Einstein's Enlightenment

Chapter 11: Am I?

Introduction

 

The evolution of complexity on earth has always progressed by the ‘two steps forward one step backward’ method. Earth’s sixth mass extinction is presently underway and our only uncertainty around this event has only to do with its severity. The biosphere’s genetic complexity is certainly taking a major step backward. How big of a step will it be? Will cultural complexity also be degraded, will civilization suffer a setback or be eliminated? How likely is this step backwards to include the extinction of our species?

 

Solutions to the major challenges facing our species as we have outlined them are mainly cultural, containing a prominent spiritual component.  Our efforts to meet these challenges and our probability of success will play out as a cultural evolutionary process over a relatively short timeline. In this section we will use the tools provided by the science of memetics to probe the recent course of cultural evolution and to perhaps provide some indications of future possibilities.

 

Memetics is one of a number of areas of scientific studies attempting to shed light on cultural evolution. Others include socio-biology and evolutionary psychology. Memetics differs from other fields in its identification of a cultural replicator, the meme, as a second Darwinian replicator in addition to genes, which emerged as a new evolutionary force only with the evolution of our species. Memes are mental constructs copied by imitation. Central to our analysis is the ‘self’ meme. The self meme is simply our conception of ourselves. It is a meme because it is largely a mental construct that evolves by being copied between individuals in a cultural unit. The self meme can be extremely complex entailing many components and may be best considered a memeplex or a complex of separate but mutually reinforcing memes.

 

Memetics provides a new way of looking at the self. The self is a vast memeplex – perhaps the most insidious and pervasive memeplex of all. I shall call it the ‘selfplex’. The selfplex permeates all our experience and all our thinking so that we are unable to see it clearly for what it is – a bunch of memes. It comes about because our brains provide the ideal machinery on which to construct it, and our society provides the selective environment in which it thrives.

 

As we have seen, memeplexes are groups of memes that come together for mutual advantage. The memes inside a memeplex survive better as part of a group than they would on their own. Once they have got together they form a self-organizing, self protecting structure that welcomes and protects other memes that are compatible with the group, and repels memes that are not.[i]

 

We will present an historical account of the evolution of dominant selfplex types amongst peoples of the world’s ascendant regions over the past four hundred years. Our treatment will provide a context for many historical facts and trends that a scientific theory of cultural evolution should predict. We will argue that the evolution of cultural institutions is reflective of the evolution of the selfplex; or using a biological metaphor that the selfplex resembles a portion of the genotype while cultural institutions resemble a portion of the phenotype.

 

This historical timeframe considered includes the passing of the ‘subservient selfplex’ as the dominant selfplex, the evolutionary rise of the ‘individual selfplex’ and a recent challenger; the ‘corporate selfplex’. We will consider factors governing the survivability of selfplex types and relate these to their evolutionary history.

 

A Brief History of the Self

Many of those who have studied the matter agree that something dramatic happened during the late 1500s in Western Europe to our sense of self; at this time many people abandoned the concept of self as a subservient player of social roles and began to see themselves as individual reflective beings with a rich inner life. It is also at this time that literature begins to portray characters possessing what we recognize as a modern conception of self.  Some have suggested the influence of Martin Luther as first introducing this meme due to his insistence on the importance to the inner person of being able to read scriptures in ones native language. It is hard for us to imagine that at this time many considered it acceptable for church services to be conducted in a language which the majority of parishioners could not understand. What was considered important was that they attended, that their individual conscious self could understand the service was not. A characteristic of the subservient selfplex is its lack of concern with individual understanding or awareness. Greater concern was placed on the performance of rituals and traditions as proscribed by cultural or religious authorities.

 

Some also point to the breakdown of traditional medieval roles where each person was constrained to live out the life they were born to. The Renaissance period had broken new ground in which individualism could sprout and by the late 1500s there was unprecedented latitude for individuals to define their own roles. The printing press, invented a hundred years earlier and spread widely, also provided a means of accessing a wider arena of ideas and points of view.

 

Though the way had been well prepared, many scholars point to William Shakespeare as a decisive catalyst in the creation of the individual selfplex and a genius at presenting this meme in an infectious manner. Herald Bloom, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar has authored Shakespeare: the invention of the human. There he argues that Shakespeare is largely responsible for the modern conception of self.

 

… he went beyond all precedents (even Chauser) and invented the human as we continue to know it. A more conservative way of stating this would seem to me a weak misreading of Shakespeare: it might contend that Shakespeare’s originality was in the representation of cognition, personality, character. But there is an overflowing element in the plays, an excess beyond representation, that is closer to the metaphor we call “creation”. The dominant Shakespearean characters- Falstaff, Hamlet, Rosalind, Iago, Lear, Macbeth, Cleopatra among them – are extraordinary instances not only of how meaning gets started, rather than repeated, but also of how new modes of consciousness come into being.[ii]

 

Bloom makes the case that prior to Shakespeare’s invention people did not conceive of ‘self’ as do moderns. They had little use for introspection and did not experience rich personal lives.

 

Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves.[iii]

 

This portrayal of an inner life, an individual self, originated in the work of Shakespeare as exemplified with his character Hamlet. As Stephen Greenblatt contends in his great book, Will in the World:

 

By the end of the century Shakespeare was poised to make an epochal breakthrough. He had perfected the means to represent inwardness.[iv]

 

Hamlet’s quest to find justice for his slain father is resisted by both the authority of the King and his mother. He is urged to conform to authority both by Ophelia, his true love, and by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his close friends. Ophelia succumbs to the authority of her father and betrays Hamlet. His close friends succumb to the authority of the King and Queen, spy on Hamlet and attempt to lead him to his murder. Yet our hero Hamlet’s individual self will not succumb to authority, he procrastinates, agonizes and soul searches but in the end he remains true to himself and to his own vision of what is at issue.

 

Romeo and Juliet portrays an unprecedented description of individual romantic love and teen age rebellion against parents and authority and still serves as the artistic high water mark within our culture of this subject matter.

 

To understand how Shakespeare contributed to the invention of our modern sense of self and formulation of the meme that has subsequently become central to us we have to understand the Bohemian milieu in which he found himself immersed as a young playwright in late 16th century London. Public theatre of the sort Shakespeare became involved with was newly invented and although wildly popular was at the fringes of society. It attracted a brilliant but disreputable troupe of writers and actors having little commitment to state, religion or personal survival. His literary peers whom Shakespeare encountered on joining the London theatre scene in the late 1580s consisted largely of a loosely knit group of six young university-trained men who engaged in various intellectual pursuits including writing plays. All but one died before forty due to the wages of riotous, reckless living. One particular member of this group, it’s most flamboyant and central figure, Robert Greene, exemplified a dissipated life but one also filled with adventure, wit and accomplishment. These characters living their outrageous lifestyle must have amazed young Will Shakespeare upon his arrival in London fresh from the country.

 

Probably modeled on Greene, Shakespeare invented perhaps literature’s most life filled character: Falstaff. Green, son of a minor status gentleman, had attended Cambridge and Oxford where he received two master degrees. He had married relatively well but having drunk his way through his wife’s money he abandoned her and their child and set out for London and adventure.

 

Despite practicing a dissolute lifestyle Greene retained many snobbish attitudes especially concerning his status as a university educated person. Shakespeare, with his amazing talent, but lacking a university education was galling to Greene. On his death bed, following an extravagant dinner of pickled herring and Rhenish wine, Greene penned a series of pamphlets latter gathered into a book full of wild resentments. Some were aimed directly at Shakespeare:

 

There is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers that, with his 'tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide,' supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; being an absolute Johannes Factotum, in his conceit the only shake-scene in a country. [v]

 

There is no record of Shakespeare publicly responding to this attack; instead he wove his observations of the extravagant selves of Green and his boisterous associates into Falstaff, one of literatures favourite characters.

 

…no other literary character- not even Don Quixote of Sancho Panza, not even Hamlet- seems to me so infinite in provoking thought and in arousing emotion. Falstaff is a miracle in the creation of personality and his enigmas rival those of Hamlet. Each is first and foremost an absolutely individual voice, no other personages in Western literature rival them in mastery of language. Falstaff’s prose and Hamlet’s verse give us a cognitive music that overwhelms us even as it expands our minds to the ends of thought.[vi]

 

Falstaff does not have the nobility or honour of Hamlet. Although honour on the field of battle is accepted by all on unspoken authority, Falstaff reserves for himself the right to evaluate it. He does and dismisses it.

 

Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Honour has not skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. (1 Henry IV, 5.1.130-138)

 

Falstaff is a lovable rascal living by his wits and holding himself above all authority. He lives beyond the authority of the law as a highway man and takes a great gamble on the field of battle as he claims to have killed the main protagonist in single combat when in fact he has spent much of the battle playing dead until danger has passed. He gambles that the King will raise him to nobility for this counterfeit noble deed. The litmus test by which he evaluates all situations seems to be what is best for his individual self. 

 

Shakespeare introduced Falstaff in Henry IV; an otherwise serious historical play showing great deference to social authority. His part may have originally been conceived as comic relief, a device often employed by Shakespeare, but in that case he came to life in a way unforeseen by his creator. Falstaff ignited his audience. It is reported that the Elizabethan audience hushed their murmured conversations and ceased their nut-cracking when Falstaff came on stage. They strained to fully hear his every line. I know the feeling. Whenever I watch a movie or listen to an audio recording I keep the remote control handy and fast forward through the boring bits. The Kings exhortation for greater responsibility from his wayward son Hal or the intrigues performed by contending rivals for the monarchy hold little interest. I am impatient to get to the parts where Falstaff struts his stuff.

 

Falstaff was an unprecedented hit and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare was propelled to become the most popular playwright of his age.  The individual self meme found fertile ground in Shakespeare’s audience and spread rapidly amongst the population.

 

Whatever its exact causes, a new conception of the self arose and quickly spread taking root deep within the consciousness of many Western Europeans during the hundred years between 1520 and 1620. During the 400 years since its fully formed invention, the individual self has consolidated its power and become a central player in the arena of cultural evolution. In becoming an active decision making unit, the individual self, created design potential allowing the creation of new synergistic win/win cultural units supporting an unprecedented level of cultural complexity. Numerous institutions of the modern world are the result of cultural evolution’s exploration and concretization of these design possibilities.

 

We will briefly explore four examples where major cultural institutions have been transformed to serve the individual self: Religion, Politics, Market Economics, and Science.

Religion

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Roman Catholic Church exercised unprecedented power throughout Christendom. The only challenge to its power appeared to be the uneasy truce in its rivalry with the secular power of monarchs.  It insisted on monopolistic power over the self’s worldview. Alternate views such as the Catharists, labelled heresies, were ruthlessly dealt with.

 

On March 16 1244 a large and symbolically important execution took place, where leaders of Catharism together with more than 200 Cathar laity were thrown into an enormous fire at the prat des cramats near the foot of the castle.[vii]

 

All dissenting worldviews were brutally stamped out prior to the sixteenth century, the major exception being the Jewish faith. Although Jews faced extreme persecution in Christian Europe, the fact of their physical survival into the present age argues that they received more lenient treatment than most of those holding other non Roman Catholic worldviews.

 

From many individuals’ points of view the church was seen as having become excessive in its economic and spiritual abuses.  From the church’s point of view the individual was essentially a soul whose only obligation was to pass through life observing the requisite rituals and duties. There was little concern for the striving or aspirations of the ‘self’. Those, in whom an individual self was most deeply rooted, concentrated amongst the literate, educated and skilled members of society, became ready to align themselves with the monarchs in their rivalry with the church. Almost simultaneously the church faced ‘protestant’ rebellions in both England and Germany that quickly spread to engulf all Europe and became a central theme of its history for the next several centuries. Protestantism provided a much more fertile environment for the consolidation and spread of the self:

 

Protestants are often considered to be another people 'of the book,' in that they adhere to the text of the Bible, that they grew out of the Renaissance and universities, that they attracted learned intellectuals, professionals, and skilled tradesmen and silversmiths, that their belief is more abstracted than ritualized, and that the great dissemination of protestant beliefs occurred with the translation of the Bible by Protestants into native tongues from Latin, Greek and Hebrew and their quick spread with the help of the new technology of the printing press. Protestants are also less fond of hierarchy, having relentlessly attacked the priestly caste and the Holy See's authority, and thus are closely associated with the local control and political democratization during the 16th and 17th century.[viii]

 

Protestantism quickly became deeply fractured into a multitude of sects each with its own type of appeal to individual selves. The British initiative in breaking from the Roman Catholic Church and replacing it with the Anglican Church was primarily designed to solve some of Henry VIII’s political problems and was not well thought out theologically. Almost immediately there was dissention and confusion. Some wanted to return to Catholicism others wanted a more extreme form of Protestantism than that entertained by the British clergy. For a while the more extreme view won out and three generations after Henry VIII, in which time the official religion alternated between Protestantism, Catholicism and back to Protestantism, Charles I was beheaded and England experienced a semi-theological government under Oliver Cromwell.

 

Eventually it became apparent that no single denomination would be universal. The self’s preference to resist the dictates of external religious authority and its desire to make its own decisions regarding religion largely prevailed. Today the list of established protestant denominations in Britain numbers more than one hundred and fifty.[ix]  In addition to Protestant denominations a plethora of sects based on non-Christian religions and quasi-religious cults have found fertile ground in western societies. With each sect there are of course many variant interpretations amongst the membership. The numbers of alternatives are staggering, a veritable buffet from which the self is free to choose. In fact the notion that the individual self has both the right and responsibility to choose its own religion has spread to become embedded in the constitutions of numerous states and is today widely considered a fundamental human right.

 

During more than 400 years of evolution the self has successfully bent the institutions of religion to its will. Five hundred years ago weekly attendance in a universal church was compelled by law for most citizens. Now not only is the self free to choose what religious affiliation if any it will accept but it is also free to disregard any of the religious strictures within its chosen religion. 

 

Although the individual self has attained greater autonomy in choosing its religious believes it still tends to choose religious beliefs as its memeplex for understanding its place in the universe over other possibilities such as scientific alternatives.  A 2005 a survey indicated that 40% of the British public and 95% of the American public believed in the existence of a supernatural God.[x] Amongst the American public there seems to be a recent increase in the instances of fundamentalism or the acceptance of the truth of religious authority in the form of church leaders and/or the literal truth of the bible.

 

Politics

Although the newly fledged individual self had a tendency to align itself with monarchy during the struggles of the reformation, it soon chaffed at this alliance as well. The pervasive form of European governments up until the seventeenth century was monarchy whose rights to govern were considered ‘divinely’ bestowed. Today the majority of countries in the world have democratic governments elected by individual selves.

 

In 1689 John Locke (1632-1704) published the hugely influential Two Treatises of Civil Government in an effort to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that had deposed the British king James II. This work stressed the individual’s right to rebel against tyranny and was seminal in the development of modern political thought. Many scholars consider the American Declaration of Independence to be a direct descendent.

 

Voltaire (1694-1778), probably the most widely read enlightenment writer was greatly influenced by Locke and the British Empiricists. He was extremely effective at popularizing the self meme and the idea that the self has rights:

 

I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.

 

As the self came to be more widely considered the legitimate seat of decision making, inexorably the exercise of political power came to reflect this fact. Democratic government was the ideal linking the self to political power.

 

Democracy: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections [xi]

 

During the late eighteenth century democratic ideas were fundamental in the American and French revolutions which were the first to overthrow monarchy. But continual gains were made by the democratic movement in western societies throughout the centuries. As an example consider a timeline of English democratic milestones:

1689 – Bill of Rights – an elected parliament replaced the King as source of political power, however the franchise electing parliament was restricted to the wealthy.

1832 – Reform Act – The franchise was increased to include members of the upper middle classes.

1867 – Reform Act – The franchise was further increased to include the less wealthy.

1884 – Representation of the People Act – Further increase of the franchise to include agricultural workers.

1911 – Parliament Act – Restriction on the Hose of Lords in favour of the House of Commons.

1918 – Representation of the People Act – Increases the franchise to all males over 21 and all females over 30

1928 – Representation of the People Act – Universal suffrage for men and women age 21 and over.

 

The movement towards democratic universal suffrage was a common theme throughout the world during the twentieth century.

 

In 1900, no countries had governments elected on the principal of universal adult suffrage. Today, there are 119 such countries, or 62 percent of all the countries in the world. These are the dramatic findings of a new comprehensive end-of-century study released today by Freedom House, the New York based research group that tracks political rights and civil liberties around the world.[xii]

 

Political power in the majority of the world’s countries now resides, at least theoretically, with the individual self.

 

Although democratic forms of government have been attained in the majority of countries there is evidence that it is becoming less important to the individual self. In many advanced countries the voter turnout has been declining since the mid-twentieth century. In America the graph is pretty much a straight line with a downward slope from over 60% voter turnout in 1952 to less than 50% in 1996[xiii]. It appears that after 300 years of greater democratization individual selves may have recently become less interested in exercising their democratic rights to political power in many advanced countries.

Economics

Trade seems to have been a functional property of most human groups since our beginnings. Trade is inherently a nonzero sum activity that produces extra resources for those practicing it. If you and I engage in trade it is only because what you have to offer me is worth more to me than it is to you and vice versa. In other words I have a more productive use for what you are offering me than I have for what I am offering you. In this manner trade enhances both of our abilities to survive.

 

When village life became established around 9,000 BC trade over longer distances became more feasible.[xiv] Seashells, obsidian and stone bowls were amongst the items most often traded.

 

With the widespread adoption of agricultural and subsequent division of labour and urban living, trade and commerce flourished. It is now widely accepted that literacy most probably developed as an aid to accounting the expanded commerce and taxation associated with the agricultural revolution.

 

The industrial revolution hastened the decline of feudal economies based on indentured labour and ties to the land. A new class of entrepreneurs scrambled to produce and market any goods for which there was demand and on which they could profit. Economic power shifted from the landed gentry to merchants and the captains of industry. Trade goods from around the world entered domestic markets wherever a source could be connected to a profitable demand though these markets were at first largely dominated by monopolies such as the Hudson Bay Company.

 

In 1776 Adam Smith outlined the principles of free trade in his book The Wealth of Nations. It was a ground breaking work that pointed to a future prosperity driven by markets responding to and competing to fulfil demand.

 

Adam Smith railed against this restrictive, regulated, 'mercantilist' system, and showed convincingly how the principles of free trade, competition, and choice would spur economic development, reduce poverty, and precipitate the social and moral improvement of humankind. To illustrate his concepts, he scoured the world for examples that remain just as vivid today: from the diamond mines of Golconda to the price of Chinese silver in Peru; from the fisheries of Holland to the plight of Irish prostitutes in London. And so persuasive were his arguments that they not only provided the world with a new understanding of the wealth-creating process; they laid the intellectual foundation for the great era of free trade and economic expansion that dominated the Nineteenth Century[xv].

 

The market economy outlined by Smith continued to expand both in depth and scope throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Today all the most developed and powerful nations in the world subscribe to its principals at least to the extent required for membership within the World Trade Organization.

 

Smith foresaw that a market economy would lead to a measure of economic equality.

 

The rich ... divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal proportions among all its inhabitants.

 

At the bottom of this revolutionary economic reconstruction is the idea of demand. Demand is personal demand; it is the demand of the individual self for those things which the individual judges to be most to his advantage. Smith saw this demand of the self as the basis of a rational economy and that this demand serves as an ‘invisible hand’ that would guide each person’s actions for their own betterment but also indirectly for the betterment of all society.

 

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.[xvi]

 

A market economy responds to bottom up forces of individual demand. No central authority, neither king nor government planner is required. Each individual self acting rationally in its own best interests is sufficient to produce a well balanced and optimal economy. In a market economy the self is king.

 

A foundation of market economies is the notion that individual selves avail themselves of information concerning their economic choices and use this information to reach rational decisions in their own best interests. The vast and increasing fortunes spent on public relations and marketing during the past fifty years is a clear indication that this fundamental component of market economies is becoming less available to individual selves. Public relations and marketing are almost by definition attempts to influence the behaviour of individual selves by non-rational means and thereby distort market forces. In other words they are means by which outside economic institutions attempt to enforce their authority over the interests of individual selves. Their effectiveness can be of little doubt as corporate and other economic institutions spend increasing amounts on these endeavours presumably receiving benefits in excess of their enormous costs.

Knowledge

The Roman Catholic Church, through much of its history, saw itself responsible for deciding the correct explanations concerning subjects we would now consider science. It judged the correctness of these explanations on the basis of theological arguments and enforced its claim to a monopoly on such explanations ruthlessly. Any alternate explanations were considered heresy and the Inquisition determined when such heresies were committed and their appropriate punishments. Many, such as Giodano Bruno were killed for daring to differ with the Church’s explanation. In 1633 Galileo was placed under house arrest and remained under this sentence until his death in 1642 as a result of his support for the Copernican view that the planets revolved around the sun and not around the earth. This pronouncement by the Church stood until 1992 when the Pope publicly admitted the church had acted on incorrect information concerning Galileo’s explanations and pronounced the case closed but did not withdraw the verdict of heresy.

 

In the year of Galileo’s death Isaac Newton was born, fortunately in England. England being a protestant country displayed greater tolerance for non-theological explanations in the natural world. In his twenties Newton became part of a small group of natural philosophers who practised science in a tradition largely laid down by Francis Bacon. This approach became known as the British Empirical School and stressed the importance of empirical evidence derived from experimentation in support of theoretical explanations. It was a revolutionary change from the authority centric approach officially endorsed in Catholic countries.

 

Essentially the British approach relies on the judgement of the individual self, for it is the individual self that must make empirical observations and judge their relative support for competing theories. To hold any weight observations must be repeatable. That is any individual self, given the appropriate setting, must be able to make the same observation as made by any other observer. This consensus amongst a group of individual selves concerning the empirical evidence they witness leads to the notion of objectivity and of the evidence being an objective fact free from the dictates of authority.

 

A small group of British investigators practising this empirical method of investigation founded the Royal Society in 1660 and it continues today as one of the worlds most prestigious scientific organizations.

 

The origins of the Royal Society lie in an "invisible college" of natural philosophers who began meeting in the mid-1640s to discuss the ideas of Francis Bacon. Its official foundation date is 28 November 1660, when 12 of them met at Gresham College after a lecture by Christopher Wren, the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found ’a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning’. This group included Wren himself, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, Sir Robert Moray, and William, Viscount Brouncker.

