Memes

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Below is a chapter from my upcoming book Humanity Is Beautiful: A New Story For A World On Fire. Paying members can follow along and watch the book emerge and evolve as I write it. View the Table of Contents of this “living draft” here.

I have a mental model of my bedroom that no one else in the world has. No one has as intimate knowledge of what my room looks like or what’s in it apart from my wife. This is a personal mental model that I’ve developed for myself. I have other personal mental models for my purpose in life, my life story, my relationship with my cat, and on and on.

But many, perhaps even most, of my mental models are those largely shared with others: my notions of the legal system, money, and human rights and my belief that the world is round. These are all concepts or beliefs that human cultures have developed collectively and agreed to live by together. I didn’t create them. They were given to me and billions of others as a child or through various media.

Together, they form what we call “culture” – the norms, traditions, and beliefs that offer us a shared identity and a shared foundation from which to understand and navigate the world.

These shared mental models are closely related to the notion of memes popularized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Dawkins puts it, “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” Memes are mental models that spread from brain to brain to brain. The memes that best help us understand our world or best allow us to form a shared identity, and therefore work together more effectively, spread like wildfire.

While other animals can perhaps work in small groups, humans can work together by the millions, even if imperfectly. We can do so because we collectively create and share mental models about ourselves and the world that bind us together and guide us.

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