Day 061 - Deathly dangerous memes

Submitted by Sam on 21 July, 2011 - 01:05

The Lancet liver fluke is a tiny parasite that spends its adult life in the livers of ruminants like cows and sheep, having passed through snails and ants as a juvenile. When one of these ant eats an infected snail's slime trail, it ingests many juvenile flukes which will move through the ant's gut and throughout its body. Many will find themselves in the ant's main body cavity, where they will mature, but one fluke will move into the ant's brain. Settling in a cluster of nerve cells below the ant's oesophagus, this fluke manipulates the nerve cells to control the ant's behaviour, forcing it to climb to the top of a blade of grass night after night, making it use its mandibles to grip firmly to the tip. By hijacking the ant's brain, the lancet fluke uses the ant as a vehicle to get to a position where it will be likely to be eaten by a grazing animal, thereby bringing the fluke population to their final host, the cow or sheep, where they will mature into their adult form. This hijacking makes the ant into the flukes' own survival-machine, piloted for the propagation of the fluke genes at the expense of the ant's own life.

The philosopher Daniel Denett has used this parasitic mind-control as a particularly vivid analogy for the effects of the most powerful memes, which hijack human minds for their own ends. Some memes, like 'freedom', 'justice', and 'God' are as powerful as the fluke's effect on the ant, and have driven huge numbers of people to die in their service. Memes, the new replicators, have the power to subordinate our biological imperatives, resisting our genetic interest which has driven evolution for millions of years, in favour of other interests which can have negative effects on our genetic fitness.

We are vectors for memes, and some of our memes are worth dying for. When one meme complex collides with another, there is a competition which can be seen as a dire threat. When one of these meme complexes is powerful enough for its host to be prepared to die to defend it, genetic fatalities will be the meme machine's collateral.

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