I’ve been binging on TED talks these past few days, among them a 2002 lecture by Daniel Dennett on memetics. Most of what he has to say is by now pretty familiar to anyone with a scintilla of interest in the topic, but I was intrigued by the analogy he offered up between contemporary globalization of communications and the settling of the New World.
The idea here was that the memes of the West and the developed world are having an unanticipated and catastrophic effect on heretofore unconnected cultures very similar to the effect European germs had on Native American peoples who hadn’t built up an immunity. Dennett mentions our libertine entertainment culture, though the case has also been made with respect to Marxist ideology. Actually, the analogy works better with Marxism, since the problem with the injection of Western entertainment is not so much lethality as a result of insufficient immunity, but an overagressive immune response to a novel foreign organism. It’s probably also a mistake to focus excessively on Western ideas, as it seems that a key precipitant of modern salafism was the sudden reconnection of previously dispersed divergent forms of Islam, which made it seem more urgent to recover an “authentic” Islamic practice purged of the accretions of local tradition.
Still, the comparison seems fruitful. One of the reasons Europeans tended to have nastier bugs than the natives was that they lived in more concentrated towns and cities. When population density is low, a germ that’s going to kill its host is likely to do it before it has a chance to bother anyone else. When it’s high, even quite lethal bugs can spread before doing in their carriers. So in a 17th century context, urbanites (the ones who survived, anyway) are more likely to have a range of immunities, and also to be comfortably sharing space with germs that would be harmful to someone without those immunities.
Now here’s one lens through which to view the emergence of liberalism. A new technology—print—rapidly increases communications density, leading to a flurry of memetic mutation and propagation. This leads to an enormous amount of incredibly messy conflict, until eventually an adaptive meta-meme, liberalism, permits the new breed and the incumbents to coexist in some kind of rough homeostasis. This creates its own difficulties, to be sure, and it’s not the first-best outcome for any one doctrine, but beats the hell out of bloody religious warfare. The problem is that the aggressive and virulent traits that give rise to that bloody warfare tend to be adaptive when a doctrine is hegemonically dominant—stamp out the competition before it’s powerful enough to force a compromise—and probably also, to a lesser extent, when a doctrine is new and small and hunting for adherents. (This is, perhaps paradoxically, especially true when the dominant doctrine is aggressive and intolerant, since only drastic measures will allow a new meme to spread before it’s crushed.) One of the key virtues of a liberal equilibrium is that it creates a context in which that kind of aggressiveness and virulence, almost always an advantage otherwise, into a disadvantage, since new memes are generally accomodated unless they exhibit that trait, in which case they tend to be suppressed or otherwise rejected. This isn’t just a matter of law—we leave churches alone unless we think they’re violent cults, in which case the FBI comes knocking—but also of liberal discursive norms, which lead us to tend to welcome conversation but shun proselytizers.
Moving to consider a world of different communities, we might think of a liberal society as the memetic equivalent of a bioweapon, or alternatively, as a kind of complex organism with a two stage reproduction cycle. The liberal society incubates a large number of diverse religions, philosophies, artworks, and other memes in a domesticated form. When it coes in contact with an illiberal society, the other society’s memes are absorbed and tamed. The liberal society, by contrast, introduces a vastly larger number of initially tame memes that, removed from the liberal context, are likely to be destabilizing even in their “tame” forms but also much more likely to turn virulent. The illiberal society may be well adapted to reject or suppress some subset of the novel ideas being introduced, but it is unlikely to be able to cope with all of them. This triggers a flurry of internal conflict that burns out the most aggressive strains of the novel and incumbent memes—think of a hawk-dove game—and prepares the environment for the introduction of the liberal meta-meme. In this, it might be compared to the exoparasitoid wasp Ampulex compressa: The wasp doesn’t directly inject its egg into a host, but rather injects a venom that disables the host’s escape reflex. Ampulex then lays a larvae nearby, which crawls into the disabled host to gestate. The difference in this case is that the “venom” is a group of symbiotic organisms rather than a secretion.
The downside to all this from the perspective of the liberal society, of course, is that when bodies flow almost as readily as bits, the effects of the burnout stage don’t stay isolated in the prospective host. Still, taking a longer view, this model might provide some reassurance for those who took the 9/11 attacks and the conflict with Al Qaeda as a decisive refutation of triumphalist notions about “the end of history” and ubiquitous liberal democracy. Maybe Al Qaeda is an unfortunate but inevitable part of the first stage of liberal democracy’s reproductive process.