't fear your bombs, we fear your pagan ideas."

Or take the Soviet Union. What's going on in Russia today (ed. note: this was early 1989) may be considered the meme-equivalent of AIDS! After all, consider which people over there seem most infected with our western worldview. Certainly not vast portions of the population as a whole, who often seem sullen, resentful of change, and xenophobic. No, it appears to be the aristocracy, a lot of guys at the top, Gorbachev and even some large elements of the KGB, who are now turning off the jamming devices. The "immune system" of former Leninist Russia -- the memic equivalent of white blood cells -- who used to keep out anything that contradicted Communist purity, has changed sides! Border guards who once confiscated videotapes were the equivalent of antibodies. But now their orders are to "let anything in. Come on! Infect us!"

Under such circumstances, how much longer will their outer barriers last?


[image from JohnBarban.com]

Memes Can Wage War on One Another

Some of you have heard me talk before about how, in my opinion, there are presently four major worldviews battling over the future of this planet. Now, so long as you're willing to take all this with a grain or two of salt -- and remember, this is only a model, a metaphor -- I'd like to give you an updated version.

These four combating worldviews have little to do with all those superficial slogans that people have let themselves get lathered about in this century. Things like communism, capitalism, Islam. We have seen wars and death aplenty, but they weren't fought over such simpleminded ideologies. Not really.

Rather, I am talking about deeper themes that pervaded human psychology since the dawn of time. All four of the antagonistic memes that I'm about to describe can be shown to have appeared in all historic cultures, sometimes coexisting under conditions of high tension. Or else they have taken turns, dominating or setting the tone for entire civilizations.

  1. There is, first off, a worldview best called Paranoia.

Take the best recent example: one can understand Russian traditional xenophobia and dread of enemies lurking on the horizon, given their history of repeated invasion at least once per generation, for a thousand years. Under these conditions, a people might school themselves, through every myth and fairy tale, to support even a monstrous leadership if it promises to keep the Enemy at bay. Still, this meme made for an uncomfortably brittle and capricious superpower. If Paranoia had won, or even lasted much longer, the world would probably become a cinder, sooner or later.

The great enemy of Paranoia is peace. Without constant threat and suffering, human beings eventually start thinking in terms of comfort and personal ambition. And yet the fearful meme is still carried in the mythology that Russian parents pass on to their children. That part of it may take a long time to go away.

  1. Second on our list of competing themes is Machismo.

Machismo is the most powerful worldview -- the leading meme -- in many parts of the world.

Wherever you see women oppressed and the environment ignored, wherever professionalism and skill are downgraded in favor of strutting and male-bonded loyalty groups, it's a good bet that Machismo sets a culture's major chord. And don't underrate it! Macho-chiefdom was an effective social pattern, especially in countless natural hunter-gatherer tribes. Much that is noble and heroic came out of such clans, including probably most of our ancient legends. A later version -- feudalism -- appeared wherever and whenever humanity came up with both agriculture and metallurgy, with such reliable consistency that it has to be something basic. In other words, it may be the most "natural" human self organizing system. Nevertheless, if this meme prevails, we and our planet will die.

Today, different versions of Machismo are dominant in wide areas of Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and several other zones as well. For example, in the Iranian language, Farsi, most of the traditional fairy tales that are recited to children apparently focus on one dramatic theme, above all others, that of revenge, a motif you can also see repeated in 1001 Arabian Nights. Nor is this trait limited to any one subculture. Almost every social lineage on the planet passed through a macho phase, e.g., the feudal era in Europe, which gave us the occidental myths collected in Grimm's Fairy Tales. Consider how many of them centered either on revenge or on premises of prickly male honor, or else on rescue themes with strictly defined sexual roles. Or take Latin America where, I am told, mothers in some places are still known to sit their little sons on their knees and tell them -- "Someday you'll be a macho guy. You'll deflower virgins and seduce other men's wives. But if this happens to your wife or sister, you must cut her throat." This may sound bizarre to many of you, but I have double checked. Moreover, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as an aberration.

Again, as worldviews go, Machismo has a long tradition, a lot longer than ours. It is also hot-tempered and deeply threatened by modernity. Watch, as time passes and the elevation of women progresses. We shall see how this meme reacts to the insistent pressure of western values, perhaps erupting in harsh reaction. It may burst from Machismo's Latin or middle-eastern or south Asian variants -- too soon to tell which. Let's hope not all of them.

When this happens, the underlying fever will probably go undiagnosed and unnamed. Western pundits and leaders will probably focus unduly on superficial details like religion or nationality. Wherever it manifests, the real cause, lying much deeper down, will probably be ignored.