 

The Society was to meet weekly to witness experiments and discuss what we would now call scientific topics.[xvii]

 

The British Empiricists were widely admired by leaders of the Enlightenment movement on the European continent. Voltaire, in part due to an exile imposed by religious authority, lived in Britain for a period and his writing on empirical thinking were very influential on the continent. The enlightenment influence grew and contributed to the French Revolution with its commitment to rationality and science. This revolution featured a rejection of both religious and secular authority in favour of the individual-self-friendly concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity. Seeds of empiricism took roots in this rich soil producing a number of scientific greats; notably Lagrange and Laplace.

 

Huge scientific advances achieved in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries conferred wealth and power on the individuals and nations most effectively utilizing them. However the subject matter was abstract being mainly in areas such as medicine, chemistry, physics and astronomy and did not directly challenge the established view of the individual’s place in the universe. The vast majority of people looked to religion, albeit a religion of their choice, to frame and answer these questions. There was no scientific alternative to the ‘argument from design’ used to promote a theological framework for answers to design questions in the biological and psychological world.

 

All this changed with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was a radical and fundamental blow to our self image, knocking us badly off balance, from which we have not yet recovered. The individual self was thrust out from a comfortable cocoon of a being cared for and of special interest to a kindly God into a reality that may seem cold, isolated and pointless. 

 

Nietzsche observation that ‘God is dead’ has left a void many have found extremely troubling. As interpreted by the existentialists, the dominant philosophic tradition of the 20th century, the rational and scientific alternatives to theology are bleak and incapable of providing meaning to the human experience.

 

The Humanist movement, typified by a rejection of theology and commitment to man made meaning and centrality of the individual self, may be the most influential modern school of thought challenging both existentialism and religion.  Humanism however although highly intellectual does not build on a solid scientific foundation but rather on a psychological foundation where we are called upon to accept the background existential meaninglessness but to gather our courage and create from this underlying bleakness meaning in the values of humanity. 

 

It has been left to Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of the 20th century and perhaps of all times, to suggest a worldview that is scientifically true while providing all the psychological comfort and spiritual richness of a theological religion. Einstein, in fact saw science as subservient to this religious view.

 

‘In my view, it is the most important function of … science to awaken this feeling (cosmic religious experience) and to keep it alive in those who are receptive to it. [xviii]

 

In view of this cosmic religious experience Einstein derived a remarkable view of the self.

 

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. [xix]

 

Einstein lack of self and his almost total freedom from one time only concerns is legendary:

 

"I feel so much a part of every living thing that I am not in the least concerned with where the individual begins and ends."[xx] 

 

Remarkably this spiritual aspect of Einstein’s legacy is almost totally ignored and very few have attempted to popularize similar views. One exception is Richard Dawkins who, in some of his writing at the beginning of the 21st century, notably Unweaving the Rainbow, promotes a similar worldview and has acknowledged this aspect of Einstein’s bequest.

 

For example, Einstein uses language which sounds religious; indeed, he even uses the word God. But it's very clear, if you read Einstein carefully, that Einstein did not believe in anything supernatural. Einstein derived uplift and inspiration from science, from the contemplation of the wonders of the universe, but he certainly had no supernatural belief, and indeed he was very scornful of supernatural religion. And that would be my position as well.[xxi]

 

Throughout its history the development of Science has been largely uninfluenced by politics or economics. From the beginnings of science up until about 150 years ago the majority of scientists were gentleman who chose to pursue a life as amateur scholars. Later the mainstream switched to being tenured academic scholars. Both of these groups are notoriously independent minded and may be illustrative of what we would consider individual selves.

 

More recently science has experienced increasing pressure to bow to the authority of political, religious and corporate interests.

 

An open letter to President Bush signed by over 700 American scientists deplores the acceleration of the political component of this trend during his administration.

 

The United States has an impressive history of investing in scientific research and respecting the independence of scientists. As a result, we have enjoyed sustained economic progress and public health, as well as unequalled leadership within the global scientific community. Recent actions by political appointees, however, threaten to undermine this legacy by preventing the best available science from informing policy decisions that have serious consequences for our health, safety, and environment.

Across a broad range of issues—from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons—political appointees have distorted and censored scientific findings that contradict established policies. In some cases, they have manipulated the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions.

They have also undermined the independence of scientific advisory panels by subjecting panel nominees to political litmus tests that have no bearing on their expertise, and by nominating under- or unqualified individuals—some of whom have industry ties that could represent a conflict of interest. Other scientific advisory committees have been disbanded altogether.[xxii]

 

A fresh and effective challenge from Religious authority has been levelled at the teaching of scientific knowledge concerning evolution in public school science classes. Under the guise of ‘Intelligent Design’ a number of American school boards have decided to allow the teaching of non-scientific theories of evolution so that classroom instruction is compatible with religious authority as recorded in the biblical myth of creation.

 

The increasing level of corporate sponsorship of academic research is concerning to many scientists.

 

Although corporate funding of academic research accounts for a relatively small percentage of all university research funds—approximately 7 percent of the total—that percentage has grown more rapidly than support from all other sources over the past two decades.[xxiii]

 

Since the 1984 passage of the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments, more commonly known as the Bayh-Dole Act, universities and industries increasingly have been collaborating. President George Rupp of Columbia University has observed that:

research may become somewhat too domesticated, aimed at short-term objectives dictated by corporate sponsors, or even our own faculty, as their entrepreneurial instincts lead them to try to identify and patent discoveries that will have a payoff. That’s a risk that the university as a whole faces. It can involve not only the sciences and engineering, but the humanities and social sciences as well. For example, consider the impact of some of the new media capabilities. There are current commercial attempts to harness the ideas, even the lectures and presentations, of faculty members. The danger exists that universities will be so assimilated into society that we will no longer be the kind of collectors of talent that allow creativity to blossom. We must guard against being harnessed directly to social purposes in any way that undermines the fundamental character of the university.[xxiv]

 

It may be too early to know if the resurgence of control by religious, political and corporate authorities over scientific research is a passing trend or is indicative of a longer term threat to scientific independence. In any case the long tradition of science as a relatively unfettered search for the truth by individual selves may be facing new challenges.

 

The Corporate Self

After continuous expansion and consolidation throughout its 400 year history the individual self may seem today triumphant and unchallenged having brought all powerful institutions to heel: politics, the economy and even religion. Yet our understanding of self is remarkably sketchy. It has only existed as an academic subject for a short while and memetics, perhaps the first powerful theory providing context for a deep understanding of the evolution of the self is still in its infancy. And yet even at this fledgling stage its status as the vehicle at the leading edge of cultural evolution may be flickering. Something is happening. Seen in retrospect it appears the individual self may have hit a high water mark some fifty years ago and has been in retreat since.

 

The self has reformed economic, political and religious institutions successfully demanding that they more closely serve the interests of the individual.  Each of the once tamed institutions is now reasserting themselves.

 

The equalitarian market economy with its inherent promise to each self of providing a near equal slice of the pie is receding. The middle class is diminishing; the poorer class enlarges as an ever greater portion of wealth is bestowed upon an ever smaller upper class. The amount of marketing involved in markets, which is the amount of effort put into distorting market forces by swaying market demand from the purely rational demand of informed consumers, is a measure of the inefficiency of those markets. Yet massive marketing is a signature component of the most advanced consumer societies. The inescapable conclusion is that individual consumers are constrained to exercise patterns of consumption based on the interests of those providing the marketing rather than on their own interests reachable only through a rational and informed decision.

 

Politics, or more accurately democracy, once a central component of the individual self’s thrust to exert influence now appears less of a concern. All over the western world political debate is receding, voter turnout is diminishing and there appears to be no substantive options. The success of a political campaign is highly correlated with the amount of money spent. The vast majority of this money is expended on marketing which again is designed to constrain the self to act in the interest of others.

 

Religion is reasserting its grip. More are attending church and the claims made by religion on self determination appear to be strengthening. Total blind obedience to the one true word is often demanded by fundamental branches of Christianity and other religions.

 

Each of these trends involves institutions reaffirming their control over the individual and they appear to be subtly related. Politics is now, more than ever a rich man’s game. The staggering sum spent on campaigns of practically every successful candidate suggests that all successful politicians are beholden to wealth. It also suggests that democracy has in some sense been bought. The concentration of wealth has occurred in step with the elimination of the working class, once the rock on which the ‘New Deal’ was built, as a political voice. Many of the most powerful religions instil in their adherents the virtues of obedience and the giving up of the self. The image of White House prayer meetings, mandatory for a senior staff drawn from the corporate elite, is an image which nicely ties the diverse pieces together.

 

How did the elite class of rich and powerful, which had been in full retreat the previous 400 years under the equalitarian onslaught of the individual self juggernaut come to regain this kind of control? Well they might owe it to the invention of a new self; the Corporation. The corporation is a relatively new creation possessing the legal rights of an individual in addition to other powers. It was created, as were legal partnerships, to allow the pooling of wealth by a number of individuals for the purpose of undertaking some enterprise.[xxv] It differs from a partnership in that the owners of a corporation, its shareholders, do not run the corporation directly; rather they hire professionals to do this. It also differs in that the owners of corporations are only liable for damages caused by the corporation to the extent of their investment in it.

 

The survivability of corporations as cultural entities was uncertain for many centuries. In the fall-out after a disastrous speculative bubble, the South Sea bubble, Britian made corporations illegal for over a hundred years, judging them contrary to the public interest, until the law’s repeal in 1825. In the second half of the nineteenth century corporations really took off due to their role in financing the building of railroads. Exponential growth resulted with their success in establishing economic globalism during the 1970s. Globalism empowered corporations to play countries off against each other threatening to take markets and jobs to other jurisdictions unless granted political capitulation on any restrictions to their powers.  A small but steady portion of their wealth flows to the coffers of politicians willing to make it so.

The individual self appears to have been caught like a deer in the headlights in this offensive by corporate power. The brightest and best line-up  to attend the top schools in order to win favour with corporate masters and vie to be hired into a career where they compete with their rivals to display the most subservient level of loyalty and commitment. The work week of the upwardly mobile has mushroomed. Those lower down on the food chain compete with each other to construct a life supported by a patchwork of part time jobs rewarded with an ever decreasing politically determined minimum wage. Over-all most families now consider it necessary that all adult members work outside the home mainly in the service of corporations. Individual thought is not outlawed but the norm enforced by corporately owned media strongly suggests any deviant behaviour would be totally un-cool and that resistance is something so weird as to be almost unthinkable. In the past 40 years politics has gone from being orientated around special interest groups defined by race, minority and class; issues concerning individual selves to being orientated around special interest groups defined by their corporate affiliations.

As Noam Chomsky bemoans, the self appears incapable of resistance to this new power.

"Most people go to work and don't ask a lot of questions about what they're doing. They don't look very far beyond their desk or tomorrow's job prospects. That's the ideal of the business world, the public relations industry, the advertising industry and so on, to separate people from one another, because they're dangerous when they're together. They get ideas. They start to do things. Much better for them to be working very hard -- the U.S. has the longest work week in the industrial world -- and when they come home, exhausted, to turn on the tube and get brainwashed." [xxvi]

 

Corporate control appears as irresistible as the Blog and yet the situation is volatile. It might appear obvious that Corporations are owned by individuals and are therefore controlled by individuals but there is some puzzling evidence that this might not be the case. Certainly the recent drive to power and destruction by Enron Corporation did not seem to be in the interest of any individual. More significantly the historically unparalleled level of corporate investment made in information technology over the past fifteen years does not seem to be in the interest of individuals. The individuals who should be reaping the rewards are the corporate shareholders who have made this staggering investment. Yet this gigantic investment of wealth in computer and internet technology has resulted in no measurable additional level of corporate productivity. It has not enriched the shareholders.

 

Then in whose interest has been this unprecedented effort? Let’s consider the possibility that it has only served the interests of the corporate self, unfettered by the interests of any human self. Corporations gain strength through their consumption of human selves. They organize humans and align their nervous systems into a cohesive being in a Darwinian struggle for survival with other corporate entities. This being has its own interests, the paramount one being evolutionary survival. To become more efficient, to become more powerful resources must be more tightly orchestrated. A nervous system coordinating and extending the basic nervous system of its human components is now possible and corporations are racing to enhance their survivability by this means. Any human benefit may not really enter into the equation.

 

Principals of Memetic Evolution

As we have attempted to sketch it here the evolution of dominant self types in the western world over the past four or five hundred years follows a path from a ‘subservient self’ to an ‘individual self’ to a ‘corporate self’. Along the way the evolving nature of the selfplex had a strong causative effect on many core cultural institutions transforming them to better reflect the changing nature of our self concept. What were the individual and cultural forces guiding this evolutionary path? The analytical tools supplied by Memetics may help us cast some light on this question.

 

Understanding memes as the second replicator to have evolved implies a subtle relationship with the genetic replicator, creating some difficulties in identifying the separate effects of genetic and mimetic evolution. Clearly though something like memetic evolution does occur and is at the basis of culture. It cannot be seriously doubted that human mental representations underlying culture are copied or imitated between individuals. By the time our species emerged, tool making was well established within genus homo and the archaeological record clearly shows the copying of tool design with slight variations over thousands of generations and the expected attendant evolution of tool making. This is a different evolutionary process than those supported by genetics. We have a genetic predisposition providing us with the potential to copy memes but memes such as specific tool making designs are not genetically programmed within us; they have to be copied or learned from others. The evidence is abundant for a second evolutionary process. 

 

Susan Blackmore has provided compelling arguments in favour of viewing some of our species most distinctive biological characteristics including our large brains and language ability as driven by the biological survival value of a superior meme handling brain.[xxvii] Equally compelling is the argument that many of our primary memeplexes, such as tool making design, evolved due to the memetic survival value of inhabiting individuals with superior biological survival skills. Teasing apart the roles of biological and memetic evolution is a major challenge for an explanation of cultural evolution and is in some ways is a modern reformulation of the nature-nurture problem.

 

As has been pointed out by a number of researchers, memetics is currently in a state similar to that of evolutionary biology between the time of Darwin and the discovery of DNA, when the presence of a replicator underlying the theory was posited and a substantial number of implications supported by evidence were drawn but the replicator itself undiscovered. The exact substance of the memetic replicator is at present unkown. Researchers still disagree even about the definition of the meme; is it the cultural artefact itself such as the arrow head or musical tune, is it the mental structure underlying cultural artefacts or are both memes? A full discussion of the issues can be found in Blackmore (1999).

 

To server our purposes here in analyzing the evolutionary forces affecting memes we will define memes to be: Any mental structure formed by imitating, copying or understanding the products of the mental structures of others. This definition restricts memes to a genealogy (memealogy?) of inherited mental structures while avoiding the identification of specific mechanisms. The phrase ‘products of mental structures of others’ should be understood as very general and would include such items as spoken and written language, demonstrations and music as well as artefacts. We will below simply refer these as ‘memetic products’.

 

The survival and further evolution of memes is facilitated by:

1)    The survival of memetic products capable of conveying the meme. For much of human history this was largely synonymous with the survival of individuals hosting the meme as the dominant meme product was face to face communication. More recently with the advent of the printing press, libraries and internet superior methods of conveying memes with fecundity, longevity and fidelity have greatly enhanced the ability of memes to be copied without direct human intervention.

2)   The survival of the cultural unit hosting the meme product. A cultural unit is defined here to be the grouping of individuals amongst which meme products can be copied. In this sense it is similar to the notion of a biological species which is defined roughly as the grouping of individual organisms in which genes are copied. For much of human history the dominant cultural unit was a tribe of up to 150 extended kin folk. Usually human status is only grudgingly granted by hunter gatherers to those outside their cultural unit. Diamond recounts a Borneo native explaining to him how two male strangers meeting by chance, if they shared a language, would have to spend a great deal of time trying to identify a common relative or ancestor so that they would have a reason not to attempt to murder each other. With the rise of agriculture and the potential for more complex cultural units the size of cultural units has greatly expanded but is still subject to firm limits placed by language, culture and lack of travel.  More recently especially with the advent of the internet and global marketing distinctive cultural units are rapidly disappearing or in many respects are being replaced with a single global cultural unit.

3)   When the first two factors do not figure critically in the memetic landscape a superior ability to be copied, retained and passed on will confer an advantage of competitive fitness. In the hunter gatherer cultures dominating most of human history memetic fitness depended heavily on their contribution to genetic fitness and the fitness of the cultural unit. The competitive landscape where memes survive for no other reason than  their ability to out compete other memes independent of their effects on genetic or cultural fitness has been taking form since we began to approach the modern historical era.

 

Before examining the selective forces effecting memes as applied to the evolution of the selfplex over the past several centuries we will explore more deeply the general nature of these forces.

 

Memetic Fitness

During much of our historical past memetic fitness operated in a similar manner to  genetic fitness in biological evolution in that hey were both dependent on the fitness of their individual hosts although the definition of fitness must be slightly differentiated in the two cases. Genetic fitness is usually defined in a manner where its quantification is determined by the number of an individual’s genes passed on to grand children. This is because an individual can only pass their genes along to their biological offspring, although the water is slightly muddied in the case of kin selection where an individual’s fitness may be enhanced by contributing to the survival of relatives more distant than offspring. An individual’s memetic fitness might be better quantified by the number of viable memes they are able to pass on to other individuals including those to which she is not related. Using this definition we can see how memes themselves can add or detract from an individual’s memetic fitness. A meme for jumping off cliffs would soon eliminate the individuals hosting this meme along with the meme itself. On the other hand an individual in a hunter gatherer society hosting superior memes for arrow head fabrication would enjoy not only an enhanced life expectancy but also serve as an attractive source of superior memes for others. Both of these characteristics would tend to increase the number of copies of the arrow head fabrication meme passed on by this individual. 

 

We must remember that genetic or biological fitness has had very little direct effect on cultural evolution since the emergence of our species homo sapien sapien. Throughout the history of our species we have had the same biological capability for culture including our large brains and capacity for language. The genetics of our species has changed very little, what has evolved has been the memes producing culture. The individuals who have been genetically fit in that they produced numerous grand children may owe more to their memetic fitness than to their biological fitness. Given the relative flat playing field of genetics within the human species compared to our vast differences in the memes we host, the competitive advantages allowing successful individuals to pass on their genes may often be due to their memetic fitness rather than to their genetic fitness.

 

The copying of memes within a cultural group may be partially homologous with the notion of the socialization process. It is most intensively undertaken by young people within a cultural unit who are exposed to progressively more sophisticated memes from the unit’s repertoire and who copy and retain a subset of these memes. This process frequently occurs within the family unit where children copy their parent’s memes concerning language, religions and life skills. Calvalli-Sforza and Feldman have labelled this form of meme transmission from parents to children, vertical transmission, and differentiate it from horizontal transmission which is the copying memes between peers. [xxviii] Memes spread by vertical transmission can affect both an individual’s genetic and memetic fitness and vertical transmission was probably by far the dominant method of memetic transmission during mankind’s long period as a hunter-gatherer prior to agriculture. During this period memetic evolution was tightly constrained by its dependence on its individual hosts’ survival.

 

Fitness of the Cultural Unit

Much of our history as a species was taken up with exploration and habitation of the majority of the planets land masses. During this process cultural units budded of from one another as they became isolated by geography and time. As areas of the planet were filled with peoples approaching the carrying capacity of the land to sustain hunter gatherer societies competition between cultural units undoubtedly intensified. Memes such as those producing warfare technologies, unity of the cultural unit or efficiency in utilizing the land may have been determining factors in the outcomes of these competitions. Losers in this competitive process were either murdered, enslaved or assimilated. In either case many of their memes became extinct along with their cultural units.

 

For instance the memes supporting the majority of the world’s languages which have evolved during the course of human history have gone extinct as a result of the extinction of the cultural units that spoke them. This can happen even when the individuals hosting the language’s memes are assimilated and have biological descendents. About 80 percent of North American native dialects are spoken by adults only and are expected to die with the last speaker.[xxix] Some languages such as Latin have continued a kind of semi-existence after the extinction of their native cultural unit but this is the exception proving the rule.

 

Similar to biological evolution where the number of extinct species vastly outnumbers the number of surviving species it is probable that the number of extinct cultural units greatly exceeds the number of surviving ones and perhaps to an even greater extreme. Whereas the diversity of biological species appears to be increasing in time, other than during periods of mass extinction, the number of surviving cultural units may be rapidly decreasing and approaching the number 1.

 

Given the competitive nature of cultural units and the central role played by memes in this competitive landscape it is clear that the evolution of memetics has been closely tied to their ability to affect the outcomes of these competitions. In other words memetic evolution has been tightly constrained by its effect on the fitness of the cultural unit. With the slacking of competition in this arena as the number of cultural units approaches 1 we should expect to see this dependence diminish.

Memetic Evolution

The biological cell provides an environment specialized to allow fragile chemical forces such as the hydrogen bonds and the Van der Walls force to contribute to the bonding and geometry of molecules. Factors such as a finely tuned temperature, chemical gradients and PH make the cell the environment where, in the hands of biological evolution, these forces are able to contribute to the most complex and evolutionary advanced chemistry found in the universe. Everywhere else these delicate forces are overwhelmed by background energy or other more powerful forces.

 

Likewise memetic evolution throughout most of its history has been dominated by the requirements of biological and cultural fitness and the purely memetic forces, independent of these influences, have been merely background noise. Modern society provides an environment where memetic evolution is less subject to the more basic forces. Most individuals in the ascendant western culture experience a situation where they are in little danger of either shortening their lives or being culturally assimilated due to memes they host. Conversely the survival of memes hosted by these individuals do not depend on either their contribution to the individuals’ biological or cultural survival at least in the manner that this has traditionally been the case. The physical survival of the individual has also become less important for spreading memes during recent history. With the widespread availability of technology for spreading memes such as books, TV, movies, radio and the internet, memes are less dependent on living humans as an enduring source of meme products.

 

Memetic evolution is now taking place in a new competitive environment where these constraints are no longer so domineering. As always those memes that can survive do survive but the nature of the memes enjoying an advantage is dependent upon the details of this new competitive landscape. What then are the major features of this environment?

 

Meme’s as we have defined them are mental structures formed by imitation and their natural habitat is therefore the human brain. On purely logical grounds it is clear that at the time of birth the brain of the human infant does not contain any memes due to the lack of any opportunity for imitation to have taken place.  In this sense an infant’s mind is a blank slate and the individual’s memetic universe is constructed entirely through subsequent experience. Embracing, in the memetic sense, of ‘mind as a blank slate’ does not make us partisan in the seemingly endless ‘nature-nurture’ debate. Indeed it may add clarity to this debate. The claim that the mind is devoid of memes at birth does not argue that the mind is blank but rather that any mental content at birth must be something other than memetics.

