For better or for worse, I have always been a doubter and suspicious of authority. Therefore, it was automatic for me to analyze every bit of information that was handed to me by supposedly “reliable” sources: parent, teacher, professor, boss, or mentor. For some inexplicable reason, I never completely trusted anyone between the ages of 5 and 100 to give me the unadulterated truth.
“Two plus two are four,” said my first grade teacher
“Yeah, right. Show me the proof, I’m from Missouri!” I replied impertinently.
Now I understand that what most people in the world accept as the truth are the ideas circulated through “memes,” a new scientific term coined by Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Memes are considered by some as “cultural entities, from jingles to superstitions to skills.” For me they are merely packets of information communicated between humans via the physical senses to be filed in our memories and used to guide us in making decisions about how to survive adversity or enjoy ourselves in peaceful moments.
But Dawkins is surprised that human beings, influenced by the ideas circulated via memes reject what scientists have officially identified as their “truth.” For example, many common folks eagerly accept that there is some kind of life after death and reject Darwin’s theory of evolution. To many scientists the opinions of the general public are ridiculous. Only the latest published theory championed by the scientific community is the “truth.” In a recent interview with Kenneth Baker, a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle, Dawkins was quoted as saying, “I think the idea of eternal life after death is an appalling idea.”
Like it or not, that idea is indelibly encoded on the neurons in the minds of humans who receive a variety of memes pro and con about that subject and choose the memes that they prefer for some personal reason, logical or not. When Dawkins refuses to acknowledge the fact that the masses often ignore the scientific approach to interpreting life and the universe, he shows us that he fails to understand what constitutes basic human behavior.
Most folks tend to “go with the flow,” while a few of us don’t. Each of us uses what the memes suggest or tell us when it suits our fancy. Our decision to obey any message depends on many things: our mood, our education, our fears, and the intensity of our convictions. Doubts about many of the ideas that are “floating around” exist in everyone’s mind. When decisions are made by individuals, however, they use the rationale they have selected at the moment they must act. The consequences are varied, and the one considered worst by most Americans is death.
Memes stealthily infiltrate our minds as viruses infiltrate our bodies. The natural human response is to reject any of those that make us feel uncomfortable or that we think threaten our lives and well-being. Rightfully motivated or not, we must act, and our acts can be manipulated by those clever humans who understand how human minds are influenced by messages carried by memes.
Logic, common sense, and lawfully prescribed guidelines are often ignored by selfish humans. The degree of selfishness may vary from person to person, but sooner or later some human defense mechanism dominates the mental selection process of choosing the memes or ideas to be followed or obeyed.
Today, educated biologists believe that DNA somehow controls the protein-making process in the cells in our body, memes influence the neurons in the brain, and the combination of the two determine the minute by minute behavior of all the internal processes that affect the human being.
However, is that the ultimate truth? What unseen internal or external mechanism ultimately makes the decisions for the individual person using the information furnished by the genes and the memes? For example, if there are two messages introduced by the memes that oppose one another, where is the command center to make the difficult choice between the two? “Come in, Houston, we have a problem here.”
Why do humans listen to some ideas and reject others? How does a person select the “good” news from the “bad,” recognize the hot from the cold, and determine what’s beneficial to an individual human organism and what’s threatening? Where is the exact place of deciding what message is to be acted upon?
We all know that human behavior can be detrimental to the individual’s health and life. It’s common knowledge that addicts’ choices are influenced by the drugs and narcotics they consume. Likewise, we judge that “misinformed” individuals are adhering to the “wrong” messages delivered by the memes’ system of conveying information. For some unknown reason, the “right” message like a lost piece of luggage was not delivered or it was delivered to the wrong destination, the wrong neuron address.
Dawkins admitted to Baker that he was “uncertain how to cope with the questions that teeter on the edge of free will.” And there is the gist of the issue: Is there room in the human make-up for a free will? Or is there merely “a selfish gene” that supposedly knows how to deal with everything?
Judging from my experience, each person wants to hear the good news and not the bad news. All of us are somewhat relieved that whatever took place that is considered “bad” happened to someone else. “Human nature” we call that. Humans hope that things will go their way exactly when they want them to. Yet, they also suspect that Murphy’s Law will intervene and somehow cause the things they are most afraid of to happen to them at the worst possible moment. Most of the time, alert humans who are properly guided by the correct external warnings will obey these warnings and do what is necessary to avoid an unwanted catastrophe.
However, time and time again, a human being will act in an unseemly manner. Men and women have a propensity to do things they like regardless of the consequences. Many of their choices are based on receiving future benefits which they feel entitled to receive. Uncertainty may cause some procrastination, but “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is an example of a meme we have all received at one time or another.
On occasion we “throw caution to the wind” and proceed with taking risks that have “good,” “bad,” and “unintended” consequences without any ability to measure accurately the amount of risk we might be taking. Somewhere in the human personality is the thrill of expectation, an optimistic anticipation that we can choose correctly and benefit from our audacity.
Those who understand human nature without caring one iota about the scientific explanation of what constitutes the decision-making part of the human personality, use their knowledge to influence us by sending us memes that promise us the things we think we want or we think we need. Memes deliver these messages, but somewhere inside of us, we decide to listen to them or not. To our benefit or to our detriment. Many of these messages come in the form of promises, and they cover a wide variety of our individual desires: political assurances, rewards for certain behavior, relationship vows, product guarantees, and unsigned “vouchers” for our happiness.
You’ll recognize them all, I suspect. Political promises: lower taxes, better government, more security, equal justice under the law, etc. Promises of rewards: a raise, a promotion, a winning lottery ticket, a cure, an exciting vacation, “a new car,” a gourmet meal, etc. Relationship vows: a marriage contract, an employment agreement, an acceptance to a university, a membership in a club, etc. Product guarantees: a one-sided warranty agreement, the advertisement come-on, the polished compliments and manipulative comments of the used car salesman or woman, etc. And the vouchers for happiness: work hard and you’ll succeed, get a good education, drink this cocktail, take this remedy, love your neighbor, follow our teachings, worship this Deity, etc.
In accepting these promises, humans normally will ignore the messages of memes that warn us about doing so. We will not aggressively seek the truth nor investigate the facts. Nor will we abide by the law and respect any restrictions that are poorly enforced. We will overlook our obligations, forget our responsibilities, and tacitly accept the extra charges added to our credit card debt. Last, but not least, we will bravely disregard the punishments that may, or may not, be forthcoming.
This wanton behavior is commonly referred to as human nature. Many of us choose to follow an autocratic leader and make a decision that Dawkins and other scientists would consider irrational, counterproductive, and destructive.
Do the memes and the genes know better? I don’t think so! They possess certain important information that they communicate within our physical and neural network, and they send coded messages to our mainframe computer. But they don’t make the ultimate decisions that animate the human individual. The buck stops somewhere in the so far uncharted chain of command in the human organism. Then a decision is made somehow that impacts the future of the whole individual.
Believing in some pagan religion, an omniscient, omnipotent deity, and an afterlife reward for “good” behavior may “appall” Dawkins, but Science and the meme influenced human race will march on. Sooner or later scientists will toss out and replace mistaken human theories and continue their serious research into whatever makes a human tick, sick, quick, or slick.