Overcoming Supermemes: Insight to our Future

We live in interesting times. I imagine that there is reason to say this in every generation, which is fair, but ours are certainly among the more interesting we have seen recently. With the advent of social media, and with its massive domination of our era, we are seeing things and experiencing things that others in previous generations just didn't have to confront. Mind boggling speed at which we can communicate, and the sheer volume of those communications, coming at rapid fire pace, rarely permit us the chance to stop, analyze and evaluate how our world is actually shaping up. One of the great downsides of the internet and the 24/7 news cycle is that is never shuts itself down, never helps us in quieting our minds; it is solely up to us to have the self-discipline and ability to take that step. And while that is possible for some, it actually is very challenging for most of us, even on vacation or on days of rest, to shut off the feed, to fully power down, and that is probably a part of our hardwiring as humans. We have a need to know things, we have a need to be advancing, a need to be conquering, a need to be succeeding. We have to cultivate a need to just be, what I want to call a "need for being." And when we don't give ourselves that kind of space, that kind of time to investigate what is truly important and valuable in our lives, that is when we get caught believing in what Rebecca Costa teaches about in her new book, "The Watchman's Rattle," something called supermemes.

Costa is a sociobiologist and author, and her book is a fascinating look at how increased complexity "quickly outpaces the rate at which the human brain can develop new capabilities." She chronicles the rise and fall of great civilizations, from the Mayan, Khmer and Roman empires, and in doing so, "she demonstrates how our tendency to find a quick fix to problems by instinctively reacting to symptoms, instead of searching for permanent solutions," leads to frightening long-term consequences: we cannot solve our most vexing problems, we become gridlocked, progress slows and collapse ensues. Based on the groundbreaking work of Dr. Richard Dawkins, in this 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Costa shares that memes (pronounced like 'seems') which are 'any widely accepted information, thought, feeling or behavior,' have the capacity, like Darwin's theory of natural selection, to beat one another out for acceptance in our minds, and therefore in our society, guiding us to make decisions, or not make decisions. In other words, memes compete for survival just like genes do.

The study of memes, known as memetics, "provides a valuable framework for understanding how culture, knowledge, beliefs and behaviors spread until they become an accepted part of life." (Costa, pg. 48) Essentially, memes are ideas that we can come to accept in our society, regardless of whether they are actually true or not. Common sense, traditions, theories, biases, even slogans: all of these can be memes. "Don't run with scissors" is a meme, as is the idea of rubbing two sticks together to make fire. For us Jews, the exodus from Egypt is a meme, helping us define who we are as a people. While memes are important, often valuable, tools, what happens when they become so imbedded in us, so attached to our being, that we cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction? What happens when these memes block us from the very solutions we seek to the complexity that faces us in our world? That is what Costa calls "supermemes," and they prohibit us from making the necessary adjustments, advancements and calculated decisions required to attack the problems that we face.

Sitting at dinner with friends the other night, I raised this topic of supermemes (always a swell topic for conversation, as my wife would say!) and we talked about trends and super-trends that take hold in our society, essentially the same thing. Lets take the field of education, for example. We talked at dinner about how education is the basis of everything and that good education is the cornerstone of a successful future. As two white, middle class couples sitting in a fancy restaurant, we felt incredibly blessed that our wealth enabled us to make decisions for our children's education that other, less fortunate, poor people just couldn't do. Yet, that is completely unfair in a society that prides itself on equality for its citizens. One of the supermemes that Costa describes in regard to why we can't fix the education system, along with many other complex problems we face, is "irrational opposition." She explains this to mean, "when people are more comfortable rejecting remedies rather than advocating solutions. If every solution that is proposed can be found to be flawed, then none will be adopted. Simply put, across-the-board opposition results in gridlock." What is at work here is our inability to process the massive complexity of reforming our education system based on the numerous factors facing us today: increase in wealth driving private schools, decrease in funding for public education in most areas, rising poverty levels amongst minorities and the corresponding decline in their school choices, coupled with our inability to figure out how to prioritize what matters most as a society. Irrational opposition is a supermeme because it is the only answer we have when faced with a huge, complex problem: we know we need to fix it but we reject any of the solutions offered.

Similarly, with global warming and climate change, most rational human beings who accept the overwhelming scientific evidence of carbon emissions destroying our environment, want to do something about this vexing, complex problem, but when it comes time to decide which of the paths offered by experts to follow, be it cap-and-trade, voluntary reductions, demanding better automobiles, higher taxes, anything that may be a reasonable solution is rejected by enough people to make it impossible to move forward. The supermeme of irrational opposition prevents us from solving this problem. And how about the peace process? We all know the end of game for Israelis and Palestinians, we have plans that have shown us how to end this conflict, both sides know what the borders will look like, what the solutions are to the most challenging of the final status issues. So, what is the problem? Taken from Costa's point of view, again, the supermemes of "there is no partner for peace," "as long as one-side hates the other side, peace is not possible," "lets move incrementally," all of which are another way of describing irrational opposition, stop us from actually solving this very complex problem.

So, are there answers? Yes, but you will have to read the book to find out the end! I will tell you this though: Costa's conclusions about how to move ourselves forward is exciting for one major reason: it involves us and it is doable! One hint into the end: she discusses the concept of 'insight,' the great human ingenuity that allows us to sometimes come upon answers to problems that have been deemed to complex to solve. Imagination, which is where she ends her book, is at the heart of insight. When we dare to dream, when we dare to believe that some of our answers to the great complexities of the world actually can work, then we free our minds of the negativity and falsehoods that are at the heart of supermemes. She says this at the end of the book, "Neuroscientists have known for some time now that the key to survival of the species is locked deep inside the human brain: What is good for cognition is not only good for the perpetuation of the species but also for other life-forms and the planet. The more we do to conquer the cognitive threshold, the more likely we are to successfully meet the complex challenges that lie ahead." (Costa, pg. 264)

And this relates directly to where we are in the Torah. We begin the book of Exodus tomorrow, the story of our people overcoming the greatest supermeme that we have ever known: slavery as the only way of life. Moses dared to dream, hear the call of his inner cognition, his consciousness awakened with the great insight of a bigger picture, what the Jewish tradition calls God. The Israelites spend the rest of the Torah trying to overcome this supermeme, and Moses works his entire life to try and share his cognitive insight, his great awareness of the possible. As we end 2010, let us all be blessed to cultivate a greater sense of insight, a greater threshold for imagination, and may we find ways to overcome the supermemes that are holding us back from building the world we know to be possible.