Memes are not just the captioned images shared on Facebook and Twitter. The original conception of the term was to conceptualize the propagation of propositional and cultural information between human minds. But has human society reached a point where the natural selection of memes has stalled, thereby halting memetic evolution?
Genetic evolution occurs when certain traits (genes) are naturally selected due to their differential fitness in a given environment. Memetic evolution assumes a functionalist conception of beliefs, whereby different beliefs are selected due to the fitness a belief instills on the believer’s behavior. Just as a gene that made a person suicidal would be selected against, so would a meme that made a person suicidal. Memes, like genes, that make a person pursue survival-enhancing behaviors will propagate much quicker and become adopted as elements of a culture.
There are, however, differences in the evolution of memes and genes. Memes can have a more recursive selection pressure – certain memes contain elements of self-reinforcement and/or what I might call xenomemophobia (a fear of other competing memes). The former would be seen in something like the idea of faith, where having no evidence for – or even evidence against – believing something only strengthens the belief, or in conspiracy theories where the lack of evidence is viewed as evidence of how omnipresent the conspiracy is. Xenomemophobia would result in, for instance, the Soviet Union or Communist China, where any beliefs competing against the communist orthodoxy are quickly stamped out by force.
For the purpose of this post, though, I will stick with the analogy of genetic and memetic evolution. In civilized human society, genetic evolution has largely slowed down. The reason for this is that we A) don’t allow people with, for lack of a better term, bad genes succumb to their ailments and B) people with the so-called bad genes are not prevented from reproducing. Thus, all genes are allowed to remain in the gene pool. I’m not making a value judgment on this, but merely pointing out this fact.
So, what happens if memes that have detrimental effects on human behavior are allowed to persist? Wouldn’t memetic evolution also slow or even halt? Or, at the very least, if the propagation rate of memes far outpaces the selection rate, wouldn’t that be functionally equivalent to a halting of memetic evolution?
I think that in the developed world, the detrimental effects of bad memes on our behavior has been largely curbed by other memes such as human rights and rule of law. Having fringe beliefs, resulting in aberrant behaviors, doesn’t necessarily inhibit the survival of those beliefs. A good example might be the flat earth community that has recently gained steam. In addition to maybe some self-reinforcement, there is also, in the western world, a sense that people are allowed to believe whatever they want to believe, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. The anti-social behavior aspect of embracing the flat earth meme doesn’t exert enough pressure for the untrue belief to remain fringe.
In conjunction with this loss of selective pressures is that the propagation rate of memes is outpacing what selection pressures there are left. With the internet, memes are allowed to spread at a rate beyond what even social pressures can keep up with. Most people are barely even aware what all different cultures, subcultures, and subsubcultures there are out there.
The effect that all this has is the dissolution of civil discourse and even agreed upon truths. People are embracing memes with little social fitness in wider society and little to no correspondence to reality, all without any sufficient selection pressure to root out unfit memes.