One of the most provocative, brilliant, fascinating, erudite, yet ultimately silliest books of recent times is Jared Diamond’s best-selling Guns, Germs, and Steel. The book is Diamond’s long attempt to answer a question put to him by a primitive tribesman in New Guinea, essentially, “Why do you guys in the West have such prosperity why we are still knee deep in pig poop?”
As a learned and persuasive hard-core environmental determinist, Diamond’s answer is: The West (whose inhabitants are two-digit IQ morons compared to the natural brain power of New Guinea natives) is the most culturally and technologically successful civilization in history because Mesopotamia (where Western Civilization originated) had wild animals and grasses conducive to domestication 9,000 years ago.
See what I mean by silly? For a determinist like Diamond, thought processes are irrelevant to the fate of human societies. He has no appreciation nor understanding of how cultural values and practices drive the success or failure of civilizations. Proof of this is that the word “meme” does not appear once in the book’s 480 pages.
“Meme” (rhymes with seem) was coined by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins to conceptually reframe our understanding of the beliefs and values commonly accepted by members of a given community. Memes are cultural genes, the social equivalent of chromosomal genes.
A gene is a set of instructions for making (mostly) proteins, stored in the DNA in people’s cells, and replicated through sexual reproduction. A meme is a set of instructions for making belief or behavior patterns, stored in the neuronal pathways in people’s brains, and replicated through imitation.
Just as the sum of a species’ genes or genetic information is called its genome, the sum of a culture’s memes or memetic information is called its memome. Just as a species has genes that promote its health and survival, so a culture has memes that do the same. And just as there can be defective genes, so can there be defective memes.
A genetic flaw can prevent an organism from being healthy, can cause its death, and if spread across its species, can cause a species’ extinction. A memetic flaw can do the same for members of a culture and the culture itself.
What prevents, for example, so many Inner City Blacks from prospering is not anything genetic. It is a functionally deficient culture that contains a number of defective memes – such memetic flaws as racial paranoia, racial rage, overdependence on government, and repudiation of standard English and academic achievement as “acting white.”
One of Christianity’s foundational memes as a social institution is Jesus’ dictum, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:17, Luke 20:25). Such a meme argues against a Christian totalitarianism, and allows Christianity and secular governments to exist in tandem.
Lacking this meme is a memetic flaw of Islam. Mohammed in the name of Allah argues forthrightly for Islamic totalitarianism. There are no words in classical Arabic allowing a conceptual distinction between the religious and the secular. For Mohammed as for Lenin, “Nothing is private.” This memetic defect results in Arab culture being suffocated by dictatorships.
Just as a gene can help a species successfully adapt to one environment, then be maladaptive if the environment changes, the same applies to memes. A meme for totalitarianism could enable a culture to succeed in the Middle Ages – and cause its extinction in the 21st century. Such a meme might be tolerated by other cultures in the cultural environment of the last century. It is not in this.
The emerging physical science of genetic engineering involves the identification of a species’ genetic flaws, then removing and replacing them. What comes now is the social science of memetic engineering, identifying a culture’s memetic flaws, removing and replacing them.
So here we go, folks. Please take a seat. The world’s number one advocate and practitioner of memetic engineering is… President George W. Bush.
George Bush is attempting to memetically re-engineer Arab Moslem culture. He is determined to remove its memetic flaw of Islamic totalitarianism by substituting the meme of democracy in its place. This is his underlying strategy of the War on Islamofascist Terror.
It is a war that had to be initiated and has to be sustained by military force. But it cannot be won by military force. To win requires a strategy and a policy of meme substitution. If this can be achieved in Iraq, if the “democracy meme” can take hold and succeed there, it will spread ineluctably throughout the Arab world. This is what the War in Iraq is fundamentally about – it’s over Baghdad memes.
Not that Iraqi or Arab Democracy is a cure-all magic bullet. Arab Islamic cultures are shot through with other memetic flaws, such as a pathological fear of women. Their bottom line, however, is that unless they culturally evolve into democracies, they are doomed to cultural extinction.
The fate of the Arab Moslem world is riding on the success or failure of democracy in Iraq. George Bush knows it. Hatred of him blinds his enemies, such as the leaders of the Democrat Party, from admitting it.
The Democrat Party would indeed seem to require radical memetic engineering to avoid political extinction – starting with removing the memetic flaw of Howard Dean. The problem is the lack of effective substitution memes that would ensure its survival.