What are your views on spreading viruses? Do you believe that spreading viruses is a good thing because it increases the collective immune response of the species, or are you more of the conviction that spreading viruses is malicious and should be, in specific cases, even criminalized as a kind of abuse? Most of us likely end up in the second camp, and I know that I have secretly hoped there is a special circle in hell for those that go back to quickly to school/work/kitchen when they have suffered a bout of winter vomiting disease or the calici-virus.
So, why ask this? Well, I just finished looking at a very old TED-video (you know, the sometimes derided fast food for the mind that can give you world-shaking insights in a few minutes) that really set me thinking. It was a video with one of my all-time favorite philosophers, the unimaginably smart professor Daniel Dennett. His talk was about parasites. He told a story about a parasite that attacks ants, gets them to climb grass in the hope that they will be eaten by cows and there, in the nice and comfy heat of the cow stomach, the parasite can reach its next life stage (career growth!).
The parasite hijacks the ant’s brain and bypasses all genetic imperatives that normally govern how an ant behaves, and turns the ant into a vehicle for its own advancement.
This, Dennett said, is exactly what happens with some ideas as well — ideas that he, following Richard Dawkins, calls memes. These memes are mental parasites that proliferate through human communication and colonize the brains of humans in order to survive. Ideas evolve, survive and die out. Dennett had another interesting example: quakers. Quakers, he said, is a religion that preaches celibacy. For everyone. Not a great evolutionary strategy, one may note. But quakers could recruit enough orphans and outcasts in society to survive – until the modern welfare state put them out of business: not enough misery, and so not enough recruits, and hence they died out. Quakers had – Dennett implies – a mental meme parasite that hijacked them and counteracted all genetic imperatives.
And then he turned to more serious examples: fundamentalist religion being the perhaps most important one. There, more than in any other case, the imperatives of genetic evolution are effectively eliminated and young people willingly die for the sake of an idea. There are many such memes, Dennett noted, a great multitude of ideas to die for.
But so what do we do? Let us assume that the memetic hypothesis – it is not more than that I think – is right. What does memetics then teach us about how we constitutionally should design societies and legal systems?
What about, say, free speech?
Free speech is very much like a right to freely spread viruses, if the memetics hypothesis holds. Anyone can spread any idea, and if that idea takes hold it is fine to let it do so. If we believe that ideas are memes and act like parasites or viruses – do we then believe in free speech?
It is not an easy question. We can imagine a number of different answers that will put us in different kinds of dilemmas.
First, we could argue that we need inoculation to ideas that want us to die for them. The only inoculation that would work, we could say, is education. Education, then, is the key to allowing free speech. Only the educated are allowed to hear free speech, because they have the vaccine of knowledge that allows them not to be smitten by fundamentalism, nationalism or any other ism that wants to kill them. But what levels of education do we need, and how do we proceed with the many billions that have not yet had those levels of education? Should we revoke their right to listen as they are far to easily infected with murderous ideas? And how do you do that, but still educate them?
Second, if we assume this is true and revise our hate speech thinking to actually reflect a ban on ideas that wish that we die for them, ideas that are positively designed to circumvent the evolutionary genetic imperatives or procreation and evolution, what do we then do with non-violent versions of these ideas? The wish to join a monastery circumvents genetic imperatives, but is it harmful? Is it only ideas that want us to die for them that we need to stop? What about patriotism? Altruism? Do we object to ideas of sacrifice if they don’t make evolutionary or genetic sense? “It is logical to sacrifice yourself for two siblings and four cousins…” as someone supposedly said.
Thirdly, if we say memetics has no bearing on free expression, that there simply is no analogy there that is meaningful to explore – then do we really believe in the memetics hypothesis? If we indeed think we are sometimes victims to ideas that infect us, we should probably design our society to give us as good a chance as possible to fight them, should we not?
All this leads me to think that an exploration of a theory of free speech in memetics would be an interesting undertaking, and one that would allow us to cut the many challenges in free speech and free expression in a new way, even if it ends up discarding the analogy because of mismatches and glitches in the metaphors employed. Just a thought. Now, back to what you were doing.
Edit 24.7 2014: One reader was nice enough to point out to me that it was the shakers not quakers that had a prohibition on reproduction.