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Memetic view of Terrorism

Mimetic View of Terrorism

Uday Dandavate
December 16th, 2008

The world’s most advanced countries have not been successful in containing the
spread of terrorism despite modern intelligence networks, state-of-the-art
technology, and the mightiest security apparatuses at their disposal. While it is
natural for governments and citizens to want to punish perpetrators of terrorism
as a means of eliminating the terrorists themselves, evolutionary psychology will
help us take an alternate perspective on how to contain the “spread” of ideas and
ideologies that motivate youth towards terrorism. In this article I draw parallels
between the world of genes and the field of memes so that we can learn from the
programs, which eradicate viruses in the world of biology to help us eradicate the
viruses of the mind, which increase terrorism. The virus of terrorism needs to be
tackled with the same sense of urgency as biological viruses, such as AIDS; both
have the potential to annihilate human civilization.

Biologist Richard Dawkins first introduced the concept of memes in his book, The
Selfish Gene (1976) to explain the evolutionary rationale for the spread of ideas
and cultural phenomena in society. According to him, the concept of meme
represents a paradigm shift in thinking about consciousness and thought. A
“meme” is a basic unit of information in a mind whose existence influences
events in the world such that more copies of it get created in other minds. Memes
are analogous to genes in biological form. Memes, like genes, are replicators,
competing to find space in our minds and cultures. Our inner conscious self, or
free will, according to the field of mimetic, is just an illusion created by the
memes for the sake of their own replication.

The field of mimetics has also inspired the concept, “Virus of the Mind.”
According to Richard Brodie, “Viruses of the mind are not a future worry; they are
here with us now and are evolving to become better and better at their job of
infecting us. The recent explosion of mass media and the information
superhighway has made the earth a prime breeding ground for viruses of the
mind.” (Brodie 95) Memes are to a human behavior what our genes are to our
bodies. Brodie alerts us to the need to counter the design of the memes:
“Memes aren’t automatically going to evolve to benefit our survival, let
alone our happiness. Meme evolution is on a completely different time
scale from genetic evolution, a much, much faster one. We have no
choice but to confront it or let it rule our lives. If we want to direct
meme evolution in a way that benefits our species, our life on earth, or
anything, we’re going to have to take the bull by the horns.” (Brodie

Viruses occur in three different spheres: biology, computers, and the mind. While
much research and innovation is being done in biology and in computer
technology on how to tackle the problem of viruses, the field of memetics lends
us the opportunity to investigate and innovate possible solutions to contain the
viruses of the mind—terrorism being the manifestation of one of these viruses.

A biological virus spreads by copying itself. Its mission is to spread in the human
body. Once introduced, it penetrates, multiplies, infects, and spreads. Likewise,
our minds too are susceptible to infectious viruses. They can penetrate our minds
because we are so adept at learning from new ideas and information. New
information, like a virus, is shared and passed on to other human minds.
Information, like any virus, begins to program the human mind with new memes
that affect the human behavior. The chain of events stemming from that new
behavior spreads and reaches to other uninfected minds.

This phenomenon brings forth the question of whether we should resign

ourselves to the evil designs of the memes that are leading us towards the path
of destruction. Richard Dawkins suggests, “We alone on earth can rebel against
the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Echoing this perspective, sociologist Mihali
Csíkszentmihályi cautions, “If you achieve control over your mind, your desires,
and your actions, you are likely to increase order around you. If you let them be
controlled by genes and memes, you are missing the opportunity to be yourself.”
(Csikszengtmihalyi 1993)

How do we fight the spread of the virus of the mind? Psychologists Abraham
Maslow and Victor Frankel have inferred that those who get the most out of life
are those who have some kind of higher-level life purpose. Mind viruses typically
distract people from their higher-level purpose. By choosing a mimetic
programming of our own, we can choose a higher-level purpose that can free our
minds to experience fulfillment and joy of life. Practitioners of Zen philosophy, for
example, learn to take in exactly what their senses perceive, and dissolve the
artificial-distinction memes of human ideas and concepts. This practice of
meditating and pondering riddle lessons is called Koans in the Zen philosophy.
Some people call this the process of turning off one’s internal conversation and
just being. Another aspect of the Zen way of fighting the virus of the mind is to
develop an ability to look at life from different perspectives. This process
eventually results in the dissolving of all artificial beliefs and an understanding of
the world at a new level. Rather than viewing terrorists as the perpetrators of
violence, is it possible for us to see them as the victims of the evil designs of the
memes that induce them into violence? It would then be possible for us to
recognize that some of our own peers are hosts to the beliefs and counter beliefs
that lead people to resort to terrorism. Is it possible for us to revisit our own belief
systems and expressions regarding issues that divide humanity along sectarian
lines, contributing to the spread of the virus of the mind? Only by recognizing
such beliefs and thoughts as creations of the memes, who have their own
agenda, can we then protect ourselves and society from viruses of the mind.

By inciting religious sensitivities of people and splitting the world into belligerent
sectarian factions, the terrorist memes have been able to keep people in a
perpetual state of war. In this environment, opportunistic political leaders
capitalize on the anger and insecurities of their constituents for political benefit.
The net result is aggravation of conflict, not resolution. Only by immunizing the
mind from the evil design of the sectarian meme can we then contain the virus in
the long run. Tolerance for cultural and religious diversity is central to immunizing
our minds from becoming the carriers of the terrorist meme. Plurality and
diversity are central to the creation of the universe. It is necessary to train minds
to harness limitless opportunities for innovation from diverse cultures and ideas.
We need to fight the memes that spread terrorism. The fight begins in our own