The New Meme

(c) 1993 David Brin

The New Meme

PART ONE: Introduction

I earn my living as a writer. In other words, as a magician, shaman, metaphorist. By chant and incantation — and with the active collaboration of my clients, the readers — I create images, characters, alternate realities in other minds. It is an ancient, venerable profession. All tribes have had storytellers, who wove legends round the campfire. My specialty involves epics not about long ago, but times and places yet to come. It attempts to weave realistic might-bes, and vivid might-have-beens. Above all, it is the literature of change.

These are bold days for such a genre, since change is the very fabric of our time. If today’s modern “priesthood” consists of scientists, we SF authors are like those wild-eyed folk in hair shirts who once stood outside the temple gates, performing tricks and dazzling the crowds, generally tolerated by the official guardians of wisdom, for astute priests understand that people need myths, as well.

In fact, the best of today’s scientists seem to enjoy reading far-out, speculative tales. Perhaps they, too, like to be taken far away now and then, exploring possibilities that require no proof, only plausibility. Having worked on both sides, both inside the Temple and out, I can say that, for all their differences, science and science fiction have something deep in common. You might call it a shared frame of reference… a new and different way of looking at the world.

I alluded to this worldview in earlier essays. Now I want to look one more time at the Dogma of Otherness.

Consider the following statement:

Subjective reality is what I see and experience; objective reality is what’s really out there. They aren’t necessarily the same thing.

In other words, I look through my eyes and see only a version of the world, a version that can be, and often is, colored or twisted by what I want to see. Another person may witness the same events, and yet observe something entirely different.

This is the first of two ideas on which I believe Otherness is based, and to a modern reader it probably sounds pretty obvious. Who among us hasn’t noticed the effect of subjectivity in daily life? The illusions others are prone to, and those (if we are honest about it) which we ourselves nurture or allow? In fact, awareness of this problem has been around for a long time. Socrates, Plato, Jesus, Buddha and countless other mystics, in countless cultures, have preached the same message — that we all exist amid a blur of uncertainty in an imperfect world. That one can never know complete truth about physical reality via our senses alone. Much is made of the differences between their systems… Socrates teaching reason, Buddha urging meditation, and Jesus prescribing faith. But what they all had in common was far more important. Each of those sage-prophets worried that the power of human egotism tends to make each us lie to ourselves, leading to error, hypocrisy, and alltoo often the rationalizing of evil actions.

Moreover, each of these great savants offered a variant on the same cure.

“Give up,” they preached. “Don’t bother trying to figure out how the flawed world works. Perfect knowledge is to be found only within the mind, the soul. Seek your own private salvation then, apart from the world, and don’t bother getting your hands dirty trying to piece together the nuts and bolts of God’s handiwork.”

Before Galileo, very few philosophers in any culture dared question this near-universal, dualist mysticism, which almost always was accompanied by top-heavy hierarchies of magicians, shamans, priests, or art critics. Only from time to time would a rebel dare counter:

“Hey, I may not ever be able to be certain what is absolutely True… but I sure as heck can work to find out what isn’t! Moreover, I can improve my model of the world, by slowly, carefully finding out what is truer than what I already knew.”

In other words, by slowly, carefully testing the things you and others believe, through a process of elimination you can falsify, get rid of, a lot of wrong ideas  even ones you cherished   until the resulting picture, imperfect as it is, lets you see the world a little clearer than before.

This is the second half of the declaration, the manifesto, of a new revolution… one that began to take hold only a couple of centuries ago and is still tentative, uncertain, incomplete, yet has already achieved incredible wonders. To the problem of imperfect knowledge, it suggests a new and unprecedented solution… honest work.

To ever come close to what’s really going on, I must learn to double check, to experiment, and even consult and cooperate with other people. Mutual deliberation, or giving of “reality checks,” helps us agree on common ground, and criticism is the only anodyne human beings have ever discovered to error.

It takes great wisdom, maturity, and force of will to overcome ingrained human egotism and say — “Hey, I can fool myself! I might even be wrong, from time to time.”

But it has taken an even more remarkable revolution for people to be able to add — “Instead of retreating into ourselves, let’s try taking the problem apart into little pieces, see where I’m wrong, where you’re wrong, and where we both may wind up being surprised.”

