Memetic parasitism and "progress": a letter

Dave Gross (
Mon, 3 Nov 1997 18:37:25 +0800 (GMT-8)

Date: Mon, 3 Nov 1997 18:37:25 +0800 (GMT-8)
From: Dave Gross <>
Subject: Memetic parasitism and "progress": a letter
In-Reply-To: <>

Dear A----,

You know I've been banging the meme gong pretty heavily over the past
few years, so I'll anticipate a heavy sigh when I tell you that there's even
more ahead. I think I'm on to something big -- the problem is going to be
getting it out of my head alive.

I've got about half-a-dozen notebooks that I've been carrying around
with me to scribble thoughts in as I work on my ideas and the pieces slowly
come together. One of the notebooks is currently being held as evidence in
People v. Gross (and has already been used by the prosecution as evidence of
the defendant's "disordered thought processes"). They're mostly filled with
attempts to find new angles to tell the story of humanity as I've discovered

I've tried my hand at everything from science fiction to mythic
poetry, with plenty of essays of a more serious bent taking up much of the
space in between. Now I'm trying a letter to you -- it seems like a natural
format for trying to share an idea.

Every culture has a myth explaining who they are and how they came to
be doing whatever it is that they do. I've been examining our myth with an
eye to refining it in the light of current knowledge. Our culture's myth has
a part that goes something like this:

As long as there have been human beings, they have looked
about and tried to come up with new and better ways of doing
things. As time went on, people acquired new knowledge and
skills and technology that gave each new generation benefits
that its predecessors could only dream of. Of course, there
have been a lot of missteps and dead-ends that were encountered
on the way, due to flaws in the human make-up, such as a
superstitiuous, selfish nature. Sometimes these erupt into
bizarre and ornate cultural displays, sometimes terrible,
sometimes just baffling. We still engage in barbaric wars
and the ruthless pursuit of wealth and power, but at some
level we really know better, and over time we're improving. Just
as today people live free from the fear of smallpox and the
plague, some day (if we're lucky) we'll stabilize our population
growth, solve group conflicts peacefully, and distribute
resources fairly.

Okay -- more or less that's how it goes. And, with maybe a change
or addition here or there, you'd probably agree that it syncs with common
sense. I think that it's fundamentally wrong.

Like myths of a flat earth, a cartesian reality, the inseperable
nature of matter and energy, and a god-created set of species, this myth fit
well what we knew about the world at some point in the past, but it is an
inadequate explanation for the facts of the world as we know it today. I
think that like those myths, it is wrong on a fundamental level. Although
like the myths of a round earth, a universe of warped and relative space/time,
matter/energy unity, and evolved species, my reformulated myth may also be
fundamentally inaccurate and in need of revisions, I do think that it tells us
more and allows us to frame our questions in a more well-informed context.

I've got a seriously hard sell going on here. The standard myth is
incorporated inferentially in so many of our other myths and metaphors that
its assumptions are easily visualized and portrayed in shorthand. I notice
that in my summary above, I spontaneously used words like "misstep" and
"dead-end" -- and without explicitly comparing human history to a journey
with a destination, I used imagery that reinforced that idea.

For my own explanation, since at many points it directly contradicts
common sense (read: the instantiation of our cultural myth in the form of
evaluation and prediction), I have to be more deliberate and careful.

In my myth, cultural and technological progress has been accompanied
by an erosion in the happiness, satisfaction, and standard of living of the
typical human being. In my myth, there is a reason why we have conquered
smallpox and haven't conquered hunger and war. In my myth, the human species
is undergoing an unprecedented and frightening transition the nature of which
has only been hinted at before.

So this is going to take a while. Be patient. To start, each myth
has the task of explaining why we live so differently today from the way
people lived 100 years ago, and why they lived so differently from people
100 years before that, and so on.

According to the standard myth, the "progress model," this process
is explained by the fact that humans are propelled by cleverness, imagination
and unfulfilled desires to change their environments and their habits, and
that the best of these changes survive and are passed on from generation to
generation, being improved along the way; each generation building on the
accomplishments of the generation before it, and being the beneficiary of the
accumulated improvements of the ancestors.

