The Hierarchy of Memes
I had a conversation with some of my friends last night about Greek Mythology.
One friend regurgitated what he had learned about the birth of Pegasus. He described how this winged horse was born from the blood of Medusa’s head. Its important to mention that Greek myths sound like someone on acid is trying to pitch a Netflix series. Almost every birth story is absurd; children sprout out from all sorts of places. Organs can be regenerated (only to be slowly eaten away again by an eagle everyday) But why are these myths passed down and studied?
After listening to John Vervaeke’s series on Awakening, I’ve been thinking about symbols, metaphors, and how we communicate as a species. If we go back to the beginning, why did we even start talking in the first place? Humans (as far as we know) used to get around as nomadic hunter-gatherers. There’s no real way to know if civilization existed before those nomads, because the fossil record is contingent upon things actually getting fossilized. Who knows if a fixed civilization existed before our earliest records? Without evidence, there’s no way to be absolutely sure. What we can do is attempt to decipher the hidden meaning in the memes that survived centuries.
We tend to model our idea of human language acquisition after how babies learn. How do kids develop the ability to know words and to form sentences? Well, there is a need. The need is “Mom, I want food NOW *screams*”. Mom tries to develop a way for her child to ask for food more politely. Sign language is especially great for this stage of development. Babies can pick up signs at 6 months (perhaps even earlier in some cases). Instead of screaming, the child can sign (or mime) a message to mom.
Its plausible that humans developed language in a similar way. Gestures and body language were precursors to verbalized messages. This is a pivotal moment of history, just as the creation of the internet has been for us in modern times. Once humans were able to use sounds to describe objects in their surroundings, they no longer needed the physical object to represent the thought. The thoughts became abstract and dissociated from the physical plane. Words began to take precedence over non-verbal communication because its much easier to say than it is to show. (“Easier said than done”).
Once humans could share abstract information, they could collaborate in innovative ways, such as agriculture and marketplaces. I’m sure they could have farmed relatively easily together without speaking, but what we do know is that they began to label things. One plant has a different name from another. Then they began to write up recipes for beer and other concoctions. These recipes have been preserved through time on clay tablets written in Cuneiform. Whether it was to join together in some sort of marketplace or to share information within a village, history began to be recorded in a more permanent way.
In order to grow plants, they likely had some sort of understanding of the celestial bodies and how they relate with what we currently call “seasons”. Seasons are just cycles. “These plants grow when those stars are in that part of the sky.” To examine the sky in a way that allows one to see the movements of planets, that individual would have to have been settled in one location. Why? Because the sky looks a little different when you move to different places. To be able to detect the tiny movements over time, the astronomers would track the position of the brightest stars each day. Using landmarks as reference points, they could observe the tiny shifts as they related to other objects in their visual field. They began to notice some of the stars did not move with the backdrop of the constellations. Those stars were planets.
At this stage of our human evolution, most of the exchanging of information was verbal, despite the fact that some had developed literacy. This skill was still very rare, so oral tradition was the preferred mode of transportation for symbols to move into the future. People were more intimately connected with the world because they were stuck in it. There was no way to escape the reality. They experienced boredom quite a lot which allowed them the space to explore the imagination. The limitations forced them to be creative with how they could got their message across.
So my friend asked a really great question. What isn’t a meme? Well, when we live in a world of metaphors that was created by this incredible skill that humans developed to transmit information, it is a bit of a difficult puzzle to contend with. Humans are in awe of nature. Nature is perfection. Its almost impossible to understand how all of this exists. Any attempt to put that into words falls short. Memes are a way to describe phenomena. They carry with them the very essence of what they convey. The challenging part is that every individual receiver of a meme has their own projections which they cast on to the meme. Therefore, the meme isn’t fully descriptive in any objective way. Context and culture inform the receiver. Knowing the memes is adaptive. Knowing the right memes, even moreso.
Originally written in Collective Journaling at the Stoa