PART TWO: Nuts and Bolts

I should pause for a moment to explain something that may have perplexed you. Yes, I did lump faith and reason together, a little while ago. There is a hoary notion that the two mental systems are essential foes, forever in opposition, but this is not so. Any thoughtful scientist will tell you that reason is just another type of faith. You scribble down a scenario on paper — as Plato, Aquinas, Hegel, Marx and Freud all did — and convince yourself, after a lot of “ifs” and “therefores,” that something must be so.

After all, can’t you prove things on paper…in mathematics?

In fact, mathematicians are considered the idiots-savant of the scientific family — because they actually believe in logical “proofs.” Mathematics is certainly the most brilliant, accurate, and useful metaphor-generating system ever conceived. It contains systems to check for self-consistency, so that most flaws are weeded out before publication. Yet, even the most elegant theorem has to be tested against reality or remain a nebulous thing. A curiosity. Just another pretty incantation.

In other words, mathematicians are shamans, too.

Reason can be just another form of faith — a tower of words or symbols which seem to demonstrate what you wanted to prove, forgetting that in other hands the same tools can be used to show opposite conclusions. Take the famed philosopher, RenŽ Descartes, who decided to throw out everything he knew and start from scratch — then proceeded, step by painstaking step, to logically “prove” all of the premises and prejudices he had started out with! When you have an ideology or theory that ought to be true, it takes great strength of character to overcome the very human desire to believe your own spell-weaving, and instead allow others to test the edifice you’ve created. Testing it against the possibility of being wrong.

Fitfully, hesitantly, we have begun preaching this lesson to our youth — especially those entering science — yet it is a hard standard to live up to. To a surprising degree, the new priesthood manages to work by this new code, but the siren call of egotism and self-righteousness can never be escaped. It resonates within our cro-magnon skulls, ever beckoning us back toward the narcissistic joys of magic.

Today one hears creationists — those preaching a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis — attacking so-called secular humanism by calling it “just another religion.” Meanwhile they promulgate what they call “Creation Science.” The irony of this implied compliment — that science is more trustworthy than older ways of knowing — seems to escape notice by both sides in the public debate.

The same people proclaim that “evolution is just a theory.” And, of course, we know that all theories are equal, yes?

Cultural Relativism, a myth springing from the opposite end of the political spectrum than Creationism, also proclaims not only that all ideas have equal value, but that no worldview or culture has any better inkling what is going on than any other. That there is no such thing as good or bad, right or wrong… only an amorphous sea of relativity, with every concept mutually exchangeable. The only thing valid is individual esthetics. A repackaging, in other words, of the same old prescription — a retreat to the inner world.

But all theories aren’t equal! Human thought thrives on competition among ideas. Some are disproved and go deservedly to the dustbin. Meanwhile, others graduate to become models of the world. Anyone can come up with a metaphor or notion, but a model of the world offers consistent explanations for what people see going on around them.

More important, a valid model goes on to make testable predictions.

Most first rate scientific papers end with a statement saying, in effect: “If this wonderful theory of mine is true, so-and-so will be discovered in this and such experiment. On the other hand, my theory will be disproved if trials X or Y show contrary results.”

That’s the way it works, and not just in science. It is also how honest men and women live their lives. If you believe in something, then by all means try to prove it, even convince others. But always leave room for the possibility that someone else may prove you wrong.

What about these so-called “models of the world” then?

The name could be applied to any theory which best describes the universe at a given time. Call it a monarch among theories, for as we said before, all ideas are not equal. In any month or year, in any subject area, one description is usually the leader. Generally the one with the fewest inconsistencies and the best accumulated evidence to back it up.

In science, no model lasts forever. Leading theories are rewarded by becoming prime targets! More experiments are aimed at testing them than any others. Even if a model survives trial after trial, it inevitably changes in the process. Usually, these new versions are incremental improvements rather than rejections, as Darwin’s concepts have matured during the century since his death, while retaining their basic validity. But revolutions are also known to happen. Plate tectonics did not start out as the Best Model in geology. It won its place after a long process of criticism, successful predictions and comparison to evidence.

