Intolerant Memes

by Laura Bryannan

"The Plague of Intolerance." This is the title of a fascinating article by Michael Hutchison in the August 1990 issue of New Age Journal. Hutchison elaborates on the work of Richard Dawkins, a British biologist who saw the similarities between the genetic transmission of information, and nongenetic transmission of information (communication).

We learned in science class how, through sexual reproduction, genetic information from the parents is carried on to the children. Some scientists have even looked at genes as being the ultimate rulers of all nature: that, on some level, genes have a conscious imperative to reproduce and survive, and that this is what determines the behaviors of animals and humans, not other more lofty attributes.

However, the nongenetic transmission of information has also been important.

"This type of communication can take many forms: the complex patterns danced by honey bees to tell other bees the location of pollen; the releasing into the air of pheromones [to attract a mate, for example]; the songs of birds and whales; the subtle resonances of human speech, writing, music and art."

Scientists have come to notice recently that some forms of communication have a pattern of self-replication built within them. "It's almost as if these packets of information carry with them a hidden command: 'Pass me along!' Or, in a more highly evolved form: 'It is your duty to spread this information.'" Thus "Richard Dawkins in 1976 coined the term 'meme' (rhymes with 'theme'), which he defined as a self-replicating information pattern that uses minds to get itself reproduced.

"According to Dawkins, examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."

I'm sure all readers have experienced a time when you read or heard something new or exciting, and the first thing you wanted to do was tell somebody about it. Then the person you tell it to turns around and tells other people. In this way, the original idea has reproduced itself by spreading from the source's brain, to your brain, to your friend's brain, to your friend's friend's brain, and so on. Ideas can reproduce themselves within a group faster than a common cold!

"Indeed, N.K. Humphrey, a colleague of Dawkins', argues that 'memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.' Others have been struck by the similarity between viruses and memes. Like viruses, memes are infectious. Whereas viruses use cells to get themselves copied so that they can infect other cells, memes use minds to get themselves copied: They are 'infectious information.' For this reason students of memetics speak of it as 'the germ theory of ideas.'"

One interesting fact that supports the germ theory of ideas is that scientists have recently discovered how the human animal has been programmed to experience pleasure in learning. Just as the body produces pleasure-inducing endorphins during the process of gene replication (sex), the human brain's most endorphin-producing areas are those connected with learning, or receiving new information. The pathways of the brain's "reward system" are tightly connected with the learning pathways.

"The activity of implanting a meme in someone's brain is a lot like having sex with that person. The similarity is one humans have long recognized, at least unconsciously. It's no linguistic coincidence that we speak of 'seminal' ideas and 'disseminating' information, that teachers speak of their students as 'fertile' minds, and that certain ideas are spoken of as being 'seductive' and others as 'barren' or 'sterile.'"

So, when someone tells us something new, we may have to sit on it for awhile and muse about it--what do we think about this? We're not sure whether we agree or disagree. While we're doing this the new meme is trying to find it's place within the context of the other memes we accept as "truth" or "reality." Then, suddenly, it happens! We accept, we believe, we see the light! "The new idea makes sense, and we are filled with a flood of pleasure, a sensual feeling of satisfaction as our body flows with warmth. We have just received a new meme, and our brain is rewarding us by releasing large quantities of endorphins and other pleasure- producing neurochemicals."

Thus "infected" we seek to spread the word. Other people we discuss the issue with get infected too. Depending on the topic, we might join an organization, plant a tree, make a speech, write a poem, sign a petition. By passing along the meme we feel as if we have fulfilled a mission; we belong to something greater than ourselves; we have communicated something important. The article notes that it is this sense of mission that keeps many otherwise underpaid or unrecognized poets, preachers, songwriters, teachers, etc., engaged in their work. The passion of transmitting their particular set of memes brings them great, almost erotic, satisfaction.

So, how does this all bear on the topic at hand of intolerance? Hutchison notes that for memes (and genes) to reproduce successfully, they must be stable and predictable.

"The survival of memes depends on their ability to replicate themselves without copying errors...To maintain their stability, memes must be intolerant of error, variation, or mutation; alterations become heresy. Memes that generate incorrect copies of themselves--that get 'misunderstood' each time they leap from mind to mind--would, like in the game of 'telephone,' tend to degenerate rapidly and would disappear from the meme pool."

