Oddly enough, I’m finding cause for optimism amid the turmoil and trauma of 2020. I have a new-found optimism that the human mind is evolving in a positive direction, moving toward altruism, empathy, compassion, and equity and away from greed, selfishness, and tribalism.
The human mind is shaped by both biological and cultural evolution. Both can produce minds capable of good and evil. But it is with cultural evolution that I find reasons for hope.
Biological (Darwinian) evolution (BioEv), has worked slowly and incrementally across millions of years of Homo sapien history to shape the basic architecture of the human mind. It has no conscience, morality, or values. There is no intelligent designer who directs the evolution of the human mind toward goodness and away from evil.
BioEv is only concerned with adaptability, survival, and reproduction. The driving imperative isn’t morality, ethics, or even improvement, but simply the replication of our genetic material. In fact, BioEv doesn’t progress toward anything, expect perhaps complexity. Human beings are certainly more complex than bacteria or cockroaches but are no more successful at survival and reproduction than these simpler organisms.
Cultural evolution (CultEv) is different. CultEv can have a conscience because it is driven by culture and we create our own culture. CultEv is propelled by memes, rather than genes, and human beings purposely design memes to alter the way minds work.
Since our minds create our sense of self and the way we perceive the world, memes can have powerful effects on what we feel and how we behave. Consider the power of advertising to fuel passionate consumerism. Consider the power of propaganda to drive people to go to war with each other, to sacrifice their lives to promote a political ideology, to commit genocide. Consider the power of religious beliefs to evoke the best and the worst in human nature.
Memes are packets of cognitive information that get implanted in human minds. Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in his book The Selfish Genes, explains that memes can “parasitize [a]brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the same way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” Memes spread across the population by leaping from one brain to the next, transmitted by word-of-mouth, text messages, tweets, and Google searches. Memes can even be passed from generation to generation through imitation, learning, books, video, and all the emerging forms of digital communication.
The glimmer of hope and optimism I find in current events rests in the fact that memes can have a conscience. They can direct the development of the human mind away from bigotry and hate, and toward tolerance, forgiveness, and compassion.
I see this kind of positive evolution in response to the coronavirus. The pandemic has forced everyone to recognize that we share a single habitat—planet earth. We are all connected and must cooperate to protect the most vulnerable among us. To varying degrees, the people of the world have sacrificed their own comfort and security to promote the common good. We need to craft memes that capture the spirit and power of these altruistic urges and ensure their survival and propagation.
A newly energized, broad-based civil rights movement has emerged in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. The protests against bigotry have been incredibly diverse with people embracing the meme that “If anyone of us is oppressed, we are all oppressed.” The memes generated by the powerful impact of “I Can’t Breathe” and Black Lives Matter resonate across borders and deep into past histories—consider the resonance of “We Shall Overcome” and “I Have a Dream” that continue to inspire us today.
Positive memes, of course, must be more than slogans, more than bold aspirations. I’m optimistic and hopeful in 2020 because I feel that the memes of social justice, of reason, and humanism are really altering the structure and function of the human mind. It feels as though we are becoming a kinder and more compassionate species.
At the same time, I am not so naïve as to think that the evolving goodness of human nature is inevitable. We must continue to create cultural institutions that promote equity and justice. We must use our voting power to rid politics of wannabe dictators and self-centered sycophants. We must infuse our culture with the ethics of inclusiveness and fairness. We must protect and create institutions that treat everyone with dignity, respect, and compassion.
Michael C. Patterson, founder, and CEO of MINDRAMP Consulting writes extensively on the art and science of brain health and mental flourishing. He is an educator and consultant who previously managed AARP’s Staying Sharp brain health program, and helped develop the field of creative aging.