It is a remarkably successful process, by which our understanding of the universe has evolved year after year, without the traumas or heretic-burnings that used to punctuate advances in human knowledge. This new priesthood is open to all comers, even the daughters and sons of peasants. One peculiar side product, relatively rare in times past, is a strange commodity called “honesty” — absolutely indispensible in science  which is probably the least likely marvel ever to have emerged out of self-centered human minds.

Alas, at times the process also seems staid, undramatic, even despotic to those who today portray themselves as brave nonconformists, and science as today’s oppressive monolith. Some arty types would seem to prefer going back to older ways of doing things  the way “wisdom” was handled everywhere and everywhen, except in our own narrow sliver of time.

PART THREE: The View of a Golden Age

For six thousand, ten thousand, fifty thousand years — however far back you assume we were intelligent and able to ask questions — our ancestors had very little idea how the world worked. And we can safely assume that they were terrified most of the time.

Throughout those millennia, nearly every civilization we know of had a belief system based upon what might be called a Look Backward world view. In other words, people shared a common belief that their tribe, people, nation once had a golden age, a better time when jumans were more virtuous, stronger, closer to heaven. An era when sages worked wonders and were wiser than more recent folk. From Sumeria to China, to the legends of Native Americans, this thread of lost glory runs through almost every mythic tradition.

Except ours. Our worldwide, cosmopolitan, modern culture is arguably the first to take a radically divergent orientation, not necessarily better, but profoundly different. A philosophy that might be called Look Forward.

There was no golden age in the past, this revolutionary view declares; our ancestors scratched and clawed, and a few of themÑthe well-meaning onesÑtried hard to redress the shabby ignorance they had inherited. Some, in sincerely trying to improve things, came up with dreadful world models, pantheons or social orders which excused, even encouraged, terrible persecutions or injustices. Still, despite all the mistakes and obstacles they faced, men and women managed glacially, generation by generation, to add to our knowledgeÑand to our wisdom, as well.

There was no past ancient golden age, say believers in the Look Forward vision. But there is a notion going around that we just might be able to build one, for tomorrow’s children.

This new orientation toward the future, not the past, is especially clear in the scientific attitude toward knowledge. Instead of “Truth” with a capital T, immutable and handed down unchanged through time from some ancient text of lore, today we have the cycle of improvement and revision I described a little while ago. The best world models are found in the latest journal articles, in the most recent textbooks on any given subjectÑand even they won’t be the final word, because in five or ten years there’ll be better models still, as results pour in from new experiments.

To you, a modern reader and member of contemporary civilization, this way of looking at truth may sound obvious. (Note how even the phrases, “Look Backward” and “Look Forward,” sound biased in favor of the latter, a result of prejudice built into our language.) But I cannot overstate how recently this point of view achieved anything approaching widespread acceptance. This shift in the time orientation of wisdom is an intellectual sea change unprecedented in the annals of human thought. Its consequences, which already include science and democracy, will grow more profound as the years go by.

PART FOUR: Ideas That Infect

LET’S take a side trip, while on the subject of human thought. To begin, we must backtrack to skim a little biology.

Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene, describes how our genetic heritage seems to have resulted from struggles by nearly invisible clusters of DNA against nature and each other. Nearly all of evolution could be looked at as a winnowing of those genes which fail to achieve the central goal of making and spreading copies of themselves. Of course, molecules do not contemplate goals. “Wanting” is a human emotion. Still, the effects of natural selection often do look eerily as if different genetic heritages have been striving against one another for niches in the ecosystem.

Put it this way. If, by fortuitous happenstance, a set of genes stumbles onto the right attributes, enabling it to create an organism which, in turn, lives to make and pass on more copies of the genes, then all those copies will also share the original successful trait and have an improved chance of making copies, themselves. And so on. The process works as well for autonomous creatures, like you and me, as for a virus which invades a host organism and uses it to serve as a tool for replication.

This is but a crude summary of insights Dawkins depicts so well, (which led to my story in this volume, “The Giving Plague”). Here it is only a prelude to Dawkins’s next step, when he discusses another type of bundle of information with similar traits. Not genes, but “memes.”

Memes are raw ideas. Pure concepts which, like conquering genetic codes, seem capable of thriving in and via host organisms, this time human minds.

What would such a “living idea” be like? Well, for one thing it would survive by making its host think about it. In contemplating a concept, you in effect keep it alive. For example, some time ago I read a notion — the very one we’re discussing now — the notion of memes. You could say this idea was successful at “infecting” me, because I’ve continued thinking about it, giving it continued existence, or “life.”

