Memes 'R UsSo, human beings are a lot like chimpanzees. Yes, but we share something with every other creature in the animal kingdom – including rats, viruses, and Tea Partiers -- it is just a question of degree. We are also different, of course – always-horny, bipedal creatures with athlete’s foot who have transformed hallucinatory fantasy into a survival trait, transforming political farts into perfume. Did I mention, Tea Partiers?
Yes – you are gay -- and different -- but not necessarily superior.
Sorry to tell you, religious people -- evolution does not have as its goal the creation of “ever-better” life forms. In fact, evolution has no such goals at all -- it is not interested in "progress' because it is not a sentient intelligence -- just a natural, if unbelievably complex random process in which complex organic molecules respond to various stimuli and external influences to mutate and change -- with a few surviving, supported by their environment. Evolution has as much brain power as the weather. Um...did mention Tea Partiers?
There is no grand plan --no purpose -- just one, complex, natural, probabilistic process, among others, as huge organic molecules react to one another and energy.
Human beings, of course, want to believe in a Great Chain of Being, with us at the top.
OK, OK, we are not even in control of ourselves – but somewhere there has to be someone who knows what’s going on, right? For some people – the spiritually narcissistic, that is – that ‘someone’ is God – but He’s what we would be, if we could – All Powerful --with Sundays off – universal TV reception and adoring angels with big tits (or, if you are a woman, hunky angels with big dicks).
I think we should be just a teensy bit more humble. The most “successful” life forms are, in fact, the simplest – bacteria and viruses --which will be around long after we have killer ourselves off. If God created anything in His own image – it must have been a single-celled organism – because this is most likely to inherit the earth. Image: God as a Giant Amoeba.
Makes sense-- because you don’t have call God “Him” or “Her” – just “It”. And it explains the spread of slime in the bathroom and the pink sit they put in MacDonald’s hamburgers.
Human beings have been successful to the degree that they are adaptable – but this is not the kind of adaptation as with most animals, strictly constrained by genetics – but memetic -- behavioral and technological, of course -- a consequence of genetic adaptation – as a function of our capacity of abstract, if often delusionary intelligence. Memes R’Us
Memetic Adaptability and Civilization
A chimpanzee, for example, is genetically adapted to a particular environment – competing for resources in the jungle. But you do not find chimpanzees outside this environment simply because chimpanzees do not have brains that allow them to innovate complex behaviors and pass them on to other hairy critters as memes. Human beings, by contrast, began in one environment and then spread worldwide, innovating behaviorally to deal with changing conditions and to survive and compete – and passing on these innovations as memes.
In cold climates, we learned how to keep ourselves warm with fires and in caves and with clothing. We developed tools to help us hunt and trap. Later, we learned to plant seeds and grow food. We domesticated animals. We also – most importantly -- experimented -- continually developing social systems beyond the basic hunter/gatherer concept– some of which, such as agriculture -- were hugely successful at first – until they were not.
Behavioral innovations gave time for microevolution to come into play -- for our African immigrants in Europe to become hairier and lose pigmentation and later to adapt to digest gluten and dairy products.
While we have capacity for behavioral innovation – which, as I have indicated, in social animals like us, also means cultural or memetic innovation --that enables the development of true collective consciousness, we cannot escape our primary nature. Ontogony recapitulates phylogeny? Not exactly Rather: ontogeny is ontology.
The Egyptians, the Chinese Empires, the Roman Empire, the Aztecs and Maya and Easter Islanders – came to sorry finishes. And today’s global civilization looks ready to repeat history. Overpopulation, resource depletion, famine, war. Yup, the Four Horsemen are saddling up.
Why do all civilizations to end in failure? Simply because they are over-adapted and memetically alienated from basic genetics. To the extent that ontology – our being – is alienated from its origins – ontogeny – our very existence must be in doubt.
It's Who You Blow, Stupid
As Robin Dunbar argues persuasively the maximum number for any cohesive community is rather small – around 150. Others have argued for a larger number in the 200 to 300 range. But the fact is that most communities for the last few millennia have been smaller than 150. Cities collapse but villages survive.
Chimpanzees and bonobos maintain their communities through pansexuality-- in the case of chimps, grooming; in the case of bonobos, actually sex. This is physical communication -- which is physical therefore constrains the size of the community. How big can a cluster fuck be?
