The Prevalence of Memes

The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.  Albert Einstein


There is a memorable early scene in the 1998, sci-fi movie, “The Truman Show,” in which the twenty-something, Truman Burbank, while walking down a familiar street in his hometown of Seahaven, is suddenly confronted by an inexplicable incident.  Just a few yards ahead, a commercial light fixture has come crashing down from above.  Looking up to determine where the fixture could possibly have fallen from, Truman sees nothing but what he regards as open sky.  Whereas he is only puzzled at first, the event provides the first clue that eventually leads him to understand his real situation: he is living in a completely artificial world constructed by a television production company to maintain an internationally popular TV sitcom on twenty-four hours a day and monitored by thousands of cameras.  The place Truman thinks of as Seahaven is nothing but a movie set; his family, friends, and so on, all actors; his “sky” a huge dome, his “real life” situations, all contrived by the sit-com writers.  In short, Truman, the only innocent in the hoax, is being cruelly victimized for the revenue his show generates.  Happily, the entertaining movie ends with Truman’s revelation and escape from his confinement.

What brought the movie to mind was the thought that, in a way, we are all Trumans of a sort, being manipulated much as he by a mixture of benevolent and sinister, unseen forces.  Just as Truman assumed he could move about under his own volition, our supposed “free will” is also an illusion.  But how can this be?  Can we not  move about freely, engage in an occupation of our choosing, make friends with whom we choose, and revel in the poet’s declaration that we are the “masters of our souls?” The answer is an emphatic: no, we can’t.

The invisible forces of which I speak are the ideas handed down from one generation to the next.  Hereafter I’ll refer to them as “memes”—the term originated by Richard Dawkins, the eminent British biologist.  It is the thesis of this essay that the memes that shape our lives, our relationships, our institutions, our very civilization have been imprinted upon us practically at birth and we, unwittingly, carry them about through life.  Brainwashed from cradle to grave.

In short, we’re ruled by dead men.  Wise dead men, perhaps, but sadly—sometimes dangerously—out of touch.  The reader might well argue that sitting heads of state tend to be very much alive.  Quite so, I agree, but only as mouthpieces for the dead in which case the distinction is less important than it would at first appear—their speeches resonating with their publics only because of widely-held ideas previously implanted by other dead men.

The trouble is that very many of these ideas from the past range from the partially wrongheaded to downright self-destructive.  And, once deeply embedded in our brains, they can so distort our thinking as to overrule what might otherwise be rational decision making and common sense.  And it takes only one really bad decision to overwhelm a hundred good ones.  So time and time again we go plunging off the cliff fully convinced we’re doing the right thing.  It’s as though history has put a gun to our heads and threatens to pull the trigger at any moment.  It would seem a closer look at memes is warranted.


The earliest memes came bubbling up from the ooze of prehistory, were formulated by ancient philosophers during the classical era, passed on through the dark middle ages and into the Renaissance.  They were then, as they remain today, a highly varied bunch.  Some narrow in scope, some encompassing; some, by definition, topical and short-lived, some general and seemingly eternal; some reasonably correct, some blatantly wrong; some beneficial to humanity, some devoted to its destruction.

When the Renaissance philosophers in the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, biology—encountered this swarm of memes they managed to overcome many that were invalid. Galileo, for example, successfully overcame the prevailing theory of gravitation.  Copernicus mapped out a viable heliocentric system thus discarding Ptolemy’s fallacious geocentric version.  Likewise Harvey’s observations of the circulation of blood disproved, once and for all, Galen’s speculations on nonexistent bodily humors that had endured for centuries.  Thanks to these breakthroughs and countless others, the scientific method became established and enabled science to progress in the succeeding generations.

Outside the physical sciences it was a different picture.  True some beneficial memes of classical times were reinforced by the Age of Discovery thinkers and, fortunately, remain with us today.  Indeed, many features of our political, economic, and legal systems hearken back to ancient times. However, many more of these ancient memes, based as they were on pure conjecture and superstition were plain hogwash.  Nevertheless they had become so stubbornly entrenched, so widely held, so intermingled with better elements, so much a part of the prevailing culture, so impervious to change that they emerged from the Renaissance stronger than ever.

(As a footnote, one might have hoped that the Catholic Church, given its intellectual stature, would have helped battle these erroneous memes, but that was not to be.  At least not until centuries later when church authorities finally came to admit the church may have erred somewhat in defending its ossified beliefs too strenuously.  The canons it issued and the burnings at the stake back then were, they now agreed, may well have been overzealous interpretations of internal guidelines.  Clerical errors, as it were.)