 

The human brain is the most complex piece of design known in the universe. It has gained this complex design solely through the operation of Darwinian processes. Socio-biology and Evolutionary Psychology have produced powerful explanations detailing the anthropological, sociological and psychological experiences produced by this evolutionary design. As Plotkin makes obvious all mental functions are biologically enabled. There would be no sensation without neurons, there would be no associative learning without synapses, there would be no instincts without a brain designed to produce them. It is also clear that the brain’s enabling of mental activity implies that it shapes the type of mental activity that we have.

 

As Blackmore has explained memetic functions are also biologically enabled, through evolutionary design created by the genetic advantages produced by memetic abilities. She has done an excellent job of probing the boundary between memetics and socio-biology in their abilities to explain these genetically programmed mental preferences. In summary she argues that socio-biology is best able to explain those mental predilections formed by evolution under the influence of purely genetic replicator with little influence from the memetic replicator. She makes the point that some of our mental predilections, especially those involved with meme handling, can only be explained by taking into account the influence of the memetic replicator on our genetic heritage. She has coined this process ‘memetic driving’ and explains how it can account for the evolution of our language abilities and in fact all of our abilities and preferences involved with the evolutionary recent areas of our enlarged brains. Recent evidence has been published confirming her prediction that the areas of our brains utilized in memetics resides in those sections of the brain unique to our species.

 

Brain imaging techniques allow the mapping of cognitive functions onto neural systems, but also the understanding of mechanisms of human behavior. In a series of imaging studies we have described a minimal neural architecture for imitation. This architecture comprises a brain region that codes an early visual description of the action to be imitated, a second region that codes the detailed motor specification of the action to be copied, and a third region that codes the goal of the imitated action. Neural signals predicting the sensory consequences of the planned imitative action are sent back to the brain region coding the early visual description of the imitated action, for monitoring purposes ("my planned action is like the one I have just seen"). The three brain regions forming this minimal neural architecture belong to a part of the cerebral cortex called perisylvian, a critical cortical region for language. This suggests that the neural mechanisms implementing imitation are also used for other forms of human communication, such as language. Indeed, imaging data on warping of chimpanzee brains onto human brains indicate that the largest expansion between the two species is perisylvian.[xxx]

 

The essence of Blackmore’s memetic driving explanation is that it was the biological survival value of memetic abilities which drove the biological transformation of our brains during the evolution of genus homo culminating in the unprecedented brain size and resultant memetic abilities of our species.

 

A major advance brought to the nature-nurture debate with the introduction of  memetics is the clear delineation between memetic and genetic influences. This debate has become re-energised since the 1980s and has perhaps been joined most eloquently on the nature side by Stephen Pinker with his 2003 book ‘The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature’.  Pinker sets out to destroy the notion of the ‘Blank Slate’ model of the mind and argues for its replacement with one based on genetically determined brain functions.  Pinker is reacting against many of the fundamental notions of the enlightenment, themselves reactions to an enforced theological notion of the mind. He argues that the blank slate model of the mind introduced by enlightenment thinkers has been carried over into our modern conception without incorporation of the powerful lessons gained from biological evolution. He argues eloquently for the strong anthropological, sociological and psychological influences produced by our genetically determined brains and the consequent constraints these impose upon our freedom to experience the world in an arbitrary culturally determined manner. For instance our brains are designed in a genetically predetermined way so that we are attracted to sex, food and power. No culture or child rearing techniques have yet been found that can successfully wipe these attractions from the slate.

 

But Pinker is committed to a tenant of evolutionary psychology and socio-biology recognizing genetics as the only evolutionary replicator and therefore ultimately responsible for all evolutionary design. We will refer to this school as the ‘biological slate’ school. The proponents of this school are forced into a bit of a muddle for they must argue not only against the slate being blank but also that it is fully filled by ones genetic heritage and inalterable by culture except in a manner determined by the genes. They must ignore the extravagant complexities designed and maintained by cultural processes and write them off as being almost accidental; due to the undesigned reaction of brains evolved for survival in hunter-gatherer societies finding themselves in a novel environment. This reduces possibilities for explanations of the exquisite complexity of modern society to being undesigned and essentially a fluke. Surely this flies in the face of the facts. There are no genetic differences between cultures that can account for cultural differences. Any human infant can be raised in any human culture and will become an integrated member of that culture. If we carefully trace any given culture or component of a culture backwards in time we see clear evidence of evolution typified by replication, small variations and differential survival. This evolution is not reflected in the genome. What is its source? As Lee Smolin notes we currently have only one scientific explanation in our arsenal.

 

There is only one mode of explanation I know of, developed by science, to explain why a system has parameters that lead to much more complexity than typical values of those parameters. This is natural selection.

 

Once we accept the operation of natural selection in the cultural arena, implying memetics or something similar, much clarity is gained.

 

Pinker argues that a child’s similarity to its parents is to be explained by genetics; their shared genetics. He asserts that different child rearing techniques make little difference to what kind of person the child becomes. We are left unclear as to details of the differences in child rearing techniques or the resulting lack of differences in kind of a person he has in mind and in fairness he may have in mind only a limited range within modern societies but he does imply that genetics is decisive in fixing the important attributes of what kind of people we are. If we are to take a broad definition of child rearing techniques, one that includes the entire socialization process his position must be that any differences in the kind of person between a streets savvy Londoner and a bush savvy Amazonian hunter-gatherer are genetically determined. Clearly this is a false argument. Perhaps biological slate proponents, such as Pinker, are merely emphasising the importance of our biological heritage to the kinds of people we are and do not mean to imply it can explain all of cultural evolution.

 

Memetics can explain the differences in the kinds of people we are as a product of cultural evolution and its explanation both complements and integrates the biological and blank slate schools. Human infants are born with a fully determined biological slate and a blank memetic slate. They have biologically determined meme handling abilities and preferences for memes. These abilities and preferences differ between individuals due to genetic diversity in the coding of these characteristics contained within our species gene pool. Infants are born with a blank memetic slate, that is they have no memetic content, but following their genetically determined predilection for imitation immediately start building this content by imitating those with whom they come into contact. Cultures have a memetic heritage that is often passed on to youngsters through a socialization process largely composed of the copying of memes. This heritage is composed of memetic content such as language, legends, art forms, warfare techniques and ways of making a living.

 

All types of memetic copying, including socialization, involve copying with variations and differential survival; the hallmarks of evolution. The details of differential survival and hence the direction in which cultural evolution proceeds is determined by both biological and memetic factors. If a culture has driven their most common game species to near extinction and is left with only a larger, less accessible game species possessing a thicker hide, their biological instinct for survival may lead them to adopt memes for more effective arrow and spear design. As another example argued by Boyer, we may have a biological propensity, evolved as an aid for navigating our socially complex primate past, to interpret causation in many natural phenomena as due to human intentionality and that this predilection has favoured the evolution of religious explanations attributing the causation of events to the intentions of witches, ghosts and gods or other beings resembling humans.[xxxi] Memetics would predict the survival of religious memes conforming to such a biological preference.

 

More purely memetic forces are also important is the direction of memetic evolution. Many memes only have meaning in relation to other memes. For instance a nuance in arrow design will only make sense and be capable of adoption by those who have a well developed memeplex relating to that particular tradition of arrow design. Not only is adoption of a particular arrow design meme motivated by biological preferences for aids to survival but also by previous memetic arrow design choices made by that particular culture.

 

Finally we may have cultural evolution proceeding in directions independent of biological preferences. A favourite example is memes for fewer children that have been widely adopted by empowered women in practically all cultures. This cultural trend is not just independent of biological preference; it opposes biological fitness usually defined as the number of grand children one produces. The details of this process reveal that the biological preference for children is mentally manifested by a strong attraction to having sex. Memetic evolution has cleverly subverted this biological intention by developing birth control devices allowing us to decouple the biological preference for sex from its conceptual consequences. This decoupling allows the evolution of memes pertaining to family size to escape the influence of the biological imperative and enter a more purely memetic environment. As Blackmore points out, due to increased available time, women with fewer children may be more effective at spreading their memes, including memes for smaller family size than are women with larger families.

 

The direction of memetic evolution is influenced by both our memetic and genetic heritage. Memes compete for survival in an environment of human minds that are an intricate blend of genetic and memetic creation. While our genetic heritage continues to be important in shaping memetic evolution we should expect its relative importance to dwindle for a number of reasons including:

1)    The genetically derived components of the environment in which memes evolve are relatively static while the memetic components are transforming the environment at an accelerating rate.

2)   Memes like genes exist for no other reason than that they have found a way to survive. They owe no allegiance to any other arbiter. As memetic evolution explores its design space it will find designs, like memes for small family size, which sacrifice biological interests in the service of memetic interests.

3)   Cultural adaptations often enhance the ability of memes to survive. As Dawkins first noted evolutionary replicators gain an enhanced probability of survival if they possess the qualities of fecundity, longevity and fidelity. Memetic evolution continues to produce memetic products with these qualities for the more effective spreading of memes such as writing, arithmetic, the printing press, radio and the internet.

 

We must also note that memetic evolution primarily produces adaptations in the form of memetic products. Adaptations are knowledge. Our world is becoming filled with memetic products containing knowledge of how to perpetuate their associated memes.

Evolution of the selfplex

An initial challenge to our explanation of selfplex evolution, using the analytical tools supplied by memetics, is the gradual loss of dominance of the ‘subservient self’ and emergence of the ‘individual self’ which took place on a notable scale near the end of the 14th century. Taking one step further back we might look at the nature and function of the memeplex supporting the ‘subservient self’.

 

A form of cultural chaos followed the retreat and disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. As it receded the exposed populations were physically and culturally vulnerable to those on the attack; a succession of Germanic and Asiatic invaders. In some cases as with the Huns these new comers did not stay long and after looting and pillaging the conquered area they were often satisfied with moving on or collecting tribute. The defeat of Attila the Hun by a last gasp Roman military masterpiece near Paris in 451 is credited by some as saving Europe from a prolonged occupation by a very foreign Asiatic culture and as a consequence is singled out as one of a handful of the most consequential military engagements of all times. In other cases such as the Vandal occupation of much of what is now France and Spain or the Angle’s, Saxon’s and Jute’s occupation of England, the invaders took control of the culture and settled. Reacting to this environment of short lived cultural units, memetic evolution selected those memes supporting greater cultural unit survivability.  

 

Slowly the succession on invaders diminished and some stability was gained. Due to their Roman past a common cultural trait of most of the original inhabitants of Western Europe was Catholicism and the new Germanic invaders, though not usually Catholics were adherents to some type of Christianity or other religion not totally incompatible.  The Roman Catholic Church survived the collapse of the Western Empire as its strongest existing cultural institution and successfully set about converting most leaders to its faith. Some consolidation of territories was made by these Christian rulers with the active involvement of the Pope. The newly fledged Christian Europe soon faced a new threat from Muslim ascendancy. Spain was occupied and the rest of Europe saved from occupation only by the Christian victory at the battle of Tours in 732.  Coastal Europe faced continual raiding and occupation by the Scandinavian Norse for several hundred years but those that occupied territory eventually embraced Christianity and were assimilated by their occupied culture at least as much as they assimilated it.

 

Gradually the threat of assimilation, at least by a non-European cultural unit, faded although there were close calls as in 1241 when the Mongol army annihilated the combined European armies, but put off the occupation of Europe in favour of returning to Mongolia to take part in an internal political squabble, and again as late as 1643 when the Ottoman Turks invaded Eastern Europe as far as Vienna. In this relatively calm environment memes evolved supporting a stable social system known as feudalism. Feudalism’s meaning is derived from a Latin root meaning obligation and was enabled by the evolutionary success and widespread adoption of the subservient self memeplex. 

 

Feudal society is…characterised by the legal subjection of a large part of the peasantry to a hereditary landholding elite exercising administrative and judicial power on the basis of reciprocal private undertakings.[xxxii]

 

Essentially feudalism divided social roles between Lords, Vassals and peasants. Lords owned lands and granted them to vassals, or local nobility, who in turn allowed peasants to work the land. Obligations in return for rights to use of the land were composed of subservience to the Lord, military service from the Vassals and labour or food from the peasants. Peasants, who formed the majority of the population, had few rights and were subservient to their nobles. Any peasant disputes or complaints could only be appealed to representatives of their masters. The single occupation of Lords and Vassals was warfare; often amongst themselves. In this environment of precarious cultural units, memes strengthening them were selected for. Stability of the cultural unit, a basic requirement of meme survival, depended upon strong leaders, supported by a population with the best memes, to fend off rivals and consolidate their power.  Methods of warfare evolved rapidly. For example, in the cultural turmoil of post-Roman Normandy a succession of invaders both Germanic and Norse overlaid a state of perennial internal warfare. Their evolution of memes for improved archery and uses of warhorses as cavalry proved decisive for control of England at the battle of Hastings over the Saxons with their less evolved forms of warfare. 

 

A synergistic relationship developed between Church and Lords where the Church authenticated the Lords rights to the land via divine appointment and the Lords defended the Church against the spread of heretical memes and threats from other religions notably Muslims. An event illustrating the ferocity with which Church and nobels protected this mutually reinforcing memeplex is their reaction to the Cathar heresy in southern France.

 

…the Pope ordered his legates to preach the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. This war threw the whole of the nobility of the north of France against that of the south, possibly instigated by a papal decree stating that all land owned by Cathars could be confiscated at will. As the area was full of Cathar sympathisers, this made the entire area a target for northern nobles looking to gain new lands. It is thus hardly surprising that the barons of the north flocked south to do battle for the Church.

In one famous incident in 1209, most of Béziers was slaughtered by the Catholic forces headed by the Papal legate. Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, was asked how to distinguish between the Catholic and Cathars, and allegedly answered, "Kill them all, God will know his own". [xxxiii]

 

The ‘subservient self’ supporting a society focusing all available resources on the warrior class in return for its protection proved to be successful in strengthening cultural unit integrity and thereby propagating its memes. Stable nations or principalities began to emerge throughout Western Europe notably in France, Germany, Spain and Britain. The success of these cultural units contained the seeds of their destruction as the subservient selfplex is most effective in protecting vulnerable cultural units. In cultural units under less stress the survival value of these memes is lessened. The roots of the eventual breakdown of this memeplex may be traced to events as early as the 14th century typified as peasant revolts.

 

Before the 14th century, popular uprisings were not unknown, for example uprisings at a manor house against an unpleasant overlord, however they were local in scope. This changed in the 14th and 15th centuries when new downward pressures on the poor resulted in mass movements of popular uprisings across Europe. To provide an example of how common and widespread these movements became, in Germany between 1336 and 1525 there were no less than sixty phases of militant peasant unrest. Most of the revolts were an expression of those below who desired to share in the wealth, status and well being of those more fortunate. In the end they were almost always defeated and the nobles ruled the day. [xxxiv]

 

Faced with reduced threats of extinction and assimilation by foreign cultural units memetic evolution was freed to evolve greater diversity. The invention and widespread use of the printing press provided acceleration in the diversity and accessibility of memes. The protestant reformation made the rich memeplex of Christianity more accessible to the masses as they were preached in native languages and the expansion of trade and mercantilism made a wider variety of memetic products available.

 

The spreading of memes outside of feudal bounds was typified by the activity occurring in Europe’s great cities such as London and Paris. Central to late medieval London were the various guilds conducting its trade. These guilds effectively controlled the city as they elected the Lord Mayor of London. Besides their economic importance guilds were tailored for the protection and spreading of memes not directly supportive of the feudal system.

 

The guild was made up by experienced and confirmed experts in their field of handicraft. They were called master craftsmen. Before a new employee could rise to the level of mastery, he had to go through a schooling period during which he was first called an apprentice. After this period he could rise to the level of journeyman. Apprentices would typically not learn more than the most basic techniques until they were trusted by their peers to keep the guild's or company's secrets.[xxxv]

 

London’s population increased from 50,000 in 1340 to 200,000 by 1600 and then accelerated by doubling to 400,000 during the next 50 years. This growth was not the internal growth of a stable community; it was almost wholly through immigration from the countryside and abroad as numbers of recorded deaths within London was higher than those of recorded births.  This made cities such as London centers for the mixture and hybridization of memes. Feudal authority was not easily exercised within the city. The always fresh supply of heads on pikes lining London Bridge, one of the main gateways to London, served to remind those entering the city of limits of the risks of opposing authority, but might also indicated to a thoughtful traveller the likelihood of encountering memes judged inappropriate by authority within the city walls.  The suburbs outside the city were free of even the Lord Mayor’s authority and were the area where wild entertainments grew up, some of them serving as extremely effective meme factories such as Shakespeare’s theatre. Centers of learning and print shops were accessible as was news of events from around the world. In short these cities made accessible memes unprecedented in lack of support for authority as well as their number and diversity.

 

What kind of self could evaluate and take advantage of this meme treasure? Certainly not the subservient self with its vow of fealty to authority.  Here was a new niche demanding a qualitatively new kind of self who could organize, evaluate and utilize a great diversity of memes according to what ‘I’ think, what ‘I’ like and what ‘I’ will do. A dynamic self able to take advantage of the best memes and exercising independent authority to act on them was called for. Such a selfplex, once evolved, spread like a plaque due to its attractions and advantages. Shakespeare, upon joining the London theatre scene in the late 16th century, met some newly fledged independent selves, especially in the person of Robert Greene and his associates, and was able to create plays that are their memetic products. The individual self was a hit with a huge audience, spanning the full range of social roles from Queen Elizabeth to the rabble in the pit and served to propel this meme throughout the English speaking world and beyond.

 

Once unleashed the individual self meme, like Dennet’s universal acid, evolves quickly to explore design space beyond all previous constraint. The logic of the self as the center and measurer of all things is inescapable. Already Shakespeare is able to presents an example of the completed process in Falstaff. His own advantage is the measure of all things and the only consideration of weight in his mental calculus. Notions of outside constraint in the form of honour, duty, honesty or reputation are examined and easily rejected in favour of self advantage.

 

One of the attractions of the independent self facilitating its adoption was the improved status it bestowed. Evolutionary psychology recognizes status as highly sought after by all primates including ourselves. In the feudal system peasants, the majority of the population clearly experienced inferior status to their betters. A hallmark of the status of Lords and nobles was their relative capacity for independent thought and action (as well as serving as a major source of unending armed struggles amongst themselves).  A major criterion, across all cultures, in women’s mate selection process is the perceived status of the prospective mate. For those individuals able to adopt the status of an individual self the opportunity was often irresistible.

 

In fact placing the self at the center resonates well with many facets of our nature as described by evolutionary psychology giving individual self memes an advantage in their struggle for survival with alternative memes. Many of our most basic inclinations revolve around procuring the best possible resources, mates and status for ourselves. Human society must always enforce a balance between the advantage of the individual and the advantage of the community. It must find win-win solutions where at least some of the benefits of community are shared amongst the individuals and where individuals are constrained from cheating or otherwise exploiting the system beyond a point causing its destruction. With an individual selfplex evaluating and weighing such situations became much more transparent. Falstaff was a portrayal of an extraordinarily self centered individual and such extreme rascals are rarely encountered. Most of us adopt a more conservative strategy in weighing the risks and rewards as opportunities are presented. However the fact that the individual self claims the authority to make such decisions facilitates a case by case evaluation characterized by a greater degree of transparency and rationality than when such decisions are determined by authority or tradition.

John Locke

The simple mechanism of placing interests of the individual self at our memetic center is the basis of cultural evolution’s transformation of our cultural institutions over the past several hundred years. New types of win-win situations able to produce greater cultural complexity were available in a design space containing individual selves. Cultural evolution producing the institutions of a modern society shaped by the interest of the individual self took some time to work out but the underlying logic became clear to a number of individual selves very early on; notably John Locke.

 

John Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, about 10 miles from Bristol, England, in 1632. His father, a lawyer, served as a captain of cavalry for Parliament during the English Civil War. In 1647, Locke was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London. After completing his studies there, he obtained admission to the college of Christ Church, Oxford. The dean of the college at the time was John Owen, vice-chancellor of the university and also a Puritan.

 

Locke was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1656 and a master's degree in 1658. Although he never became a medical doctor, Locke obtained a bachelor of medicine in 1674. He studied medicine extensively during his time at Oxford, working with such noted virtuosi as Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke and Richard Lower. In 1666, he met Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury... Cooper was impressed with Locke and persuaded him to become part of his retinue.

 

Shaftesbury, as a founder of the Whig movement, exerted great influence on Locke's political ideas. Locke became involved in politics when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor in 1672.

 

Locke had excellent opportunity to acquire memes making up an individual selfplex through both vertical and horizontal transmission: an educated, non-conformist protestant father who served on parliament’s side in the civil war against the king, a good education in a Puritan school, work with some of the foremost British Empiricists such as Boyle and Hooke, A political career in the Whig movement. He combined this identity with great gifts as a theoretician; someone able to analyse his thoughts as an individual self and uncannily draw the logical conclusions. He produced foundational meme products of his own; seminal writings on religious tolerance, responsible government and the nature of the self, that proved highly influential in shaping cultural evolution up to the present day. His reflections on the pleasure experienced with his reasoning process involved in understanding the nature of the individual self reveal a great charm.

 

He that hawks at larks and sparrows has no less sport, though a much less considerable quarry, than he that flies at nobler game: and he is little acquainted with the subject of this treatise--the Understanding--who does not know that, as it is the most elevated faculty of the soul, so it is employed with a greater and more constant delight than any of the other. Its searches after truth are a sort of hawking and hunting, wherein the very pursuit makes a great part of the pleasure. Every step the mind takes in its progress towards Knowledge makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least.

For the understanding, like the eye, judging of objects only by its own sight, cannot but be pleased with what it discovers, having less regret for what has escaped it, because it is unknown. Thus he who has raised himself above the alms-basket, and, not content to live lazily on scraps of begged opinions, sets his own thoughts on work, to find and follow truth, will (whatever he lights on) not miss the hunter's satisfaction; every moment of his pursuit will reward his pains with some delight; and he will have reason to think his time not ill spent, even when he cannot much boast of any great acquisition.

