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September, 2009 : Feature:

Overlord of Thought

or: Another Fine Meme

Black ribbons slide through obsidian ecosystems, adaptive landscapes of self constructed memescapes. Predatory ecoforms of undulating meme-strung ribbons, lords of the memetic age search for homesteads, confident predators of the memocene. A seething broth of active evolutionary thought contagions, seeking stable meme-complexes to attach themselves to for survival: predatory, parasitic or symbiotic relationships of self bolstering ideas inexorably locked with the construction of our reality.

Prosaic definitions are in order for our metaphors to function. A meme is a unit of thought which is imitated or copied from person to person. It is the most basic form of a thought, a quantum of irreducible size. A single meme is therefore subject and quite vulnerable to extinction in the jumbled hodge-podge of memes in which we're awash. Single memes are susceptible to replacement by others unless integrated into more stable meme-complexes. A meme-complex is an association of ideas that combine in larger and more labyrinthine concepts. If a god is a meme, religion is a meme complex. Gods come and go, religion remains.

Memes are so alien that to a certain extent we must discuss them in metaphor. When I think about them I see those black ribbons swimming through a silent world, lightless and craggy. I do not yet know what the ribbon creatures do, but I do know they want one another's resources. I don't know what their world is truly like, but I do know it's a dynamic, adaptive landscape populated by my long black ribbon entities engaged in a battle for resources, of which I am one. The view I've constructed here for memes is a hopeful meme itself.

Just because you come up with an idea doesn't make it is a meme. It must spread; it must replicate. Being a "thought contagion," a meme can be transmitted through vertical or horizontal pathways. While genetic information passes only vertically from parent to offspring, memetic diffusion can touch receptive minds related only through communication channels. Wherever an idea can ride, obvious or hidden, a meme will exploit the niche.

More powerful memes remain associated with stable interdependent meme structures, or meme-complexs that have precipitated out to permanent fixtures of a memetic ecosystem. Layered strata of memetic fallout and sedimentary relationships maintain roots and tendrils—forgotten consciously—from lower to a higher level of memetic development. We are left with memetic palimpsests in phylogenetic relationships with threaded effects up through layers upon fossil layers of memes. They did not spring whole from the forehead of Zeus.

In a biological sense, memes play a developmental role. Environment and genotype have been the king and queen of phenotypic expression for a century and a half, where their interplay determines morphology and ethos for species and individual in a changing environment. But now there's a third branch, a dark prince, unfettered by linear transmission of DNA command codes or bracketed responses to environmental flux. At some level of complexity organisms with brains, with minds, may host equally powerful concepts able to leap between individuals and play developmental roles on action and even, given enough time, on morphology.

Like the better understood genetic viability, memetic success is measured by perpetuation, replication and spread. Memes that are better adapted to persist, better able to assure continued existence, such as by incorporating themselves into large, more stable meme complexes, are the ones to enjoy survival and evolutionary primacy.

As if it wasn't hard enough imagining the unbounded yet finite nature of the Universe, now you must picture the adaptive landscape of memes and their own peculiar memetic adaptive landscape encompassing anything that can think as a subset of the Universe with no volume and infinite scope. An adaptive landscape, as translated to something resembling a topographic map, is a vast plain of peaks and valleys, heights of slippery instability and valleys of secure, steady reliability. Human minds provide a fertile ground for colonization; dogs might be somewhat less so, paper wasps even less.

The presence of memes in biologically conscious environments like our minds indicates, at least to me, that memetic precursors can be found inside other organisms just as homologous traits for anything, whether bones or behaviors, can be constructed into phylogenenetic trees of taxonomic groupings and relatedness.

Or perhaps memes have taken the place of genetically derived behaviors in organisms crossing some threshold of complexity that precludes biologically concise, genetically compact organismal development. Memes for certain traits may even be transcendent to species barriers. At some point the brains hosting the minds that provide an adaptive substrate for meme survival and propagation might themselves develop physical characteristics that result in hard wiring of what had once been a thought contagion.