For instance (says the myth) for a long time people couldn't get to
somewhere 100 miles distant without taking a few days out of their busy
schedules and putting in a lot of effort; today, thanks to the automobile,
it's a comfortable two-hour ride. Now a huge number of people own cars, and
a long-unfulfilled human need has been met.

But in fact most car trips are taken today not to fulfil some deep
longing to be 100 miles away two hours from now, but because we have so little
time in which so many tasks are demanded of us over such a great geographical
area that it would be impossible to accomplish them all without driving. The
technology has not so much succeeded by meeting an ancient need as it has by
creating the needs which necessitate it.

Many people spend over an hour commuting to-and-from work. Many people
live in cities where the atmosphere is so thick with accumulated exhaust fumes
that they cannot see through to sky and their lives are shortened by smog-
related health problems. Many people do not own cars, but live around modern
cities that were shaped by the automobile and must live their lives under a
system that expects human beings to occasionally reach highway speeds. Any
idea how many people worldwide are killed by cars?

Offer someone in the 19th Century the total transformation in the
life of a human being that the proliferation of the automobile is bringing --
giving the complete story, pros and cons -- and I'd bet that person would turn
down your offer.

The financial cost alone might discourage. It takes hundreds or
thousands of dollars just to buy a car, then there are the accumulating costs
of registration, repairs, insurance, tickets, fuel and routine maintenance.
If money grew on trees, this would be one thing, but for most people, money
translates to time performing labor that one would not be doing if they were
not getting paid for it. I'd guess that recently my annual direct payments
for the operation of my automobile (not counting the proportion of my tax
money that supports the automobile infrastructure) would be at least $2,000,
probably significantly more.

At my salary, back when I had one, that's about 80 hours of doing
stuff I wouldn't be doing if I didn't need to support my money habit (and not
counting the time I spent pumping gas or waiting in line at the DMV). If I
weren't so fortunate and had to work a minimum wage-slave job, it'd be more
like 400 hours.

So okay, Joe Nineteenth-Century, I've got a deal for you. If you
work an extra 80-400 hours a year, and don't mind spending a lot of time
sitting alone concentrating on a task you've done time and time again, don't
care if the sky isn't blue most of the year or the air smells funny, if you
think asphalt is beautiful, and if you don't mind sacrificing thousands of
children and adults alike in the process; I can give you a deal whereby you
can sleep in an extra 45 minutes on Sunday morning and still get to church,
you can visit your brother in Des Moines more often, if you get sick you
can get to the hospital more quickly and safely, and the oranges that were
picked in Florida yesterday morning will be on your breakfast table tomorrow.

What do you say?

You ever go through this process? You ever know anyone who did? Can
you think of a time in history where mankind pondered this question and said,
"well, I've given it some thought and weighed the pros and cons and I think on
the whole it's worth the sacrifice and risk to go forward with an automotive
society." Never happened -- nobody made the decision. We live in an
automotive society /because/ we live in an automotive society, and one of its
properties is that it fortifies its position by creating conditions that
necessitate and perpetuate it.

Under close examination, many of the great examples of progress turn
out to be the pretty side of a two-sided phenomenon, the ugly side of which
more than compensates in its toll of dependence and harm for the benefits of
the pretty side.

When we tell the story in the context of our culture's myth, we leave
out the ugly side of the elements of progress -- after all, according to our
myth, these elements are invented and chosen and improved by people seeking to
advance their condition and satisfy their wants; nobody would /choose/ the
ugly-side things, so they can't be explained by the myth (which is to say,
the myth must ignore them or write them off as inexplanable).

Even those technological wonders that seem unassailably benevolent --
I'm thinking here of the advances in medicine -- turn out to have an ugly side.

I'm getting a good lesson here from watching my grandparents die. My
grandfather is barely animated. His fingers are stuck in a weird, stiff pose,
and he's not strong enough to stand on his own. His day consists of getting
dressed by someone else, being wheeled into the living room, watching TV all
day long with the sound off since he can't hear anyway (sometimes he only
watches one channel if he forgets how to work the remote control), eating the
easy-to-prepare food that's been made for him, being helped to the toilet seat
next to his chair and having his butt wiped, or having someone hold a urinal
up to his penis, being put in pajamas at night and wheeled back to bed, having
his teeth taken out and put away, getting his shots and taking his medicine,
having a condom-catheter put on so he can pee at night without someone having
to get him up. He also takes lots of naps. On special days someone takes him
outside and wheels him half-way up the block.