In sum, the Renaissance is rightly celebrated as an era of extraordinary human achievement and a turning point in western civilization.  But, as I’ve suggested, it did not turn nearly enough.  The fact is, the revered Renaissance Men, although they may well have done the best they could under the circumstances, left us heir to a conglomeration of memes containing many that are a downright curse.  The Age of Discovery could justifiably also be tagged The Age of Procrastination.  The-sons-of-a-gun kicked the can down the road.


 The dregs from the Renaissance are, by no means, the only bad memes we have to contend with.  Between then and now, philosophers through the centuries have industriously labored to contribute to the mix.  Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Kant, Freud, Ayn Rand, Rousseau, Robespierre, Mussolini, Sidney Webb are just a few, among scores of others, that come randomly to mind.  The end result is that there’s a plethora of dangerous ideas out there.  Conscripted by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse they serve as their silent, invisible foot soldiers roaming the earth constantly looking for ways to breach civilization’s defenses.

The trouble is that the physical sciences have presented us with a stark dilemma.  Having shorn off its obstructive memes, science has advanced at an ever accelerating pace providing us with greater longevity, more comfortable living conditions, faster travel, and a cornucopia of gadgets.  Alas, these boons have come at a price.  With no more foresight than a profligate who has sold his soul to the devil, we have embraced science’s advances unconditionally.

Meanwhile, the institutions we would normally have expected to contain the pernicious side effects of technology’s rambunctious progress have not advanced apace (if at all).  Immature and anemic, they are woefully inadequate to protect us from  the deadly downpour.  We can but stand by helplessly as governments grow more sluggish and ineffectual, economic crises arise more frequently, academics turn more factious, the environment further degrades, and threats of international conflict intensify.

The reality is that dangerous memes are ascendant: the democracy as a cure-all meme; the US financial-profligacy meme and its self-appointed- we-are-the-leaders-of-free-world meme; the African hate-your-neighboring tribesman meme; the radicalized Islamic meme; the European unpaid- entitlement meme; the Indian-socialism meme; the Chinese authoritarianism meme, and on and on.

Then there’s the nuclear contagion meme.  However numerous have been disarmament negotiations, peace conferences,  professions of pacifism, declarations of brotherly love, and papal  proclamations, the ubiquity of weapons of mass destruction hangs like the Sword of Damocles ever more menacingly over our heads.  Pundits, who presumably have their ears to the ground, tell us that for the first time in history, war represents an existential threat to modern civilization itself.

I can close my eyes and see the four horsemen’s steeds as they sense the coming excitement, lift up their snorting heads, and eagerly paw the ground.  And at their side, their masters grimacing from ear to ear in anticipation of the kill.

Really, it behooves us to do something about all of this.


What?  The declaration of an International Emergency would convey to the world our intention to meet the meme’s overwhelming threat by the strongest possible response—i.e., the combined application of religious and secular forces.  Religious force because it alone    has the moral authority to confront the memes one by one, filter out their poisonous elements, and enable society to benefit from whatever constructive elements remain.  Secular force because only governments can enlist their entire populations in the battle.  In short, what is being advocated is the institution of a state religion in countries around the world.

Before the reader is seized with visions of religious intolerance, compulsory indoctrination, and hearings before the inquisition, nothing of the sort is contemplated.  Under the aegis of a state religion, freedom of religion would be upheld as vigorously as ever.  People could choose whatever religion fancied them, meet in assembly with their fellow worshippers, and proselytize as they wished.  The proposed state religion, on the other hand, would enjoy particular advantages: it would be taught in public schools, enjoy financial support for its religious programs and churches, and benefit from its affiliation with patriotic sentiment.  Objections could understandably be raised by those who would resent seeing their tax dollars being used to promote another faith, but, as will be discussed below, that faith would so benefit society as a whole, non-Cartists and Cartists alike, that the objections would be muted.

When it comes to which religion is to be state supported, the choice is clear.  The current orthodoxies are ineligible on account of their having absorbed, through the years, faulty memes on their own.  Only Cartism, as a new, unblemished religion, has the potential to combine old fashioned religious zeal with modern man’s conception of righteousness.  It was described in the previous July-September issue of this blog under the title, The Case for a New Religion, Part II.  For those who may have overlooked the essay, its central theses are repeated below:


Cartism faces up to the uncomfortable truth that we are no more nor less a species of animal living within nature’s dominion and subject to her laws.  From this concept, the religion accepts as its guiding principle the commandment nature addresses to all her life forms: Thou shalt labor to preserve your species.

And from this single commandment, Cartism derives twelve subcommandments.

The first four subcommandments can be dependably inferred from nature’s example:


Nature expects every member of a species to help better its condition.  Cartists are therefore expected to engage in constructive work, to instruct the young, to conserve resources, and to assist the needy.  By the same token, they shall refrain from counter-productive, anti-evolutionary activities such as engaging in military activities, criminality, and pollution.


