Dangerous Memes


The term ‘meme’ was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 seminal book, The Selfish Gene. It was meant as a useful analogy to the gene – a thinking tool to aid in understanding the fundamental unit of biological evolution. Dawkins defined a meme as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person”. Just as a gene may enact strategies that run counter to the goals of its host organism (and are hence ‘selfish’), memes can and do often run rampant amongst individuals, wreaking havoc on their path to proliferation. Memes don’t care who dies on their way to immortality, so long as they get there.

Information is more of a facet of civilization than ever before. “Information economy”, “cyber warfare”, and “internet culture” are terms only in their adolescence. Now ideas don’t just spread like viruses; they often are viruses, snaking from host brain to social media to new host brains in an endless, prolific cycle. Most memes are useful to society’s purposes, and so propagate without cause for concern. The idea of the wheel, for example, needs no apologies on its behalf for selfishly spreading from mind to mind. Its utility is so self-evident that it takes work just to view it as a selfish meme.

But host utility is not the only strategy that memes employ to ensure immortality. There are bloodier ways to make a living in the space of our minds.

There have been several terrorist attacks recently, from Barcelona to Libya to the Philippines. The attackers were hosts of a dangerous meme. This meme lost a few copies of itself in the terrorists’ deaths, but news of the attack has already reached the minds of millions of potential new hosts. This dark meme has effectively emboldened older copies of itself (those in hosts who had held the meme before the attack) and birthed new copies of itself in fresh hosts (in young, vulnerable minds). This meme is no more ruthless than that of the idea-wheel, but this time, blood follows its spores.

The meme to which I am referring, of course, is Islamic extremism.

Common counterarguments, at this point, run as follows:

a) the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists, so how could Islam play a role?

b) the West has attacked the Muslim world far more than vice versa, or

c) only an Islamophobe would entertain such an idea.

I raise such counterpoints not to refute (nor affirm) them, but to shine a new light on the entire conversation. Viewing Islamic extremism as a dangerous meme depersonalizes the issue. The degree to which this meme contributes to suicide bombings is unclear, but it is surely more than zero. Incidentally, this meme-view implies that we ought not hate terrorists — at least those who are sincere in their faith. They’ve simply been infected by the wrong meme.

We are in a war of memes. Sanctimony, platitudes, and obfuscation will not help us. Only better memes — better ideas — will. We have forgotten what makes our civilization great, and we have left barren and cold the values we once held universally, for all people, in all places, for all time. Only when we recall the reasons why we cherish our institutions and freedoms, will we realize that there is no room for double standards here. The memes of the West thrived because they went the way of the wheel.

We can’t bomb a meme into oblivion, but we can outcompete it. And we can’t begin to do that until we admit that our memes are better than those of the terrorists–without apology, without masochism. Only with reason and explanation.

* Logan Chipkin is a PhD candidate in evolutionary theory at the University of Houston. He is also a Rothbardian libertarian.

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