Human beings, however, have memetic behaviors – primarily language and related cognitive functions – so we do rather better at the intellectual grooming necessarily to achieve larger communities with social integrity. But even so the ultimate size of the community that we can interact with is still imited by the size and function of the neocortex – for most people, less than a hundred people.
In these terms, a national or international “community” can be nothing of the kind – it is simply too larger to be anything but a delusionary extension of a local community. This is why democracy doesn’t work in the United States and your “vote” doesn’t matter. Local, state, and federal governments merely dilute participate and increase alienation. Patriotism is not the last refuge of scoundrels--rather the last refuge of the mad.
America: The Power Pyramid
At the national level, how many people actually run things?
There’s the President, and congressional leaders and top bureaucrats and rich people – altogether, if you count them, just about 150 people that actually influence any set of decisions. “Gee”, says Barry, “I didn’t know we were spying on Angela Merkel’s phone”. “How could you not know?” you ask. Easy, considering the small size of the Obamination’s actual circle and the slow speed at which information leaks to the top through the mechanics of government.
The US government is really run by a group of people no larger than 150. While the members of this community may change – just as the members of a Paleolithic tribe come and go, with births and deaths, it has memetic consistency – which is why US foreign policy has remained remarkably consistent no matter who was President – whether Truman or Nixon or Carter or Reagan or JFK.
The 150 people are the extensions of a certain culture, a collective consciousness, which like individual consciousness, contains competing modalities, for whom consistency and balance is essential to avoid breakdown. Nothing will change unless there is an existential threat to the group at the top forcing them to restructure the memes of government. This happens only rarely -- as under FDR, who ironically was a rich man who represented the elite and feared the US veering towards socialism, if he didn't change things..
The Great Depression produced a lot of disappointed, hungry people -- a threat to the cohorts who actually run things. So FDR engineered the now-forgotten Four Freedoms -- and the Just War against Prescott Bush's good friends, Hitler and Mussolini.
Today we ask why the Government is so “out of touch” with what polls suggest that people actually want – single payer, investment in ‘green energy’, cheaper and better education, a downsizing of the military and withdrawal from foreign involvements. We ask this question because we think the government is “representative” of the 300 million people who call themselves Americans. But, practically speaking, the “Government” (please note the quotes) can only be representative of the 150 people around Obama, who while the Son of Privilege is also a figurehead.
All else is a political hallucination.
Human Beings: Swingers
Complicated? Of course -- which is why we must look more closely at chimpanzees and bonobos, in terms of similarities and differences with us. Looking at our animal relatives provides context for looking at our animal selves and defining ontogeny in primal terms. FDR's tinkering with the "system" produced only temporary and superficial changes. Soon, we were back to something more basic.
So let's look at basics.
Chimpanzees, for example, are more competitive than human beings – and can outperform them in simple games requiring short-term memory. Chimpanzees are all about power, dominance, and hierarchy. Even sexuality is expressed in these terms, with the preferred position from behind, without much foreplay. Grooming and homoerotic play are ways of releasing the tension of constant competition. Bonding is not so much a friendship as an alliance. Do you like doggy style? Why?
Bonobos, are more cooperative – and resolve most issues through sexual play, rather than violence. In areas requiring basic cooperation, they surpass humans. The copulate face to face, with lots of foreplay. And their pansexual bonding is emotional, often fully sexual. Given abundant resources, the ultimate goal of bonobos is one giant orgy. If chimps are soldiers; bonobos are hippies.
But we humans, it seems, swing both ways. Often, competitive and violent.
Sometimes playful and loving.
Always the same question: Why?
The Root of All Evil: Bananas
The difference is simply resources.
Chimpanzees are adapted to an environments where there is greater competition for scarcer resources. This makes them more numerous than bonobos who are restricted to rather specialized environments where resources are more plentiful and challenges from other species fewer.
Chimpanzees cooperate to compete, of course – but this cooperation is always limited by their competitive nature.
In the case of bonobos, sharing is the thing. They simply don’t need to kill each other for, say, bananas. Males are still more aggressive than females -- but females rule --ganging up on any male who gets out of line. In the bonobo world, male aggression is not a survival trait – and bonobos have evolved to curtail it. By and large, disputes are resolved through sexual play. No, males don’t need homosocial groups like chimps -- or like humans – no football clubs, fraternities, or military groups.
