Dangerous memes spread like toxic ideas
Today’s TED A Day comes from the wonderful philosopher and scientist Dan Dennett and tackles the fascinating concept of memes. Dennett is one of the greatest thinkers on the complex subjects of human consciousness and free will, and this TED lecture delves into the dark side of memes.
The word ‘meme’ comes from Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene, and it is an Darwinian concept concerning the spreading of ideas and behaviours from human to human. Just as genes spread from parent to child, Dawkins put forward the theory that ideas could spread from person to person, culture to culture.
Just as some genetic evolutionary traits are lost in the Darwinian struggle, so are some ideas, while others thrive and spread across populations where they continue to evolve and change. The very idea of memes is itself a meme that is right at this second being passed from me to you, where if this article means anything to you, you may choose to pass the meme on further, thus continuing the spread of this idea.
Dennett puts forward the case for dangerous memes in this insightful talk. Starting with a tale of an ant with a parasite within its brain, Dennett goes on to question why we consider the spider’s web as a result of natural evolution but not the world wide web. It’s an interesting point, and as soon as you start to think of all the technology and the culture we create as part of the natural continuation of human evolution, the idea of memes becomes clearer. The spider creates its web, we create ours, what’s the difference?
Moving on to dangerous memes, Dennett examines the ideas that people will die for. Unlike any other species we have ideas and concepts that can override our genetic interests and cause us to die for ideologies, religion and politics. As memes these dangerous ideas spread from brain to brain and continually replicate, they are toxic information packets that once are out there, spread through the population like a virus.
Many of the memes that are created in the western world will not have a negative effect upon us as we are so used to them. Just as explorers to the New World spread viruses that were harmless to them but devastating to those they came across, so some of the memes we are spreading via television, the internet, and the media could be potentially damaging to other cultures. Most of us are able to shrug off pornography and violence as we are so used to them playing a role in our culture, but the danger, Dennett argues, is when these memes clash with cultures that are not so immune they can be dangerous.
The real danger comes when they clash with memes native to the culture they are infiltrating, and specifically with the ideas that they are prepared to die for. This is seen most clearly with the response of proponents of some forms of radical Islam. But how do we tell the good memes from the bad, and how can we stop potential violence that can arise from these clashes?
Dennett believes that we need to use science and reason to work out the implications of memes that we may be inadvertently spreading through the world’s populations. By using facts to work out the implications of our ability to spread ideas via our technology like never before, we can calmly look at any potential damage we may do. Resorting to anger and violence will never solve these cultural differences, but reason may.
All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t good memes, as we know very well at One&Other… there are actually some beautiful memes out there as well.