Grandma is much better off -- she can walk around the house. But she
doesn't watch TV because she sees and hears things that other people don't,
and these things can keep her frightened all day.

The advances in medicine that allow people with terrible vision to
go 20/20 in the course of an office visit -- that have made infant mortality
a rarity in some places -- that correct fatal and/or painful disorders -- that
have probably saved my life through antibiotics and immunizations many times
over without me even being aware of it -- these advances have a dark side that
is killing my grandparents slowly and terribly.

There seems to be a new, unnatural /obligation/ that has come along
with medical progress: that people use cutting-edge medical techniques whether
or not they find them to be useful or helpful or beneficial to their lives.

My grandparents have wanted to die for a long time now. They're ready
to go, and (though they wouldn't admit it) are rather impatiently waiting for
Jesus to send his chariot down after them. As a practical matter, all they'd
have to do is to stop taking the preservatives that medical science has
devised to keep people alive long after their bodies stop working. But they
are more concerned, strangely, with serving the medical process than in using
that process to serve their own interests.

They have an odd loyalty to medicine as an institution, as a dogma
almost. Medicine becomes not something you seek out when you need it, but a
creed, the embodiment of a sacred quest to frustrate mortality to which no
honorable person can be a traitor. Live as long as you can still breathe --
or longer if possible! Live! Never give up! Live for /me/ -- a doctrine,
a demand, a policy, a religion -- not for yourself!

This is just plain nuts! /People/ get hurt and feel pain and
suffer from sickness and deformity and fear death -- not /dogmas/. People
should be the ones deciding how to interact with medicine, and not vice versa.

But anyway, to end this digression, I don't want to give the impression
that all progress is bad, or even that all examples of progress have an
inevitably worse dark side. I do believe, however, that cultural and
technological progress in general is more harmful than helpful to individual
human beings. Not just a few human beings -- what I'm saying is that your
typical human being is most likely to be worse off in the aftermath of any
given element of cultural 'progress.'

I want to stress that this is not a pessimistic outlook based on my
subjective ideas about particular historical examples of progress. As I will
explain, it is an inevitable result of how cultural evolution unfolds.

If I'm going to talk about how human beings feel and how their
quality of life has changed over the years, I've got to come up with a method
for describing how people come to make qualitative judgements about their
lives. In general, if our lives are full of pleasant things, we consider our
lives pleasant; and if our lives are full of painful things, we consider
ourselves to be suffering. The task is to determine how to classify something
as pleasurable or painful, and to decide whether a given process that shapes
culture is more likely to produce pleasurable side-effects or painful ones.

On the most fundamental level, human beings suffer or frolic in
response to sensations and emotions conveyed and processed by a nervous system
belonging to an organism that was designed by natural selection, a process
that (by and large) rewards organisms that survive and reproduce. So it's no
surprise that things that help us survive and reproduce (eating, winning,
falling in love) feel good, and things that have the opposite effect (lung
cancer, third-degree burns, public humiliation) feel rotten.

There are exceptions to the rule, some because even the patient and
extremely creative process of natural selection is doomed to never reach
perfection, others because a competing organism or predator has learned to
masquerade and manipulate our preferences to its own advantages. Many,
perhaps most examples of exceptions come in the form of novel things --
things that just plain weren't on the scene while we were evolving, and so
our preferences in regard to them were not shaped to coincide with the
interests of our reproductive success.

Heroin, for example, may feel great, but it also may cut your
reproductive success down to zero in a hurry. Also, being immunized isn't
a particularly pleasurable or fulfilling process, but it's great for you.

In a fairly stable environment, a species like ours is pretty well
off just following its instincts -- in other words, do what feels like the
best course of action, it's probably good for you (or, if not, maybe it'll
get you laid). Mother nature is constantly kicking out creatures designed
to do best by doing what they feel most inclined to do.

In a changing environment, however, what was once an adaptive tendency
or inclination can become maladaptive. The right thing to do to save your
skin can be a painful and nonintuitive thing, and on the other hand, things
that feel perfectly wonderful and wholesome can kill or maim you.

A species that wants its members to feel most happy, satisfied, at
home, etc. will have a reason to defend the status quo -- or more accurately,
to reshape the environment to one that somehow simulates a blending of the
environments in which the species's preferences have evolved.

