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Hitting Books: How memes spread in society like a “mental virus”

The struggle for survival is not always limited to animated objects. Ideas can be expressed as biological genes are, competing for attention-based resources, replicating through discussion, and being coded with the written word. In The Ascension of Information, awarded New York Times Author Caleb Scharf explores humanity’s unique inclination to keep information repositories out of ourselves and the steps we must quickly take if we want to tap into the 20 million data we produce every day. In the excerpt below, Scharf examines the surprisingly realistic ways in which ideas evolve, compete, and spread.

Penguin Random House

Extracted from The Ascension of Information by Caleb Scharf. Copyright © 2021 by Caleb Scharf. Extracted with permission from Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this extract may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.


In an effort to provide another example of the phenomenon of selfishness, Dawkins gave a name to the now familiar concept of meme, which I mentioned briefly at the beginning of this book. These “mental viruses” – to use Dawkins ’provocative description – are ideas that not only spread readily but can also induce new behaviors in their carriers. In fact, the spread of a meme it is itself induced behavior, whether it is a human conversation or a party on social media.

Dawkins ’term crystallized the thought about a phenomenon that had aroused so much interest in people. Back in 1880 Thomas Huxley (known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his support of evolutionary theory) wrote “The struggle for existence holds both in the intellectual point of view and in the physical world. One theory is a kind of thought, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power of resistance to extinction by its rivals. ”

Memes can also act as if they are selfish, because sometimes they are harmful to their carriers. Men are prone to become obsessed with ideas that can lead to disadvantage or even death. Artists who die of hunger, passionate protesters, religious zealots, emotion seekers, and political ideologues can all seem to be on the path of self-destruction because of ideas that nurture and propagate in the world.

To explain these seemingly irrational patterns, we can say that memes, or ideas, are simply using their carriers in the way that biological viruses kidnap their hosts, or that genes use organism-based vehicles. Human minds are a landscape where ideas can propagate and compete with each other, following rules that closely resemble those of natural selection. What happens to humans, good or bad, is especially of secondary importance for the continuation of information, its further replication.

This vision is intriguing, disturbing and enormously controversial. To date it is unacceptable in many scientific circles to treat memes as something worthy of scientific analysis beyond their superficial similarity to what happens in biology (and to be clear, Dawkins has never really suggested otherwise). . This is especially true when it comes to attributing mutualism to memes and genes – speculating that the evolutionary form of genes could be influenced by memes, and vice versa. That hasn’t stopped a lot of ink from being poured on memes (filling in a dataome corner, with a certain irony), with some scholars proposing formalities of so-called meme, and a central role for them in cultural evolution. .

I’m not going to jump very far into that particular rabbit hole here. The main reason for the conservatism of scientists towards memes is that it is enormously difficult to separate cause and effect into a complex, intertwined, disordered set of systems such as life and mind. Finding the phenomenon at the root of things, the fundamental actor, is supremely difficult. This does not mean that a simplistic approach, or a universal rule, cannot be the answer. But proving that to be true is why most scientists still work: it’s a long way to go.

With this note of caution in mind, there is such an appetizing similarity between the notion of replication, evolutionary information encoded in genes; the existence of memes; and the characteristics of the dataome, which we must look at.

Earlier I said that I don’t think the dataome is just a collection or a consequence of a meme; instead, memes represent a subset of entities that work across the boundary between data and the human mind. A popular slogan will bounce back and forth between minds and dataome. On the contrary, a bus ticket or a winter cloud database in Belgium, while certainly part of the dataome, probably doesn’t spend much, if any, time on human minds.

The dataome also amplifies the memes and helps them in their survival. In a human culture, beliefs or values ​​are more easily shared and resisted because they exist as commonly accessible information – in physically manifest data (such as the Quran, the Bible, the Vedas, the Tripitaka, the writings of Karl Marx, or Hobbes’s Leviathan). Memes have more access to hosts and media guests in a species with a dataome. So, the better the dataome – in terms of ease of access, efficiency, larger size – the better it is for those memes. There are intriguing similarities between this arrangement and the disposition of genes and organisms. As we will discuss shortly, a gene cannot go alone in the world. Both are based on and contribute to the totality of a biological system, whether it is a cell or a population of a species. The better those biological systems that work, in terms of reproduction, repair and diversity, to withstand changing environments, the better things are for genes.

Today, in a way that has not really happened in the past, the information represented by genes is now also represented in the dataome. For example, a very stable set of genes in terrestrial biology are those that encode some of the structures of ribosomes in unicellular organisms. Ribosomes are large molecular machines that are vital for protein production. Consequently, these genes and sections of their codes have not evolved much across millions, even billions of years. A particularly well-studied set is called 16S rRNA, and thanks to genomic laboratory analysis we have decoded thousands of sequences of 16S rRNA genes from different species. Those data reams now exist in the dataome.

In other words, the information represented by the 16S rRNA genes has found its way into a completely new storage and replication system – that of books, electronic media, and countless computers and data servers on the planet. You might argue that this has no meaning – the 16S rRNA information does nothing more, it does not result in new ribosomal molecular machines that produce proteins in the world. It does not exercise its original capabilities. But the point is that, within the framework of selfish genes, these results were May something more than a means to an end. If the only reason for the existence of genes is that they port continue to be, exist in the world, so the information they represent is in an organism or on your hard drive no matter what.

Of course, the dataome could struggle to continue to exist without its biological thinkers … In this sense, the original function of 16S rRNA in the organic world is still of great importance. But now it is also functioning as an object of intellectual curiosity for human minds, for scientific research, and perhaps for future genetic engineering. All you select for maintenance and replication in the dataome.

There is an argument to be made that none of this should come as a surprise because the processes of genetic replication in biology, and the ways in which genes actually evolve, are already far from simple.

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