Virus of the Mind (book review)

Post COVID-19 makes Richard Brodie’s 1996 book, Virus of the Mind more familiar. We’ve experienced a virus. In 2021 my daughters tested positive while my wife and I did not. In July 2022, only I tested positive. We have also seen a variety of symptoms. Individual accounts vary. Young people tend to do OK. Older people tend to do worse. The cause and effects of COVID-19 apply when thinking about a mind virus known as a meme.

Brodie defines a meme as ”a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds.” Memes are (1) information, (2) influential, and (3) active replicators. 

Terrible twos is a meme. It is information about toddlers. It changes behavior and/or attitudes. It spreads thanks to alliteration, believability, and openness to new ideas from new parents. 

But terrible twos isn’t really true. Three is worse. Terrible twos persists because it is a meme. 

‘Meme’, which rhymes with ‘gene’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Brodie’s book on memes is the sidecar to the Dawkins motorcycle of genes. 

For instance, how a meme spreads, much like how a gene spreads, depends on the environment. Humans evolved in certain atmospheric gasses and our genes did certain things. Genes weren’t programmed for bipedal mammals with large heads. We just ended up this way, a kludgy outcome. Things happen based on what works best at any given moment. 

Monopoly winners are kludgy. The best Monopoly spaces are orange. But players buy up the properties as they are available and cash is on hand. Winners – if your group makes it that far – won’t always have orange. They’ll have a rainbow. It’s one thing that works and hence replicates, after another.

That’s the thing to remember with genes and memes. There’s no destination, just replication.

Human genetic evolution kludged its way to three big triggers: danger, food, and sex. Ancestors with responses to DFS replicated better. We are the progeny of people who thought DFS were really important. Because DFS are wired into our genetic evolution they are also wired into our mimetic responses. Brodie writes, “Genetic evolution gave us the tendency to pay attention to certain memes.” 

It’s not only explicit danger, food, or sex. One sub response is competition. Because we are wired to compete, like in Status Games (Review here), genes and memes associated with competition do better. As a kid who delivered newspapers I always wondered why national and local news, business, and sports each had their own section. Why were those so important? It’s competition, a byproduct of danger (outrun the lion), food (get more berries), and sex (have a better mate). 

DFS and the sub-branches help memes spread but there are other paths as well. Conditioning like repetition is one. Tradition is another. Religion, writes Brodie, does this well. What’s universal about different faiths is their traditions. From weekly to annual, from small to large, most of the world’s largest religions have some aspect of regularity and that keeps the meme going. 

Religious memes (really, religion itself) demonstrates meme neutrality. We are all programmed by memes, there’s no avoiding that. We only choose which memes we are programmed with. Memes are (1) information, (2) influential, and (3) active replicators – and if we change what information we consume, what information influences us, and what information we spread we can change the memes in our world. Brodie writes, “Further compounding the problem is that you don’t immediately know whether the programming you get from a given mind virus is harmful or beneficial. Nobody ever joined a religious cult with the intention of getting brainwashed, moving to Guyana, and committing suicide.”

Thinking about memes was like thinking about what is water

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