Evolutionary biology historically has focused on a particular kind of change in heritable traits. Some traits enable an organism to have more offspring than other organisms in a population. In this way, a heritable trait can become more abundant in the next generation. It's a simiple numbers game. New traits appear first in a single organism (like the debut songs on a pioneering punk album). But they can appear in increasing numbers of organisms with each :h new generation if they help organisms have more offspring than others in the same population (as those songs inspired other songwriters to form bands of their own). After enough generations, a trait can become so widespread that it is essentially universal within a population of organisms (as when punk became mainstream and punk songs were heard, as they are today, on commercial radio). By the same token, if a new trait causes an organism to have fewer offspring, that trait is unlikely to persist (like so many failed experiments in punk music, such as Bad Religion's "lost album" Into the Unknown).
In the previous paragraph, I was drawing analogies between biological evolution and the history of punk music. But again it's important to note that the two processes are quite different. The most widely accepted view of biological evolution is that the gradual accumulation of traits is due to some organisms in a population leaving more viable offspring than other organisms. In this way, populations of organisms gradually become more adapted to the environments in which they live. The punk scene evolved not from heritable variation but rather from cultural innovations that struck a nerve with willing groups of misfits. Still, it's hard for me not to draw evolutionary parallels. I used to envision each Bad Religion concert as a unique environmental opportunity. We could try to increase our popularity trait by singing better songs and giving better performances, in which case our popularity would grow. Or we could suck and lose fans, causing eventual extinction. Either way, the similarities seemed obvious to me.
Among the multitude of animals which scamper, fly, burrow and swim around us, man is the only one who is not locked into his environment. His imagination, his reason, his emotional subtlety and toughness, make it possible for him not to accept the environment, but to change it. And that series of inventions, by which man from age to age has remade his environment, is a different kind of evolution—not biological, but cultural evolution. I call that brilliant sequence of cultural peaks The Ascent of Man. I use the word ascent with a precise meaning. Man is distinguished from other animals by his imaginative gifts. He makes plans, inventions, new discoveries, by putting different talents together; and his discoveries become more subtle and penetrating, as he learns to combine his talents in more complex and intimate ways. So the great discoveries of different ages and different cultures, in technique, in science, in the arts, express in their progression a richer and more intricate conjunction of human faculties, an ascending trellis of his gifts.
Anybody who teaches human evolution is inevitably asked: Are we still evolving? The examples of lactose tolerance and duplication of the amylase gene show that selection has certainly acted within the last few thousand years. But what about right now? It’s hard to give a good answer. Certainly many types of selection that challenged our ancestors no longer apply: improvements in nutrition, sanitation, and medical care have done away with many diseases and conditions that killed our ancestors, removing potent sources of natural selection. As the British geneticist Steve Jones notes, 500 years ago a British infant had only 50 percent chance of surviving to reproductive age, a figure that has now risen to 99 percent. And for those who do survive, medical intervention has allowed many to lead normal lives who would have been ruthlessly culled by selection over most of our evolutionary history. How many people with bad eyes, or bad teeth, unable to hunt or chew, would have perished on the African savanna? (I would certainly have been among the unfit.) How many of us have had infections that, without antibiotics, would have killed us? It’s likely that, due to cultural change, we are going downhill genetically in many ways. That is, genes that once were detrimental are no longer so bad (we can compensate for “bad” genes with a simple pair of eyeglasses or a good dentist), and these genes can persist in populations.
Conversely, genes that were once useful may, due to cultural change, now have destructive effects. Our love of sweets and fats, for example, may well have been adaptive in our ancestors, for whom such treats were a valuable but rare source of energy. But these once rare foods are now readily available, and so our genetic heritage brings us tooth decay, obesity, and heart problems. Too, our tendency to lay on fat from rich food may also have been adaptive during times when variation in local food abundance produced a feast-or-famine situation, giving a selective advantage to those who were able to store up calories for lean times.
