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The Human Memome Project
© Kohlhase

     The concept of a “meme” was first coined in 1976 by Richards Dawkins in his highly successful book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins referred to a meme as a basic unit of cultural transmission, or of thought, like an idea that can propagate by leaping “from brain to brain.” Whereas the genes are replicated by passing biological information from sperm to egg, memes (hopefully those that have substance) are replicated whenever an idea is passed from one person to another, adopted, and passed along further to other brains. Several books have been written on the subject of “memetics” since that time.

     For most of the past three billion years, DNA has been the primary replicator, until the last four thousand years during which time ideas have taken center stage, sometimes moving very slowly, while at other times spreading with great speed. Akin to natural selection in the gene world, some memes are far more successful than others. A case in point is the “God gene,” the matriarch of all memes in the meme pool – that of organized religion. Dawkins observed that the traces of one’s genes have all but faded after several generations of descendants, but the greatest of the memes from famous philosophers, scientists, artists, and writers have lasted for centuries to millennia.

     Analogous to biological evolution by genetic transmission, the propagation of memes can result in cultural evolution -- but at rates far faster than genetic changes which can take thousands of years. Even with breakthroughs in nanotechnology and biogenetic engineering, the rates at which memes will out-evolve the genes will remain dramatic, for two reasons. We are in the information age, with the global news available in near-real time on a 24/7/365 basis. Further, with the exponential rise in usage of the internet, millions of humans can transmit their ideas at near light speed to millions of listening brains. Thus, it will likely be the memes, and not the genes, that dictate future human pathways.

     Many aspects of human nature are explained much better by the theory of memetics than by any rival theory. The fundamental concept involves the competition between memes to get into human brains and be passed on. The ability to imitate is what separates humans from much of the rest of nature. When one human imitates another, a thought, idea, or belief is passed on. If further passed to other humans, it can take on a life of its own. This process helps explain such diverse phenomena as the evolution of the enormous human brain, the origins of language, human tendency to talk and think, altruistic behavior, and perhaps even the evolution of the internet. Everything you have learned by imitation from someone else is a meme. To get themselves copied, human brains have become the physical "hosts" needed for the memes to propagate.

     In the mid-1990s, I initiated the process of trying to obtain a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore the concept of a Human Memome Project (HMP), seeking to identify reliable ways to track the rise and fall of the “primary memes” which represent the central ideas and beliefs of human cultures, to identify the types of events which can deflect the meme trajectories, to develop a model for extrapolating current trends of these influential ideas for many decades into the future, and to finally suggest what memes should be used in programming future AI systems of increasing complexity. If the reader has any doubt about the power of memes to sway the masses, examples run a wide gamut from the dogma of most religions to the use of fear-based patriotism by the Bush-Cheney cowboy administration following the 9/11 World Trade Center attack.

     The concept of predicting future human pathways is not new. In Issac Asimov’s Foundation (1951), he develops a character by the name of Hari Seldon, who uses the statistical techniques of “psychohistory” to make predictions about how the masses may behave over some future period. Whereas no one can predict how any one individual may act in the future, Asimov’s premise is that statistical techniques can be developed to predict the general behaviors of large numbers of humans, to forecast trends, and to use this information to help avert negative pathways and help enhance positive ones. I believe that an equivalent set of techniques can be developed to better understand where the primary memes of humanity are headed, and that such a tool would be invaluable for helping guide human actions into an otherwise uncertain future. With humans destroying Earth’s great biodiversity at catastrophic rates, we more than ever need new meme skills to overcome the destructive consequences of excessive capitalism, excessive human populations, and business-as-usual political inaction.

     We have had an enormously successful Human Genome Project (HGP), whose discoveries and benefits will not be repeated here. Why not a Human Memome Project for its complement? Even Dawkins shortened his initial term mimeme (something imitated) to meme to better accompany the single-syllable gene. If the memes are, indeed, outstripping the genes in the ultimate evolution of the human race, it makes sense to undertake a study to see what may be possible here as well. For Phase I of the HMP, it is important to distinguish between “primary memes” and “secondary memes,” as it is only the former that we will be seeking to understand and track.

     In everyday social conversation, humans most frequently share secondary memes of no significant longevity, e.g., matters dealing with the weather, children’s activities, clothing preferences, gossip about neighbors, outcomes of sporting events, favorite movies, meaningless car chases seen ad nauseum on local TV channels, planned vacations, etc. Generally speaking, these secondary memes are relatively innocuous, jump from one brain to another, endure but briefly, and have little influence in driving the evolution of cultures. Books have been written to suggest that the more important primary memes include fear, religion, sex, food, and selective forms of peer pressure, to name a few. Are these the primary memes whose influence can make a real difference over time, in terms of both their longevity and their consequences in effecting changes in a culture? Are there other primary memes as powerful?

