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Develop a Historical Sense (Week 17 of Wisdom)

A meme is a collection of ideas that spreads through people. But it does not spread indiscriminately, it relies on skillful narration and delivery on the part of the person propagating it. A talented orator and a highly connected medium are the perfect vehicles for a meme to survive. A successful meme is invariably copied and transferred to other parts of the population, where it competes with other memes for supremacy.

Memes, Genes, and Seeds

A good parallel can be found in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel where he discusses the life of a seed, that uses fruits to transport itself for great distances and by many animals.

A seed, like genes and memes, needs to spread to survive, and it does so by creating delicious looking fruit. Natural selection will filter out bad looking fruits (no one will regrow them) and over many years, the best-looking fruits will survive, continuing the spread of the seeds of these fruits.

Genes work in the same way, but their mechanisms work through people and animals rather than fruits.

And memes? They work exclusively through people since no other animal can speak or write.

We are thus carriers of ideas, and these ideas have lives of their own. They transcend time but can only survive if the human species survives. They spread faster with the aid of technology – think of how online social networks speed up the sharing of ideas. 

Technological progress is an example of such an idea.

Techne

Jacques Ellul in The Technological Society used the term “techne” to define anything that speeds up progress. And this includes writing or even a simple instruction manual. The idea is that techne does not care about the well-being of the people using it, in the same way the genes or seeds don’t care about the well-being of its carriers. 

We are not hardwired to be happy, genetically speaking. We are hardwired to reproduce. If we experience any happiness, it is a by-product of our biological imperative. 

Techne does not care if people live better lives, but only that it evolves itself. In other words, the final purpose of efficient technique is further self-perfection. Techne does not only define the economic infrastructure of a society, but Its political and social beliefs as well. 

The youngest generations are far greater believers in progress than older generations, and much less attached to the traditions and values of the past. They are products of the economic and technological epoch that they occupy. Previous generations may have been more influenced by religion or nationalism but that is only because these memes found ripe ground to spread during that epoch.

That is why, we must always be aware of which epoch we occupy in the present, and to realize that the memes that dominate our consciousness are not voluntary or necessary products of our needs and desires, but products of a collection of memes that have finally found the appropriate historical moment to survive. 

The Root Cause

To gain control over what we devote our attention to, what we think about and what we worry about, we must distance ourselves from the realities of our epoch and gain a historical education. Once we understand where ideas come from and why, we can better adjust our responses to memes, and consider the importance of our personal well-being, at the expense of some arbitrary historical momentum. 

When trying to solve a problem, developers conduct an analysis to find the root cause, they do not focus on the symptoms. Medical doctors learn about your medical history before prescribing treatment. The individual, regarding his political and ideological convictions, or his biological impulses, should do the same.

Robert Sapolsky, in his book Behave, or Lieberman in The Story of the Human Body explain the root of our feelings and behaviors, by taking a historical perspective (Ex: Our feelings of aggression and fear.)

Understanding where these impulses come help us navigate the modern environment more successfully. Without historical context, one would not understand the evolutionary function of anxiety or fear and would assume that such feelings are indications of mental illness or personal flaw.

If you only focused on the current symptoms of fear and anxiety, you would react to your impulses and thoughts as if they were divine commands. You would live a reactive life where each obstacle is a potential threat and each person is a potential predator. Not only would you miss out on novel opportunities, but you would be paralyzed from the act of living itself.

You would not notice that your current feelings of fear are by-products of being too technologically engaged, and that your body is programmed to react to urgency by increasing your stress response.

Stressors

You would not notice that your technological environment, and the collection of memes that your society subscribes to – including conceptions of how you ought to feel and what is considered normal/abnormal – determine in part how you respond to constant stressors.

This is not to say that real stressors do not exist. They are everywhere, and they never cease. But there are necessary stressors and unnecessary stressors. Necessary stressors include positive stress such as mastering a new skill (video games) and negative stress such as a tragedy (the illness of a friend), whereas unnecessary stressors include non-urgent reactions (the news, social media).

As you become more aware to what extent your present has been shaped and determined by your past, you will ascribe less value to your individual identity and story. Once you go beyond your personal hubris, you become less attuned to the minor inconveniences in your life, and more connected to the bigger picture. The larger the scope of your concern, the higher your threshold for pain. You are not merely you, but a miniscule extension of the genome of an extraordinarily complex species that occupies a world it scarcely understands.

Inherited Ideas

You are a part of this whole (the human species), but the whole is as much a part of you. Your instincts are not unique, they were inherited. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, went a step further. He taught that the contents of the unconscious itself were not yours, but that there passed down to you.

Jung made it his life mission to investigate the history of archetypal images and ideas, that were recurrent in the dreams of his patients. He believed that man’s life task, if he was to individuate, to integrate his Self (the deep ancestral core within) was to integrate his past, rather than divorce himself from it. 

And this brings us to an interesting question. When you understand your historical context better, including your biological impulses, political convictions, memes, and archetypal ideas, what should you do? Should you try to go beyond what you are and where you came from, to cast away your historical remnants, and to become fully present in the current moment? Or should you instead take a more unifying approach whereby you put aside your present needs, and reconnect with your past and integrate it, and find ways of expressing and embracing your biological and primordial impulses rather than deny them? 

A plentiful history of ideas gives us different answers to these questions. The Naturalistic Fallacy, for example, would favor the former path, because the argument is ‘just because something is in accordance with nature does not make it good.’ And surely, this is true, since we know many things in nature to be bad, such as disease, and environmental disasters. But it is equally important to keep in mind that not everything natural is bad. One runs the risk of running in the opposite direction and attempting the unnatural simply because it is unnatural.

And on the opposite side, there are those who advocate for a return to one’s natural self. Whereas Jung would call on man to recapture the archetypal symbols of his past, Rousseau advocated a similar return to nature, but one that is more socially detached. Rousseau claimed that human beings are basically good by nature, but because of complex historical events and the structure of modern society, man was corrupted. The ideal man for him was the noble savage, who was “between the less-than-optimal extreme of brute animals on the one hand and the extreme of decadent civilization on the other.” But this philosophy begs the question, were the corrupt politics and culture not created by humans themselves? What does this say about human beings?

Hobbes’ position was the opposite of Rousseau, he said that human beings, unless controlled by social structures, would destroy each other. Jane Goodall’s experiences with chimpanzees teach us that Hobbes’ view was more likely correct, since she witnessed chimpanzees wage war on each other.

To develop your historical sense allows you to find your personal answer to whether you want to return to nature, and what a return to nature looks like. It allows you to imbue your life with a backstory, and what parts of this backstory you want to expand on, or discontinue.

All philosophers make the common mistake of taking contemporary man as their starting point and of trying, through an analysis of him, to reach a conclusion. β€œMan” involuntarily presents himself to them as an aeterna veritas as a passive element in every hurly-burly, as a fixed standard of things. Yet everything uttered by the philosopher on the subject of man is, in the last resort, nothing more than a piece of testimony concerning man during a very limited period of time.

Nietzsche

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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