Much thought has been devoted to animal consciousness. Not limited to apes or cetaceans, glimmering clues to animal consciousness have been cited among such diverse entities as parrots, octopi, jumping spiders and solitary wasps. Certainly dog owners are aware of their own companions' rich emotional state. (As for cats, well, cats are cats.)

So memes quite possibly represent the third dog-head on a beast standing before the gates to who-and-what-we-are. Perhaps I might channel Hydra rather than Cerberus, given that the number of heads may in fact be unknown. But for now genetic, environmental and memetic connections are all working in concert to build us.

Memes survive across broad cultural gulfs that may indicate their age, and certainly correlate to success. They attach themselves to broader meme-complexes that are overarching and successful for many reasons. Government styles, religious dogmas or cultural guideposts can all be meme-complexes that are intertwined in mimetic bastions of impervious concepts. Most important, memes are not limited to the vertical transmission from father to son, mother to daughter, parent to offspring, but propagate laterally through the vast and myriad connections that we all have in such uncountable number that the Papal See is not so very far from the guy that used to pump your gas (a service meme that has gone the way of the dodo and the worship of Zeus).

Somewhere off at a right angle to all the rest of the right angles I can imagine, those ribbons undulate through memetic jungles with all the ecological complexity of an Amazonian rainforest. No more aware of us than are the codons beaded together along our chromosomes, memes live out their lives, reproduce, form alliances and disappear in ignoble collapse or cataclysmic extinctions. Or they continue. Meme-complexes disintegrate and scatter as memes seeking safe haven: a movement in search of a messiah bonds with a messiah in search of a cause.

Complex memes can absorb change to a limited degree, until the superstructure collapses like a Jenga tower. The evolution of religions or sitting governments, viewed as organisms in an environment of fluctuating resources, demonstrate the accumulation of small mutations until a breakpoint. The Eddur of the Norse Gods fallen to relentless scripture, Soviet style communism erased by capitalism and Western-style self expression; changes accumulating to a speciation event. Conflicting memes accumulate within larger memetic structure until a critical mass sets the whole structure tottering on an unstable apex waiting for a Martin Luther to come along and nail the last destructive meme to the door and commence the restructuring of 1500 years of centralized power structure in Europe.

In a sense our memes may survive us. We have sent them skyward on golden plates with the voyager spacecraft exhibiting our memetic heritage. We will certainly be unable to breed with aliens, we may not even be capable of ergonomically using their chairs, but memes? Perhaps the universal commonality will be the adaptability of those thought contagions that are able to not only leap the gulf between stars engraved on plates affixed to our spacecraft, but that which exists between species climbing from disparate biospheres. We will surely meet minds wrapped in black ribbons.

Copyright © 2009, Rob Furey. All Rights Reserved.

About Rob Furey

Dr. Rob Furey worked on his PhD in Gabon, West Africa, on social spiders. He has returned to his study site several times for his own research, with students and once as a forest guide for a natural history film crew from the UK. He has faced down cobras, retreated from army ants and slept on open wooden platforms in African swamps. Later he went to French Amazonia to work on another social spider species. Not only did he spend time with the spiders, but he watched a gunfight between gold prospectors and French army troops while he ate a meal of roasted tapir. Since then Rob has returned to the tropics several times, usually with students. He spent time as a student himself attending Clarion West. He has published a couple of stories in anthologies since then in addition to articles for dusty tomes on arcane spider behavior. He is currently part of the charter faculty at Harrisburg University, the first new private university in Pennsylvania in over 100 years.


Sep 5, 06:46 by IROSF
Comment Below!
Sep 23, 17:47 by Geb Brown
I love the idea that even if our species isn't genetically compatible with other species out there (the odds of compatibility being so slim as to be non-existent), humanity may nonetheless cross with these other beings culturally through the 'transmission' of memes. If our story has legs to them, our existence, then perhaps a species that is nothing like us physically may still consider themselves "human" even when the original humanity is long gone.

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