The robustness of the community depends of the health of its individual citizens.  Within their physical limitations, Cartists, as a matter of religious obligation, are required to adhere to wellness practices such as eating healthfully, exercising, controlling their weight, and abstaining from harmful substances.  Special care shall be given to the nutritional needs of your children.


Cartists are to emulate nature’s determination to accomplish her purposes in the most efficient manner possible—i.e., they are to live frugally, invent ways to economize, make provision for the future, and avoid debt.


Cartist couples must have the means to care for their intended offspring, to obtain professional prenatal care, and to understand the critical importance of proper early mental development.

Cartism has adapted four of the following sub-commandments from those customs that, having proven their worth over prehistory’s millennia, were encapsulated in the Judeo-Christian tradition.


Success for humanity as a whole, and ultimately for each individual member, depends upon its cohesion and social harmony.  Cartists are therefore instructed to treat fellow Cartists with all the consideration they would have given, in past times, to members of their own clan including : trustworthiness, friendliness, coopera­tion, reciprocity, enforced equality, altruism, tact, integrity,  mutual assistance, nonviolence, respect, generosity, humility, fairness, patience, reliability, and self-control.


Mother Nature is a jealous divinity.  Cartists are proscribed from introducing foreign ideologies that might dilute or distort their true faith.  This injunction is not to be interpreted as absolutist.  As in science, its principles, old and new, are always open to informed challenge.


The institution of marriage is a naturally-evolved cultural artifact that has proven to be an essential attribute of societal health and prosperity.  Cartism thus supports strong family life in which love, respect, and harmony between family members are the hallmarks.


Cartism abhors lying.  At the governmental level, it misdirects policy; at the commercial level, it encumbers transactions; and, at the individual level, it destroys relationships.  Under Cartist doctrine, deliberate lying is sinful and liars excommunicated.

Thus far Mother Nature has contributed four commandments of her own and our ancestors have contributed four more, but a religion devoted exclusively to influencing individual behavior leaves a yawning gap in social mores.   What’s the point, after all, of educating a young man to respect the lives of others if he is conscripted into an army that requires him to kill every enemy in sight.  In short, the attainment of a truly harmonious society is possible only if is governed by a single underlying religion that has the ability to be applied to every form of organization from bridge clubs to multinationals.


In a Cartist society, military action by marauding armies is, by definition, a violation of Sub-commandment Nine.  Armed force must reside exclusively in the hands of an international police force and armies are forbidden.


Among the most important ramifications of this sub-commandment is the requirement to copy nature’s division of animals’ nervous systems into two parts: one devoted to routine, involuntary functions such as governing respiration, blood flow, etc. and the second part left subject to voluntary action.  Cartists believe this administrative arrangement is requisite for good governance in our public and private institutions for it forces the two, nominally independent parts to interact in a separation-of-powers, semi-competitive fashion.


Since all organizational planning is based on assumptions regarding future conditions and since these conditions, by definition, can never be fully ascertained, the best-intentioned, best informed decisions are often wrong.  Hence all important decisions in both the public and private sectors must be backstopped by feedback mechanisms that note the discrepancies between the forecast and actual results and take appropriate action to bring the two into line.


Beneath nature’s beauty lies a fantastically intricate clockwork system composed, not of perfectly machined gears, but of perfectly integrated cycles that maintain her requisite balance.  To synchronize our cycles with those of nature, mankind, too, must balance its input/output ledgers.  Monitoring must be continuous and remedial action automatic.


Imagine, then, that such a state religion has been enacted and the good Reverend Arnold Holloway of the First Church of Cartism is seated at his desk in the vestry, having just completed the text for his next sermon.  This week he has decided, as he has often done in the past, to discuss memes.  Before disclosing the text of his sermon itself, a couple of points are in order.

As an apostle of the church, Rev. Holloway is free to speak on any topic he chooses provided he observes a couple of simple, unwritten guidelines.  Proselytizing Cartism, for one, is discouraged—the reason being Cartists come to church to hear novel ideas, not to be bored by a recital of ones to which they were already committed.  It would equivalent to giving a lecture on first-year calculus to a colloquium of astrophysicists.

A second stricture of the church is that its pastors approach subjects from the negative point of view.  The virtues of moral rectitude and good works, for example, were harder to define, more nebulous at the edges, more dependent on degree, and more subject to interpretation than their counterpart evils.  Why not, then, the church argued, focus exclusively on the latter.  “Charitable giving” was a perfectly appropriate topic at teas, but using fire and brimstone to sermonizing against selfishness was likely to produce a stronger emotional response.  For that matter, there were a host of evils in this world—malnutrition, war, illiteracy, disease, and the like—against which people already held an unconditional animosity, so why not channel it to useful ends?

