In his bestseller ‘The Selfish Gene’ (1976), Richard Dawkins, a biologist, argued that culture, like genetics, drives the human evolution process. He defined ‘meme’ as a ‘unit of cultural transmission’ representing ideas and values: ‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via [reproduction], so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.’
Memes and genes share a simple objective: to replicate themselves as a matter of survival. Both are labeled ‘selfish’ because they have a single purpose of their own: the pursuit of absolute dominance, using human beings as mere vessels.
Memes move dangerously faster than genes. In fact, the speed at which memes can spread or go extinct has inspired a Reddit community called the ‘MemEconomy.’ The forum is akin to an exchange where memes can be figuratively bought or sold to influence their popularity. The underlying idea is that memes are moved by the same Keynesian ‘animal spirits’ as securities.
From an artistic perspective, memes rely on an appealing minimalist concept. Some draw a parallel with Dadaism, an art form that spread like wildfire during World War I to underscore the world’s absurdity. Memes have a rebellious streak.
It is more than that. In ‘What We Owe The Future’ (2022), William MacAskill, a philosophy professor at Oxford, argues that ‘culture in society tends to entrench itself, eliminate the competition, and take steps to replicate over time.’ In other words, memes are competing to lead the evolution of humanity.
MacAskill discusses the circumstances under which certain memes gain popular traction and impose themselves as ‘winners.’ According to him, such conditions often arise after a crisis, when society enters a period of enhanced plasticity during which change finds fertile ground. Winning memes cause cultural trends to crystallize, with impact on social factors such as women’s participation in labor or attitude toward immigration.
In my view, there is a current threat to the human order coming from the combination of three factors: a volatile societal environment prone to animal spirits and, arguably, rebellion; a period of enhanced polycrisis-induced plasticity; and media feeding compulsive audiences. These conditions raise significant uncertainty as to which memes from the global pool could prevail, and how fast they can spread.
Humans believe they control memes, but only the reverse is true. Humans are just physical carriers manipulated by memes. An analogy tying biology with memes can be drawn with ‘The Last of Us’ (2023). The entertaining HBO TV show is based on the story of a debilitating fungus that hijacks the human brain and turns people into zombies.
Under today’s circumstances, memes have an opportunity to take over humans and turn them into ‘puppets with poisoned minds’ or intellectual zombies. The only winners in a global culture war are the memes.