     Many books have been written on the great subjects of humanity, those dealing with governmental power and its use/limits, religion, love, the environment, law and justice, economy and trade, population size, war, health and medical breakthroughs, science and technology, space exploration, philosophy, education, the arts, the media, etc. How do we identify the primary memes within these culture-shaping areas and track how they are changing over time, how their trajectories and focus are affected by key events, and which subset of these primary memes contains the real drivers behind forecasting cultural changes for the next several decades? Now that forces are changing the world more rapidly than ever before, it has become increasingly important, indeed critical, to find a process for identifying and forecasting cultural trends.

     It has been said that, behind closed doors, political leaders believe the “masses don’t have a clue,” and that only the leaders are able to decide what is right for their country. That business CEOs are only driven by the mantras of increasing market share and ensuring “economic growth at all costs.” That environmentalists are “tree huggers,” only believing that over-population, combined with business profiteering, is “destroying biodiversity at critical rates.” That most muslims believe the United States is evil for reasons x, y, and z, and must be defeated by the act of holy war. That the nuclear nations of the world should dramatically cut back on their arsenal sizes. That we must be “politically correct” at all times, regardless of how ludicrous a particular matter may seem. That knowledge from the HGP will allow fixes to nucleotide sequences to repair/prevent diseases. That nanotechnology offers the promise of being able to construct anything reliably and economically from a pool of raw materials. The list goes on and on.

     The HMP seems a daunting endeavor. How might this have been done effectively, if begun long ago? We could then decide how to best approximate that process today. Suppose that a principal investigator had arisen a thousand years ago with the desire to undertake this HMP. He (or she) might have appointed a scribe in every village who would have asked each person who reached their 40th birthday (when views and wisdom had neared their asymptote) the following question, to which he would have faithfully recorded the answers. “Can you please list and weight your ten most important beliefs?” He would further have recorded the occupation of each respondent. The memes of the “leaders,” or of the scientists and philosophers, for example, would likely have had greater influence in the evolution and changes to certain cultures than the memes of the peasants or those with little or no education.

     If the scribe had been able to record the answers in the database of a modern computer, we could then search on the frequency of key words, plot these functions over the centuries from then until now, and statistically correlate changes in these functions to major world (or local) events such as wars, famines, scientific or technological discoveries, class structures, population density and urbanization, justice and punishment, religious dogma, etc. Of course, war is really the response to some collection of primary memes that have grown to the point that war seems the only alternative. But at least we would have the database needed to carry out the HMP. We would assume that major beliefs ultimately drive major actions. We would no doubt learn many things about the evolution of cultures and whether predictions can or cannot be reliably made, even given the primary beliefs of individuals at different levels within each culture.

     We clearly do not have that ideal database, but there are reasonable ways to approximate it. The history of manuscripts goes back about 3000 years, that of books about 350 years, that of newspapers about 300 years, and that of printed-word digital databases about 30 years. Fortunately, in conversations with people at the Library of Congress, I have learned that the titles of millions of books and manuscripts have been entered into searchable databases at various centers around the world. Some of these databases are free for use, while others have a nominal charge. These databases include the titles of some publications going back as far as 1500 years. Phase I of the HMP would determine from historical data how the evolution of central ideas has unfolded over time, how reliably trends might have been predicted, and how the occurrence of pivotal events may be used to forecast future trends.

     Some useful databases for research include: OCLC WorldCat, which shows the holdings of more than 35,000 libraries. RLG's EUREKA is a database of the holdings of about 200 of the premier research libraries in the United States. This may be especially good for some of the older, rare items. EUREKA also provides access to the English Short Title Catalog - a database of materials from 1475 through the eighteenth century. There is no single database for all manuscripts, but the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, as well as the database Archives USA, may prove helpful.

     If the Phase-I results are positive, then a follow-on NSF proposal for Phase II would be submitted for the purpose of identifying currently waxing and waning primary memes and using the techniques learned from Phase I to forecast what may be expected over the next several decades. Of course, this would be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it would give political leaders more power to control the masses to conform to their agenda. On the other hand, it would better arm the masses to recognize manipulative techniques and resist them. I do not know who would ultimately win such a tug of war, but fear that the leaders would prevail. Nonetheless, we have an obligation to complete the HMP if for no other reason than to better predict the future, as done by Hari Seldon, so that really disturbing future pathways may be deflected or prevented altogether. Readers are encouraged to provide their own insights for the best ways to carry out the HMP.