 

Henry VIII’s actions in supplanting the Roman Catholic Church in Britain with the Church of England 150 year’s earlier had served to fuel almost non-stop cultural turmoil. Subsequent monarchs had switched back and forth on the official compulsory religion, plots on both sides often involving foreign allies and invasion were never far from the forefront, a civil war had been fought, a king had been executed and the puritan government in turn replaced with a restoration of the monarchy. Locke’s analysis published in A Letter on Toleration reasoned that the individual self should have authority in choosing their religion and thus offered a means of removing this contentious issue from the political front-burner by championing the principal of the separation of church and state.

 

His Two Treatises on Government may well be considered the foundation document of modern democracy. The divine right of kings as a basis of government is rejected and he claims that government is only legitimate if it preserves and protects the rights of individuals and receives their consent to govern. If this consent is lacking, he claims the government should dissolve and be replace with one having the consent of the governed.

 

These two writings were highly influential with the Enlightenment movement, spreading amongst the leisured and educated classes of Western Europe. The bill of rights of 1689, empowering parliament over the monarch, was directly related to  Locke’s memes (he was part of the movement that wrote it) and many consider the American Declaration of Independence to be a reproduction, with variation, of Locke’s work.

 

Underlying these great works concerning religion and government was his notion of the individual self which he fully described in his An Essay on Human Understanding. This analysis of human nature, as Pinker makes clear in his The Blank Slate: The Denial of Human Nature, has become the basis for the current consensus amongst Social Scientists, a view Pinker characterises as ‘The Blank Slate’.

 

Indeed Locke reacting to the prevalent notion of his times that the mind was imprinted at birth with Christian theological principals, claimed that exactly the opposite was the case; that the mind at birth is best modeled upon a blank sheet of paper on which all of its subsequent understanding would be written as a result of the individual’s experience. That is Experience tempered by ‘reflection’, for Locke clearly describes the process as an individual self adopting memes according to the rationality of a purely memetic selection process unconstrained by any other considerations. His ideal model is an individual, reminiscent of Descartes’ philosophical journey, who starting with a blank slate gains factual experience of the world and its ideas via his senses and rationally ‘reflects’ upon these experiences to derive logically correct understandings that are then written to his mental page. Locke himself came close to realizing this ideal mental process as he rationally worked out the implications of his model of the individual self’s logical influence on the institutions of church and state. Perhaps we should see his work in this area as a successful prediction of the course of cultural evolution based on his understanding of the individual self operating an environment where it could select memes purely according to its own advantage.

 

Locke does acknowledge some drag on this process, some factors inhibiting the ideal from being realized.

 

I easily grant that there are great numbers of opinions which, by men of different countries, educations, and tempers, are received and embraced as first and unquestionable principles; many whereof, both for their absurdity as well as oppositions to one another, it is impossible should be true. But yet all those propositions, how remote soever from reason, are so sacred somewhere or other, that men even of good understanding in other matters, will sooner part with their lives, and whatever is dearest to them, than suffer themselves to doubt, or others to question, the truth of them.

 

In fact he grants that this ideal is seldom realized and gives very cogent reasons why the copying of memes is done with minor variation and cultural evolution consequently occurs at only a moderate rate.

 

There is scarcely any one so floating and superficial in his understanding, who hath not some reverenced propositions, which are to him the principles on which he bottoms his reasonings, and by which he judgeth of truth and falsehood, right and wrong; which some, wanting skill and leisure, and others the inclination, and some being taught that they ought not to examine, there are few to be found who are not exposed by their ignorance, laziness, education, or precipitancy, to take them upon trust.

 

….And where is the man to be found that can patiently prepare himself to bear the name of whimsical, sceptical, or atheist; which he is sure to meet with, who does in the least scruple any of the common opinions? And he will be much more afraid to question those principles, when he shall think them, as most men do, the standards set up by God in his mind, to be the rule and touchstone of all other opinions. And what can hinder him from thinking them sacred, when he finds them the earliest of all his own thoughts, and the most reverenced by others?

 

In fact the personal and social forces Locke lists as discouraging the formation of an individual self in authority over the memetic slate might be very similar to those put forward by members of the biological slate school such as Pinker. Some form of the biological slate model of human nature has always been with us. The subservient self, severely constraining memetic for reasons of individual and group survival, was such a model. In fact Pinker’s insistence on parental genetics forming the ‘kinds of people’ we are resonates well with pre-scientific arguments faced by enlightenment thinkers on the importance of ‘breeding’ to human nature. What was new was the understanding of enlightenment thinkers such as Locke that there was a component of human nature, a memetic component, which is not a result of breeding, which is a blank slate at birth. As Locke puts it how can our minds inherit innate impressions if children do not have them?

 

If therefore children and idiots have souls, have minds, with those impressions upon them, they must unavoidably perceive them, and necessarily know and assent to these truths; which since they do not, it is evident that there are no such impressions. For if they are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate?

 

What was new was an individual selfplex spreading to men such as Locke that made conscious a self perceived as having authority to decide the contents to be written upon the blank memetic slate.

 

Today we can perhaps view Locke’s work on church and state as a remarkably prescient analysis of cultural evolution played out in the memetic arena of the individual self. The fact that Locke was able to work out these implications over a period of decades whereas their penetration of society has been much slower must argue for the operation of constraints on the memetic evolution and adoption of the individual self. In America, over two hundred years after adopting a constitution featuring the division of church and state, a popular Attorney General can publicly declare ‘America has been different. We have no king but Jesus.’ Clearly the adoption of the self meme and the arena in which it operates has encountered limits that must be examined for a fuller picture of cultural evolution.

 

Cultural Evolution in the arena of the individual self

 

Locke was an exemplary instance of an individual self unleashed on the political memes of his time. An individual self, reserving for themselves the authority to examine, select and organize political memes according to their own interests could hardly fail to conclude that the individual self was entitled to wield authority in the cultural political arena. Constraints on the acceptance of this conclusion, and delays in reforming political institutions to reflect this conclusion, were mainly due to the rate at which the individual selfplex was able to penetrate the population.

 

Accurate quantitative measure illustrating the rate of penetration of the individual selfplex are rare as it as the concept is imprecise and presently poorly defined for quantification. One might consider literacy rates, known within rough accuracy, as an aid to this end. Literacy may be considered to have generally been a prerequisite for the adoption of an individual self. Encountering the requisite number and diversity of memes to organize and evaluate required for one to see themselves primarily in this role would have been extremely difficult without the ability to read.  Even obtaining a quantitative historical measure of the ability of people to read must be inferred from indirect evidence. Below are some graphical data describing the percentage of common legal documents filed in England between 1580 and 1920 on which the subject was able to authenticate by signing their name rather than making their mark.[xxxvi] That this percentage would grossly exceed the percentage of the general population able to read must be inferred for at least two reasons:

1)    Signing of ones name is a much more rudimentary literacy skill than is reading and would in almost all instances be obtained prior to gaining an ability to read.

2)   Being the subject of even common written legal documents such as wills was not evenly spread throughout the general population. Those at the bottom of the social structure would be less likely to be the subject of such documents and less like to be literate.

 

However the shape of the graph may be illustrative of historical literacy trends and the graph itself might serve as an upper bound to the ability to read within the general population. This trend appears broadly reflect the expansion of the franchise electing parliaments from early times when only large property owners were enfranchised to universal suffrage in 1928.

 

A sharp increase in literacy may be seen prior to the English Civil war and the triumph of Parliament. A slower rise continues up to the Glorious Rebellion of 1688 and the Bill of Rights and then a slower but steady rise to around 1830 may coincide with the slow and steady pressure in English political life for expansion of the franchise culminating in the Reform Act of 1832 when the franchise was obtained by upper middle class males. Subsequently the rapid rise in literacy is in step with the further gradual expansion of the franchise eventually including all men and women by 1928. It is interesting to note that women, the last major group of the population to be enfranchised, also lagged in literacy rates up until the time of their enfranchisement.

 

Literacy in England, 1580-1920

literacy

Sources:  1750s-1920s, Schofield (1973), men and women who can sign marriage resisters.  The north, 1630s-1740s, Houston (1982), witnesses who can sign court depositions.  Norwich Diocese, 1580s-1690s, -------(19--), witnesses who can sign ecclesiastical court declarations.

 

 

Reading books is an ideal means of memetic transmission supporting the individual self. We must remember that memes tend to be transmitted in reinforcing packages that are highly reflective of the technology and institutions employed in their transmission. Marshal McLuan referred to this phenomenon as the media being the message.

 

For instance prior to the printing press books were produced in the form of hand copied illuminated manuscripts. They were extremely labour intensive, expensive to produce and usually written in Latin the language of the clerical and intellectual elites. As a result their production was largely financed and managed by the Roman Catholic Church or some other wealth institution of patron. Reinforcing this control, the Church and many monarchs reserved to right to ban the publication of any work judge not in their interests on pain of death. As a result the works published were mainly copies of existing works very much serving the interests of the publishing institutions and the memes they spread were selected for this purpose. 

 

With the invention and spread of the printing press the cost of producing copies fell and the speed increased dramatically. New decentralized interests controlled the printing presses and the memes being spread. These interests were largely those of the selfplex.

 

The politics of censorship made [the printers] the natural opponents not only of church officials but also of lay bureaucrats, regulations and red tape. As independent agents, they supplied organs of publicity and covert support to a 'third force' that was not affiliated with any one church or one state. This third force was, however, obviously affiliated with the interests of early modern capitalists.[xxxvii]

     

During its first 50 to 60 years printing largely focused on reproducing the existing classical body of written knowledge but upon the completion of this task and responding to the demand of the growing literacy it fuelled many new types of printed material and memes were published. Under a deluge of printed pamphlets, hand bills, plays and books transmitting a wide diversity of memes the censorial bureaucracy was overwhelmed and only able to respond to the most acute threats.

 

Newer meme transmission technologies such as newspapers, radio and TV are somewhat more reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts then they are of the printing press in that they require large capital investments and are managed by institutions. As might be expected the types of memes they transmit are largely supportive of their institutional sponsors. Only with the internet do we again see the creation of a modern memetic technology supporting the selfplex.

 

Undoubtedly our species’ biological slate provides us with potential for many divergent responses regarding authority.  Authoritative and subservient roles, usually based on status within a group, are practised within all primate species and were probably selected by biological evolution for the increased protection and access to resources offered to individuals within a well organized, effective group.  The situation in which an individual will adopt an authoritative rather than a subservient stance appears exceedingly complex. Our close relatives, such as Chimpanzees, exercise authority through forming alliances with other individuals the details of which shift with circumstance. Often aggressive displays of authority by one individual are responded to with displays of subservience by others; an exercise reinforcing the authoritative relationship.

 

As with our near relatives, individuals of our species can switch between roles of authority and subservience on the strength of subtle social stimuli. It is a chilling fact that there are a high proportion of individuals who will exercise authority, to what is considered, an abusive extent, when other unprotected individuals are placed within their powers. In response to this predilection of ours, a hallmark of modern society has been the continued growth of the reach of law to protect individuals in such situations including choir boys under the authority of priests to women under the authority of husbands.

 

Most individuals will exercise authority within a jurisdiction they judge appropriate and most will also submit to authority in other jurisdictions if there are clear signals that it is in their best interests to do so. Probably due to our biological slate, the exercise of authority is attractive and is the first choice of individuals in many situations where benefits are judged to be high and risks low. That, other things being equal, authority is preferred over subservience, is not much of a surprise and follows logically from the biological slate model as primates in roles of authority enjoy enhance biological fitness. This observation is supported by recent Y chromosome studies conducted within a cross section of peoples living on the planet today revealing that over 16 million men may be directly descended from Genghis Khan.[xxxviii]

 

For early hunter gathering societies the question may have been moot when applied to the memetic realm. In such societies, usually consisting of less then 150 people, group members tended to view themselves as ‘the people’. Other people and their memes were considered alien and there was little communication with outside groups. The memes adopted were of a limited variety, mostly passed through vertical transmission and changed only slowly over time. Both group and individual survival depended heavily on the faithful adoption and execution of the limited memes of their cultural repertoire. Not much in the way of either authority or individual choice was involved in selecting the group’s memes.

 

With the advent of more complex societies based on technologies such as agriculture cultural units became larger, more stratified and varied reflecting a wider variety of memes and causing meme selection to be more of an issue. Competition between cultural units was intense and its outcome largely dependent upon the relative strength bestowed by memetic resources.  Intense competition, especially warfare, provided a selection pressure for cultural units able to adopt efficient memes not only for warfare but also for unity, coordination and organization. This meant establishing clear lines of authority and enforcing subservience to it.  Under this selection pressure political and religious institutions evolved able to enforce their authority over the memes circulating in their cultural units. Faced with these institutions, individuals usually took the wise course or adopting a subservient attitude.

 

An unprecedented concurrence of events leading to the enlightenment period of western European culture occurred greatly weakening these authoritative cultural institutions.  Their ability to protect the survival of the cultural unit; the sustaining selection pressure leading to their formation became less relevant. The institutions themselves suffered severe losses of power and confusion including the Reformation and the British experimentation with Republicanism. Lastly the institutions were ill equipped to control the exponential growth of in the number of competing memes due to factors such as: the printing press, explosive growth of cities, fracturing of religious institutions and the rise of science.

 

At first rare individuals dared to assume greater authority for the selection of their memes but given the predilection of individuals to usurp authority when it is safe to do so this number increased. Early adopters were often most talented memetic transmitters of memes and the works of those such as Shakespeare, Locke and Voltaire communicated memes of the individual selfplex in an infectious manner. Historically it was a pandemic infecting a large proportion of those who came in contact with it at least to some degree.  It has transformed the institutions of our culture and served to accelerate memetic evolution.

 

As with most infections the individual selfplex has encountered islands of immunity. Cultural institutions, namely church and state have fought continual rearguard actions to slow its spread and new institutions capable of posing a credible threat have evolved. We noted earlier that judging by its ability to transform cultural institutions, the wave of the selfplex may have reached its high water mark several decades ago. As always resistance to it has its roots in our biological slate.

 

Several researchers have noted that the hunter gather societies, in which our biological slate was adapted, were composed of a small group of people sharing almost identical memes. Our natural state and the one in which we tend to feel most at home consists of almost no cultural diversity. That many hunting gatherer people living today in similar cultures to those in which we evolved experience great anxiety, often expressed as murderous intentions, upon meeting anyone from a different culture is well documented and speaks to a biological slate uncomfortable with memetic diversity.[xxxix] [xl] Memes though are at the core of our species’ advantages and we have evolved memetic systems such as our concept of self to allow us to work more harmoniously with them.

 

The individual self is an example of such mechanisms. Placing ‘ourselves’ at the center of memetic organization provides a level of comfort. It also unleashed the evolutionary power of memetics. Evolutionary advances towards greater complexity consist of exploring design space for the few good designs providing win-win situations. The adoption of the individual selfplex has allowed the exploration and adoption of win-win designs resulting in the evolution of cultural institutions such as science, democracy and market economies. The same self centered principles are common to each of these advances:

1)    The individual accumulates empirical facts and evidence to be found in its memetic environment relating to its own self interest.

2)   The individual processes these memes in a rational manner to find win-win situations furthering its self interest but often involving others.

3)   As experience is gained and successes achieved the institutions involved are reformed to further facilitate the process.

 

The major differentiation between these institutions is the self interest they promote: science a thirst for knowledge, democracy the regulation of our social and political affairs and market economies the procurement of goods and services. Each of these institutions functions best when the individual is able to deal in a rational and authoritative manner within its memetic environment. An optimal citizen in a democracy must be informed with the most factual information concerning threats and opportunities facing its society and must be able to come to rational decisions on the best policy alternatives. An optimal player in the market economy is fully informed with factual information concerning goods and services available and able to rationally weight this information in light of its own preferences and values to make economic decisions.

 

Given the huge acceleration in the volume of relevant memes which an individual must sort through in order to approach this optimal model many have reacted by withdrawing from the fray. Francis Bacon, who died in , has been touted as the last individual to know all knowledge. Now we are completely swamped, the deluge of new printed information alone is at least thousands of times greater than can be absorbed by any individual. As we approach a single worldwide cultural unit we are increasingly confronted with memes seemingly alien and disturbing given our own memetic heritage. While there may be some joy to being in authority over our memetic landscape there is also responsibility and that can mean failure, which is not a joy at all. As only individuals have authority to make the major decisions in their lives: personal, economic, worldview and political we have no one to blame but ourselves when we experience divorce, poverty or feelings of meaninglessness.

 

It is little wonder the appeal of the optimal individual selfplex is receding. In this situation many are ready to abdicate the responsibilities of authority and in response institutions are evolving to help lessen our burden.  Individuals, when free to choose their conversation, usually prefer gossip.[xli]  That we find gossip a natural and comfortable memetic activity is probable related to the details of our biological slate and is a topic of speculation by evolutionary psychologists. Gossiping is a non-threatening activity we can undertake with a small group of intimates with largely shared views. With gossip the self is still at the center, still responsible for its own opinion, but much less threatened then when trying to deal with, say, the thorny issues confronting the optimal individual self in the political realm. The institutions of democracy have responded by placing gossip at the heart of politics. Many of the great democratic leaders of the 20th century had mistresses: Churchill, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, but in their time this issue was judged to be outside of politics. Not any longer. The great ideological battles of the 20th century have receded from sight, we are now comfortable, with the triumph of liberal democracy that tough political decision no longer need be discussed and we can indulge instead in gossiping about the leader’s personal characteristics. This focus on gossip and scandal is the focus of huge marketing campaigns in many election campaigns. Fantastic sums are spent in order to muddy the rational decision based on the most objective information required by individual selves to perform their democratic duties. It is difficult to conclude that this money is not effectively spent.

 

Religions have never ceased issuing their injunction to empower them as our authoritative guide in life. The Roman Catholic Church still presumes authority on the legality of social issues such as homo-sexual marriages and also personal issues such as family planning. They encourage us to lay down our burden and submit to an authority greater than ourselves. The fastest growing religions throughout the world though are fundamentalist.  Their advice is that we should submit ourselves entirely to the will of God, as interpreted by them, accept Jesus Christ, Mohammad, or some other deity, as our personal saviour. Failure to comply we are warned will result in a literal everlasting torture. This is the type of submission US attorney general Ashcroft had in mind when he advised Americans ‘We have no king but Jesus’.

 

 

 


horizontal rule

[i] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. P. 231.

[ii] Bloom, Harold. (1998). Shakespeare: the invention of the human. Berkley Publishing Group, New York. P. XX.

[iii] Bloom, Harold. (1998). Shakespeare: the invention of the human. Berkley Publishing Group, New York. P. XIX.

[iv] Greenblatt, Stephen (2004). Will in the World. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. P. 299

[v] Quoted from :Groatsworth of Wit (1592) on the Upstart Crow website: http://www.clemson.edu/caah/cedp/crow/ Last viewed March 18, 2005

[vi] Bloom, Harold. (1998). Shakespeare: the invention of the human. Berkley Publishing Group, New York. P 313

[vii] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia website: http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Cathar. Last viewed October 9, 2005.

[viii] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestantism . Last viewed: April 1, 2005

[ix] Quoted from: Infoplease website: http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/1protdenom.html  . Last viewed: April 3, 2005

[x] As viewed on the American Scientist Online website. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/InterviewTypeDetail/assetid/41240 .  Last viewed September 16, 2005.

[xi] Quoted from: Merriam-Webster Online: http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=democracy . Last viewed: April 2, 2005

[xii] Quoted from: Freedom House website:  http://www.freedomhouse.org/news/pr120799.html. last viewed: April 2, 2005

[xiii] Burden Barry C. Voter Turnout and the National Election Studies." 2000. Political Analysis 8:389-98.

[xv] As viewed on the Adam Smith Institute website. http://www.adamsmith.org/smith/won-intro.htm Last viewed August 14, 2005.

[xvi] As viewed on the Adam Smith Institute website. http://www.adamsmith.org/smith/quotes.htm#jump2  Last viewed August 14, 2005.

[xvii] As viewed on The Royal Society website.   http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/page.asp?id=2176 . Last viewed September 15, 2005.

 

[xviii] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[xix] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[xx] Einstein, spoken to Heidi Born, wife of physicist Max Born Einstein, A Life, p. 159

[xxi] As viewed on the American Scientist Online website. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/InterviewTypeDetail/assetid/41240 .  Last viewed September 16, 2005.

[xxii] As viewed on the Union of Concerned Scientists website. http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/interference/.  Last viewed September 20, 2005.

[xxiii] National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 1998 (Washington, D.C.), 2

[xxiv] Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable, A Dialogue on University Stewardship: New Responsibilities and Opportunities. Proceedings of a Roundtable Discussion (Washington, D.C.: 1998), 22.

[xxv] Bakan, Joel. (2004).  The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Free Press, New York.

[xxvi] As viewed on Chomsky.info: The official Chomsky Site. Allan, Steven Robert. (2000). Chomsky’s Other Revolution. http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/20000221.htm  Last seen May 7, 2005

[xxvii] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press.

[xxviii] Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and Feldman, M.W. (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

[xxix] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. P. 25.

[xxx] Iacoboni, M., "Understanding others: imitation, language, empathy" In: Perspectives on imitation: from cognitive neuroscience to social science, Hurley, S., and Chater, N. (Eds), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in press

[xxxi] Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained. Basic Books, New York

[xxxii] As viewed on: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudal_society. Last viewed October 21, 2005.

[xxxiii] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia website: http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Cathar. Last viewed October 21, 2005.

[xxxiv] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia website:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_revolts_in_late_medieval_Europe. Last viewed October 21, 2005.

[xxxv] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia website:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guild . Last viewed October 21, 2005.

[xxxvii] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 178.

[xxxviii] As viewed on the Nature@news.com website:  http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051024/full/051024-1.html Last viewed October, 26th 2005.

[xxxix] Diamond, Jared. (1997). Germs, Guns and Steel. London, Cape.

[xl] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. P. 199.

[xli] Dunbar Robin (1996) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. London. Faber and Faber.

 

Introduction

 

The evolution of complexity on earth has always progressed by the ‘two steps forward one step backward’ method. Earth’s sixth mass extinction is presently underway and our only uncertainty around this event has only to do with its severity. The biosphere’s genetic complexity is certainly taking a major step backward. How big of a step will it be? Will cultural complexity also be degraded, will civilization suffer a setback or be eliminated? How likely is this step backwards to include the extinction of our species?