Our species has spent incredible effort in an attempt to completely
overhaul our environment into one that in strikingly many ways is different
from that in which our species evolved. We've become so fucked up in the
process that not only do lots of us fight and kill each other like rats in a
crowded cage, but some of us even kill ourselves, and lots of us are

The question is: Why?

The progress-myth answer is that our species has learned ways to
maximize our pleasure far beyond the capabilities of our natural environment.
We like the safety and security of the campfire -- now we have electric
light. We hate the pain of injury -- now we have aspirin and morphine. We
enjoy boinking like Bonobos on ecstasy -- now we have birth control and
antibiotics. The "dark-side" of this is nothing but unforseen and
unfortunate side-effects that represent bugs we're still working on.

My answer (here it comes) -- memes.

In each generation, memes mutate and emerge. Some survive, others are
forgotten and lost. Those that are good at surviving tend to, those that
aren't so good at surviving dwindle and vanish.

Ideas that serve us, which is to say "memes that when posessed and
transmitted tend to increase the reproductive success of the host organism,"
have an edge. And that's good for us. But ideas that serve themselves first
and us second (or not at all) will always win out in the final count.

So the ideas that survive the test of time tend to have some ratio
to how much service they give us, to how much service they give themselves.
But when I say "they give" I'm disguising the fact that /we're/ doing all the
work -- a meme is just an abstraction that is empowered through enaction by
a human being.

It would be more accurate to say that memes tend to have some ratio
of how much they convert our energy into action that benefits ourselves, to
how much of our energy they use on themselves purely to aid in their own
reproduction and survival.

Part of what memes do to serve themselves is to alter our environment
in ways that lead to the memes' survival and reproduction. They may mimic
things that trigger emotional or other aversion/pleasure responses in us,
for instance. They will frequently adapt to alter their environment (which to
a large extent is human culture) in such a way that it is /dependent/ on them
or /necessitates/ them.

Each meme produces action of some sort, if only replicative action.
And a percentage of that action will be beneficial to the meme but wasteful
or even harmful to the host. Yet the host is the only one expending energy
on the process, and the only one capable of making a good/bad, pleasurable/
painful judgment of the process.

It would clearly be to the advantage of the host in this circumstance
to dislodge all of the memes that are wasting its time and energy, and devote
itself to the hedonistic pursuit of those behaviors that are personally

Unfortunately, the memes have changed our environments so much that
their effects, even the terribly unpleasant "side-effects" or dark-side
effects, are necessary for our survival, livelihood, and mating success. So
in one fell swoop, or maybe a couple of swell foops, the process of living
has become more unpleasant, and memes have made themselves indispensable

One of the keys to their success has been to increase the reproductive
success of us, their hosts. The increase in population density, and the
pressure for migration, warfare and trade that results, has been instrumental
to the success of memes in the recent history of humanity.

But this symbiosis should not be misinterpreted as evidence of the
benevolence of memetic parasites. They increase our reproductive success by
providing artificial encouragement to engage in unpleasant behavior that has
become beneficial to reproductive success only because of the meme-induced
changes in our environment -- changes that have made Eden into a minefield,
and memes the only map.

Okay; now I want to back up a bit and expand on a couple of things I
said earlier. I want to go into that idea of a superorganism that is in the
process of assimilating humanity (a pretty out-there sci-fi concept on its
face), but first I want to expand on the "by and large" I inserted
parenthetically in my earlier statement that

On the most fundamental level, human beings suffer or frolic
in response to sensations and emotions conveyed and processed
by a nervous system belonging to an organism that was designed
by natural selection, a process that (by and large) rewards
organisms that survive and reproduce.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule that natural selection
rewards organisms for engaging in behavior that aids in their survival and

If a monkey is blissfully swinging on a branch and it breaks and the
monkey crashes to the forest floor, breaking its back, and it's eaten by a
lucky tiger; the monkey was being rewarded for branch-swinging behavior that
ended up killing it. Okay, so natural selection isn't perfect. It can't
predict and adjust for every rotten branch. It works with probabilities and
averages and plays the cost/benefit game as best it can.