How about a side bet? Here's a prediction regarding the first meme we mentioned -- Paranoia (specifically the Russian/Soviet variant). We'll see, in the course of the next decade, if it really is on the way out, or if its lasting power has been underrated, giving rise to powerful new surface forms. There are plenty of fresh symbols that might suffice, replacing both czars and communist stars.

Assuming it does continue to fade: keep an eye on how the other three culture families devour what remains of the old Soviet Empire, as some of its parts hurry to join the domain of the West, some tumble into the Machismo orbit, while still others become Eastern with stunning rapidity.


  1. The third worldview is (as I just alluded), one that I call The East.

Of the three opposition memes discussed here (there are more, but these are the most important), The East is demonstrably both traditional and sane... after its own fashion. It's been around for a very long time, after all. During most of recorded history it was the dominant theme in China and several other parts of this planet. The East's principal motif, homogeneity, was most eloquently mapped out and prescribed by the sage known in the west as Confucius.

Everyone should subsume their sense of self to the larger group, to the nation, to the tribe, whatever. It's more complicated than that, of course. For example, while the Eastern Meme hews to the ancient human pattern of pyramidal social hierarchies and a highly privileged leadership class -- just like Paranoia, Feudalism, and Machismo -- it also moderates many of the worst effects of hierarchy. It does this by believing deeply in skill, professionalism, and taking the advice of meritocratic civil servants. Indeed, this bent toward meritocracy allows some social mobility! The brightest sons (and yes, daughters) of the peasantry can rise up, gradually, if they don't offend or get too far out of line.

The crux: individualism is dangerous. Deviation and eccentricity are worse. The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

One can see how such a meme would make governing large populations easier. Capital isn't wasted too much on feathers for male strutting (as in Machismo), nor excessively on arms and war (as in Paranoia). If the East wins, you will probably have peace, some preservation of the environment, some pandas, some trees. Suppression of women is traditionally limited in scale and may even evaporate somewhat in a modern version. Humans might eventually, slowly, get out into space. But when or if we ever met aliens, we won't understand them -- because by then the very notion of diversity, let alone finding it attractive or interesting, will have been extinguished.

I don't think it would be very much fun living in a human civilization dominated by some Eastern Meme. But then, if I'd been brought up under Eastern Memes, I might not consider "fun" to be such a fundamental desideratum! (In many oriental languages, we're told, there was no real word for the concept.) In any event, the Eastern Worldview is the only one which, as I said before, has a proved track record... which has been demonstrably able to operate a civilization for thousands of years in a manner that's fairly decent, in its way. Though we here in this room would find life tyrannical and oppressively boring.

  1. Finally, there is a fourth meme, one which has always been a minor theme, a tiny minority in every culture -- until ours. What is that fourth meme? One could possibly call it The West, but I find that self-serving and tendentious. Rather, in an article a few years ago, I called it the Dogma of Otherness.

The Dogma of Otherness is a worldview that actually encourages an appetite for newness. A hunger for diversity. An eagerness for change. Tolerance, naturally, plays a major role in the legends spread by this culture. (Look at the underlying message contained in most episodes of situation comedies!) A second pervasive thread, seen in the vast majority of our films and novels, is suspicion of authority.

Historically, this is a very strange meme, one which encourages such art forms as science fiction, and is in turn spread quite effectively by such forms. Its notion of a Golden Age, for instance, does not reside in some lost, lamented past but in a future that our children may create, if we hand them tools and a better world to work with. The importance of this reversal in the perceived timeflow of wisdom cannot be overstated. It represents a sea change in the human relationship with time.

Naturally, this way of looking at the world was rare in the past. Even today, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that this meme "owns" territories like Europe or America. Even where it is strongest, it must contend ceaselessly with any other forces inimical to its goals. There are lots of Californians, for instance, who personally emphasize macho, paranoiac or homogenizing values, instead of tolerance and otherness.

What we can say, nevertheless, is that Otherness has become powerful in the official morality of most western societies. Look at the vocabulary used in most debates on issues concerning the public. So-called "political correctness" can be seen in ironic light, as a rather pushy patriotism in favor of the tolerance meme! But even the other side often wraps itself in phrases like "freedom," or "color blindness," or "individual rights."

Even more important, though, is the fact that millions accept the deeply utopian notion that our institutions must be improvable, and that active criticism is one of the best ways to elicit change.


[image from George Mason University]

Scenarios for the Future

All right, I've put up four strawman worldviews, suggesting that they are engaged in a struggle over the deep programming of human minds. Feel free to accept or reject this arrangement... after all, it's only a model. Or a meme.

Still, I've thought of an amusing experiment you might play, using these four protagonists. Try to picture what might happen if a ship full of extraterrestrials landed in a Macho culture, or a Paranoid one, or in the East.

