Monday, November 26, 2012

Memes and Isms

The English suffix -ism was first used to form a noun of action from a verb, as in baptism, from baptein, a Greek word meaning "to dip". Its usage was later extended to signify systems of belief. The first recorded usage of the suffix ism as a separate word in its own right was in 1680. By the nineteenth century it was being used by Thomas Carlyle to signify a pre-packaged ideology. It was later used in this sense by such writers as Julian Huxley and George Bernard Shaw. In the present day, it appears in the title of a standard survey of political thought, Today's ISMS by William Ebenstein.

The -ism suffix can be used to express the following concepts:
  • doctrine, theory or religion (e.g. pacifism)
  • theory developed by an individual (e.g. Marxism)
  • political movement (e.g. feminism)
  • action, process or practice (e.g. terrorism)
  • characteristic, quality or origin (e.g. heroism)
  • state or condition (e.g. pauperism)
  • excess or disease (e.g. botulism)
  • prejudice or bias (e.g. racism)
  • characteristic speech patterns (e.g. Yogiism)

There are long lists of isms. To over simplify, an ism is a way to think about a group of people who do something different. This is a way to think about cultural changes or paradigms. The more followers or participants an ism attracts, the more likely it will be to affect the status quo. The early isms were apparently about regional, racial and linguistic distinctions which eventually became codified as social norms, politics, rules, regulations and laws. Such moral implications turned into religious prohibitions (thou shalt not). In some ways religion helped stabilize cultures and the family unit, but at a terrible price.

Anytime a belief system tries to separate the human psyche into a good and a worthless portion, there is great danger. This tactic of "divide and conquer" has always been used to bring about mankind's greatest inhumanities. This polarization has been at the root of almost all murder, war, and the primary instrument of oppression. The idea that "we are good and they are bad," is invariably used to justify the worst atrocities, usually under the deceptive guise of religious bigotry.

Both political and religious restraints sometimes act as a hedge against anarchy and chaos. Such repressions are usually good for the state but not so good for the individual. Old Chinese common law was severe; "steal an orange, lose a hand."  Even more cruel and repressive conditions resulted from the caste systems such as in India, where people born into a lowly cast were permanently condemned to subservient poverty. Prohibitions against women and dark skinned races were once almost universal. But perhaps the most pervasive form of repression is elitism, which insures advantages for the wealthy.

This has become so bad that we now live in a world where virtually everything is for sale to the highest bidder, resulting in the commodification of everything including the very planet itself -- the land, the water, and the atmosphere, as well as the plants and animals. This behavior is menacingly self destructive. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that unless it changes drastically and soon, this planet cannot sustain anything like 7 billion humans, much less the 9 billion that is projected statistically.

Over time we have become so accustomed to the exploitation of any and all natural resources that we somehow failed to see this as a sort of economic Ponzi scheme. The paradigm of plundering nature and exploiting the poor lasted a long time, but is apparently unsustainable and coming to an end as natural resources dwindle. The economies and systems predicated on such exploitation must fail along with the institutions that support them.

Where then can we turn for a better way?

A meme is "an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture." A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. A field of study called memetics arose in the 1990s to explore the concepts and transmission of memes in terms of an evolutionary model.

The word meme was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion and architectural technology.

Proponents theorize that memes may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition and inheritance, each of which influence a meme's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesized that one could view many cultural entities as replicators, and pointed to melodies, fashions and learned skills as examples. Memes generally replicate through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient copiers of information and behavior. Because humans do not always copy memes perfectly, and because they may refine, combine or otherwise modify them with other memes to create new memes, they can change over time. Dawkins likened the process by which memes survive and change through the evolution of culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution.

So an idea that spreads quickly through the Internet is an Internet meme. This process speeds up the development of  concepts and seems to be one of the more promising aspects of technology. If technology (industrialization) got us into this, maybe it can help with a solution. An idea whose time has come can get millions of hits almost instantly. Who says it has to be about gossip, matchmaking, music, porn, or buying and selling.

If somebody comes up with a way to save the humans, wouldn't you want to know? Recent developments in contemplative neuroscience seems to offer some hope.  Brain plasticity occurs throughout life and it is evident that compassion can be learned by training the human mind using attention and intention.

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