But a virus or bacterium that just sits inside its host doesn’t accomplish much. An effective pseudo-organism must do more. It must reproduce.

How would a living idea proliferate?

By getting its host not only to think about it, but to make and spread copies… by telling other people! And now, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realize that’s just what I’ve been doing the last few minutes for one particular meme… the meme of memes! By telling you about it, I am doing the memic equivalent of coughing on you. Infecting you with the transmissible, self-replicating notion of these infectious ideas. If it’s a successful self-replicating notion, some of you will go out and tell others about it. And so on.

Of course life would be impossibly dull if we didn’t share ideas, while constantly mutating and adapting them to our purposes. But let’s imagine some of these self-reproducing ideas pick up more attributes. What if one of them helped its host become prosperous, charismatic, or influential — to spread the meme more effectively. Or what if another meme caused its hosts, or host tribe, to keep other memes out. To expose their children only to old, familiar ideas. What a powerful trick that would be!

Does this sound like some bizarre science fiction scenario?

Or is it, rather, a pretty good model for what’s been going on throughout most of human history? Examples abound. Take the dogmatic exclusion rule of most religions, which call competing idea systems “heresy.”

One of the Iranian ayatollahs once said of America — “We don’t fear your bombs, we fear your pagan ideas.” Why would he say such a thing? Dawkins theory seems to offer as good an explanation as any.

PART FIVE (conclusion): Memes at War

Now comes the truly sci-fi part of this scenario. (After all, you’re reading this for entertainment, no?) So let’s play with these notions for a little while as I paint a rather unconventional picture of our familiar world.

Let me suggest that until recently, five major memes have battled over the future of this planet. These combatting zeitgeists had little to do with those superficial, pompous slogan mills people have gotten all lathered about during this century — communism, capitalism, Christianity, Islam. They are deeper, older themes which continue to set the tone for entire civilizations even today.

Feudalism is one of the oldest. It may appear to be rare nowadays, but some philosophers and historians have called it the “most natural” of human societies, simply because it cropped up in so many places throughout the millennia. Everywhere, in fact, that metallurgy and agriculture combined to let close-knit elites establish and enforce an inherited aristocracy.

(If one tallies a list of history’s few, short-lived flowerings of freedom and enterprise, it is clear that aristocracy toppled and crushed far more of these frail renaissances than socialism ever did.)

Has modern life made feudalism obsolete? Maybe. But if so, why do so many in the west go all teary-eyed over inbred European royal families, including one that we americans kicked out with just cause, long ago?

Or take the raging popularity of fantasy novels with feudal settings. Can it be possible that the descendants of rebels — true heroes who fought to free us all from a beastly, oppressive way of life that doomed nearly everyone to ignorance and peasantry — that those descendants prefer to fantasize “heroic” adventures featuring despotic kings, egocentric princes, and curmugeonly wizards? Apparently it is so.

Clearly the pull of the feudal meme is still strong in us, tugging at our sympathies even today.

Machismo is another powerful worldview — the leading meme — in many parts of today’s world. Wherever women are stifled and vengeance is touted as a primary virtue, wherever skill and craftsmanship are downgraded in favor of “strutting” and male-bonded loyalty groups, it’s a good bet machismo sets the agenda.

And don’t underrate it! Throughout human history, macho was an effective way of running small clans. Countless stirring, heroic epics come down to us from such tribes. (Or take the way many today swoon over the way Klingons are depicted, in Star Trek!) Indeed the inevitable ferment of this malecentered zeigeist was tolerable when human numbers were small, and hunter-warriors were central to clan life.

Different versions of machismo today dominate whole regions, even continents, conveyed across generations by myths children absorb at an early age. For example, in one middle-eastern culture, nearly every fairy tale focuses on one theme — that of revenge. In another land, mothers are known to sit their little sons on their knees and say — “Someday you will deflower virgins and ravish other men’s wives, but if this happens to your wife or sister, cut her throat.”

This may sound bizarre to some of you, but it would be a mistake to dismiss it as an aberration. As worldviews go, machismo has a long tradition-a lot longer than ours. The biggest argument against this meme is not that any alternative is intrinsically better… only that, if it prevails, the Earth will surely die.

