Memetic Engineering

Since long before the dawn of history, human beings have influenced the evolution of plants and animals, by domesticating them, breeding them, and now by engineering their genetic structure directly (Diamond 1997). Over the same span of millennia, humans became progressively more sophisticated in the processes by which they generate and transmit new culture, leading to the advanced electronic media of today. However, while agriculture in recent centuries has employed genetic science and technology of advancing complexity to domesticate plants and animals, the culture-based industries have not yet made use of memetic science.

It is important to realize that the term culture is defined very broadly by anthropologists and other social scientists. It is not limited to high artistic culture (symphonies, oil paintings, and great poetry), popular culture (rock music, best-selling novels, and dress styles), or intellectual culture (academic philosophies, schools of scholarship, and scientific theories). It also includes the practices of skilled professions, from surgery to litigation, financial accounting to bridge building, dentistry to uranium mining, and from auto mechanics to rocket science. The habitual patterns of behavior in families, neighborhoods, corporations, and government agencies are also forms of culture. We can say that culture refers to any pattern of thought and behavior that is shared through learning, rather than being rooted in biological inheritance.

We take for granted the assumption that government agencies like the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Department of Energy should conduct fundamental scientific research that will ultimately be of benefit to manufacturing and transportation industries and to the military. At the same time, debates range over how heavily government should be involved in supporting culture through agencies like National Endowment for the Arts or National Endowment for the Humanities. But here we are discussing something very different from grants to support the work of artists and humanists. Rather, we refer to fundamental scientific research on the dynamics of culture, that will be of benefit to culture-creating and communication industries, and to national security through relations with other countries and through an improved ability to deal successfully with a wide range of nongovernmental organizations and movements.

If manufacturing creates the hardware of modern economies, the culture industries create the software. Both are essential to prosperity, and in the modern world, both should be grounded in solid scientific knowledge. If we understood better how human beings actually innovate, whether in music or the engineering design of consumer products, we could help them do it better. If we had a better map of culture, analogous to the Linnean system that classifies biological organisms into species and genera, we could help people find the culture they want and we could locate "uninhabited" cultural territories that could profitably be colonized by growing industries. Many of the social problems faced by contemporary American society seem to have substantial cultural aspects, so the findings of scientific memetics would be extremely valuable for both the government agencies and private organizations that have to deal with them.

As the Human Genome Project drew to its conclusion, it became clear to everyone that "mapping the human genome" was only part of the work. Also necessary was studying the great genetic diversity that exists from person to person around the planet, and discovering the biochemical pathways through which each gene was expressed in the phenotypic characteristics of the individual. Comparable work will be required in cultural memetics. For any given cultural trait, there may exist a number of distinct alternatives, like alleles in biological genetics, the mutational forms of a gene. The characteristics of varied individuals are the complex result of different alleles interacting across numerous genes. Categorization of culture from a memetic perspective will identify these alleles, and memetic engineering could make extensive use of techniques for combining these cultural traits in new ways (Bainbridge 1985).

Understanding how memes are expressed in actual human behavior will require advances in cognitive science that will have spin-off benefits in education and the culture industries. For example, research on how language is encoded both memetically and cognitively will contribute to better language instruction in schools and more effective commercial and governmental translation across languages. As in any major scientific endeavor, there may be a large number of unexpected benefits, but the gains we can identify now already more than justify the development of memetic science on economic grounds alone.

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