Sex, death, and the selfish meme

by John MacBeath Watkins

In theory, the first bacteria to appear on earth is still alive. It has divided billions of times and adapted to new environments, and billions of its cells have fallen to immune systems or other hostile environments, but it has been able to change without dying.

Creatures like us, who reproduce sexually, cannot manage to rearrange our genes so readily. To adapt to an ever-changing environment of bacteria and other changes in our environment, we had to find another way change our genetic structure quickly. While it might be more efficient for all the members of a species to be child-bearing, we cannot afford to reproduce parthenogenically because we need to adapt our genetic structure by mixing our genes. We must reproduce and die off to keep up in the evolutionary battle with other organisms such as bacteria.

Richard Dawkins, in his influential book, The Selfish Gene, argued that in essence that makes individuals the servants of their genes. Genes are biological strings of information that use us to reproduce; a mother that lays down her life to save her children is acting in the interest of passing on her genes, even at the expense of her own existence.

In that same volume, Dawkins gave us another concept; the meme, a string of information that uses the minds of human beings to replicate itself. The implication is that if you lay down your life for an idea, you are acting in the interest of the selfish meme. We have, in fact, an existence in a symbolic world that is nearly as important to us as our physical existence.

This is important in our society because we live in a new Gilded Age, in which an ideology much like social Darwinism minus the bogus biology has taken root. It justifies great social inequity based on the notion that we should be selfish, that greed is the way the world works and successfully greedy and selfish people are to be admired. In the war of each against all, they are the victors.

In part, this is the just world fallacy applied to an unequal society, a Panglossian approach to bad outcomes. In this fantasy, the world rewards those who deserve to be rewarded, so the existence of their wealth is evidence of their virtue, and we live in the best of all possible worlds. But it has also become a meme in its own right, taking over minds like a virus, changing behavior like some parasites do, and ensuring its continued existence even at the cost of the host organism.

Mind you, our minds are in large part made of memes -- they are the software in our brains. But there is code and there is code. Sometimes, memes are malicious code intended to serve those who write it. Agnotology, the science of producing ignorance, is one example of this. The Soviet effort to distribute copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the middle east to make any effort toward peace less likely to succeed  is the meme equivalent of Stuxnet. They were in essence hacking Muslim culture instead of their computers.

In any case, the existence of the selfish meme means that self-sacrifice to continue the meme that makes us who we are makes as much sense as self-sacrifice to continue the genes that make us who we are.

This makes a mockery of Ayn Rand's thesis in The Virtue of Selfishness that altruism is destructive and one should never sacrifice one's self for others.

From the Ayn Rand Institute website:

Manevery manis an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life. Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruismthe claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.
Yet why would every man be an end in himself? His end will come soon enough, and his children and his impact on the minds of others will carry on who he is into the future. Self-sacrifice in the service of the survival of his genes and his memes is entirely rational, far more rational, in fact, than actions compatible with any commonly understood definition of selfishness. It is certainly more rational than rejecting any claim that morality consists of living for others or for society.

The question is not whether we should sometimes put the greater good ahead of ourselves. The question is, what memes do we allow to be part of ourselves, and strive to pass on as part of our legacy? A meme that says doing things well is both satisfying and useful will lead to greater success for any descendents and intellectual followers we might leave behind.

But as Stanley Milgram's famous experiment showed, people will do great evil if they think it serves the greater good. You don't get death camps, killing fields, or suicide bombers in societies where everyone is acting selfishly, you get them in societies where a malicious meme has taken hold. Marx made the mistake of thinking that because religion has done bad things, the solution was to get rid of religion, and because property has been the source of much misery, the solution was to get rid of property. Rand made the same mistake with religion, and substituted altruism for property in the things she wished to dispose of.

But religion, property, and altruism are all useful things for a society to have. It is because they are powerful and necessary that they have to capacity to do great harm or great good. They must be challenged to show that they are doing good instead of harm, but to assume that they must be done away with is akin to thinking software is bad because some software is malicious.

edited to add:

A couple of implications have occurred to me since I first wrote this. Since a certain amount of selflessness is needed to assure the reproduction of your genes and memes, I've come up with John's Law: Nature abhors an asshole.

In addition, there is a special case where the ethics of Ayn Rand might make sense. If the individual won't die, and can go on forever, as the bacteria referred to earlier, it might make sense for such an individual to act selfishly at all times. It is the philosophy of the childless.

Which means that Ayn Rand developed an ethical system suitable for bacteria, but not for people.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self