Critique of Harari, part 2: The Selfish Meme

So, Harari’s most crucial mistake is his failure to understand the way memes operate in the human mind – that imaginary tales create real behavior, and, also, the role memes play in psychological repression. Another issue is the connection between biological and ideological evolution: that the evolution of ideas is firmly based on necessity, on natural circumstances and, of course, on the genetic evolution. This is something Jared Diamond understood.

He did observe, quite astutely, that social stratification is something that is bound to happen in any society above, say, a ‘Chalcolithic’ level of evolution, and that the lines along which the human sediment will settle tend to be arbitrary – whichever groups formed, according to circumstances, divided along natural lines of race, gender, class, and the advantages they have achieved in the formative stages of their culture, will persist and become tradition.

But this process is not completely random. There are principles at work. Just like with evolution, the randomness is guided by forces selecting from it what is best suited to the circumstances. For instance, history has shown us that warrior casts, or warring nations or tribes, tend to achieve many advantages in the societies they are a part of, or of which they have become a part of by means of invasion. That aggression, during certain periods in history and in certain parts of the world, done in a certain way, paid off majorly to those who were willing to apply it. Not just luck – luck plus talent.

There are quite a few examples to this: the warrior caste in India, the highest social strata in that country, traditionally, is descended from Indo-European invaders from the 1st millennium BC. The upper class in the cities of Canaan during the middle and late bronze was descended from Hurrian warring tribes that invaded Canaan in the early 2nd millennium BC. And, of course, the descendants of the Norsemen and, particularly, those of Rolo the Viking, who had the received the fiefdom of Normandy from the king of France in the 10th century. His descendants proceeded to conquer England, and the British and the nations that thy have formed are amongst the most powerful people in the world today.

The growing complexity of societies created the need for administrators – chieftains, priests, kings, and the echelons that supported them – and this provided opportunities for people to accumulate power and to abuse it, and also facilitated the process of social stratification.

In the struggle for the spoils within the social supergroup – the nation, the tribe – people ‘choose’ their groups and then use any advantages available to them to improve their own status through improving the position of their group within society. This also means that the different groups within a society will possess different versions on the mother-ideology (the set of memes) of the supergroup. These versions will be better suited for the particular position the members of that subgroup hold within the supergroup, and will tend to be more Machiavellian as you go up the social strata.

Another example is that of men and women. Here, again, Harari claims the result had been random – that a woman can do anything a man can do. How PC of him. Well, of course a woman can run, and swim, and fight, only men usually can do it better, especially the fighting part, owing to their more powerful build, higher muscle mass and the fact they are not encumbered by a womb.

An army of which one third is pregnant and another third is on maternity leave, breastfeeding babies, is not practical. So, in a society in which fighting is of crucial importance, the natural warriors will become the ruling class. The role nature has given women pretty much made them victims of men, at least since the agricultural revolution – there are many who believe that animistic hunter-gatherer societies or, at least, some of them, had been matriarchal, and I think this is quite possible.

So, I will take the role of the religious preacher here, and say that nothing happens by chance. Even the toss of a die has its role, within the intricate mathematical web which moves our universe; it is a part of the set of laws that make reality.

Beliefs are selected by how well they facilitate the survival and the spread of the genes that have created the mind that adopts or rejects them. ‘Meme populations’ undergo a much more rapid and wild changes than gene populations do. they make adaptation faster and this, in turn, requires adaptation to accelerate.

Let’s look at another example: that of money. why had gold and silver ascended to their high role as a means to preserve value and a means of exchange, in trade, some 4or 5 thousand years ago, and had maintained their position almost to this day (with gold still playing its old role, to a great extent)? Why not seashells from India or from China, or buckskins, or, I dunno, whatever else had ever been used by people as a means of exchange for trading.

Harari claims this was arbitrary. I think it was unavoidable. The way I see it, in order for something to assume the role of a global means of exchange in an age before worldwide accounting and before modern economics, it has to meet 4 essential requirements:

  1. Rarity: it must be rare enough to have value.
  2. Availability: it must be available, naturally, in all parts of the world. People must be familiar with it and with its qualities. This does not mean that someone (like Athens, for instance) cannot own the largest silver mine in the western world, and be the major coin-mint of that area for centuries. As long as silver is known in all places you are trying to use it as currency.
  3. Durability: one should be able to store it without it deteriorating over time. Gold, as we know, is a truly noble metal. Silver gets oxidized, but one the top layer has turned black the rest remains protected from further oxidation until that layer is removed.
  4. An additional use: gold and silver have always had decorative value, later also becoming status symbols due to the preciousness of the metals. This was their ‘foot in the door’ – the first step that brought them into focus and made the ones that followed possible.

Now, seashells do not meet requirement #2, availability, even though, regionally, they may satisfy all the rest. Their additional use is also more limited than that of gold and silver, outside of the cultural context that makes them unique and desirable for making necklaces in, say, India. Someone living in Anatolia might not feel the same about them, as decoration. Furthermore, while they still may be used as exotic memorabilia, they will never be trusted enough to be used as a means of exchange outside the country where they have been made fiat money by decree, simply because they are only available locally and are unfamiliar to foreigners. Trading in gold, or, better still, in gold jewelry, will first establish the value of the metal for decoration, which will give it some initial value, which will later be standardized as trade will evolve.

Naturally, this process will end up displacing most of the local monetary systems, or being added on top of them, but this is more akin to the spread of an invention than it is to the spread of a tradition that takes over everywhere just because it happened to arrive there first…. well, if you don’t count the original system they had there before – which seems to be Harari’s argument. When the Indian monetary system met the foreign, gold-based ones, the Indian was not the one that ended up being displaced by accident. It’s a big country, after all. But apparently the demand for gold had been great abroad, which ended up causing the replacement of the local monetary system by the foreign one….. because the foreign one had already been established in many cultures that had been in contact with India. Gold was in demand. Shells were not.

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