Then there’s paranoia, another venerable family of memes. For example, one can understand the Russian tradition of xenophobia, given their history of suffering terrible invasions, on average twice a century. Still, that worldview of dour suspicion and bludgeoning distrust made for a brittle, capricious superpower, worsened by a deluding, superficial dogma, communism. If paranoia had won, or even lasted much longer, the world would probably have become a cinder sooner or later. We’ll see, in the course of the next decade, if this meme really is fading. Watch how the other culture families devour its remains, as some parts of the empire hurry to join the West, some tumble into the Macho orbit, and still others become Eastern with stunning rapidity.

That fourth worldview, which I call “The East,” is one zeitgeist that is demonstrably both traditional and sane… after its fashion. During most of recorded history it was dominant on this planet. Its theme: homogeneity, uniformity, respect for elders, and discipline. People should subsume their sense of self in favor of family, group, nation. One can see how such a meme would make governing large populations easier. Capital is not wasted on male strutting, or excessively on arms. Stoical labor and compound interest have a chance to work wonders.

If the East wins, you will probably have some preservation of the environment, no pandas but some trees. Both violence and the egregious excesses of hyper-individualism will certainly abate. Humans might even slowly, eventually, get out into space.

But when or if we ever meet aliens, we would not understand them. Because by then the very notion of diversity, let alone the idea of finding it attractive, will have been extinguished.

I wouldn’t find it much fun living in a human civilization dominated by sameness. But then, if I’d been brought up differently, I might not think “fun” such a key desideratum, after all. (In many languages there is no word for the concept.) In any event, the Eastern worldview is the only one with a proven track record, having operated civilizations for millennia in a manner that, while despotic, was calm and orderly, in its way.

“Calm” is the last word you would use to describe the fifth meme, one that has always been a lesser theme, carried by an eccentric minority in each culture… until ours. What is the fifth meme? You’ve heard me call it the Dogma of Otherness, although that only scratches the surface. It is a strange, rebellious worldview unlike any of its predecessors. One that actually encourages an appetite for newness, hunger for diversity, eagerness for change.

Tolerance plays a major role in the legends spread by this new culture, plus a tradition of humorous self-criticism. (Look at the underlying message contained in most situation comedies. It is always the most intolerant or pompous character who gets comeuppance before the final curtain. And never before have leaders of nations, commanders of armies, had to accept the fact that they routinely will be objects of critique, even ridicule.)

Another thread pervading countless films and novels is suspicion of authority. A plethora of writers in Hollywood and elsewhere have worked this vein, each of them acting as if he or she was inventing rebellious individualism — an ironic twist, since each of them was raised on myths extolling eccentricity and solitary defiance! (From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to Rebel Without a Cause, to the latest exercise in selfflagellation directed by by Oliver Stone.) You can earn a good living as an iconoclast in the West today, especially if you make your idol-smashing entertaining.

Few seem to have noticed how odd this message is, as propaganda. Name one other culture in history that ever spread hyper tolerance myths like Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T., in which a generation of children were taught — “If you ever encounter a weird stranger from an alien race, by all means, hide him from your own people’s freely elected tribal elders!” To me this is a far more startling break with history than wonder drugs, or moon landings, or computers that talk, with good and bad consequences swarming forth with every passing day. No longer is the emphasis on looking to the past, or on conformity as a principal virtue. Youthfixation replaces reverence for age, and all ancient idols and gods are replaced by a new figure on the alter, the Self.

What a strange, unprecedented meme! One that encourages an art form as compulsively questioning as science fiction, and which, in turn, is spread quite effectively by science fiction.

In olden times, in societies where the few ruled the many, aristocracies used to rally the masses by pointing to some outside threat and whipping up paranoia. One sees similar efforts taking place today, in efforts to combat Otherness — dangerous efforts to pander to racism and fear. Efforts which may succeed here and there, but which I hope and expect will be largely in vain. I expect it because the rich and powerful no longer control this new myth. It has outgrown the grasp of even the “enlightened” intellectuals who originally set it on its way.

For better or for worse, we all now appear to be along for the ride.