Does this mean that we’re really de-evolving? To some degree, yes, but we’re probably also becoming more adapted to modern environments that create new types of selection. We should remember that so long as people die before they’ve stopped reproducing, and so long as some people leave more offspring than others, there is an opportunity for natural selection to improve us. And if there’s genetic variation that affects our ability to survive and leave children, it will promote evolutionary change. That is certainly happening now. Although pre-reproductive mortality is low in some Western populations, it’s high in many other places, especially Africa, where child mortality can exceed 25 percent. And that mortality is often caused by infectious diseases such as cholera, typhoid fever, and tuberculosis. Other diseases, like malaria and AIDS, continue to kill many children and adults of reproductive age.
Most of the genetic differences between races are trivial. And yet others, those physical differences between a Japanese individual and a Finn, a Masai, and an Inuit, are striking. We have the interesting situation, then, that the overall differences in gene sequences between peoples are minor, yet those same groups show dramatic differences in a range of visually apparent traits, such as skin color, hair color, body form, and nose shape. These obvious physical differences are not characteristic of the genome as a whole. So why has the small amount of divergence that has occurred between human populations become focused on such visually striking traits?
Some of these differences make sense as adaptations to the different environments in which early humans found themselves. The darker skin of tropical groups probably provides protection from intense ultraviolet light that produces lethal melanomas, while the pale skin of higherlatitude groups allows penetration of light necessary for the synthesis of essential vitamin D, which helps prevent rickets and tuberculosis. But what about the eye folds of Asians, or the longer noses of Caucasians? These don’t have any obvious connection to the environment. For some biologists, the existence of greater variation between races in genes that affect physical appearance, something easily assessed by potential mates, points to one thing: sexual selection.
Apart from the characteristic pattern of genetic variation, there are other grounds for considering sexual selection as a strong driving force for the evolution of races. We are unique among species for having developed complex cultures. Language has given us a remarkable ability to disseminate ideas and opinions. A group of humans can change their culture much faster than they can evolve genetically. But the cultural change can also produce genetic change. Imagine that a spreading idea or fad involves the preferred appearance of one’s mate. An empress in Asia, for example, might have a penchant for men with straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes. By creating a fashion, her preference spreads culturally to all her female subjects, and, lo and behold, over time the curlyhaired and round-eyed individuals will be largely replaced by individuals with straight black hair and almond-shaped eyes. It is this “gene-culture coevolution”—the idea that a change in cultural environment leads to new types of selection on genes—that makes the idea of sexual selection for physical differences especially appealing.
It's interesting that once you have the shell of a successful mind virus set up, you can just plug in any agenda you have as long as it doesn't interfere with the virus's primary function of self-replication. There are many examples of such virus shells in modern life:
- Political campaign organizations. These often use the same basic formula: renting a vacant shell of office space, calling people and asking them to volunteer, and then having those volunteers call still more volunteers. The volunteers self-replicate, and you can plug in literally any political agenda.
- Multilevel marketing companies, as described earlier in the chapter. The product sold is really secondary to the structure of the business. Of course, you need to have a real product to make it legal, but it's effectively programming members to recruit more members that makes it work.
-Word-of-mouth seminar series. Participants attend a severalday, intensive seminar that leaves them feeling very good. Mixed in with the course content is the use of conditioning, cognitive-dissonance, and Trojan-horse techniques that program people to do two things: recruit new participants for the next offering of the class; and sign up for the next, more expensive seminar in the series.*
The common thread in all mind-virus shells is evangelism. Directly or indirectly, you've got to recruit members who recruit more members who recruit still more members. When you've got a good virus shell, you can plug in your agenda, cross your fingers, and hope it doesn't mutate to come back and getcha.
In a future where mind viruses proliferate, the kinds I personally want to see win are viruses that raise people's quality of life. The way to make such viruses win is twofold:
1. Evangelize, evangelize, evangelize! When you come across memes you like, spread them consciously! Silence is death to memes.
