False memes can direct the conduct of human affairs more than established science

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A cultural transmission or meme is an element of culture (e.g., a perception, value or belief) that is copied and spread virally from one individual to another among people who find favor in their contents. Cultures generate memes. Thanks to science, a culture presents us with many memes that are reality oriented or based upon objective, compelling evidence. But other memes that are deluded are also promulgated. From a psychological standpoint, because humans are shaped early and pervasively by memes in learning to perceive reality, it is an evolutionary challenge for humankind to see the world as it is. In the early years of a human being’s life memes are deeply impressed into young minds long before the children have developed the cognitive capacities to objectively examine and critically question what has been transmitted from parents, caretakers and teachers by means of language and example. Individuals are who we are in large part before acquiring the abilities to examine one’s culture, including its unquestioned and insufficiently analyzed memes. Fatally flawed memes occasionally exert more influence over the conduct of human affairs than objective correlates derived from science.

When a psychologist thinks a patient is suffering from a mental illness, that is an evidence-based clinical judgment. However, general standards of normalcy are not clinical judgments, but matters of well-established social conventions and cultural norms that are full of correctly perceived aspects of reality as well as some dysfunctional misperceptions of reality. Deeply disturbed mental patients distort reality drastically. “Normal” people pay no attention to them. Or if attention is paid to them, it is usually just long enough to place them in hospitals or prisons. After all, they are delusional, act crazy and can be dangerous to self, others or property. The mentally ill cannot distinguish what is fantasy from what is real and often behave in ways that do not conform to the expectations of a generally accepted way of life.

By contrast, organizations like nation-states, as well as cultures, appear not to misperceive reality so sharply, yet critical distortions of what large aggregates of people perceive do remain. A term of art in psychology is useful here, “folie a deux.” The term means that two people share an identical distortion of reality. This understanding leads to other terms, “folie a deux cent million” for a nation-state or “folie a deux billion” for a culture. These terms refer to a misperception of reality commonly held by many people of a cult, organization, nation-state or culture. One way to define the highest standard of what is generally regarded as normal for the individual and for human aggregates of different sizes can be looked at in terms of what is free of delusion, what is scientifically validated as real.

Experts do confuse ideology with science, contrived logic with reason, self-interested thinking with common sense. Science regarding the activities of the human population, in particular, appears to be ignored on occasions when ignorance of the conditions of being human serves to support possessors of wealth, power and social status. Thoughts in the service of attractive, socially conditioned, culturally prescribed but deluded perceptions of reality usually derive from cognitive distortions (mistaken impressions, faulty conceptions and misunderstandings) as well as ideological bias that unknowingly becomes embedded in scientific research.

In these early years of twenty-first century humanity is confronted with formidable, human driven global challenges. Some are already visible to us (a climate emergency, biodiversity loss, environmental pollution, etc.).  If we choose not to acknowledge what is real, according to the best available science and ‘lights’ we possess, it is inconceivable that the human community can respond ably to these and other heretofore unforeseen challenges. The blinding and deafening power of certain widely shared and consensually validated false memes regarding unbridled consumption, production and propagation activities of the human species, for example, have evidently mesmerized many experts, leading them to believe and erroneously confirm the notion that humankind is somehow not an integral part of the natural world we inhabit and ultimately not subject to biophysical limits to growth that are ultimately imposed on living things by a planet with the size, finite composition, and frangible ecology of earth. Fatally flawed, politically correct, economically expedient, ideologically grounded, preternatural perceptions have been widely shared and consensually validated as if they represented well-established evidence of science. Misleading memes of the human species as exceptional rather than as an interconnected part of a wondrous web of life of earth are broadcast ubiquitously as if these false memes  were somehow real.

What is supporting the perpetuation of false memes that deny uncontested scientific research? How can the human species be expected to adapt efficiently and effectively to the world in which we live when the reality of it is not seen because of the false memes? Can the monoculture known as modern civilization be sensibly considered in and of itself as cult-like to the extent critically important memes are bereft of scientific evidence, lack an adequate orientation to what is real, and govern human behavior?

Humankind needs to make changes in its behavioral repertoire rather than continue business as usual practices on a “primrose path” that is marked on both sides by an artificially designed, haphazardly growing, world-engulfing political economy. Instead of an ever-expanding economic colossus, another objective for human existence that is oriented to earth’s limitations needs to be deliberately chosen and vigorously pursued. The adamant advocacy and relentless pursuit of a planet ravaging, patently unsustainable global human enterprise simply cannot continue much longer, much less forever. Earth is not a teat at which the human species can endlessly suckle without literally ‘sucking’ the planet dry (i.e., dissipating earth’s limited resources, degrading irreversibly its frangible ecology and destabilizing irretrievably its climate). If the human community fails to respond ably to this existential situation, nature will.

Cornucopian economics is a false meme that expresses an undeniable fantasy because infinite economic growth in a finite world is impossible. Globalization of a culture known as western civilization is the materialization of a patently unsustainable, colossal construction based upon specious, woefully inadequate memes. A climate emergency, ecological degradation and resources dissipation are some of the worldwide ‘products’ of distinctly human overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities now overspreading the surface of the planet. Rather than continuing to function as deluded exceptions in the natural order of living things (e.g., self-proclaimed masters of the universe and space cowboys), humans can elect to behave sustainably as the miraculously evolving creatures of earth that we are.

Steve Salmony is a self-proclaimed global citizen, a psychologist and father of three grown children and 4 grandkids. Married nearly half a century. In 2001 Steve founded the AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population to raise consciousness of the colossal threat that the unbridled, near exponential growth of absolute global human population numbers poses for all great and small living things on Earth in our time. His quixotic campaign focuses upon the best available science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation of the Earth, in order to save the planet as a place fit for habitation by children everywhere and coming generations. He can be reached at [email protected].

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