In the recent movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, bonobos are shown differently – as capable of extreme violence – this is simply not in their nature. Of course, this movie is not about Apes at all – but about people. The “apes” just human actors in ape-suits – with guns and other weapons – but without genitalia, of course.
For a wonderful commentary on this movie read:
Human beings, are simply cognitively adaptive.
Father Knows Best? Or Mom?
We resemble chimpanzees most when resources are limited and we must compete with each other to survive; in these situations we construct hierarchical chimpy patriarchal systems. However, since we have language, we can construct bigger groups than chimps can – but to control those groups, we need not just a single Alpha or Apex Male – but an Alpha or Apex Group – that is, the “Family”.
When resources are assured – which is fairly rare, admittedly – we tend to resemble bonobos – we favor egalitarian systems in which females come to the fore, like those of the Mosuo people in China or the Six Nations. ‘Family’ still exists -- but communal bonds between women are very important. To grossly generalize it is as nobody much cares who “Dad’ is or was. And, once weaned, children are the property of…well…everybody. The incest taboo still applies, as in fact, it does in chimps and bonobos, indicating as a hardwired survival trait, that prevents inbreeding and accommodates genetic evolution.
Being human, we innovate culture systems far beyond anything that a chimp or bonobo might imagine simply because our primate cousins don’t have much in the way of imagination, lacking what Julian Jaynes calls the ‘bicameral mind’.
So our patriarchies come with notions of property and lineage – so that power and resources can not only be sequestered in the here and now – but passed on and increased over time, multiplying the power of the apex group (as with Thomas Piketty) With imagination comes a sense of futurity and long-term strategy.
Patriarchy is the building block of all mega-societies, since it predicated on domination, even ownership of one individual by another, of one group by another – slavery --an ever larger, ever taller social pyramid, inherently feudalistic -- which grows until the foundation is crushed and structure becomes unstable. Megasocieties – whether directly or indirectly patriarchal are competitive, violent and inevitably lead to concatenations of tribal clusters, dominated by not only apex males and their apex tribe – the one percent.
Civilization is Savagery
“Matriarchies” -- like the Six Nations --had cleverly constructed social systems that accommodated male aggression and lineage issues. By and large, “matriarchies” tend to be egalitarian and communitarian, discourage primate ownership of property important to the group. They also tend to be sexually permissive – which helps prevent male violence.
Obviously, when a patriarchy comes in contact with a matriarchy – the patriarchy wins –it’s just meaner and more vicious --although it will inevitably fail when it grows beyond bounds that can be supported. Matriarchies also tend to be insular --while patriarchies are incorporative, giving them advantages in terms of information and technology.
The Six Nations had a smoothly functioning society without crime or rape or child abuse or internal violence. Of course, they warred with other tribes and there were cold winters and the like. But they were pretty happy – and healthy, taller and freer from disease than Europeans. By all accounts, they had pretty good sex lives, too.
The Europeans were not nearly as healthy and certain not happy – they were driven by their frustrations, violent and abuse even within their families. But they had guns – and disease – the common cold, smallpox. Europeans thrived – the Indians died.
As I have said, matriarchies do well where resources are sufficient – as bonobo communities do – but they thrive only in isolation.
PR as Mob Control
Chimps and bonobos do not have language as we do. They do not have the same capacity for abstract thinking. They do not create Selves as we do. Or communicate at the same level. Then, neither do very young human children -- or, really, the members of mobs.
And all human groups are essentially mobs.
PR takes advantage of this fact: where language, abstract or critical thinking and personal Self – and other “higher” functions of the neocortex –are suspended in favor of sheer animal emotion – PR, advertising, propaganda, "public diplomacy", demagoguery and the like can gain sway through primal appeals. Sometimes positive....
The results may be different but the mechanisms are the same.
One must keep in that all appeals to the "mob" are themselves merely expressions of group culture – the collective consciousness --which evolves over time, in response to both environments and individual involvement.
A lynch mob has its leaders. But how leads the leaders?
Yes, memes are important.
One must keep in mind that the memes that direct the evolution of culture – just like the genes that direct the physical evolution – are one-off, random, individual – ulimately a priori events.
Drive? Keep you eyes on the road, yes. But also on the rear view mirror. And understand what the gauges tell you about you engine.