Changes in societies are driven by “culture wars” and the battle of ideas. Epic idea battles arose between capitalism and communism, religious fundamentalism and secular humanism, pro-choice and pro-life, emos and goths, etc. Great advances have been made along the way in the realms of public health, human rights, representative government, trade and business, and the development of technology.
The road to human progress is often presented as a continuous path. Reality simply doesn’t work that way. History is rife with conflict and tension, collaboration and resistance, competing agendas that battle for supremacy. Progress is not linear. It moves in cycles and waves, pulses and push-backs, tension and release. Culture is a complex system made up of many actors with diverse relationships among them. Change is emergent from the countless interacting parts. And memes are always at the center of the action.
Memes are the elements of culture that replicate, mutate, and spread from one person to another. They are the stories, jingles, products, ideas, scripted behaviors, organizations, and brand identities that collectively make up every cultural system. Memes are structured information that flows across a society, always in dynamic tension with one another. As such, the science of social change is a science of meme evolution.
Unlike with human warfare, memes cannot be killed. They live on in the minds of people who remember them and act upon them in their lives. While a human construct like an empire or a castle or a city can be destroyed, the idea of the empire or the castle or the city lives on. Once a meme is out there in a culture, it will always be there. The only way for a meme to die is if all cultural memory of it is destroyed. This rarely happens. Even in the most egregious attempts to destroy memes — burning of the library at Alexandria, for example — remnants of old ideas live on in the cultural DNA of newer ideas that have been influenced by them.
Some ideas are good for humans. Others don’t work out so well. The battle between capitalism and communism revealed that centralized planning doesn’t promote human flourishing. Yet it was the critiques of capitalism from within this multi-decade clash of ideas that revealed how market economies built on self-interest alone create neither prosperity nor thriving communities. As the great ideological battle unfolded, both sides evolved and adapted to their changing environments. The system we now know to work best is a hybrid — strong social democracy with an open market system. Both memes continue to battle in the recent clashes between Occupy Wall Street and financial elites, ever changing and always on the move.
Both communism and capitalism are ideas that operate according to the laws of cultural evolution, which differ from the laws of physics in important ways. The debate about which one is “real” and “correct” fails to recognize that they are all just ideas, created and propagated by cultural genes, and all participants are inside a meme battleground and thus constrained in their perspectives to the memes that exist there. Economic systems are social constructs based on these idea constructs and the only reason they exist is because a critical mass of human minds believe them into being — one signed contract and one consumer transaction at a time.
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Memes change through evolutionary processes. They form symbiotic relationships; compete for scarce resources; mutate by sharing elements: socialistic governance plus market dynamics = resilience and prosperity. Through this unfolding web of relationships they can be improved over time.
Evolutionary biologists would describe this as increasing fitness through selection. This is how cultural evolution works. Understanding how this works is essential for guiding society toward higher levels of fitness, and ultimately, greater prospects for human thriving. A great example being the way that Christianity spread as an offshoot of Judaism. Paul, the apostle, realized that the practice of circumcision kept many people from adopting the new faith. So he removed it from the liturgy of cultural practices. Thus evolved a new-and-improved Christian religion that spread more easily to incorporate more followers.
In a paradoxical way, the battle between ideas can lead to peace and prosperity. Ideas that promote wellbeing can win out against those that harm societies. Another example from the 20th Century makes this point — the appearance of the atomic bomb activated a global response to bring state warfare to an end. The meme that humans can annihilate all of humanity brought on a global peace movement to lessen the chances that such an event would ever transpire. This helped accelerate the spread of democracies, open societies, market economies, and as a result we now have the most peaceful society in history (relative to our total population size).
In a similar way, the fear and grief caused by memes about ecological devastation have unleashed waves of innovation in sustainability practices. Farmers markets are now the norm in Western cities. Renewable energy technologies have been developing since the 70′s and are going mainstream now.
This explosion of social innovations would not have been possible without the conflicts and tensions that grew out of the environmental movement as it waged battles with status quo institutions and social norms. We progress by engaging the warfare among memes, thus accelerating the process of social learning. Those who bemoan the polarized nature of our politics are missing out on the real action.
Humanity moves forward not one step at a time, but as a dance of give and take among ideas that are at war with one another.