You get three wildly different scenarios, don't you? Now imagine if aliens made contact with people brought up in the fourth way I mentioned -- under the Dogma of Otherness. Forget Hollywood pathos about nasty CIA types and trigger-happy rednecks. Try to picture a flying saucer setting down in today's Los Angeles. The National Guard might be called out to encircle the vessel, but they wouldn't face inward. They would be far too busy facing in the opposite direction, protecting our alien visitors from autograph hounds, groupies, and hordes seeking novelty.

The first thing that Californians would ask aliens is -- "Have you got any new cuisine?"

This fourth worldview is related to what we started out discussing this evening... the Look Forward way of conceptualizing truth and knowledge. The notion that, while some theories may be better than others, all can profit from criticism and experimentation.

Emphasizing diversity, this meme even welcomes a little disturbing eccentricity, now and then. You can earn a living as an iconoclast in the West today, especially if you make it entertaining. One gets ego points for being different, if you do it with style.

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[image from Memetic Society blog]

The Underlying Struggle

Make no mistake, this competition among driving inner memes is one of life or death.

Not necessarily (I hope!) for the human beings who host these infectious ideas, but almost certainly among the memes themselves. For one cannot be both tolerant and paranoid, or both deeply conformist and loving of eccentricity, can one? Again, I am not talking about nations or religions or superficial cultural things like language or rituals -- though diversity of such things will certainly thrive far better under Otherness than under any of the other worldviews that proved so intolerant across millennia. No, it's a war over whether diversity itself can and will be a paramount human value.

How is the war going?

I can't really say which zeitgeist is winning at this point. Though the Paranoia Meme, held intact for so long by the Russian Empire, does seem to be dissolving, slowly, as a new generation takes over which never knew war. (Indeed, it's remarkable how closely events have followed the memic model since I first began speculating about this, five years ago.)

The western worldview has a few advantages, such as the growing acceptance of English as the world's common tongue, and the fantastic effectiveness of the modern university in educating modern minds. Liberation of women seems to be profoundly effective at spreading this meme. Acting on an even broader scale is the power of the West's propaganda department... which some call Hollywood.

Still... the other memes are much older. And they seem to resonate with people at a deeper level, echoing their fears, their lusts, and their ancient dreams of achieving order by following strong chiefs. Insecurity seems to be their best ally.

This may be why feudal fantasy novels and films about kings and wizards are still popular even in the modern West, a society who's greatest accomplishment was to smash the steep hierarchies that monarchs and magicians used to erect in order to oppress us, for thousands of years.

The jury is still out whether the tolerance meme -- or other-fetishism -- is really any saner than older, paranoiac ways. No tribe ever before had the guts to make tolerance and individualism paramount themes, especially in the messages they feed the young and poor and powerless. Traditionally, the aristocracy would rally those below by pointing to some outside threat, thus making conformity a principal virtue. The whole existence of many tribes was based upon "It's them against us, and us should win."

No guarantees.

And yet, I know where I stand. My preference cannot help coming out in my writing. Not just a shaman or an entertainer, I'm also a propagandist in this war. I'd like to think that people come away from my books feeling just a little more tolerant than before, or a little more eager for change and diversity in the future of this world.

In fact, I think that we should go forth and crush every other worldview that doesn't promote tolerance!


[image from Meme Logic blog]

All right. That remark was intended to be ironic and I'm certainly glad most of you in the audience laughed just now! I would have felt a shiver if you hadn't!

Let's check though... how many of you, despite your laughter, agree at least in part with what I just said?

As I expected. You are intolerant of intolerance... and at the same time amused by the paradox this puts you in!

Well, I'm not surprised. The fact that you are capable of laughing at yourself means, by my reckoning, that you are members of a worldview that says "Don't take yourself too damn seriously." Yet another emblematic trait of this new meme.

Before, fathers, mothers and teachers used to say, "I shall keep all alien notions and foreign ideas away from my children, in order to protect them." None of those ancestors would have felt uncomfortable, as so many of you out there are feeling right now, with the very notion of winning and losing. They simply took it for granted.

Now, though, for the first time, we have a cultural mind-set that has parents saying to their kids -- "I've taught you basic values. Therefore, I don't care what ideas you play with, because I know you'll be a decent person, whatever notions you're exposed to."

If this worldview wins, naturally there will be Kabuki theater and Bantu dancers and Sufi dervishes and all manner of diverse cultural treasures preserved from the past and around the world. Being of a mind to romanticize anything that is different, children of the west will rebel against the very thought of such things ever going extinct. They'll be trained from birth to hunger for diversity.

Perhaps this is nothing other than the development of the world's first multicellular meme. The first in which exclusion has turned into inclusion. If so, we are, indeed, in for interesting times.

THE END