 

Solutions to the major challenges facing our species as we have outlined them are mainly cultural, containing a prominent spiritual component.  Our efforts to meet these challenges and our probability of success will play out as a cultural evolutionary process over a relatively short timeline. In this section we will use the tools provided by the science of memetics to probe the recent course of cultural evolution and to perhaps provide some indications of future possibilities.

 

Memetics is one of a number of areas of scientific studies attempting to shed light on cultural evolution. Others include socio-biology and evolutionary psychology. Memetics differs from other fields in its identification of a cultural replicator, the meme, as a second Darwinian replicator in addition to genes, which emerged as a new evolutionary force only with the evolution of our species. Memes are mental constructs copied by imitation. Central to our analysis is the ‘self’ meme. The self meme is simply our conception of ourselves. It is a meme because it is largely a mental construct that evolves by being copied between individuals in a cultural unit. The self meme can be extremely complex entailing many components and may be best considered a memeplex or a complex of separate but mutually reinforcing memes.

 

Memetics provides a new way of looking at the self. The self is a vast memeplex – perhaps the most insidious and pervasive memeplex of all. I shall call it the ‘selfplex’. The selfplex permeates all our experience and all our thinking so that we are unable to see it clearly for what it is – a bunch of memes. It comes about because our brains provide the ideal machinery on which to construct it, and our society provides the selective environment in which it thrives.

 

As we have seen, memeplexes are groups of memes that come together for mutual advantage. The memes inside a memeplex survive better as part of a group than they would on their own. Once they have got together they form a self-organizing, self protecting structure that welcomes and protects other memes that are compatible with the group, and repels memes that are not.[i]

 

We will present an historical account of the evolution of dominant selfplex types amongst peoples of the world’s ascendant regions over the past four hundred years. Our treatment will provide a context for many historical facts and trends that a scientific theory of cultural evolution should predict. We will argue that the evolution of cultural institutions is reflective of the evolution of the selfplex; or using a biological metaphor that the selfplex resembles a portion of the genotype while cultural institutions resemble a portion of the phenotype.

 

This historical timeframe considered includes the passing of the ‘subservient selfplex’ as the dominant selfplex, the evolutionary rise of the ‘individual selfplex’ and a recent challenger; the ‘corporate selfplex’. We will consider factors governing the survivability of selfplex types and relate these to their evolutionary history.

 

A Brief History of the Self

Many of those who have studied the matter agree that something dramatic happened during the late 1500s in Western Europe to our sense of self; at this time many people abandoned the concept of self as a subservient player of social roles and began to see themselves as individual reflective beings with a rich inner life. It is also at this time that literature begins to portray characters possessing what we recognize as a modern conception of self.  Some have suggested the influence of Martin Luther as first introducing this meme due to his insistence on the importance to the inner person of being able to read scriptures in ones native language. It is hard for us to imagine that at this time many considered it acceptable for church services to be conducted in a language which the majority of parishioners could not understand. What was considered important was that they attended, that their individual conscious self could understand the service was not. A characteristic of the subservient selfplex is its lack of concern with individual understanding or awareness. Greater concern was placed on the performance of rituals and traditions as proscribed by cultural or religious authorities.

 

Some also point to the breakdown of traditional medieval roles where each person was constrained to live out the life they were born to. The Renaissance period had broken new ground in which individualism could sprout and by the late 1500s there was unprecedented latitude for individuals to define their own roles. The printing press, invented a hundred years earlier and spread widely, also provided a means of accessing a wider arena of ideas and points of view.

 

Though the way had been well prepared, many scholars point to William Shakespeare as a decisive catalyst in the creation of the individual selfplex and a genius at presenting this meme in an infectious manner. Herald Bloom, a distinguished Shakespeare scholar has authored Shakespeare: the invention of the human. There he argues that Shakespeare is largely responsible for the modern conception of self.

 

… he went beyond all precedents (even Chauser) and invented the human as we continue to know it. A more conservative way of stating this would seem to me a weak misreading of Shakespeare: it might contend that Shakespeare’s originality was in the representation of cognition, personality, character. But there is an overflowing element in the plays, an excess beyond representation, that is closer to the metaphor we call “creation”. The dominant Shakespearean characters- Falstaff, Hamlet, Rosalind, Iago, Lear, Macbeth, Cleopatra among them – are extraordinary instances not only of how meaning gets started, rather than repeated, but also of how new modes of consciousness come into being.[ii]

 

Bloom makes the case that prior to Shakespeare’s invention people did not conceive of ‘self’ as do moderns. They had little use for introspection and did not experience rich personal lives.

 

Literary character before Shakespeare is relatively unchanging; women and men are represented as aging and dying, but not as changing because their relationship to themselves, rather than to the gods or God, has changed. In Shakespeare, characters develop rather than unfold, and they develop because they reconceive themselves.[iii]

 

This portrayal of an inner life, an individual self, originated in the work of Shakespeare as exemplified with his character Hamlet. As Stephen Greenblatt contends in his great book, Will in the World:

 

By the end of the century Shakespeare was poised to make an epochal breakthrough. He had perfected the means to represent inwardness.[iv]

 

Hamlet’s quest to find justice for his slain father is resisted by both the authority of the King and his mother. He is urged to conform to authority both by Ophelia, his true love, and by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his close friends. Ophelia succumbs to the authority of her father and betrays Hamlet. His close friends succumb to the authority of the King and Queen, spy on Hamlet and attempt to lead him to his murder. Yet our hero Hamlet’s individual self will not succumb to authority, he procrastinates, agonizes and soul searches but in the end he remains true to himself and to his own vision of what is at issue.

 

Romeo and Juliet portrays an unprecedented description of individual romantic love and teen age rebellion against parents and authority and still serves as the artistic high water mark within our culture of this subject matter.

 

To understand how Shakespeare contributed to the invention of our modern sense of self and formulation of the meme that has subsequently become central to us we have to understand the Bohemian milieu in which he found himself immersed as a young playwright in late 16th century London. Public theatre of the sort Shakespeare became involved with was newly invented and although wildly popular was at the fringes of society. It attracted a brilliant but disreputable troupe of writers and actors having little commitment to state, religion or personal survival. His literary peers whom Shakespeare encountered on joining the London theatre scene in the late 1580s consisted largely of a loosely knit group of six young university-trained men who engaged in various intellectual pursuits including writing plays. All but one died before forty due to the wages of riotous, reckless living. One particular member of this group, it’s most flamboyant and central figure, Robert Greene, exemplified a dissipated life but one also filled with adventure, wit and accomplishment. These characters living their outrageous lifestyle must have amazed young Will Shakespeare upon his arrival in London fresh from the country.

 

Probably modeled on Greene, Shakespeare invented perhaps literature’s most life filled character: Falstaff. Green, son of a minor status gentleman, had attended Cambridge and Oxford where he received two master degrees. He had married relatively well but having drunk his way through his wife’s money he abandoned her and their child and set out for London and adventure.

 

Despite practicing a dissolute lifestyle Greene retained many snobbish attitudes especially concerning his status as a university educated person. Shakespeare, with his amazing talent, but lacking a university education was galling to Greene. On his death bed, following an extravagant dinner of pickled herring and Rhenish wine, Greene penned a series of pamphlets latter gathered into a book full of wild resentments. Some were aimed directly at Shakespeare:

 

There is an upstart crow beautified with our feathers that, with his 'tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide,' supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; being an absolute Johannes Factotum, in his conceit the only shake-scene in a country. [v]

 

There is no record of Shakespeare publicly responding to this attack; instead he wove his observations of the extravagant selves of Green and his boisterous associates into Falstaff, one of literatures favourite characters.

 

…no other literary character- not even Don Quixote of Sancho Panza, not even Hamlet- seems to me so infinite in provoking thought and in arousing emotion. Falstaff is a miracle in the creation of personality and his enigmas rival those of Hamlet. Each is first and foremost an absolutely individual voice, no other personages in Western literature rival them in mastery of language. Falstaff’s prose and Hamlet’s verse give us a cognitive music that overwhelms us even as it expands our minds to the ends of thought.[vi]

 

Falstaff does not have the nobility or honour of Hamlet. Although honour on the field of battle is accepted by all on unspoken authority, Falstaff reserves for himself the right to evaluate it. He does and dismisses it.

 

Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Honour has not skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. (1 Henry IV, 5.1.130-138)

 

Falstaff is a lovable rascal living by his wits and holding himself above all authority. He lives beyond the authority of the law as a highway man and takes a great gamble on the field of battle as he claims to have killed the main protagonist in single combat when in fact he has spent much of the battle playing dead until danger has passed. He gambles that the King will raise him to nobility for this counterfeit noble deed. The litmus test by which he evaluates all situations seems to be what is best for his individual self. 

 

Shakespeare introduced Falstaff in Henry IV; an otherwise serious historical play showing great deference to social authority. His part may have originally been conceived as comic relief, a device often employed by Shakespeare, but in that case he came to life in a way unforeseen by his creator. Falstaff ignited his audience. It is reported that the Elizabethan audience hushed their murmured conversations and ceased their nut-cracking when Falstaff came on stage. They strained to fully hear his every line. I know the feeling. Whenever I watch a movie or listen to an audio recording I keep the remote control handy and fast forward through the boring bits. The Kings exhortation for greater responsibility from his wayward son Hal or the intrigues performed by contending rivals for the monarchy hold little interest. I am impatient to get to the parts where Falstaff struts his stuff.

 

Falstaff was an unprecedented hit and a favourite of Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare was propelled to become the most popular playwright of his age.  The individual self meme found fertile ground in Shakespeare’s audience and spread rapidly amongst the population.

 

Whatever its exact causes, a new conception of the self arose and quickly spread taking root deep within the consciousness of many Western Europeans during the hundred years between 1520 and 1620. During the 400 years since its fully formed invention, the individual self has consolidated its power and become a central player in the arena of cultural evolution. In becoming an active decision making unit, the individual self, created design potential allowing the creation of new synergistic win/win cultural units supporting an unprecedented level of cultural complexity. Numerous institutions of the modern world are the result of cultural evolution’s exploration and concretization of these design possibilities.

 

We will briefly explore four examples where major cultural institutions have been transformed to serve the individual self: Religion, Politics, Market Economics, and Science.

Religion

At the beginning of the sixteenth century the Roman Catholic Church exercised unprecedented power throughout Christendom. The only challenge to its power appeared to be the uneasy truce in its rivalry with the secular power of monarchs.  It insisted on monopolistic power over the self’s worldview. Alternate views such as the Catharists, labelled heresies, were ruthlessly dealt with.

 

On March 16 1244 a large and symbolically important execution took place, where leaders of Catharism together with more than 200 Cathar laity were thrown into an enormous fire at the prat des cramats near the foot of the castle.[vii]

 

All dissenting worldviews were brutally stamped out prior to the sixteenth century, the major exception being the Jewish faith. Although Jews faced extreme persecution in Christian Europe, the fact of their physical survival into the present age argues that they received more lenient treatment than most of those holding other non Roman Catholic worldviews.

 

From many individuals’ points of view the church was seen as having become excessive in its economic and spiritual abuses.  From the church’s point of view the individual was essentially a soul whose only obligation was to pass through life observing the requisite rituals and duties. There was little concern for the striving or aspirations of the ‘self’. Those, in whom an individual self was most deeply rooted, concentrated amongst the literate, educated and skilled members of society, became ready to align themselves with the monarchs in their rivalry with the church. Almost simultaneously the church faced ‘protestant’ rebellions in both England and Germany that quickly spread to engulf all Europe and became a central theme of its history for the next several centuries. Protestantism provided a much more fertile environment for the consolidation and spread of the self:

 

Protestants are often considered to be another people 'of the book,' in that they adhere to the text of the Bible, that they grew out of the Renaissance and universities, that they attracted learned intellectuals, professionals, and skilled tradesmen and silversmiths, that their belief is more abstracted than ritualized, and that the great dissemination of protestant beliefs occurred with the translation of the Bible by Protestants into native tongues from Latin, Greek and Hebrew and their quick spread with the help of the new technology of the printing press. Protestants are also less fond of hierarchy, having relentlessly attacked the priestly caste and the Holy See's authority, and thus are closely associated with the local control and political democratization during the 16th and 17th century.[viii]

 

Protestantism quickly became deeply fractured into a multitude of sects each with its own type of appeal to individual selves. The British initiative in breaking from the Roman Catholic Church and replacing it with the Anglican Church was primarily designed to solve some of Henry VIII’s political problems and was not well thought out theologically. Almost immediately there was dissention and confusion. Some wanted to return to Catholicism others wanted a more extreme form of Protestantism than that entertained by the British clergy. For a while the more extreme view won out and three generations after Henry VIII, in which time the official religion alternated between Protestantism, Catholicism and back to Protestantism, Charles I was beheaded and England experienced a semi-theological government under Oliver Cromwell.

 

Eventually it became apparent that no single denomination would be universal. The self’s preference to resist the dictates of external religious authority and its desire to make its own decisions regarding religion largely prevailed. Today the list of established protestant denominations in Britain numbers more than one hundred and fifty.[ix]  In addition to Protestant denominations a plethora of sects based on non-Christian religions and quasi-religious cults have found fertile ground in western societies. With each sect there are of course many variant interpretations amongst the membership. The numbers of alternatives are staggering, a veritable buffet from which the self is free to choose. In fact the notion that the individual self has both the right and responsibility to choose its own religion has spread to become embedded in the constitutions of numerous states and is today widely considered a fundamental human right.

 

During more than 400 years of evolution the self has successfully bent the institutions of religion to its will. Five hundred years ago weekly attendance in a universal church was compelled by law for most citizens. Now not only is the self free to choose what religious affiliation if any it will accept but it is also free to disregard any of the religious strictures within its chosen religion. 

 

Although the individual self has attained greater autonomy in choosing its religious believes it still tends to choose religious beliefs as its memeplex for understanding its place in the universe over other possibilities such as scientific alternatives.  A 2005 a survey indicated that 40% of the British public and 95% of the American public believed in the existence of a supernatural God.[x] Amongst the American public there seems to be a recent increase in the instances of fundamentalism or the acceptance of the truth of religious authority in the form of church leaders and/or the literal truth of the bible.

 

Politics

Although the newly fledged individual self had a tendency to align itself with monarchy during the struggles of the reformation, it soon chaffed at this alliance as well. The pervasive form of European governments up until the seventeenth century was monarchy whose rights to govern were considered ‘divinely’ bestowed. Today the majority of countries in the world have democratic governments elected by individual selves.

 

In 1689 John Locke (1632-1704) published the hugely influential Two Treatises of Civil Government in an effort to justify the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that had deposed the British king James II. This work stressed the individual’s right to rebel against tyranny and was seminal in the development of modern political thought. Many scholars consider the American Declaration of Independence to be a direct descendent.

 

Voltaire (1694-1778), probably the most widely read enlightenment writer was greatly influenced by Locke and the British Empiricists. He was extremely effective at popularizing the self meme and the idea that the self has rights:

 

I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.

 

As the self came to be more widely considered the legitimate seat of decision making, inexorably the exercise of political power came to reflect this fact. Democratic government was the ideal linking the self to political power.

 

Democracy: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections [xi]

 

During the late eighteenth century democratic ideas were fundamental in the American and French revolutions which were the first to overthrow monarchy. But continual gains were made by the democratic movement in western societies throughout the centuries. As an example consider a timeline of English democratic milestones:

1689 – Bill of Rights – an elected parliament replaced the King as source of political power, however the franchise electing parliament was restricted to the wealthy.

1832 – Reform Act – The franchise was increased to include members of the upper middle classes.

1867 – Reform Act – The franchise was further increased to include the less wealthy.

1884 – Representation of the People Act – Further increase of the franchise to include agricultural workers.

1911 – Parliament Act – Restriction on the Hose of Lords in favour of the House of Commons.

1918 – Representation of the People Act – Increases the franchise to all males over 21 and all females over 30

1928 – Representation of the People Act – Universal suffrage for men and women age 21 and over.

 

The movement towards democratic universal suffrage was a common theme throughout the world during the twentieth century.

 

In 1900, no countries had governments elected on the principal of universal adult suffrage. Today, there are 119 such countries, or 62 percent of all the countries in the world. These are the dramatic findings of a new comprehensive end-of-century study released today by Freedom House, the New York based research group that tracks political rights and civil liberties around the world.[xii]

 

Political power in the majority of the world’s countries now resides, at least theoretically, with the individual self.

 

Although democratic forms of government have been attained in the majority of countries there is evidence that it is becoming less important to the individual self. In many advanced countries the voter turnout has been declining since the mid-twentieth century. In America the graph is pretty much a straight line with a downward slope from over 60% voter turnout in 1952 to less than 50% in 1996[xiii]. It appears that after 300 years of greater democratization individual selves may have recently become less interested in exercising their democratic rights to political power in many advanced countries.

Economics

Trade seems to have been a functional property of most human groups since our beginnings. Trade is inherently a nonzero sum activity that produces extra resources for those practicing it. If you and I engage in trade it is only because what you have to offer me is worth more to me than it is to you and vice versa. In other words I have a more productive use for what you are offering me than I have for what I am offering you. In this manner trade enhances both of our abilities to survive.

 

When village life became established around 9,000 BC trade over longer distances became more feasible.[xiv] Seashells, obsidian and stone bowls were amongst the items most often traded.

 

With the widespread adoption of agricultural and subsequent division of labour and urban living, trade and commerce flourished. It is now widely accepted that literacy most probably developed as an aid to accounting the expanded commerce and taxation associated with the agricultural revolution.

 

The industrial revolution hastened the decline of feudal economies based on indentured labour and ties to the land. A new class of entrepreneurs scrambled to produce and market any goods for which there was demand and on which they could profit. Economic power shifted from the landed gentry to merchants and the captains of industry. Trade goods from around the world entered domestic markets wherever a source could be connected to a profitable demand though these markets were at first largely dominated by monopolies such as the Hudson Bay Company.

 

In 1776 Adam Smith outlined the principles of free trade in his book The Wealth of Nations. It was a ground breaking work that pointed to a future prosperity driven by markets responding to and competing to fulfil demand.

 

Adam Smith railed against this restrictive, regulated, 'mercantilist' system, and showed convincingly how the principles of free trade, competition, and choice would spur economic development, reduce poverty, and precipitate the social and moral improvement of humankind. To illustrate his concepts, he scoured the world for examples that remain just as vivid today: from the diamond mines of Golconda to the price of Chinese silver in Peru; from the fisheries of Holland to the plight of Irish prostitutes in London. And so persuasive were his arguments that they not only provided the world with a new understanding of the wealth-creating process; they laid the intellectual foundation for the great era of free trade and economic expansion that dominated the Nineteenth Century[xv].

 

The market economy outlined by Smith continued to expand both in depth and scope throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Today all the most developed and powerful nations in the world subscribe to its principals at least to the extent required for membership within the World Trade Organization.

 

Smith foresaw that a market economy would lead to a measure of economic equality.

 

The rich ... divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal proportions among all its inhabitants.

 

At the bottom of this revolutionary economic reconstruction is the idea of demand. Demand is personal demand; it is the demand of the individual self for those things which the individual judges to be most to his advantage. Smith saw this demand of the self as the basis of a rational economy and that this demand serves as an ‘invisible hand’ that would guide each person’s actions for their own betterment but also indirectly for the betterment of all society.

 

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our necessities but of their advantages.[xvi]

 

A market economy responds to bottom up forces of individual demand. No central authority, neither king nor government planner is required. Each individual self acting rationally in its own best interests is sufficient to produce a well balanced and optimal economy. In a market economy the self is king.

 

A foundation of market economies is the notion that individual selves avail themselves of information concerning their economic choices and use this information to reach rational decisions in their own best interests. The vast and increasing fortunes spent on public relations and marketing during the past fifty years is a clear indication that this fundamental component of market economies is becoming less available to individual selves. Public relations and marketing are almost by definition attempts to influence the behaviour of individual selves by non-rational means and thereby distort market forces. In other words they are means by which outside economic institutions attempt to enforce their authority over the interests of individual selves. Their effectiveness can be of little doubt as corporate and other economic institutions spend increasing amounts on these endeavours presumably receiving benefits in excess of their enormous costs.

Knowledge

The Roman Catholic Church, through much of its history, saw itself responsible for deciding the correct explanations concerning subjects we would now consider science. It judged the correctness of these explanations on the basis of theological arguments and enforced its claim to a monopoly on such explanations ruthlessly. Any alternate explanations were considered heresy and the Inquisition determined when such heresies were committed and their appropriate punishments. Many, such as Giodano Bruno were killed for daring to differ with the Church’s explanation. In 1633 Galileo was placed under house arrest and remained under this sentence until his death in 1642 as a result of his support for the Copernican view that the planets revolved around the sun and not around the earth. This pronouncement by the Church stood until 1992 when the Pope publicly admitted the church had acted on incorrect information concerning Galileo’s explanations and pronounced the case closed but did not withdraw the verdict of heresy.

 

In the year of Galileo’s death Isaac Newton was born, fortunately in England. England being a protestant country displayed greater tolerance for non-theological explanations in the natural world. In his twenties Newton became part of a small group of natural philosophers who practised science in a tradition largely laid down by Francis Bacon. This approach became known as the British Empirical School and stressed the importance of empirical evidence derived from experimentation in support of theoretical explanations. It was a revolutionary change from the authority centric approach officially endorsed in Catholic countries.

 

Essentially the British approach relies on the judgement of the individual self, for it is the individual self that must make empirical observations and judge their relative support for competing theories. To hold any weight observations must be repeatable. That is any individual self, given the appropriate setting, must be able to make the same observation as made by any other observer. This consensus amongst a group of individual selves concerning the empirical evidence they witness leads to the notion of objectivity and of the evidence being an objective fact free from the dictates of authority.

 

A small group of British investigators practising this empirical method of investigation founded the Royal Society in 1660 and it continues today as one of the worlds most prestigious scientific organizations.

 

The origins of the Royal Society lie in an "invisible college" of natural philosophers who began meeting in the mid-1640s to discuss the ideas of Francis Bacon. Its official foundation date is 28 November 1660, when 12 of them met at Gresham College after a lecture by Christopher Wren, the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to found ’a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning’. This group included Wren himself, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, Sir Robert Moray, and William, Viscount Brouncker.