Can you see it coming? Memes, in order to carry themselves on and reproduce accurately, must be inherently intolerant. In the beginning of human existence, this was an advantage. When human society was fragmented and scattered, there was little opportunity for competing memes to interact. Each group could hold on to it's own particular memes and never be confronted with another group's "reality." However, as society became more interactive, people were brought face to face with memes vastly different than their own.

"Meme intolerance interacted with increasing anxiety and insecurity...that contributed to increasingly disruptive wars, conquests, mass migrations and religious persecutions...Human history is a fabric of butchery, carnage, and cruelty spurred not by genetic imperatives but by memes."

However, something interesting began to happen in the middle of all this mess. As those carrying high intolerance memes continued killing and being killed, they began to be eliminated from the meme pool.

"High levels of meme intolerance, it began to appear, could sabotage the reproductive success of their carriers in an environment that was becoming ever more densely populated with a variety of intolerant competing memes. On the other hand, memes that could suppress or limit their intolerance of competing memes sufficiently to coexist with them in the marketplace of memes had a high survival value. As a result, such memes, or what we have called the meta-meme of tolerance, began to increase in the meme pool."

So, for a relatively short span of time in human history, we have seen the benefits of this meta-meme of tolerance in action, and it has brought about great changes in society. But in recent years this trend seems to be reversing. Books are being banned and burned; the demand to be able to rule other people's bodies and actions is increasing; a rise in fundamentalism is being seen all over the world. Why is this happening?

Meme theorists believe that a body in a stressed out and weakened condition is more susceptible to infection, whether it be by germs or memes. Two factors have increased humanity's susceptibility. One is the problems in the world environment--pollution, war, poverty, and economic instability. The other is the incredible amount of information now available to the average human on any part of the globe, unimaginable even twenty years ago. "Virtually every person...can now be exposed, directly, quickly, and repeatedly, to virulent memes...Nothing in evolutionary history has equipped humans to deal with the sheer quantity of infective memes they are exposed to each day."

Because the only way a meme can reproduce successfully is to maintain it's stability and predictability, this influx of new ideas and reality constructs are a direct threat to any one particular meme's survival. Because each meme wants to continue, it's carrier (you or me) holds on to that meme with much passion. New or different ideas that do not fit in with the memes we accept often make us uncertain, anxious or angry; they make us distrust ourselves and our view of the world, thus we want to turn away from them and shut them out of our consciousness.

"Those who fear the unpredictable, who hate change, who have nothing to learn because they already know The Truth, grow increasingly terrified as the social tremors increase and the familiar structure begins to break apart. Desperately they attempt to hold the structure together by brute force. Events are moving too rapidly; there are forces at work beyond their control. Their only hope is to make the fluctuations stop."

The author believes that the only way to prevent the "intolerance bug" from getting us is to strengthen our immune systems. How do we do that? One way is to keep ourselves away from sources of negative meme infestation (newspapers, TV, etc.) when we're feeling scared, depressed, or otherwise weakened; we're more susceptible to intolerance memes in this state then when we're feeling strong and confident.

Another way to stay immune to intolerance is by realizing that the world is in a constant state of change and unpredictability. Even though we may be feeling worried and anxious about ourselves and our world, we should be wary of those seeking to infect us with "if you accept what I say you'll be safe, have a sense of order, and know where you fit in" memes. We must remain fluid and flexible-- in the Tao, so to speak. Evolution will continue onward whether we like it or not. Setting up mental structures to give ourselves an artificial sense of stability will not change reality.

Hutchison believes that, in the past few hundred years, the world has seen the emergence of an evolutionarily-advanced human being: one that accepts change. This kind of human welcomes differences-- he or she is truly tolerant, and seeks out new and alternate views as part of the process of learning and evolving. These are the only people, Hutchison believes, who will be able to deal with the increasing acceleration of change on this planet. The "last year's model" human beings will be doing everything they can to keep things "as they always were," which means keeping us stuck in old patterns that no longer serve humanity.

So, where are you on the tolerance continuum? Will you be helping or hindering our movement toward the Aquarian Age?

New Age Journal. Circulation office: P.O. Box 53275, Boulder, CO 80321-3275.

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Last Updated: 1 feb 99
Laura Bryannan