2. Make a point of tying together all the button-pushing memes you can with the memes that raise quality of life. Point out how they help our children! Remind people this is a crisis! Serve them food! Offer them sex! Well, whatever. But complacency is defeat in the world of mind viruses-you're competing with all these selfreplicating memes designed to take us back to prehistoric times.
Is all this evangelism and button pushing I'm promoting too Machiavellian for your taste? Does it sound hypocritical, like I'm advocating manipulating people to save them from being manipulated? I hope not. I don't want you to lie, just to understand the effect you have on the world by spreading memes. We're all participating in mind viruses all the time. I want you to choose which ones you spread consciously, with an eye toward what's most important to you.
What memes should you program yourself with, now that you have the chance? The second-most-popular answer (after punting) is: With the truth. It's hard to see how there could be any problem with programming yourself with memes that are true. But remember Alfred North Whitehead: all truths are half-truths.
There are several problems with the strategy-meme Program myself with the truth. In the first place, you can't ever know the whole truth of the universe. Your brain doesn't have enough storage capacity to accurately model the entire universe. The best you can do is come up with some simplified models that work most of the time. To paraphrase Whitehead, it's believing these models are true that plays the devil!
nfestations of mind viruses that chain us to information terminals, frantically aiding the replication of information, may well take over if we don't intervene.
Do you think it's a far-fetched scenario of the future that humans could become slaves to a race of computers? Look inside any large office building and see how many people spend eight hours a day following the instructions on their display screen to the point of damaging their vision and injuring their hands from the strain. What are most of them doing? Entering, duplicating, correlating, and analyzing information. Memes. When we aren't working, we're telling each other about the latest news, probably something to do with danger, food, or sex. Memes.
Profit-motivated designer viruses, many of which are completely legal and aboveboard today, have their shady origins in the crooked Ponzi scheme.* Charles Ponzi was an Italian immigrant who opened a business in Boston in 1919 called the Securities Exchange Company. He offered to repay people's investments in 90 days with 50 percent interest: an investment of $10 would bring $15 in three months.
His story was that he bought international postal reply coupons in Europe and, due to currency fluctuations, redeemed them in the United States at a profit. People started to get suspicious when a newspaper discovered that, with $15 million invested in Ponzi's firm in eight months, only $360 in postal reply coupons had been sold-in the entire world!
Ponzi's scheme was simple: as long as his base of investors kept growing, he could pay off early investors with the cash pumped in by later ones. When the newspaper story broke and people stopped investing, Ponzi was found to owe $ 7 million and have only $4 million in assets. The later investors were out of luck.
Pets have all the qualities necessary to be a virus of the mind:
- Pets penetrate our minds by attracting our attention. The quality they have that gets them attention is something like "cuteness" or "adorability."
- Pets actually program us to take care of them in several ways. The animals themselves take advantage of the instincts we have to care for our young. The pet industry, part of the pet virus, programs us through television and advertising to spend more and more money on expensive pet foods and veterinary bills.
- Pets are faithfully reproduced, with the help, of course, of their own DNA and of the resources we devote to caring for them. But there's also a tradition meme working for many pet species in the form of pet shows and kennel clubs. People are rewarded for reproducing a breed faithfully.
- And of course pets spread in the natural way. They do this so effectively that we've noticed the problem and started campaigns to neuter animals to prevent unwanted offspring. Of course, eliminating unwanted offspring also increases the value of the faithfully bred animals sold by the pet industry.
Pets evolved to be cuter and cuter. How? The ones that weren't cute-that weren't able to command our resources, to enslave us into taking care of them-they died! It's natural selection in action: the cute ones bred with each other until we reached the point we're at today ... infected with the pet virus.
Beer commercials are notorious for this kind of treatment. "Sell the sizzle, not the steak," goes the advertising truism. Well, why not? When you're pushing a product made from rotten vegetation whose primary effects are to dull your wits, pad your paunch, and make you belch, any sizzle would be a big help.