 

The Society was to meet weekly to witness experiments and discuss what we would now call scientific topics.[xvii]

 

The British Empiricists were widely admired by leaders of the Enlightenment movement on the European continent. Voltaire, in part due to an exile imposed by religious authority, lived in Britain for a period and his writing on empirical thinking were very influential on the continent. The enlightenment influence grew and contributed to the French Revolution with its commitment to rationality and science. This revolution featured a rejection of both religious and secular authority in favour of the individual-self-friendly concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity. Seeds of empiricism took roots in this rich soil producing a number of scientific greats; notably Lagrange and Laplace.

 

Huge scientific advances achieved in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries conferred wealth and power on the individuals and nations most effectively utilizing them. However the subject matter was abstract being mainly in areas such as medicine, chemistry, physics and astronomy and did not directly challenge the established view of the individual’s place in the universe. The vast majority of people looked to religion, albeit a religion of their choice, to frame and answer these questions. There was no scientific alternative to the ‘argument from design’ used to promote a theological framework for answers to design questions in the biological and psychological world.

 

All this changed with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It was a radical and fundamental blow to our self image, knocking us badly off balance, from which we have not yet recovered. The individual self was thrust out from a comfortable cocoon of a being cared for and of special interest to a kindly God into a reality that may seem cold, isolated and pointless. 

 

Nietzsche observation that ‘God is dead’ has left a void many have found extremely troubling. As interpreted by the existentialists, the dominant philosophic tradition of the 20th century, the rational and scientific alternatives to theology are bleak and incapable of providing meaning to the human experience.

 

The Humanist movement, typified by a rejection of theology and commitment to man made meaning and centrality of the individual self, may be the most influential modern school of thought challenging both existentialism and religion.  Humanism however although highly intellectual does not build on a solid scientific foundation but rather on a psychological foundation where we are called upon to accept the background existential meaninglessness but to gather our courage and create from this underlying bleakness meaning in the values of humanity. 

 

It has been left to Albert Einstein, the greatest scientist of the 20th century and perhaps of all times, to suggest a worldview that is scientifically true while providing all the psychological comfort and spiritual richness of a theological religion. Einstein, in fact saw science as subservient to this religious view.

 

‘In my view, it is the most important function of … science to awaken this feeling (cosmic religious experience) and to keep it alive in those who are receptive to it. [xviii]

 

In view of this cosmic religious experience Einstein derived a remarkable view of the self.

 

The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. [xix]

 

Einstein lack of self and his almost total freedom from one time only concerns is legendary:

 

"I feel so much a part of every living thing that I am not in the least concerned with where the individual begins and ends."[xx] 

 

Remarkably this spiritual aspect of Einstein’s legacy is almost totally ignored and very few have attempted to popularize similar views. One exception is Richard Dawkins who, in some of his writing at the beginning of the 21st century, notably Unweaving the Rainbow, promotes a similar worldview and has acknowledged this aspect of Einstein’s bequest.

 

For example, Einstein uses language which sounds religious; indeed, he even uses the word God. But it's very clear, if you read Einstein carefully, that Einstein did not believe in anything supernatural. Einstein derived uplift and inspiration from science, from the contemplation of the wonders of the universe, but he certainly had no supernatural belief, and indeed he was very scornful of supernatural religion. And that would be my position as well.[xxi]

 

Throughout its history the development of Science has been largely uninfluenced by politics or economics. From the beginnings of science up until about 150 years ago the majority of scientists were gentleman who chose to pursue a life as amateur scholars. Later the mainstream switched to being tenured academic scholars. Both of these groups are notoriously independent minded and may be illustrative of what we would consider individual selves.

 

More recently science has experienced increasing pressure to bow to the authority of political, religious and corporate interests.

 

An open letter to President Bush signed by over 700 American scientists deplores the acceleration of the political component of this trend during his administration.

 

The United States has an impressive history of investing in scientific research and respecting the independence of scientists. As a result, we have enjoyed sustained economic progress and public health, as well as unequalled leadership within the global scientific community. Recent actions by political appointees, however, threaten to undermine this legacy by preventing the best available science from informing policy decisions that have serious consequences for our health, safety, and environment.

Across a broad range of issues—from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons—political appointees have distorted and censored scientific findings that contradict established policies. In some cases, they have manipulated the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions.

They have also undermined the independence of scientific advisory panels by subjecting panel nominees to political litmus tests that have no bearing on their expertise, and by nominating under- or unqualified individuals—some of whom have industry ties that could represent a conflict of interest. Other scientific advisory committees have been disbanded altogether.[xxii]

 

A fresh and effective challenge from Religious authority has been levelled at the teaching of scientific knowledge concerning evolution in public school science classes. Under the guise of ‘Intelligent Design’ a number of American school boards have decided to allow the teaching of non-scientific theories of evolution so that classroom instruction is compatible with religious authority as recorded in the biblical myth of creation.

 

The increasing level of corporate sponsorship of academic research is concerning to many scientists.

 

Although corporate funding of academic research accounts for a relatively small percentage of all university research funds—approximately 7 percent of the total—that percentage has grown more rapidly than support from all other sources over the past two decades.[xxiii]

 

Since the 1984 passage of the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments, more commonly known as the Bayh-Dole Act, universities and industries increasingly have been collaborating. President George Rupp of Columbia University has observed that:

research may become somewhat too domesticated, aimed at short-term objectives dictated by corporate sponsors, or even our own faculty, as their entrepreneurial instincts lead them to try to identify and patent discoveries that will have a payoff. That’s a risk that the university as a whole faces. It can involve not only the sciences and engineering, but the humanities and social sciences as well. For example, consider the impact of some of the new media capabilities. There are current commercial attempts to harness the ideas, even the lectures and presentations, of faculty members. The danger exists that universities will be so assimilated into society that we will no longer be the kind of collectors of talent that allow creativity to blossom. We must guard against being harnessed directly to social purposes in any way that undermines the fundamental character of the university.[xxiv]

 

It may be too early to know if the resurgence of control by religious, political and corporate authorities over scientific research is a passing trend or is indicative of a longer term threat to scientific independence. In any case the long tradition of science as a relatively unfettered search for the truth by individual selves may be facing new challenges.

 

The Corporate Self

After continuous expansion and consolidation throughout its 400 year history the individual self may seem today triumphant and unchallenged having brought all powerful institutions to heel: politics, the economy and even religion. Yet our understanding of self is remarkably sketchy. It has only existed as an academic subject for a short while and memetics, perhaps the first powerful theory providing context for a deep understanding of the evolution of the self is still in its infancy. And yet even at this fledgling stage its status as the vehicle at the leading edge of cultural evolution may be flickering. Something is happening. Seen in retrospect it appears the individual self may have hit a high water mark some fifty years ago and has been in retreat since.

 

The self has reformed economic, political and religious institutions successfully demanding that they more closely serve the interests of the individual.  Each of the once tamed institutions is now reasserting themselves.

 

The equalitarian market economy with its inherent promise to each self of providing a near equal slice of the pie is receding. The middle class is diminishing; the poorer class enlarges as an ever greater portion of wealth is bestowed upon an ever smaller upper class. The amount of marketing involved in markets, which is the amount of effort put into distorting market forces by swaying market demand from the purely rational demand of informed consumers, is a measure of the inefficiency of those markets. Yet massive marketing is a signature component of the most advanced consumer societies. The inescapable conclusion is that individual consumers are constrained to exercise patterns of consumption based on the interests of those providing the marketing rather than on their own interests reachable only through a rational and informed decision.

 

Politics, or more accurately democracy, once a central component of the individual self’s thrust to exert influence now appears less of a concern. All over the western world political debate is receding, voter turnout is diminishing and there appears to be no substantive options. The success of a political campaign is highly correlated with the amount of money spent. The vast majority of this money is expended on marketing which again is designed to constrain the self to act in the interest of others.

 

Religion is reasserting its grip. More are attending church and the claims made by religion on self determination appear to be strengthening. Total blind obedience to the one true word is often demanded by fundamental branches of Christianity and other religions.

 

Each of these trends involves institutions reaffirming their control over the individual and they appear to be subtly related. Politics is now, more than ever a rich man’s game. The staggering sum spent on campaigns of practically every successful candidate suggests that all successful politicians are beholden to wealth. It also suggests that democracy has in some sense been bought. The concentration of wealth has occurred in step with the elimination of the working class, once the rock on which the ‘New Deal’ was built, as a political voice. Many of the most powerful religions instil in their adherents the virtues of obedience and the giving up of the self. The image of White House prayer meetings, mandatory for a senior staff drawn from the corporate elite, is an image which nicely ties the diverse pieces together.

 

How did the elite class of rich and powerful, which had been in full retreat the previous 400 years under the equalitarian onslaught of the individual self juggernaut come to regain this kind of control? Well they might owe it to the invention of a new self; the Corporation. The corporation is a relatively new creation possessing the legal rights of an individual in addition to other powers. It was created, as were legal partnerships, to allow the pooling of wealth by a number of individuals for the purpose of undertaking some enterprise.[xxv] It differs from a partnership in that the owners of a corporation, its shareholders, do not run the corporation directly; rather they hire professionals to do this. It also differs in that the owners of corporations are only liable for damages caused by the corporation to the extent of their investment in it.

 

The survivability of corporations as cultural entities was uncertain for many centuries. In the fall-out after a disastrous speculative bubble, the South Sea bubble, Britian made corporations illegal for over a hundred years, judging them contrary to the public interest, until the law’s repeal in 1825. In the second half of the nineteenth century corporations really took off due to their role in financing the building of railroads. Exponential growth resulted with their success in establishing economic globalism during the 1970s. Globalism empowered corporations to play countries off against each other threatening to take markets and jobs to other jurisdictions unless granted political capitulation on any restrictions to their powers.  A small but steady portion of their wealth flows to the coffers of politicians willing to make it so.

The individual self appears to have been caught like a deer in the headlights in this offensive by corporate power. The brightest and best line-up  to attend the top schools in order to win favour with corporate masters and vie to be hired into a career where they compete with their rivals to display the most subservient level of loyalty and commitment. The work week of the upwardly mobile has mushroomed. Those lower down on the food chain compete with each other to construct a life supported by a patchwork of part time jobs rewarded with an ever decreasing politically determined minimum wage. Over-all most families now consider it necessary that all adult members work outside the home mainly in the service of corporations. Individual thought is not outlawed but the norm enforced by corporately owned media strongly suggests any deviant behaviour would be totally un-cool and that resistance is something so weird as to be almost unthinkable. In the past 40 years politics has gone from being orientated around special interest groups defined by race, minority and class; issues concerning individual selves to being orientated around special interest groups defined by their corporate affiliations.

As Noam Chomsky bemoans, the self appears incapable of resistance to this new power.

"Most people go to work and don't ask a lot of questions about what they're doing. They don't look very far beyond their desk or tomorrow's job prospects. That's the ideal of the business world, the public relations industry, the advertising industry and so on, to separate people from one another, because they're dangerous when they're together. They get ideas. They start to do things. Much better for them to be working very hard -- the U.S. has the longest work week in the industrial world -- and when they come home, exhausted, to turn on the tube and get brainwashed." [xxvi]

 

Corporate control appears as irresistible as the Blog and yet the situation is volatile. It might appear obvious that Corporations are owned by individuals and are therefore controlled by individuals but there is some puzzling evidence that this might not be the case. Certainly the recent drive to power and destruction by Enron Corporation did not seem to be in the interest of any individual. More significantly the historically unparalleled level of corporate investment made in information technology over the past fifteen years does not seem to be in the interest of individuals. The individuals who should be reaping the rewards are the corporate shareholders who have made this staggering investment. Yet this gigantic investment of wealth in computer and internet technology has resulted in no measurable additional level of corporate productivity. It has not enriched the shareholders.

 

Then in whose interest has been this unprecedented effort? Let’s consider the possibility that it has only served the interests of the corporate self, unfettered by the interests of any human self. Corporations gain strength through their consumption of human selves. They organize humans and align their nervous systems into a cohesive being in a Darwinian struggle for survival with other corporate entities. This being has its own interests, the paramount one being evolutionary survival. To become more efficient, to become more powerful resources must be more tightly orchestrated. A nervous system coordinating and extending the basic nervous system of its human components is now possible and corporations are racing to enhance their survivability by this means. Any human benefit may not really enter into the equation.

 

Principals of Memetic Evolution

As we have attempted to sketch it here the evolution of dominant self types in the western world over the past four or five hundred years follows a path from a ‘subservient self’ to an ‘individual self’ to a ‘corporate self’. Along the way the evolving nature of the selfplex had a strong causative effect on many core cultural institutions transforming them to better reflect the changing nature of our self concept. What were the individual and cultural forces guiding this evolutionary path? The analytical tools supplied by Memetics may help us cast some light on this question.

 

Understanding memes as the second replicator to have evolved implies a subtle relationship with the genetic replicator, creating some difficulties in identifying the separate effects of genetic and mimetic evolution. Clearly though something like memetic evolution does occur and is at the basis of culture. It cannot be seriously doubted that human mental representations underlying culture are copied or imitated between individuals. By the time our species emerged, tool making was well established within genus homo and the archaeological record clearly shows the copying of tool design with slight variations over thousands of generations and the expected attendant evolution of tool making. This is a different evolutionary process than those supported by genetics. We have a genetic predisposition providing us with the potential to copy memes but memes such as specific tool making designs are not genetically programmed within us; they have to be copied or learned from others. The evidence is abundant for a second evolutionary process. 

 

Susan Blackmore has provided compelling arguments in favour of viewing some of our species most distinctive biological characteristics including our large brains and language ability as driven by the biological survival value of a superior meme handling brain.[xxvii] Equally compelling is the argument that many of our primary memeplexes, such as tool making design, evolved due to the memetic survival value of inhabiting individuals with superior biological survival skills. Teasing apart the roles of biological and memetic evolution is a major challenge for an explanation of cultural evolution and is in some ways is a modern reformulation of the nature-nurture problem.

 

As has been pointed out by a number of researchers, memetics is currently in a state similar to that of evolutionary biology between the time of Darwin and the discovery of DNA, when the presence of a replicator underlying the theory was posited and a substantial number of implications supported by evidence were drawn but the replicator itself undiscovered. The exact substance of the memetic replicator is at present unkown. Researchers still disagree even about the definition of the meme; is it the cultural artefact itself such as the arrow head or musical tune, is it the mental structure underlying cultural artefacts or are both memes? A full discussion of the issues can be found in Blackmore (1999).

 

To server our purposes here in analyzing the evolutionary forces affecting memes we will define memes to be: Any mental structure formed by imitating, copying or understanding the products of the mental structures of others. This definition restricts memes to a genealogy (memealogy?) of inherited mental structures while avoiding the identification of specific mechanisms. The phrase ‘products of mental structures of others’ should be understood as very general and would include such items as spoken and written language, demonstrations and music as well as artefacts. We will below simply refer these as ‘memetic products’.

 

The survival and further evolution of memes is facilitated by:

1)    The survival of memetic products capable of conveying the meme. For much of human history this was largely synonymous with the survival of individuals hosting the meme as the dominant meme product was face to face communication. More recently with the advent of the printing press, libraries and internet superior methods of conveying memes with fecundity, longevity and fidelity have greatly enhanced the ability of memes to be copied without direct human intervention.

2)   The survival of the cultural unit hosting the meme product. A cultural unit is defined here to be the grouping of individuals amongst which meme products can be copied. In this sense it is similar to the notion of a biological species which is defined roughly as the grouping of individual organisms in which genes are copied. For much of human history the dominant cultural unit was a tribe of up to 150 extended kin folk. Usually human status is only grudgingly granted by hunter gatherers to those outside their cultural unit. Diamond recounts a Borneo native explaining to him how two male strangers meeting by chance, if they shared a language, would have to spend a great deal of time trying to identify a common relative or ancestor so that they would have a reason not to attempt to murder each other. With the rise of agriculture and the potential for more complex cultural units the size of cultural units has greatly expanded but is still subject to firm limits placed by language, culture and lack of travel.  More recently especially with the advent of the internet and global marketing distinctive cultural units are rapidly disappearing or in many respects are being replaced with a single global cultural unit.

3)   When the first two factors do not figure critically in the memetic landscape a superior ability to be copied, retained and passed on will confer an advantage of competitive fitness. In the hunter gatherer cultures dominating most of human history memetic fitness depended heavily on their contribution to genetic fitness and the fitness of the cultural unit. The competitive landscape where memes survive for no other reason than  their ability to out compete other memes independent of their effects on genetic or cultural fitness has been taking form since we began to approach the modern historical era.

 

Before examining the selective forces effecting memes as applied to the evolution of the selfplex over the past several centuries we will explore more deeply the general nature of these forces.

 

Memetic Fitness

During much of our historical past memetic fitness operated in a similar manner to  genetic fitness in biological evolution in that hey were both dependent on the fitness of their individual hosts although the definition of fitness must be slightly differentiated in the two cases. Genetic fitness is usually defined in a manner where its quantification is determined by the number of an individual’s genes passed on to grand children. This is because an individual can only pass their genes along to their biological offspring, although the water is slightly muddied in the case of kin selection where an individual’s fitness may be enhanced by contributing to the survival of relatives more distant than offspring. An individual’s memetic fitness might be better quantified by the number of viable memes they are able to pass on to other individuals including those to which she is not related. Using this definition we can see how memes themselves can add or detract from an individual’s memetic fitness. A meme for jumping off cliffs would soon eliminate the individuals hosting this meme along with the meme itself. On the other hand an individual in a hunter gatherer society hosting superior memes for arrow head fabrication would enjoy not only an enhanced life expectancy but also serve as an attractive source of superior memes for others. Both of these characteristics would tend to increase the number of copies of the arrow head fabrication meme passed on by this individual. 

 

We must remember that genetic or biological fitness has had very little direct effect on cultural evolution since the emergence of our species homo sapien sapien. Throughout the history of our species we have had the same biological capability for culture including our large brains and capacity for language. The genetics of our species has changed very little, what has evolved has been the memes producing culture. The individuals who have been genetically fit in that they produced numerous grand children may owe more to their memetic fitness than to their biological fitness. Given the relative flat playing field of genetics within the human species compared to our vast differences in the memes we host, the competitive advantages allowing successful individuals to pass on their genes may often be due to their memetic fitness rather than to their genetic fitness.

 

The copying of memes within a cultural group may be partially homologous with the notion of the socialization process. It is most intensively undertaken by young people within a cultural unit who are exposed to progressively more sophisticated memes from the unit’s repertoire and who copy and retain a subset of these memes. This process frequently occurs within the family unit where children copy their parent’s memes concerning language, religions and life skills. Calvalli-Sforza and Feldman have labelled this form of meme transmission from parents to children, vertical transmission, and differentiate it from horizontal transmission which is the copying memes between peers. [xxviii] Memes spread by vertical transmission can affect both an individual’s genetic and memetic fitness and vertical transmission was probably by far the dominant method of memetic transmission during mankind’s long period as a hunter-gatherer prior to agriculture. During this period memetic evolution was tightly constrained by its dependence on its individual hosts’ survival.

 

Fitness of the Cultural Unit

Much of our history as a species was taken up with exploration and habitation of the majority of the planets land masses. During this process cultural units budded of from one another as they became isolated by geography and time. As areas of the planet were filled with peoples approaching the carrying capacity of the land to sustain hunter gatherer societies competition between cultural units undoubtedly intensified. Memes such as those producing warfare technologies, unity of the cultural unit or efficiency in utilizing the land may have been determining factors in the outcomes of these competitions. Losers in this competitive process were either murdered, enslaved or assimilated. In either case many of their memes became extinct along with their cultural units.

 

For instance the memes supporting the majority of the world’s languages which have evolved during the course of human history have gone extinct as a result of the extinction of the cultural units that spoke them. This can happen even when the individuals hosting the language’s memes are assimilated and have biological descendents. About 80 percent of North American native dialects are spoken by adults only and are expected to die with the last speaker.[xxix] Some languages such as Latin have continued a kind of semi-existence after the extinction of their native cultural unit but this is the exception proving the rule.

 

Similar to biological evolution where the number of extinct species vastly outnumbers the number of surviving species it is probable that the number of extinct cultural units greatly exceeds the number of surviving ones and perhaps to an even greater extreme. Whereas the diversity of biological species appears to be increasing in time, other than during periods of mass extinction, the number of surviving cultural units may be rapidly decreasing and approaching the number 1.

 

Given the competitive nature of cultural units and the central role played by memes in this competitive landscape it is clear that the evolution of memetics has been closely tied to their ability to affect the outcomes of these competitions. In other words memetic evolution has been tightly constrained by its effect on the fitness of the cultural unit. With the slacking of competition in this arena as the number of cultural units approaches 1 we should expect to see this dependence diminish.

Memetic Evolution

The biological cell provides an environment specialized to allow fragile chemical forces such as the hydrogen bonds and the Van der Walls force to contribute to the bonding and geometry of molecules. Factors such as a finely tuned temperature, chemical gradients and PH make the cell the environment where, in the hands of biological evolution, these forces are able to contribute to the most complex and evolutionary advanced chemistry found in the universe. Everywhere else these delicate forces are overwhelmed by background energy or other more powerful forces.

 

Likewise memetic evolution throughout most of its history has been dominated by the requirements of biological and cultural fitness and the purely memetic forces, independent of these influences, have been merely background noise. Modern society provides an environment where memetic evolution is less subject to the more basic forces. Most individuals in the ascendant western culture experience a situation where they are in little danger of either shortening their lives or being culturally assimilated due to memes they host. Conversely the survival of memes hosted by these individuals do not depend on either their contribution to the individuals’ biological or cultural survival at least in the manner that this has traditionally been the case. The physical survival of the individual has also become less important for spreading memes during recent history. With the widespread availability of technology for spreading memes such as books, TV, movies, radio and the internet, memes are less dependent on living humans as an enduring source of meme products.

 

Memetic evolution is now taking place in a new competitive environment where these constraints are no longer so domineering. As always those memes that can survive do survive but the nature of the memes enjoying an advantage is dependent upon the details of this new competitive landscape. What then are the major features of this environment?

 

Meme’s as we have defined them are mental structures formed by imitation and their natural habitat is therefore the human brain. On purely logical grounds it is clear that at the time of birth the brain of the human infant does not contain any memes due to the lack of any opportunity for imitation to have taken place.  In this sense an infant’s mind is a blank slate and the individual’s memetic universe is constructed entirely through subsequent experience. Embracing, in the memetic sense, of ‘mind as a blank slate’ does not make us partisan in the seemingly endless ‘nature-nurture’ debate. Indeed it may add clarity to this debate. The claim that the mind is devoid of memes at birth does not argue that the mind is blank but rather that any mental content at birth must be something other than memetics.

