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Societies Through Memes
A Lens into Rationality and Tradition
This week I read David Deutsch’s ideas about the evolution of culture (in his book The Beginning of Infinity). I’d like to share some of his ideas as they help me understand world events from a bigger context.
He argues that the Enlightenment is far from complete. Some areas (physical sciences, Western economic and political institutions) are more advanced than others (e.g. education, social theories). We’re in an unstable transition period where rational and anti-rational ideas are clashing. They evolve towards the opposite sides instead of reconciling with each other.
To understand his conclusions, let’s start with this: What makes culture influences a society over a long period? If we see culture as a collection of ideas, or “memes” (ideas that are replicators), why do some memes last for generations while others fade away quickly?
Memes reflect the society they live in. Examining pre-Enlightenment societies reveals a static landscape. Personal lifestyles, moral values, technology, and means of economic production hardly change in a lifetime. What memes thrive in such a society?
People must have come up with some ideas that may improve their lives, and some of those ideas could have become widespread to catalyze cascading changes. What prevented these from happening?
Traditional memes suppressing new ideas isn’t enough, because we can imagine that new memes could evolve to break free.
The source of new ideas has to be suppressed. Static societies harbor memes that promote conformity, obedience, and devotion to duty. They disable people’s critical thinking. Deutsch calls them anti-rational memes.
We now live in a dynamic society (the West). What sort of memes can stay relevant for long periods in a rapidly changing environment?
In such an environment, people have different preferences based on their individual situations. Preferences can change unpredictably. For a meme to transmit widely, it has to work not just for one person or group, but for everyone. What features do those memes need to have?
One explanation is that those memes are “useful”. They’re useful because they’re true, or at least closer to the truth. Here Deutsch defines “useful” in the broadest sense: “factually true if it is an assertion of fact, beautiful if it is an artistic value or behavior, objectively right if it is a moral value, funny if it is a joke.”
For example, Newton’s laws proved useful not only for building better churches, but also for improving bridges and weapons. Such true ideas persist even when people resist.
Deutsch calls them rational memes, as they’re created not from conformity, but through conjectures and criticism.
What’s interesting is the opposing nature of rational and anti-rational memes: For a meme to survive over a long period, it must win over alternatives.
For rational memes, it means they should withstand criticism, and be either modified or replaced with more rational ones.
For anti-rational, it depends on how well they suppress people’s critical faculties. Anti-rational memes evolve to be less rational and away from deep truths.
The idea that rational and anti-rational memes coexist and evolve in opposite directions gives me perspectives on what’s happening in the world.
It explains why people from the opposing side find it increasingly hard to understand each other.
It also explains why people can seem so rational in some areas while irrational in others. Deutsch gives an example by depicting a vivid picture: “We live in a society in which people can spend their days conscientiously using laser technology to count cells in blood samples, and their evenings sitting cross-legged and chanting to draw supernatural energy of the Earth.”
But my question is, can science and rationality, through means of conjecture and criticism, solve all our problems, including morality and values?
Maybe there are already people who believe it can, such as Sam Harris who has written the book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (I have yet to read it). And if we don’t know the answers now, it doesn’t mean we can’t think of them in the future. I think this is the optimism I’m trying to learn and cultivate.
From societal level to personal, Deutsch offered some advice at the end of the chapter.
He suggests us to be suspicious when…
we follow a defined behavior that has been accurately repeated;
our behaviors go against our personal objectives, or continued after the justification disappears;
we find ourselves explaining our behaviors with bad explanations;
conditions for anti-rational memes are present, such as deference to authority, static subculture… Anything that says “because I say so” or “it never did me any harm” or “let us suppress criticism of our ideas because it is true” suggests static-society thinking.
I find it valuable to reflect on these points. Take investing as an example, I used to make decisions not based on sound rationale, but by blindly following others (e.g. buying stocks that have good recent returns). Continuing to hold after the underlying justification disappeared is not rational either.
Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts or book recommendations, please reply or DM me on X.
Until next time,