Mitochondrial Memes pt 4

The obvious difficulty with treating ideas like viruses is that while most viruses are detrimental to one’s health, ideas are quite useful; indeed, you won’t survive very long without ideas of some sort.

So while some ideas may be of the turn-you-into-an-infertile-spore-shedding-zombie variety, there must be some that actually promote human health and welfare.

This is where the mitochondria come in. Mitochondria, like viruses, are foreign invaders. But unlike (most) viruses, mitochondria are here for the long haul. They don’t reprogram our cells to reproduce them and infect others with out mitochondria; the only way they get to reproduce is if we reproduce. (I’ve never even heard of mitochondria getting cancer.)

It’s not exactly that viruses want to kill you; they just don’t really care whether you live or die. Cholera hijacks all of the liquid in your body to carry itself into the local water supply, to be drunk by its next victim. Your need for that water is irrelevant. (Cholera is therefore the kind of disease that can only thrive where water supplies are regularly contaminated with feces; remove the feces from the water supply, and the disease will have to find some new way to reproduce or die out.)

Some ideas will definitely kill you. The idea that lead makes a good material for dinner plates; or mercury will confer immortality; or that if you slaughter all of your livestock, god will drive the invaders from your lands and make more animals magically appear, for example. Other ideas impact your fitness indirectly, say, by decreasing the number of children you have. If you become a celibate Shaker, there aren’t going to be a whole lot of your children running around.

But other ideas are really good for you, like the germ theory of disease. The number of Mormons has grown quite a bit over the past 200 years, in part, because it convinces its adherents to have lots of children.

From an evolutionary perspective, it is easy to see that people whose ideas lead to survival are likely to out-compete people whose ideas kill them or render them sterile, which is why we now have more Mormons than Shakers, even though the reverse was once true. (Note that evolution does not care whether you think Mormonism or Shakerism is more “correct” or “true” or “pleasant.” It only matters that Mormons exist in greater numbers than Shakers.)

Ideas that succeed and reproduce by helping you survive and reproduce, therefore, I call “meme mitochondria”. Ideas that succeed and reproduce by getting you to pass them on to your friends I call “meme viruses.” (Unfortunately, “viral meme” is already taken.) Yes, I hashed this all out back in Mitochondrial Memes, but I’ve gotten complaints that the post needs updating, so here we are.

For the first 199,500 years or so of human history, the vast majority of information passed from parent–or local elder–to child. (We can also call this “vertical” meme transfer.) Hardly anyone was literate, and books were extremely expensive and rare. In this environment, memes had to be mitochondrial. There was simply very little opportunity for horizontal meme transfer. Any memes that didn’t lead to reproductive success tended to be out-competed by memes that did.

The mitochondrial meme, therefore, cares about your reproductive success (and, keeping in mind the details of family genetics, the success of relatives who share copies of your genes.) It doesn’t care anything about people who don’t share your genes–indeed, any mitochondrial meme that cared about the fates of people who don’t share your genes more than your own would be quickly replaced by ones that don’t.

Of course, some memes did manage to spread virally during this period–the major world religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam come immediately to mind. But within the past 500 years, the amount of information being horizontally transmitted has exploded.

And in the past 15 years, it has exploded again:

From Another Damn Blog, The Explosion of Digital Data
From Another Damn Blog, The Explosion of Digital Data

In other words, we are in a completely novel evolutionary meme-environment. Never in human history have we had so much horizontal data transmission; indeed, if we have not had more data transmission since 2000 than in the entire prior history of the world, we will soon.

Mitochondrial memes don’t have to sound good to outsiders; they just have to work for the people who have them.

Meme viruses have to sound good enough to people that they get picked up and passed on. Meme viruses, therefore, are a lot more likely to sound fun to people who don’t already believe in them.

Meme Mitochondria prioritize your evolutionary success, but don’t really care if you enjoy the process, and don’t care about anything else.

Meme viruses prioritize sounding good, but don’t care whether you live or die. Even a meme-virus that kills you will succeed if it gets you to spread it to others.

A meme virus does not have to kill you, of course, just as a meme mitochondria does not have to kill everyone around you. The germ theory of disease started off being spread virally, but it’s a pretty sound idea and you should wash your hands before eating.

Long-term, of course, people who are resistant to memes encouraging short-term enjoyment at the expense of long-term genetic success will outbreed people who are susceptible to such memes. Progressives, with their well below replacement fertility, will be replaced by Muslims with well above replacement fertility. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with Progressivism or Islam.

This does not necessarily mean that Progressivism will die out. As long as Progressivism can continue spreading to the children of people who believe in having lots of kids, Progressivism can continue to exist. Catholic priests don’t generally have children, either, but Catholics still manage to convince some of their members to join the priesthood. But Progressives will be replaced.


6 thoughts on “Mitochondrial Memes pt 4

  1. The obvious difficulty with treating ideas like viruses is that while most viruses are detrimental to one’s health,…

    Is that really true? Or only true of the viruses we know of?? I thought that probably a vast majority of viruses remain undiscovered. If so, it’s stands to reason we wouldn’t have much cause to go looking for the benign or beneficial ones. Just like few people give thought to the useful ideas… like driving on the right side of the street. 😉


  2. What is information, to humans? In a pre/early agricultural society it is a straightforward tool for survival. Once wheat is domesticated information very quickly becomes a tool for status.

    I was watching a nature show about with my daughter a bit ago. They were hunting deer, and David Attenborough described how they favored males because their heavy antlers tired them out during a chase. Probably pretty obvious to someone with any background in biology, but it occurred to me that any adaptation that confers fitness has the potential to do the opposite, given different context. We’re social, so status is what we have in lieu of antlers. We killed all our wolves a long time ago.


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