 

The human brain is the most complex piece of design known in the universe. It has gained this complex design solely through the operation of Darwinian processes. Socio-biology and Evolutionary Psychology have produced powerful explanations detailing the anthropological, sociological and psychological experiences produced by this evolutionary design. As Plotkin makes obvious all mental functions are biologically enabled. There would be no sensation without neurons, there would be no associative learning without synapses, there would be no instincts without a brain designed to produce them. It is also clear that the brain’s enabling of mental activity implies that it shapes the type of mental activity that we have.

 

As Blackmore has explained memetic functions are also biologically enabled, through evolutionary design created by the genetic advantages produced by memetic abilities. She has done an excellent job of probing the boundary between memetics and socio-biology in their abilities to explain these genetically programmed mental preferences. In summary she argues that socio-biology is best able to explain those mental predilections formed by evolution under the influence of purely genetic replicator with little influence from the memetic replicator. She makes the point that some of our mental predilections, especially those involved with meme handling, can only be explained by taking into account the influence of the memetic replicator on our genetic heritage. She has coined this process ‘memetic driving’ and explains how it can account for the evolution of our language abilities and in fact all of our abilities and preferences involved with the evolutionary recent areas of our enlarged brains. Recent evidence has been published confirming her prediction that the areas of our brains utilized in memetics resides in those sections of the brain unique to our species.

 

Brain imaging techniques allow the mapping of cognitive functions onto neural systems, but also the understanding of mechanisms of human behavior. In a series of imaging studies we have described a minimal neural architecture for imitation. This architecture comprises a brain region that codes an early visual description of the action to be imitated, a second region that codes the detailed motor specification of the action to be copied, and a third region that codes the goal of the imitated action. Neural signals predicting the sensory consequences of the planned imitative action are sent back to the brain region coding the early visual description of the imitated action, for monitoring purposes ("my planned action is like the one I have just seen"). The three brain regions forming this minimal neural architecture belong to a part of the cerebral cortex called perisylvian, a critical cortical region for language. This suggests that the neural mechanisms implementing imitation are also used for other forms of human communication, such as language. Indeed, imaging data on warping of chimpanzee brains onto human brains indicate that the largest expansion between the two species is perisylvian.[xxx]

 

The essence of Blackmore’s memetic driving explanation is that it was the biological survival value of memetic abilities which drove the biological transformation of our brains during the evolution of genus homo culminating in the unprecedented brain size and resultant memetic abilities of our species.

 

A major advance brought to the nature-nurture debate with the introduction of  memetics is the clear delineation between memetic and genetic influences. This debate has become re-energised since the 1980s and has perhaps been joined most eloquently on the nature side by Stephen Pinker with his 2003 book ‘The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature’.  Pinker sets out to destroy the notion of the ‘Blank Slate’ model of the mind and argues for its replacement with one based on genetically determined brain functions.  Pinker is reacting against many of the fundamental notions of the enlightenment, themselves reactions to an enforced theological notion of the mind. He argues that the blank slate model of the mind introduced by enlightenment thinkers has been carried over into our modern conception without incorporation of the powerful lessons gained from biological evolution. He argues eloquently for the strong anthropological, sociological and psychological influences produced by our genetically determined brains and the consequent constraints these impose upon our freedom to experience the world in an arbitrary culturally determined manner. For instance our brains are designed in a genetically predetermined way so that we are attracted to sex, food and power. No culture or child rearing techniques have yet been found that can successfully wipe these attractions from the slate.

 

But Pinker is committed to a tenant of evolutionary psychology and socio-biology recognizing genetics as the only evolutionary replicator and therefore ultimately responsible for all evolutionary design. We will refer to this school as the ‘biological slate’ school. The proponents of this school are forced into a bit of a muddle for they must argue not only against the slate being blank but also that it is fully filled by ones genetic heritage and inalterable by culture except in a manner determined by the genes. They must ignore the extravagant complexities designed and maintained by cultural processes and write them off as being almost accidental; due to the undesigned reaction of brains evolved for survival in hunter-gatherer societies finding themselves in a novel environment. This reduces possibilities for explanations of the exquisite complexity of modern society to being undesigned and essentially a fluke. Surely this flies in the face of the facts. There are no genetic differences between cultures that can account for cultural differences. Any human infant can be raised in any human culture and will become an integrated member of that culture. If we carefully trace any given culture or component of a culture backwards in time we see clear evidence of evolution typified by replication, small variations and differential survival. This evolution is not reflected in the genome. What is its source? As Lee Smolin notes we currently have only one scientific explanation in our arsenal.

 

There is only one mode of explanation I know of, developed by science, to explain why a system has parameters that lead to much more complexity than typical values of those parameters. This is natural selection.

 

Once we accept the operation of natural selection in the cultural arena, implying memetics or something similar, much clarity is gained.

 

Pinker argues that a child’s similarity to its parents is to be explained by genetics; their shared genetics. He asserts that different child rearing techniques make little difference to what kind of person the child becomes. We are left unclear as to details of the differences in child rearing techniques or the resulting lack of differences in kind of a person he has in mind and in fairness he may have in mind only a limited range within modern societies but he does imply that genetics is decisive in fixing the important attributes of what kind of people we are. If we are to take a broad definition of child rearing techniques, one that includes the entire socialization process his position must be that any differences in the kind of person between a streets savvy Londoner and a bush savvy Amazonian hunter-gatherer are genetically determined. Clearly this is a false argument. Perhaps biological slate proponents, such as Pinker, are merely emphasising the importance of our biological heritage to the kinds of people we are and do not mean to imply it can explain all of cultural evolution.

 

Memetics can explain the differences in the kinds of people we are as a product of cultural evolution and its explanation both complements and integrates the biological and blank slate schools. Human infants are born with a fully determined biological slate and a blank memetic slate. They have biologically determined meme handling abilities and preferences for memes. These abilities and preferences differ between individuals due to genetic diversity in the coding of these characteristics contained within our species gene pool. Infants are born with a blank memetic slate, that is they have no memetic content, but following their genetically determined predilection for imitation immediately start building this content by imitating those with whom they come into contact. Cultures have a memetic heritage that is often passed on to youngsters through a socialization process largely composed of the copying of memes. This heritage is composed of memetic content such as language, legends, art forms, warfare techniques and ways of making a living.

 

All types of memetic copying, including socialization, involve copying with variations and differential survival; the hallmarks of evolution. The details of differential survival and hence the direction in which cultural evolution proceeds is determined by both biological and memetic factors. If a culture has driven their most common game species to near extinction and is left with only a larger, less accessible game species possessing a thicker hide, their biological instinct for survival may lead them to adopt memes for more effective arrow and spear design. As another example argued by Boyer, we may have a biological propensity, evolved as an aid for navigating our socially complex primate past, to interpret causation in many natural phenomena as due to human intentionality and that this predilection has favoured the evolution of religious explanations attributing the causation of events to the intentions of witches, ghosts and gods or other beings resembling humans.[xxxi] Memetics would predict the survival of religious memes conforming to such a biological preference.

 

More purely memetic forces are also important is the direction of memetic evolution. Many memes only have meaning in relation to other memes. For instance a nuance in arrow design will only make sense and be capable of adoption by those who have a well developed memeplex relating to that particular tradition of arrow design. Not only is adoption of a particular arrow design meme motivated by biological preferences for aids to survival but also by previous memetic arrow design choices made by that particular culture.

 

Finally we may have cultural evolution proceeding in directions independent of biological preferences. A favourite example is memes for fewer children that have been widely adopted by empowered women in practically all cultures. This cultural trend is not just independent of biological preference; it opposes biological fitness usually defined as the number of grand children one produces. The details of this process reveal that the biological preference for children is mentally manifested by a strong attraction to having sex. Memetic evolution has cleverly subverted this biological intention by developing birth control devices allowing us to decouple the biological preference for sex from its conceptual consequences. This decoupling allows the evolution of memes pertaining to family size to escape the influence of the biological imperative and enter a more purely memetic environment. As Blackmore points out, due to increased available time, women with fewer children may be more effective at spreading their memes, including memes for smaller family size than are women with larger families.

 

The direction of memetic evolution is influenced by both our memetic and genetic heritage. Memes compete for survival in an environment of human minds that are an intricate blend of genetic and memetic creation. While our genetic heritage continues to be important in shaping memetic evolution we should expect its relative importance to dwindle for a number of reasons including:

1)    The genetically derived components of the environment in which memes evolve are relatively static while the memetic components are transforming the environment at an accelerating rate.

2)   Memes like genes exist for no other reason than that they have found a way to survive. They owe no allegiance to any other arbiter. As memetic evolution explores its design space it will find designs, like memes for small family size, which sacrifice biological interests in the service of memetic interests.

3)   Cultural adaptations often enhance the ability of memes to survive. As Dawkins first noted evolutionary replicators gain an enhanced probability of survival if they possess the qualities of fecundity, longevity and fidelity. Memetic evolution continues to produce memetic products with these qualities for the more effective spreading of memes such as writing, arithmetic, the printing press, radio and the internet.

 

We must also note that memetic evolution primarily produces adaptations in the form of memetic products. Adaptations are knowledge. Our world is becoming filled with memetic products containing knowledge of how to perpetuate their associated memes.

Evolution of the selfplex

An initial challenge to our explanation of selfplex evolution, using the analytical tools supplied by memetics, is the gradual loss of dominance of the ‘subservient self’ and emergence of the ‘individual self’ which took place on a notable scale near the end of the 14th century. Taking one step further back we might look at the nature and function of the memeplex supporting the ‘subservient self’.

 

A form of cultural chaos followed the retreat and disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. As it receded the exposed populations were physically and culturally vulnerable to those on the attack; a succession of Germanic and Asiatic invaders. In some cases as with the Huns these new comers did not stay long and after looting and pillaging the conquered area they were often satisfied with moving on or collecting tribute. The defeat of Attila the Hun by a last gasp Roman military masterpiece near Paris in 451 is credited by some as saving Europe from a prolonged occupation by a very foreign Asiatic culture and as a consequence is singled out as one of a handful of the most consequential military engagements of all times. In other cases such as the Vandal occupation of much of what is now France and Spain or the Angle’s, Saxon’s and Jute’s occupation of England, the invaders took control of the culture and settled. Reacting to this environment of short lived cultural units, memetic evolution selected those memes supporting greater cultural unit survivability.  

 

Slowly the succession on invaders diminished and some stability was gained. Due to their Roman past a common cultural trait of most of the original inhabitants of Western Europe was Catholicism and the new Germanic invaders, though not usually Catholics were adherents to some type of Christianity or other religion not totally incompatible.  The Roman Catholic Church survived the collapse of the Western Empire as its strongest existing cultural institution and successfully set about converting most leaders to its faith. Some consolidation of territories was made by these Christian rulers with the active involvement of the Pope. The newly fledged Christian Europe soon faced a new threat from Muslim ascendancy. Spain was occupied and the rest of Europe saved from occupation only by the Christian victory at the battle of Tours in 732.  Coastal Europe faced continual raiding and occupation by the Scandinavian Norse for several hundred years but those that occupied territory eventually embraced Christianity and were assimilated by their occupied culture at least as much as they assimilated it.

 

Gradually the threat of assimilation, at least by a non-European cultural unit, faded although there were close calls as in 1241 when the Mongol army annihilated the combined European armies, but put off the occupation of Europe in favour of returning to Mongolia to take part in an internal political squabble, and again as late as 1643 when the Ottoman Turks invaded Eastern Europe as far as Vienna. In this relatively calm environment memes evolved supporting a stable social system known as feudalism. Feudalism’s meaning is derived from a Latin root meaning obligation and was enabled by the evolutionary success and widespread adoption of the subservient self memeplex. 

 

Feudal society is…characterised by the legal subjection of a large part of the peasantry to a hereditary landholding elite exercising administrative and judicial power on the basis of reciprocal private undertakings.[xxxii]

 

Essentially feudalism divided social roles between Lords, Vassals and peasants. Lords owned lands and granted them to vassals, or local nobility, who in turn allowed peasants to work the land. Obligations in return for rights to use of the land were composed of subservience to the Lord, military service from the Vassals and labour or food from the peasants. Peasants, who formed the majority of the population, had few rights and were subservient to their nobles. Any peasant disputes or complaints could only be appealed to representatives of their masters. The single occupation of Lords and Vassals was warfare; often amongst themselves. In this environment of precarious cultural units, memes strengthening them were selected for. Stability of the cultural unit, a basic requirement of meme survival, depended upon strong leaders, supported by a population with the best memes, to fend off rivals and consolidate their power.  Methods of warfare evolved rapidly. For example, in the cultural turmoil of post-Roman Normandy a succession of invaders both Germanic and Norse overlaid a state of perennial internal warfare. Their evolution of memes for improved archery and uses of warhorses as cavalry proved decisive for control of England at the battle of Hastings over the Saxons with their less evolved forms of warfare. 

 

A synergistic relationship developed between Church and Lords where the Church authenticated the Lords rights to the land via divine appointment and the Lords defended the Church against the spread of heretical memes and threats from other religions notably Muslims. An event illustrating the ferocity with which Church and nobels protected this mutually reinforcing memeplex is their reaction to the Cathar heresy in southern France.

 

…the Pope ordered his legates to preach the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. This war threw the whole of the nobility of the north of France against that of the south, possibly instigated by a papal decree stating that all land owned by Cathars could be confiscated at will. As the area was full of Cathar sympathisers, this made the entire area a target for northern nobles looking to gain new lands. It is thus hardly surprising that the barons of the north flocked south to do battle for the Church.

In one famous incident in 1209, most of Béziers was slaughtered by the Catholic forces headed by the Papal legate. Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, was asked how to distinguish between the Catholic and Cathars, and allegedly answered, "Kill them all, God will know his own". [xxxiii]

 

The ‘subservient self’ supporting a society focusing all available resources on the warrior class in return for its protection proved to be successful in strengthening cultural unit integrity and thereby propagating its memes. Stable nations or principalities began to emerge throughout Western Europe notably in France, Germany, Spain and Britain. The success of these cultural units contained the seeds of their destruction as the subservient selfplex is most effective in protecting vulnerable cultural units. In cultural units under less stress the survival value of these memes is lessened. The roots of the eventual breakdown of this memeplex may be traced to events as early as the 14th century typified as peasant revolts.

 

Before the 14th century, popular uprisings were not unknown, for example uprisings at a manor house against an unpleasant overlord, however they were local in scope. This changed in the 14th and 15th centuries when new downward pressures on the poor resulted in mass movements of popular uprisings across Europe. To provide an example of how common and widespread these movements became, in Germany between 1336 and 1525 there were no less than sixty phases of militant peasant unrest. Most of the revolts were an expression of those below who desired to share in the wealth, status and well being of those more fortunate. In the end they were almost always defeated and the nobles ruled the day. [xxxiv]

 

Faced with reduced threats of extinction and assimilation by foreign cultural units memetic evolution was freed to evolve greater diversity. The invention and widespread use of the printing press provided acceleration in the diversity and accessibility of memes. The protestant reformation made the rich memeplex of Christianity more accessible to the masses as they were preached in native languages and the expansion of trade and mercantilism made a wider variety of memetic products available.

 

The spreading of memes outside of feudal bounds was typified by the activity occurring in Europe’s great cities such as London and Paris. Central to late medieval London were the various guilds conducting its trade. These guilds effectively controlled the city as they elected the Lord Mayor of London. Besides their economic importance guilds were tailored for the protection and spreading of memes not directly supportive of the feudal system.

 

The guild was made up by experienced and confirmed experts in their field of handicraft. They were called master craftsmen. Before a new employee could rise to the level of mastery, he had to go through a schooling period during which he was first called an apprentice. After this period he could rise to the level of journeyman. Apprentices would typically not learn more than the most basic techniques until they were trusted by their peers to keep the guild's or company's secrets.[xxxv]

 

London’s population increased from 50,000 in 1340 to 200,000 by 1600 and then accelerated by doubling to 400,000 during the next 50 years. This growth was not the internal growth of a stable community; it was almost wholly through immigration from the countryside and abroad as numbers of recorded deaths within London was higher than those of recorded births.  This made cities such as London centers for the mixture and hybridization of memes. Feudal authority was not easily exercised within the city. The always fresh supply of heads on pikes lining London Bridge, one of the main gateways to London, served to remind those entering the city of limits of the risks of opposing authority, but might also indicated to a thoughtful traveller the likelihood of encountering memes judged inappropriate by authority within the city walls.  The suburbs outside the city were free of even the Lord Mayor’s authority and were the area where wild entertainments grew up, some of them serving as extremely effective meme factories such as Shakespeare’s theatre. Centers of learning and print shops were accessible as was news of events from around the world. In short these cities made accessible memes unprecedented in lack of support for authority as well as their number and diversity.

 

What kind of self could evaluate and take advantage of this meme treasure? Certainly not the subservient self with its vow of fealty to authority.  Here was a new niche demanding a qualitatively new kind of self who could organize, evaluate and utilize a great diversity of memes according to what ‘I’ think, what ‘I’ like and what ‘I’ will do. A dynamic self able to take advantage of the best memes and exercising independent authority to act on them was called for. Such a selfplex, once evolved, spread like a plaque due to its attractions and advantages. Shakespeare, upon joining the London theatre scene in the late 16th century, met some newly fledged independent selves, especially in the person of Robert Greene and his associates, and was able to create plays that are their memetic products. The individual self was a hit with a huge audience, spanning the full range of social roles from Queen Elizabeth to the rabble in the pit and served to propel this meme throughout the English speaking world and beyond.

 

Once unleashed the individual self meme, like Dennet’s universal acid, evolves quickly to explore design space beyond all previous constraint. The logic of the self as the center and measurer of all things is inescapable. Already Shakespeare is able to presents an example of the completed process in Falstaff. His own advantage is the measure of all things and the only consideration of weight in his mental calculus. Notions of outside constraint in the form of honour, duty, honesty or reputation are examined and easily rejected in favour of self advantage.

 

One of the attractions of the independent self facilitating its adoption was the improved status it bestowed. Evolutionary psychology recognizes status as highly sought after by all primates including ourselves. In the feudal system peasants, the majority of the population clearly experienced inferior status to their betters. A hallmark of the status of Lords and nobles was their relative capacity for independent thought and action (as well as serving as a major source of unending armed struggles amongst themselves).  A major criterion, across all cultures, in women’s mate selection process is the perceived status of the prospective mate. For those individuals able to adopt the status of an individual self the opportunity was often irresistible.

 

In fact placing the self at the center resonates well with many facets of our nature as described by evolutionary psychology giving individual self memes an advantage in their struggle for survival with alternative memes. Many of our most basic inclinations revolve around procuring the best possible resources, mates and status for ourselves. Human society must always enforce a balance between the advantage of the individual and the advantage of the community. It must find win-win solutions where at least some of the benefits of community are shared amongst the individuals and where individuals are constrained from cheating or otherwise exploiting the system beyond a point causing its destruction. With an individual selfplex evaluating and weighing such situations became much more transparent. Falstaff was a portrayal of an extraordinarily self centered individual and such extreme rascals are rarely encountered. Most of us adopt a more conservative strategy in weighing the risks and rewards as opportunities are presented. However the fact that the individual self claims the authority to make such decisions facilitates a case by case evaluation characterized by a greater degree of transparency and rationality than when such decisions are determined by authority or tradition.

John Locke

The simple mechanism of placing interests of the individual self at our memetic center is the basis of cultural evolution’s transformation of our cultural institutions over the past several hundred years. New types of win-win situations able to produce greater cultural complexity were available in a design space containing individual selves. Cultural evolution producing the institutions of a modern society shaped by the interest of the individual self took some time to work out but the underlying logic became clear to a number of individual selves very early on; notably John Locke.

 

John Locke was born in Wrington, Somerset, about 10 miles from Bristol, England, in 1632. His father, a lawyer, served as a captain of cavalry for Parliament during the English Civil War. In 1647, Locke was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London. After completing his studies there, he obtained admission to the college of Christ Church, Oxford. The dean of the college at the time was John Owen, vice-chancellor of the university and also a Puritan.

 

Locke was awarded a bachelor's degree in 1656 and a master's degree in 1658. Although he never became a medical doctor, Locke obtained a bachelor of medicine in 1674. He studied medicine extensively during his time at Oxford, working with such noted virtuosi as Robert Boyle, Thomas Willis, Robert Hooke and Richard Lower. In 1666, he met Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury... Cooper was impressed with Locke and persuaded him to become part of his retinue.

 

Shaftesbury, as a founder of the Whig movement, exerted great influence on Locke's political ideas. Locke became involved in politics when Shaftesbury became Lord Chancellor in 1672.

 

Locke had excellent opportunity to acquire memes making up an individual selfplex through both vertical and horizontal transmission: an educated, non-conformist protestant father who served on parliament’s side in the civil war against the king, a good education in a Puritan school, work with some of the foremost British Empiricists such as Boyle and Hooke, A political career in the Whig movement. He combined this identity with great gifts as a theoretician; someone able to analyse his thoughts as an individual self and uncannily draw the logical conclusions. He produced foundational meme products of his own; seminal writings on religious tolerance, responsible government and the nature of the self, that proved highly influential in shaping cultural evolution up to the present day. His reflections on the pleasure experienced with his reasoning process involved in understanding the nature of the individual self reveal a great charm.

 

He that hawks at larks and sparrows has no less sport, though a much less considerable quarry, than he that flies at nobler game: and he is little acquainted with the subject of this treatise--the Understanding--who does not know that, as it is the most elevated faculty of the soul, so it is employed with a greater and more constant delight than any of the other. Its searches after truth are a sort of hawking and hunting, wherein the very pursuit makes a great part of the pleasure. Every step the mind takes in its progress towards Knowledge makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least.

For the understanding, like the eye, judging of objects only by its own sight, cannot but be pleased with what it discovers, having less regret for what has escaped it, because it is unknown. Thus he who has raised himself above the alms-basket, and, not content to live lazily on scraps of begged opinions, sets his own thoughts on work, to find and follow truth, will (whatever he lights on) not miss the hunter's satisfaction; every moment of his pursuit will reward his pains with some delight; and he will have reason to think his time not ill spent, even when he cannot much boast of any great acquisition.