There are also cases where an animal will give assistance to mate,
kin, and offspring, at risk to its own hide. This is all behavior that is
reasonable under the premise that natural selection is operating on the genes
that promote such behavior, and those genes are quite likely to exist in the
close relatives and offspring of an individual who has the gene. A somewhat
risky sacrifice that is very beneficial to such a relative will help the gene
survive and reproduce, and therefore natural selection can encourage such

Reciprocal altruism is another exception that's attracting attention.
Seemingly selfless acts of sacrifice that benefit one's fellows are compensated
for by a relationship in which one's fellows will return the favor and offset
the sacrifice by a personal benefit.

Another important exception, and one which is most relevant here, is
that of the hive insects. A bee, for instance, will sting a threat to the
hive, killing itself in the process. How could such a clearly self-destructive
impulse evolve, when a gene which discouraged such self-sacrifice would
enable its carrier-organisms to survive longer?

The answer has to do with the structure of the hive: a single insect
that does the reproducing, and a bevy of closely-related insects keeping the
reproductive "queen" protected and well-fed. The self-sacrificing bee can
only reproduce its genes through the agency of its reproductively-inclined
sister, the queen, and so protecting the queen is worth the sacrifice of a
pawn or two. From the viewpoint of natural selection, the hive itself is an
organism, and the insects its cells or organs.

What I'm going to suggest is that for some memes anyway, to the extent
that a human being is devoting energy to that meme's life and reproduction,
the person becomes a potentially expendable cell or organ in that meme's
organism. Some of these memetic hives run into the millions of cells.

It is in the interest of a successful meme to protect the healthy cells
that make up its "body," but, just as our body is willing to sacrifice cells
to perform important tasks like defense and reproduction, and just like the
hive is willing to sacrifice individual insects, so are memetic bodies willing
to martyr their human cells for the good of the cause.

But what is a person, anyway? We aren't just the animal formed by
natural selection warping this branch of primates. We are also a creature
formed by memetic evolution. We define our selves partially by those memes
we've grown attached to (or the ones that have attached themselves to us).

So the person we feel we are and owe our loyalty to is (and I would
add, "and is becoming more so day by day") partially at least a being created
by memetic, not just genetic, replicators. Some believe that the /important/
part of a person is the "soul" or "ego" or "consciousness" -- things that are
almost entirely memetic in nature.

What does it mean that our identity is partially (or even largely)
shaped by a replicator system that A) does not have the same interests as the
replicators that created and shaped our pleasure/pain instincts, and B) seems
to reproduce well in the hive model in which one source disseminates and many
cells serve and defend.

It means that we will have motives that our ancestors weren't plagued
with to do unpleasant and harmful things. Things that we do not out of self-
interest, or altruism, but in order to help a parasitic meme propagate.

Is there a way out of this trap? I'd like to think the Buddhists were
on to something with their denial of the reality or importance of the ego/soul
and their skepticism towards words and symbols. On the other hand, there's no
meme-hive quite so stunningly illustrative as, say, a Tibetan monastery.

The perennial "back to the garden" movements also seem appealing, but
it may be too late to disinfect the planet of its memes and memetic
infrastructure without taking us with it.

There's a problem with confronting these ideas and then formulating
an answer like "just be natural." As appealing as it sounds, it was good
advice only when we were still in Eden; after the fall it was no longer
useful. Part of being natural, for reasons I can go into later, is to want
to play with memes.

We must learn how to play safely -- to play with memes without letting
them /attach/ to us, or us (as it would be more conventionally put) to them.
This is my understanding of "non-attachment" in the Buddhist sense.

If this attitude becomes a doctrine rather than a skill, it is self-
defeating. Buddhism at its best isn't designed to make people into Buddhists
but into buddhas.

It means turning every action into a spontaneously chosen one, and
not surrendering to the direction of a script -- either one designed by the
vicissitudes of individual psychology or by selective pressure acting on
social roles and mores.

Whether such infection can be countered by exposure to intensive care
in the form of an anti-spontaneous, ritual-centered, dogma-infused tradition
like Buddhism is quite a riddle. While many Buddhists would complain that
this is an invalid description of Buddhism, even the renegade Zen heroes were
operating within a heavily-scripted tradition.

A form of weaning, perhaps, or an inoculation with a relatively
benign and protective memetic hive that shelters the practitioner as s/he
tries to cast off even Buddhism -- if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill

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