Information as Infection, Part II: A Parasite Called Culture?

If you missed Part I of the “Information as Infection” series, check it out here.

At the heart of the debate about the legitimacy of memetics as a science lies the controversial suggestion that we (humans) don’t just have or create culture. In fact, culture may be parasitizing us like some kind of alien life form, or even more controversial, perhaps we are the parasite called culture!

1. All Natural

This perspective holds that culture was created to serve, and is an extension of, nature (genetic expression). Many evolutionary biologists have adopted the stance that our genetic material is on a never ending quest to spread itself across the universe using our bodies as mere vehicles in this quest. Humans evolved big brains so they could internalize more information about each other. Cooperating in groups is what gives humans their unique advantage from an evolutionary standpoint. In this view, culture is simply an advanced form of socialization. What started out as paying attention to the inner states of our fellow humans for mutual benefit, eventually expanded to include things like voting in an election or wearing a tie to a job interview. Sometimes we do things that don’t seem to fit with the idea of evolutionary survival, like smoking cigarettes. But because being social is how humans learned to survive, we sometimes disregard biological fitness in the interest of fitting in.

2. Body-Snatchers

This view also supports the notion that genes are inherently ‘selfish’ replicators. The difference is that memes, which are supposed to represent units of culture, are sometimes in competition with the genes over how to influence the behavior of the human organism, which is really a host to two replicators – one of them a parasite. The genes were there first and want to propagate more humans, but the memes don’t care about that. The memes want to propagate more ideas, practices, cultural forms, even at the expense of biological fitness. In this case we are either captured by culture (genetic hosts) or its inflictors (cultural parasites). Instead of mostly doing what our genes have programmed us to enjoy (making babies, eating, sleeping, etc.) our memes have us marching around fighting wars, writing blogs, and folding the ends of hotel toilet paper into neat little cravats.

Of course, we ought to apply selection pressures carefully to this particular idea. How we characterize our own species will influence how we treat ourselves, each other, and the world in general.

Don’t miss the inoculation! Read Part III of the “Information as Infection” series.

Image courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. Photo identification information – Mission: ISS016, Roll: E, Frame: 26150