Why our society might go “splat!” on the windshield sooner than we think

Ray Kurzweil likes to talk about the fact that humans are bad at modeling exponential rates of growth. In this case, he’s talking about the rate of change in information technology. Whatever you think about Ray’s general ideas as outlined in books such as The Singularity Is Near, I think it’s a pretty good insight that needs reiteration.

More generally in social processes, I think humans living at any given time are not very cognizant of nonlinearities, and the sorts of exogenous shocks that might happen in their lifetimes. And why would we be? The evolutionary psychological model for why we’re bad at conceptualizing rapid change is that until recently not much changed for most people at most times.

That is, humans were animals which lived near the Malthusian limit at a stationary state. The rate of change did increase during the Holocene, but even with ancient Egypt consider how different the life of a peasant in the Old Kingdom was versus the New Kingdom. Over 2,000 years not much had changed. Even at the elite levels, not much had changed (in fact, the Egyptian religion maintained cultural continuity from ~3000 BC to ~500 AD, with the shutdown of the temple at Philae). Now consider the 2,000 years between ancient Rome and the modern West. Or, consider the 300 years between the Augustan Age and revival of the Empire under the Tetrarchy, and contrast that to the present year and 1717.

The modern world is strange because great changes in technology and social values can occur over and over across a single lifetime. Someone born in 1896 would mature and develop a world-view conditioned by the “long 19th century,” which lasted until 1914. Then they’d experience the “shock” of the “War to End All Wars.”

Arguably the period between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and outbreak of World War I in Europe in 1914 was marked by evolution, rather than revolution, in social and political structures. 1848 did not prefigure a tumult equivalent to the French Revolution or the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Italy and Germany were unified ultimately under conservative nationalists. Darwinism, abolitionism, and women’s rights arguably were movements who were seeded during the Enlightenment and exhibited long pregnancies until the point that they erupted to prominence.

Between 1914 and 1920 a whole world fell away. The Empire of the Tsars collapsed, and was replaced by the chiliastic Bolshevik regime. Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were dismembered and their monarchies were overthrown, while Germany transformed from a conservative monarchy to a liberal republic.

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In 2546 Richard Dawkins will be remembered for “memes”


In 2006 South Park premiered the episode Go God Go. It synthesized Buck Rogers in the 25th century, the Wii craze of the middle 2000s, and Richard Dawkins’ God Delusion engendered fame (or infamy). In some ways, this was a sad reflection on Dawkins’ reputation, because before he got full-bore into atheist activism he was a great science popularizer, most famously for The Selfish Gene. Many would contend that George C. Williams’ Adaptation and Natural Selection outlined The Selfish Gene‘s ideas better and earlier, while Dawkins himself is most proud of The Extended Phenotype. But warranted or not The Selfish Gene stands head and shoulders above his other work in terms of recognition, in large part due to the sexy title (which Dawkins has expressed some ambivalence about due to its misinterpretation).

When God God Go premiered it was plausible, as the episode suggested, that ~500 years into the future Dawkins would be remembered as the prophet of irreligion. But times change. I now believe that Richard Dawkins’ reputation will hinge on the word and concept of the meme. That is because Dawkins introduced the idea in The Selfish Gene in 1976. Despite Susan Blackmore’s attempt to revive interest in the concept in The Meme Machine I think it is fair to say that “memetics” as an analog to “genetics” was moribund for several decades. This is not to say that cultural evolution as a field did not exist, but that discipline is distinct from memetics and emerged around the same time as Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

Today we are in a very different position than 2006. The word “meme” has entered the lexicon. As the Google Trends chart above shows the increase began in the late 2000s, but it is has been rather precipitous of the last decade. Among the younger set, the word meme is not exotic. It’s just another word. In fact, I mentioned offhand to a co-worker that Richard Dawkins invented the neologism and he was incredulous. He simply couldn’t believe it. And that to me illustrates how ubiquitous it’s gotten in a bizarre way. Dawkins is seen as a writer on evolution and religion. Not the originator of such a ubiquitous word.

Of course, memetics and memes as Dawkins originally envisaged them never developed in the way he’d have imagined. But the culture has a knack for evolving in directions we wouldn’t expect….