 

Henry VIII’s actions in supplanting the Roman Catholic Church in Britain with the Church of England 150 year’s earlier had served to fuel almost non-stop cultural turmoil. Subsequent monarchs had switched back and forth on the official compulsory religion, plots on both sides often involving foreign allies and invasion were never far from the forefront, a civil war had been fought, a king had been executed and the puritan government in turn replaced with a restoration of the monarchy. Locke’s analysis published in A Letter on Toleration reasoned that the individual self should have authority in choosing their religion and thus offered a means of removing this contentious issue from the political front-burner by championing the principal of the separation of church and state.

 

His Two Treatises on Government may well be considered the foundation document of modern democracy. The divine right of kings as a basis of government is rejected and he claims that government is only legitimate if it preserves and protects the rights of individuals and receives their consent to govern. If this consent is lacking, he claims the government should dissolve and be replace with one having the consent of the governed.

 

These two writings were highly influential with the Enlightenment movement, spreading amongst the leisured and educated classes of Western Europe. The bill of rights of 1689, empowering parliament over the monarch, was directly related to  Locke’s memes (he was part of the movement that wrote it) and many consider the American Declaration of Independence to be a reproduction, with variation, of Locke’s work.

 

Underlying these great works concerning religion and government was his notion of the individual self which he fully described in his An Essay on Human Understanding. This analysis of human nature, as Pinker makes clear in his The Blank Slate: The Denial of Human Nature, has become the basis for the current consensus amongst Social Scientists, a view Pinker characterises as ‘The Blank Slate’.

 

Indeed Locke reacting to the prevalent notion of his times that the mind was imprinted at birth with Christian theological principals, claimed that exactly the opposite was the case; that the mind at birth is best modeled upon a blank sheet of paper on which all of its subsequent understanding would be written as a result of the individual’s experience. That is Experience tempered by ‘reflection’, for Locke clearly describes the process as an individual self adopting memes according to the rationality of a purely memetic selection process unconstrained by any other considerations. His ideal model is an individual, reminiscent of Descartes’ philosophical journey, who starting with a blank slate gains factual experience of the world and its ideas via his senses and rationally ‘reflects’ upon these experiences to derive logically correct understandings that are then written to his mental page. Locke himself came close to realizing this ideal mental process as he rationally worked out the implications of his model of the individual self’s logical influence on the institutions of church and state. Perhaps we should see his work in this area as a successful prediction of the course of cultural evolution based on his understanding of the individual self operating an environment where it could select memes purely according to its own advantage.

 

Locke does acknowledge some drag on this process, some factors inhibiting the ideal from being realized.

 

I easily grant that there are great numbers of opinions which, by men of different countries, educations, and tempers, are received and embraced as first and unquestionable principles; many whereof, both for their absurdity as well as oppositions to one another, it is impossible should be true. But yet all those propositions, how remote soever from reason, are so sacred somewhere or other, that men even of good understanding in other matters, will sooner part with their lives, and whatever is dearest to them, than suffer themselves to doubt, or others to question, the truth of them.

 

In fact he grants that this ideal is seldom realized and gives very cogent reasons why the copying of memes is done with minor variation and cultural evolution consequently occurs at only a moderate rate.

 

There is scarcely any one so floating and superficial in his understanding, who hath not some reverenced propositions, which are to him the principles on which he bottoms his reasonings, and by which he judgeth of truth and falsehood, right and wrong; which some, wanting skill and leisure, and others the inclination, and some being taught that they ought not to examine, there are few to be found who are not exposed by their ignorance, laziness, education, or precipitancy, to take them upon trust.

 

….And where is the man to be found that can patiently prepare himself to bear the name of whimsical, sceptical, or atheist; which he is sure to meet with, who does in the least scruple any of the common opinions? And he will be much more afraid to question those principles, when he shall think them, as most men do, the standards set up by God in his mind, to be the rule and touchstone of all other opinions. And what can hinder him from thinking them sacred, when he finds them the earliest of all his own thoughts, and the most reverenced by others?

 

In fact the personal and social forces Locke lists as discouraging the formation of an individual self in authority over the memetic slate might be very similar to those put forward by members of the biological slate school such as Pinker. Some form of the biological slate model of human nature has always been with us. The subservient self, severely constraining memetic for reasons of individual and group survival, was such a model. In fact Pinker’s insistence on parental genetics forming the ‘kinds of people’ we are resonates well with pre-scientific arguments faced by enlightenment thinkers on the importance of ‘breeding’ to human nature. What was new was the understanding of enlightenment thinkers such as Locke that there was a component of human nature, a memetic component, which is not a result of breeding, which is a blank slate at birth. As Locke puts it how can our minds inherit innate impressions if children do not have them?

 

If therefore children and idiots have souls, have minds, with those impressions upon them, they must unavoidably perceive them, and necessarily know and assent to these truths; which since they do not, it is evident that there are no such impressions. For if they are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate?

 

What was new was an individual selfplex spreading to men such as Locke that made conscious a self perceived as having authority to decide the contents to be written upon the blank memetic slate.

 

Today we can perhaps view Locke’s work on church and state as a remarkably prescient analysis of cultural evolution played out in the memetic arena of the individual self. The fact that Locke was able to work out these implications over a period of decades whereas their penetration of society has been much slower must argue for the operation of constraints on the memetic evolution and adoption of the individual self. In America, over two hundred years after adopting a constitution featuring the division of church and state, a popular Attorney General can publicly declare ‘America has been different. We have no king but Jesus.’ Clearly the adoption of the self meme and the arena in which it operates has encountered limits that must be examined for a fuller picture of cultural evolution.

 

Cultural Evolution in the arena of the individual self

 

Locke was an exemplary instance of an individual self unleashed on the political memes of his time. An individual self, reserving for themselves the authority to examine, select and organize political memes according to their own interests could hardly fail to conclude that the individual self was entitled to wield authority in the cultural political arena. Constraints on the acceptance of this conclusion, and delays in reforming political institutions to reflect this conclusion, were mainly due to the rate at which the individual selfplex was able to penetrate the population.

 

Accurate quantitative measure illustrating the rate of penetration of the individual selfplex are rare as it as the concept is imprecise and presently poorly defined for quantification. One might consider literacy rates, known within rough accuracy, as an aid to this end. Literacy may be considered to have generally been a prerequisite for the adoption of an individual self. Encountering the requisite number and diversity of memes to organize and evaluate required for one to see themselves primarily in this role would have been extremely difficult without the ability to read.  Even obtaining a quantitative historical measure of the ability of people to read must be inferred from indirect evidence. Below are some graphical data describing the percentage of common legal documents filed in England between 1580 and 1920 on which the subject was able to authenticate by signing their name rather than making their mark.[xxxvi] That this percentage would grossly exceed the percentage of the general population able to read must be inferred for at least two reasons:

1)    Signing of ones name is a much more rudimentary literacy skill than is reading and would in almost all instances be obtained prior to gaining an ability to read.

2)   Being the subject of even common written legal documents such as wills was not evenly spread throughout the general population. Those at the bottom of the social structure would be less likely to be the subject of such documents and less like to be literate.

 

However the shape of the graph may be illustrative of historical literacy trends and the graph itself might serve as an upper bound to the ability to read within the general population. This trend appears broadly reflect the expansion of the franchise electing parliaments from early times when only large property owners were enfranchised to universal suffrage in 1928.

 

A sharp increase in literacy may be seen prior to the English Civil war and the triumph of Parliament. A slower rise continues up to the Glorious Rebellion of 1688 and the Bill of Rights and then a slower but steady rise to around 1830 may coincide with the slow and steady pressure in English political life for expansion of the franchise culminating in the Reform Act of 1832 when the franchise was obtained by upper middle class males. Subsequently the rapid rise in literacy is in step with the further gradual expansion of the franchise eventually including all men and women by 1928. It is interesting to note that women, the last major group of the population to be enfranchised, also lagged in literacy rates up until the time of their enfranchisement.

 

Literacy in England, 1580-1920

literacy

Sources:  1750s-1920s, Schofield (1973), men and women who can sign marriage resisters.  The north, 1630s-1740s, Houston (1982), witnesses who can sign court depositions.  Norwich Diocese, 1580s-1690s, -------(19--), witnesses who can sign ecclesiastical court declarations.

 

 

Reading books is an ideal means of memetic transmission supporting the individual self. We must remember that memes tend to be transmitted in reinforcing packages that are highly reflective of the technology and institutions employed in their transmission. Marshal McLuan referred to this phenomenon as the media being the message.

 

For instance prior to the printing press books were produced in the form of hand copied illuminated manuscripts. They were extremely labour intensive, expensive to produce and usually written in Latin the language of the clerical and intellectual elites. As a result their production was largely financed and managed by the Roman Catholic Church or some other wealth institution of patron. Reinforcing this control, the Church and many monarchs reserved to right to ban the publication of any work judge not in their interests on pain of death. As a result the works published were mainly copies of existing works very much serving the interests of the publishing institutions and the memes they spread were selected for this purpose. 

 

With the invention and spread of the printing press the cost of producing copies fell and the speed increased dramatically. New decentralized interests controlled the printing presses and the memes being spread. These interests were largely those of the selfplex.

 

The politics of censorship made [the printers] the natural opponents not only of church officials but also of lay bureaucrats, regulations and red tape. As independent agents, they supplied organs of publicity and covert support to a 'third force' that was not affiliated with any one church or one state. This third force was, however, obviously affiliated with the interests of early modern capitalists.[xxxvii]

     

During its first 50 to 60 years printing largely focused on reproducing the existing classical body of written knowledge but upon the completion of this task and responding to the demand of the growing literacy it fuelled many new types of printed material and memes were published. Under a deluge of printed pamphlets, hand bills, plays and books transmitting a wide diversity of memes the censorial bureaucracy was overwhelmed and only able to respond to the most acute threats.

 

Newer meme transmission technologies such as newspapers, radio and TV are somewhat more reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts then they are of the printing press in that they require large capital investments and are managed by institutions. As might be expected the types of memes they transmit are largely supportive of their institutional sponsors. Only with the internet do we again see the creation of a modern memetic technology supporting the selfplex.

 

Undoubtedly our species’ biological slate provides us with potential for many divergent responses regarding authority.  Authoritative and subservient roles, usually based on status within a group, are practised within all primate species and were probably selected by biological evolution for the increased protection and access to resources offered to individuals within a well organized, effective group.  The situation in which an individual will adopt an authoritative rather than a subservient stance appears exceedingly complex. Our close relatives, such as Chimpanzees, exercise authority through forming alliances with other individuals the details of which shift with circumstance. Often aggressive displays of authority by one individual are responded to with displays of subservience by others; an exercise reinforcing the authoritative relationship.

 

As with our near relatives, individuals of our species can switch between roles of authority and subservience on the strength of subtle social stimuli. It is a chilling fact that there are a high proportion of individuals who will exercise authority, to what is considered, an abusive extent, when other unprotected individuals are placed within their powers. In response to this predilection of ours, a hallmark of modern society has been the continued growth of the reach of law to protect individuals in such situations including choir boys under the authority of priests to women under the authority of husbands.

 

Most individuals will exercise authority within a jurisdiction they judge appropriate and most will also submit to authority in other jurisdictions if there are clear signals that it is in their best interests to do so. Probably due to our biological slate, the exercise of authority is attractive and is the first choice of individuals in many situations where benefits are judged to be high and risks low. That, other things being equal, authority is preferred over subservience, is not much of a surprise and follows logically from the biological slate model as primates in roles of authority enjoy enhance biological fitness. This observation is supported by recent Y chromosome studies conducted within a cross section of peoples living on the planet today revealing that over 16 million men may be directly descended from Genghis Khan.[xxxviii]

 

For early hunter gathering societies the question may have been moot when applied to the memetic realm. In such societies, usually consisting of less then 150 people, group members tended to view themselves as ‘the people’. Other people and their memes were considered alien and there was little communication with outside groups. The memes adopted were of a limited variety, mostly passed through vertical transmission and changed only slowly over time. Both group and individual survival depended heavily on the faithful adoption and execution of the limited memes of their cultural repertoire. Not much in the way of either authority or individual choice was involved in selecting the group’s memes.

 

With the advent of more complex societies based on technologies such as agriculture cultural units became larger, more stratified and varied reflecting a wider variety of memes and causing meme selection to be more of an issue. Competition between cultural units was intense and its outcome largely dependent upon the relative strength bestowed by memetic resources.  Intense competition, especially warfare, provided a selection pressure for cultural units able to adopt efficient memes not only for warfare but also for unity, coordination and organization. This meant establishing clear lines of authority and enforcing subservience to it.  Under this selection pressure political and religious institutions evolved able to enforce their authority over the memes circulating in their cultural units. Faced with these institutions, individuals usually took the wise course or adopting a subservient attitude.

 

An unprecedented concurrence of events leading to the enlightenment period of western European culture occurred greatly weakening these authoritative cultural institutions.  Their ability to protect the survival of the cultural unit; the sustaining selection pressure leading to their formation became less relevant. The institutions themselves suffered severe losses of power and confusion including the Reformation and the British experimentation with Republicanism. Lastly the institutions were ill equipped to control the exponential growth of in the number of competing memes due to factors such as: the printing press, explosive growth of cities, fracturing of religious institutions and the rise of science.

 

At first rare individuals dared to assume greater authority for the selection of their memes but given the predilection of individuals to usurp authority when it is safe to do so this number increased. Early adopters were often most talented memetic transmitters of memes and the works of those such as Shakespeare, Locke and Voltaire communicated memes of the individual selfplex in an infectious manner. Historically it was a pandemic infecting a large proportion of those who came in contact with it at least to some degree.  It has transformed the institutions of our culture and served to accelerate memetic evolution.

 

As with most infections the individual selfplex has encountered islands of immunity. Cultural institutions, namely church and state have fought continual rearguard actions to slow its spread and new institutions capable of posing a credible threat have evolved. We noted earlier that judging by its ability to transform cultural institutions, the wave of the selfplex may have reached its high water mark several decades ago. As always resistance to it has its roots in our biological slate.

 

Several researchers have noted that the hunter gather societies, in which our biological slate was adapted, were composed of a small group of people sharing almost identical memes. Our natural state and the one in which we tend to feel most at home consists of almost no cultural diversity. That many hunting gatherer people living today in similar cultures to those in which we evolved experience great anxiety, often expressed as murderous intentions, upon meeting anyone from a different culture is well documented and speaks to a biological slate uncomfortable with memetic diversity.[xxxix] [xl] Memes though are at the core of our species’ advantages and we have evolved memetic systems such as our concept of self to allow us to work more harmoniously with them.

 

The individual self is an example of such mechanisms. Placing ‘ourselves’ at the center of memetic organization provides a level of comfort. It also unleashed the evolutionary power of memetics. Evolutionary advances towards greater complexity consist of exploring design space for the few good designs providing win-win situations. The adoption of the individual selfplex has allowed the exploration and adoption of win-win designs resulting in the evolution of cultural institutions such as science, democracy and market economies. The same self centered principles are common to each of these advances:

1)    The individual accumulates empirical facts and evidence to be found in its memetic environment relating to its own self interest.

2)   The individual processes these memes in a rational manner to find win-win situations furthering its self interest but often involving others.

3)   As experience is gained and successes achieved the institutions involved are reformed to further facilitate the process.

 

The major differentiation between these institutions is the self interest they promote: science a thirst for knowledge, democracy the regulation of our social and political affairs and market economies the procurement of goods and services. Each of these institutions functions best when the individual is able to deal in a rational and authoritative manner within its memetic environment. An optimal citizen in a democracy must be informed with the most factual information concerning threats and opportunities facing its society and must be able to come to rational decisions on the best policy alternatives. An optimal player in the market economy is fully informed with factual information concerning goods and services available and able to rationally weight this information in light of its own preferences and values to make economic decisions.

 

Given the huge acceleration in the volume of relevant memes which an individual must sort through in order to approach this optimal model many have reacted by withdrawing from the fray. Francis Bacon, who died in , has been touted as the last individual to know all knowledge. Now we are completely swamped, the deluge of new printed information alone is at least thousands of times greater than can be absorbed by any individual. As we approach a single worldwide cultural unit we are increasingly confronted with memes seemingly alien and disturbing given our own memetic heritage. While there may be some joy to being in authority over our memetic landscape there is also responsibility and that can mean failure, which is not a joy at all. As only individuals have authority to make the major decisions in their lives: personal, economic, worldview and political we have no one to blame but ourselves when we experience divorce, poverty or feelings of meaninglessness.

 

It is little wonder the appeal of the optimal individual selfplex is receding. In this situation many are ready to abdicate the responsibilities of authority and in response institutions are evolving to help lessen our burden.  Individuals, when free to choose their conversation, usually prefer gossip.[xli]  That we find gossip a natural and comfortable memetic activity is probable related to the details of our biological slate and is a topic of speculation by evolutionary psychologists. Gossiping is a non-threatening activity we can undertake with a small group of intimates with largely shared views. With gossip the self is still at the center, still responsible for its own opinion, but much less threatened then when trying to deal with, say, the thorny issues confronting the optimal individual self in the political realm. The institutions of democracy have responded by placing gossip at the heart of politics. Many of the great democratic leaders of the 20th century had mistresses: Churchill, Roosevelt and Eisenhower, but in their time this issue was judged to be outside of politics. Not any longer. The great ideological battles of the 20th century have receded from sight, we are now comfortable, with the triumph of liberal democracy that tough political decision no longer need be discussed and we can indulge instead in gossiping about the leader’s personal characteristics. This focus on gossip and scandal is the focus of huge marketing campaigns in many election campaigns. Fantastic sums are spent in order to muddy the rational decision based on the most objective information required by individual selves to perform their democratic duties. It is difficult to conclude that this money is not effectively spent.

 

Religions have never ceased issuing their injunction to empower them as our authoritative guide in life. The Roman Catholic Church still presumes authority on the legality of social issues such as homo-sexual marriages and also personal issues such as family planning. They encourage us to lay down our burden and submit to an authority greater than ourselves. The fastest growing religions throughout the world though are fundamentalist.  Their advice is that we should submit ourselves entirely to the will of God, as interpreted by them, accept Jesus Christ, Mohammad, or some other deity, as our personal saviour. Failure to comply we are warned will result in a literal everlasting torture. This is the type of submission US attorney general Ashcroft had in mind when he advised Americans ‘We have no king but Jesus’.

 

 

 


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[i] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. P. 231.

[ii] Bloom, Harold. (1998). Shakespeare: the invention of the human. Berkley Publishing Group, New York. P. XX.

[iii] Bloom, Harold. (1998). Shakespeare: the invention of the human. Berkley Publishing Group, New York. P. XIX.

[iv] Greenblatt, Stephen (2004). Will in the World. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. P. 299

[v] Quoted from :Groatsworth of Wit (1592) on the Upstart Crow website: http://www.clemson.edu/caah/cedp/crow/ Last viewed March 18, 2005

[vi] Bloom, Harold. (1998). Shakespeare: the invention of the human. Berkley Publishing Group, New York. P 313

[vii] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia website: http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Cathar. Last viewed October 9, 2005.

[viii] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestantism . Last viewed: April 1, 2005

[ix] Quoted from: Infoplease website: http://www.infoplease.com/encyclopedia/1protdenom.html  . Last viewed: April 3, 2005

[x] As viewed on the American Scientist Online website. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/InterviewTypeDetail/assetid/41240 .  Last viewed September 16, 2005.

[xi] Quoted from: Merriam-Webster Online: http://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?book=Dictionary&va=democracy . Last viewed: April 2, 2005

[xii] Quoted from: Freedom House website:  http://www.freedomhouse.org/news/pr120799.html. last viewed: April 2, 2005

[xiii] Burden Barry C. Voter Turnout and the National Election Studies." 2000. Political Analysis 8:389-98.

[xv] As viewed on the Adam Smith Institute website. http://www.adamsmith.org/smith/won-intro.htm Last viewed August 14, 2005.

[xvi] As viewed on the Adam Smith Institute website. http://www.adamsmith.org/smith/quotes.htm#jump2  Last viewed August 14, 2005.

[xvii] As viewed on The Royal Society website.   http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/page.asp?id=2176 . Last viewed September 15, 2005.

 

[xviii] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[xix] Einstein Albert, (November 9, 1930), Science and Religion, New York Times Magazine

[xx] Einstein, spoken to Heidi Born, wife of physicist Max Born Einstein, A Life, p. 159

[xxi] As viewed on the American Scientist Online website. http://www.americanscientist.org/template/InterviewTypeDetail/assetid/41240 .  Last viewed September 16, 2005.

[xxii] As viewed on the Union of Concerned Scientists website. http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/interference/.  Last viewed September 20, 2005.

[xxiii] National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicators 1998 (Washington, D.C.), 2

[xxiv] Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable, A Dialogue on University Stewardship: New Responsibilities and Opportunities. Proceedings of a Roundtable Discussion (Washington, D.C.: 1998), 22.

[xxv] Bakan, Joel. (2004).  The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. Free Press, New York.

[xxvi] As viewed on Chomsky.info: The official Chomsky Site. Allan, Steven Robert. (2000). Chomsky’s Other Revolution. http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/20000221.htm  Last seen May 7, 2005

[xxvii] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press.

[xxviii] Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and Feldman, M.W. (1981). Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A Quantitative Approach. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press.

[xxix] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. P. 25.

[xxx] Iacoboni, M., "Understanding others: imitation, language, empathy" In: Perspectives on imitation: from cognitive neuroscience to social science, Hurley, S., and Chater, N. (Eds), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, in press

[xxxi] Boyer, Pascal (2001). Religion Explained. Basic Books, New York

[xxxii] As viewed on: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia website: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feudal_society. Last viewed October 21, 2005.

[xxxiii] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia website: http://www.reference.com/browse/wiki/Cathar. Last viewed October 21, 2005.

[xxxiv] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia website:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popular_revolts_in_late_medieval_Europe. Last viewed October 21, 2005.

[xxxv] Quoted from: Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia website:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guild . Last viewed October 21, 2005.

[xxxvii] Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 178.

[xxxviii] As viewed on the Nature@news.com website:  http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051024/full/051024-1.html Last viewed October, 26th 2005.

[xxxix] Diamond, Jared. (1997). Germs, Guns and Steel. London, Cape.

[xl] Blackmore S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press. P. 199.

[xli] Dunbar Robin (1996) Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. London. Faber and Faber.