The practice of stressing evil as opposed to embracing of good was, in fact, paramount in Cartist doctrine.  The very word “Cartism” was meant to evoke the image of an ancient, wooden farm cart bearing on its bed mankind’s civilization.  Cartists were to picture the cart lumbering its way through time by the dint of believers laboring to push it forward.  None need have a clear picture of what lay ahead as long as they could count on the signals that lined both road edges warning them if any wheel approached the shoulder.

With these considerations out of the way, I can insert part of Rev. Holloway’s just completed sermon:

My dear friends,

This morning I am going to discuss “patriotism,” a meme typical of the majority of its species—that is to say, it contains both good and bad elements.  Do we then allow it to continue to reside comfortably in our heads and accept the consequences or do we banish it and deny ourselves its utility?  As I’m sure you are all aware from my past talks, we’ll do neither.  Instead, we’ll pass our patriotism meme through Cartism’s judgmental screen, keep what’s left and discard the rest.

There are, I am pleased to note, positive components of patriotism that do not conflict with Cartism’s subcommandments: the natural pride we take in our homeland, the bond with our fellow countrymen, and the emotional lift we get saluting the flag.  These, of course, will be allowed to stand.

But the form of patriotism that is meant to elevate the perception of our country above that of others flies in the face of Subcommandment Five.  We cannot esteem ourselves superior without automatically relegating the status of our neighbors to an inferior position.

Hopefully, then, my friends hereafter you will use the word “patriotism” sparingly and only in conjuction with the positive elements we have discussed.  Be wary of any politician who mouths “patriotism” too often and abuses its limited meaning when he does.  At its extreme interpretation, patriotism—ultra patriotism, chauvinism, and jingoism—conjures up military action that directly conflict with Cartism’s ideals.  To be precise…

Killing every enemy in sight is inconsistent with doing unto them as you would have done unto you, Subcommandment Five.

Exposing our cities to ruination is not in accord with the evolution of our species Subcommandment One.

And destroying an enemy’s culture is in conflict with our obligation to honor an international code of justice, Subcommandment Nine.

 In short, this version of patriotism ranks as one of the most insidious, dangerous, and damnable memes that prey upon the innocent.  Insidious, because it relies on our most deeply-rooted instincts: our natural hostility toward strangers, our desire to be affiliated with a group, and our compulsion to defend our territory.  Dangerous, because it can ensnare us in war.  Damnable, because of its subtext.  The leader who invokes it is really asking his listeners to sacrifice their property and, if necessary, their very lives and limb in return for his maintaining the fiction of his serving them whilst enjoying his accustomed degree of personal comfort.  A highly questionable bargain at best.

“Thank you for coming my friends.  Don’t forget our social on Wednesday.  Next week the evil meme: federalized compassion.  And may nature bless you all.


All religions have, in addition to their sacred text, a number of subsidiary works that interpret their holy writ for the layman.  Cartism, in this, would be no exception.  It would maintain an ecclesiastical council where such subsidiary works are assembled and distributed.  In the above scenario, if Rev. Holloway deemed his sermon on patriotism worthy of contributing to Cartism’s general store of knowledge, he could submit it to the council.  It could be imagined then, that over a period of years, a small library of anti-meme comment would be organized.  Thus every public middle-school classroom and every Cartist congregation would have access to the most authoritative commentary for their instruction.

By marshalling the combined power of early education, the traditional emotive influence of religion, the concordance of the media, and the direct benefits of Cartist teachings, society will finally be able to mount a credible force in its defense.  Thereafter, the hornet’s nest of memes will have met their match.  We’ll be able to break out of our figurative Seahaven and clean up the First Renaissance’s unfinished business.  A Second Renaissance will dawn and the horsemen sent on their way.  All this as mankind’s cart lumbers steadily ahead into an ever brighter future.

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One Response to “The Prevalence of Memes”
  1. Earl Stubbs says:

    I read the Prevalence of Memes for the first time today. I found the concepts eye-opening and logical to a fault. Being one of those individuals who recognized memes early in my life, but had no clue as to what to do about them, I began a silent, personal revolution. I recognize no authority or religion if only in my mind. I refuse to hide in a church for the sake of community acceptance, but since my family members are all believers, each new generation of progeny must test my philosophical position usually after some church camp. Fortunately, my good works overcame most of the trauma from having a father or grandfather who does not worship or accept the tenets of those old Jewish memes as accepted by Constantine.

    The idea of getting the Cart before the cross is appealing accept for the fact of human frailty. If human nature were manageable, if might be applicable, but, alas, it is not. To fit any individual into such a tight fitting shoe is impossible, but the attempt to plant such ideas is preferable to the silly fantasies of modern/out-dated religion.


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