To those in the audience who have been shaking their heads for some time, saying — “Sheesh! What an optimist Brin is!” — I can only answer that I am well aware of the problems, the flaws, the dismal and depressing failures of a system which promises freedom, justice and plenty for all, but has fallen so far short of that ideal. It has succeeded far better than any other culture since we left the caves, but by the new standards we have set for ourselves, it is a poor record indeed. One worthy of much criticism.

(Anyway, what if I’m simply doing my own iconoclastic bit? Optimism, in a world rife with copycat pessimists? Do a head count. I’ll bet I’m the one who’s being different!)

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that this meme I call Otherness “owns” territories like Europe or America… or even California. Where it is strongest, it must still contend ceaselessly with macho, paranoic, homogenizing, and other traditional forces which continue battling over the minds and actions of women and men. Traditional forces which may indeed be far more “natural” to we human animals, who are so innately egotistical and afraid. Add to this a plague of selfrighteousness, in which both individuals and political factions seem more interested in the sweet mantras of their slogans than in finding pragmatic solutions to modern problems, and you have a formula for troubled times ahead.

It may be that the best time for Otherness has already passed. Clearly part of the basis for this renaissance has been wealth, especially the unprecedented comfort enjoyed by the vast majority of westerners since World War II, in which very few of us can even conceive of starving, therefore why not fight for the rights of sea mammals? (The Japanese still remember needing them for food. Is it any wonder we disagree?)

It is good to recall that nations and tribes never preach tolerance and love of diversity when they are afraid. Witness the civil strife now raging in so many formerly peaceful parts of the world. It may be that Otherness rests its foundations on a brief oasis of plenty in human history, and that this new meme will vanish from sight just as soon as the dunes sweep back in.

Make no mistake about it, Otherness (along with its two offspring, science and democracy) is still the upstart, the underdog.

What we can say in its favor is that Otherness has become powerful in the official morality of many nations. In most debates over issues concerning the public, both sides usually wrap themselves in terms such as “tolerance,” “privacy,” “choice” or “individual rights.” And absolutely everybody, right or left, is suspicious of the government!

How bizarre, in the context of history, is the impatient, deeply utopian notion, shared by millions, that our institutions can and must be improvable?

Or that vigorous criticism is one of the best ways to elicit change…

Or that “I might be wrong” is a statement any adult is made better by saying frequently, aloud or in private…

Or that it might be possible — and desirable — for children to learn from the mistakes of their parents, and even surpass them…

Or that a golden age is not to be nostalgically mourned in ancient tomes, but to be earned in a better, wiser tomorrow….

Now the bonus question… do I take all of this seriously?

Are a bunch of infectious “meme” worldviews really at war over human minds, with the prize being the future of human civilization and the planet?

Of course not. My job is to take you on entertaining rides on the backs of strange new metaphors. It’s what you people pay me for, and you went along willingly on this one. (At least, for those of you still holding this book in your hands!) I hope you found this trip through strangeness to your satisfaction.

Still, I’ve thought of an amusing experiment you might play, using these five protagonists — the five memes — I described above. Try to picture what might happen if extraterrestrials ever did come to Earth, and landed in a macho culture, or a feudal one, or a paranoid society, or in the East.

You get four wildly different scenarios, don’t you?

Now go one step further and imagine alien contact with people brought up in the final way I’ve described — under the Dogma of Otherness.

Forget Hollywood pathos about mean, nasty CIA types and trigger-happy rednecks. Those guilt-tripping movies have been partly responsible for seeing to it that (with luck) that sort of schmaltz won’t happen. Rather, picture a flying saucer setting down in a parking lot in today’s California. The National Guard encircles the vessel… to protect our alien visitors from novelty seekers, reporters, talkshow hosts, talent agents, and hordes seeking to have their consciousness raised!

The jury is still out whether otherness-fetishism is any saner than older ways. (Sometimes I wonder!) Nor is there any proof it will, or should, win in the end. Yet I know where I stand. My upbringing cannot help coming out in my writing, or in hoping that readers of my books will come away each time feeling just a bit more tolerant, more future-oriented, more critical and eager for diversity and change.

If you feel the same way, then it hardly matters whether it’s a meme, or a rebel worldview, or simply a way of life. We may disagree about the how and why and wherefor of Otherness, while agreeing on what counts…

… It is our country.

The territory of hope.

The wide open commonwealth of wonder.