(Before we begin, yes, I am perfectly aware of the irony—even the hypocrisy—of writing what I am about to write. However, I am also perfectly confident that no one ever reads this blog, so the hypocrisy should not become apparent to anybody except perhaps my wife.)
I am a genetic dead end. I will never have kids. There are a number of reasons for this, but suffice to say that it is, first and foremost, a choice. A positive choice affirming my investment in this world of ours. In nature, apex predators (of which human beings are a type) are few and far between, for it takes large swaths of land to support the prey such predators eat, which is probably why big cats and their ilk developed these territorial sensibilities—to reserve for themselves an area that would feasibly support them. A forest habitat will contain endless numbers of insects, fewer frogs and lizards, fewer rabbits and raccoons, and even fewer coyotes and wolves. Being omnivorous is a great trick for getting by in leaner times, but as the beasts at the top of the food chain, our numbers should be a lot lower than they actually are.
However, our ancestors managed to cultivate the land and domesticate the animals. Agriculture increased the numbers of homo sapiens, in large part because it promoted the transformation of the environment into land that could better sustain our species. The wolf cannot plow down the forest and create a cattle pasture from it, but we can. We alone have the ability to transform very large portions of the earth in order to feed ourselves, and we do. Global warming dominates the media headlines, but, as Edward O. Wilson notes, the loss of biodiversity is perhaps a more menacing threat, given that the extirpation of keystone species could transform whole ecosystems within a very short period of time. Those species are threatened because we will have that land. Our population growth creates a very nasty feedback loop that may only be contained by catastrophe.
In other words, there are just too damn many of us. At this point, it would be immoral to add to the population. Thus am I perfectly fine to be a genetic dead end.
But this is just the setup for my metaphor, because I’m using the current crisis facing humankind in order to think differently about something else. You see, we face this problem in large part due to our genes. Richard Dawkins cogently argued for the gene’s role as the unit of natural selection, the “selfish” replicator that only “wants” to be copied again and again. That complex of genes that endowed human beings with the physical and mental framework that allowed for the transformation of the landscape in order to support ourselves has proven quite successful, and thus have humans proliferated well beyond what one might expect for your typical ape. Our genes will emerge victorious. Some scientists wrongly interpreted Darwin’s writings and describing a perpetual war between species for dominance, not understanding that it was never species competing against each other (not lions versus gazelles) but rather individuals of a species competing against each other (faster gazelle versus slow gazelle, both running from said lion). However, our competition against our fellow human beings has often entailed mowing over so many other species, with many more marked for extinction in the coming years.
Aside from coining the idea of the selfish gene, Dawkins also coined the concept of the meme, or a unit of non-material information that seeks replication like the gene. Think of a bit of song that gets stuck in your head—perhaps this reveals some underlying genetic program for the transmission of information, the gene as the hardware, the meme as the software. And just as genes combine together in complexes that are transmitted together, so, too, do memes, as when something simple like the personification of impersonal forces combines with several other small ideas in order to create a full-fledged religion, one that seeks converts, because memes, too, “want” to be replicated within fresh minds. In fact, these days, most of what we do is communicate bits of information. Your average paleolithic hunter was probably a net consumer of information, reading the signs of the weather or the marks of some animal and, therefore, bettering his chances of avoiding storms and eating that night. However, the balance has slowly tilted toward the production of end of things. The printing press and growing literacy meant not only that people could read more but also that writing was in the hands of a larger and larger group of folks. It’s well understood these days that no one actually reads literary journals—if they subscribe, it’s just to build up a base of goodwill that might one day see their own submissions accepted. Blogging has exploded. Facebook, Twitter. More and more people are eager to share their thoughts, insights, dreams, etc. And I’ll bet that most of us want to be read than actually bother to read anything. A few years back, I read an editorial piece by a woman lamenting the loss of the reader, lamenting the loss of a culture in which reading was as valued as was writing; predictably, the comments section featured dozens upon dozens of folks accusing the author of trying to talk folks out of their own literary dreams. Likewise, another author made a tongue-in-cheek proposal of paying writers not to write, a la certain agricultural programs of the New Deal; however, when he floated the idea past some of his writer friends, they all remarked that they would certainly not mind the cash but would continue writing in secret for the day the program ended or they felt confident enough to abandon it.
What I’m getting at is this—we have too many memes in our world. So the question that arises is this: if making oneself a genetic dead end can be a moral decision on the basis of the overabundance of our genes, then might making ourselves a mimetic dead end also be a moral stance and a worthwhile task? Of course, this presupposes that there is a unique harm in the prevalence of memes. Isn’t there? Do you like being hounded with advertisements? Do you like being pestered by Jehovah’s Witnesses when you’re just trying to take a nice Saturday nap? Do you like a proliferation of television shows, books, movies, YouTube videos, and more that makes the water cooler conversation at work more and more alienating because there is absolutely no possibility that you’re on exactly the same page as anybody? Hell, I work within a few overlapping fields that have expanded beyond my ability to comprehend. I’m an Arkansas historian, and by virtue of that need some facility with broader Southern and American history. I am a specialist in the cross-disciplinary realm of racial violence, a somewhat rarefied field, but there is simply more published each year on race and violence than I could feasibly read. I might be able to keep up with Arkansas, but maintaining a facility with the literature on Southern history would be impossible, and American history just hopeless. A professor friend of mine once observed that the historian’s job used to be to have a comprehensive grasp of the literature, but that there’s so much out there now that this has proven impossible. Civil War historians probably have it the worst. And that’s just reading what you supposedly must—what about books for enjoyment or expanding your knowledge into other areas?
At some point, we began to assume that changing the world first entails writing out our demands, as it were. I think the point is probably when Martin Luther nailed up his ninety-nine theses, but since then, every revolution will have its manifesto. Even just the call for mild changes to our prevailing thought patterns in one small discipline must be carried out by the book, by the academic monograph. We prioritize the communication above all else. It’s not enough for Thoreau to go out to Walden Pond and live the simple life—he has to write about it. And what happens? He convinces a lot of other people to go out and experiment with the simple life—and report back. Wendell Berry convinces a generation of folks to take up small-scare farming, and, perhaps inadvertently, to document their experiences just as he did. After all, being observed verifies our own reality, doesn’t it?
Who abandons civilization these days without blogging about it, or at least being the subject of a documentary film? Well, here’s the rub—if somebody did go out to a cabin in the woods and not write about it, we wouldn’t know about him, now would we? There could be a whole world of possibility out there to which we are blind simply because the residents of that world are not self-reporting. They do not show up on our feeds or in our in-boxes. They have made themselves mimetic dead ends.
In an era when the printed word was new, there was power in the ink. The ink could be revolutionary because, previously, it was in the hands only of a select few. But now that the ink, metaphorically speaking, proliferates, it has no power. The Word moves no people to greater action than writing a detailed refutation, which will be immediately annotated and critiqued by this fanatic blogger, currently engaged in merry war of dimwit with another who shall take apart her post, and so on, ad infinitum. In the beginning was the Word, but now we are polytheists of the most demented sort, and when every god is awesome, no god is. Maybe, now, the power lies in radio silence. In freeing oneself from the mimetic competition and, like Goethe, trading the Word for the Deed.
There could be a whole secret world out there, but if I find it, I will never tell you.