1992-07-20: What We Lost in the Great War

What We Lost in the Great War (1992)

by John Steele Gordon (1944-), in American Heritage, July-August 1992

Gordon makes a good attempt, but without the proper tools, to build a structure which can explain the differences between the Western world before 1914 and after 1918.

He bases his result on the beliefs that: 1) the Nineteenth century was characterized by tremendous progress in the quality of life for the great majority of Western people; 2) the ideas of individual freedom and pursuit of happiness provided the basic impetus to that progress; 3) the post-war period experimented with other ideas (Marxism, Fascism) that worked less well; 4) the ideas of Adam Smith and J.S. Mill have been vindicated.

His result is that the recognition of the importance of the individual human can lead to a better future, expressed through “ordered liberty – the idea that individuals should be free to pursue their political and economic self-interests under the rule of law and within the limits set by a democratic society.”  He sees the past decade as evidence that more restrictive societies cannot survive against “the essential force of these nineteenth-century ideas.”

His error lies in the way he uses the notion of “idea”, and I think his result is too optimistic.  He seems to see human history as a stream of events, intertwined with ideas, in a sort of natural progression, i.e. it shows progress.  This value-laden approach proceeds without actually considering the value of the ideas in their contexts, and so he selects them according to his own, unanalyzed, preferences; the fact that he ended with an optimistic result says more about his own selection mechanisms than it does about the ideas he was working with.

It is an interesting question whether Gordon has read Pirsig’s Lila; I would be willing to bet (a small amount) that he has not.  Pirsig addresses the same subject with quite different machinery.  It is perfectly clear that Gordon has never heard of Dawkins’s memes.  Both of these are essential to a proper analysis of the important topic of what happened to society after the Great War.

The concept of memes is important because it emphasizes an essential aspect of ideas.  If not for the coining of this new word, people would continue to speak of ideas, and assume that everyone knew what they were talking about.  In fact, people usually don’t know what other people mean when they speak of anything less tangible than what they can see, hear or touch.  The concept of meme includes an essential aspect of what an idea is: it is something, a pattern of some kind of physical activity, that takes place in a brain (particularly a human brain).  In this sense it is analogous to the concept that a gene is a pattern of chemical activity that occurs in a living cell.  Like genes, which are ultimately expressed in the creation of the chemicals which make more life, memes are ultimately expressed in the creation of more patterns of neural activity that make a difference in the physical world, either physical or verbal action.  When this action is perceived by another person, it results in the activation of a previously existing meme in the observer, or the creation of a new meme.  Sometimes the newly created meme is essentially a copy of the meme in the actor’s brain which led to the action.  Thus memes can spread from brain to brain.  Also like genes, memes can combine with other memes into complexes that have greater survival value than the individual memes alone.  All the memes in this paragraph are descendents of memes that formed in Dawkins’s brain.  Now they are in your brain, too.  Think about it for a minute.

Another analogy between genes and memes is recombination.  A particular organism can receive different genes from its parents, in a combination that may never have occurred in nature before.  This organism may be more or less able to survive in its environment as a result.  If more able, it has a chance to pass this combination on to its progeny.  If less, it may never have any progeny, and the combination will die with it.  When a meme is formed in a brain, it is in an environment of many other memes, in a combination which may never have ocurred before.  The combination can affect the ability of the memes to replicate in other brains, and thus spread throughout a population.  This kind of replication can be enormously faster than genetic replication.  The replication, and associated variability, has driven and continues to drive the evolution of society.

The key point in evolution is the vague notion of survival value, which has been thrown around since Darwin, as if people understood what each other meant by it.  Pirsig’s contribution is to define more clearly what this means in the field of memetics.  (Incidently, I am willing to bet another small amount that neither Gordon nor Pirsig had heard of memetics when they wrote these works.)

Pirsig’s works are concerned with values.  Especially, he relates value and Quality (his Q).  To combine these two threads, a meme or meme complex has greater value to its possessor if it results in greater Quality for its possessor.  Pirsig’s thesis is that Quality is not something that needs a complicated analysis to measure, but rather that it is something that everyone can sense immediately; indeed attempts to analyze Quality obscure the direct sensation itself, and give low-quality results.  For instance, to step in a fire results in a distinctly obvious low-Quality situation.  A creature which cannot recognize this quickly will have a diminished chance of surviving; analysis is not a good thing in this case.  Memes for fire and fire-related caution have a great value for their possessor, conferring upon it a greater chance of surviving in the presence of fire (they are not much use to fish).

Pirsig’s contribution in Lila was to recognize four distinct realms of Quality, of which two realms are distinguished by particular types of memes.  The first two realms are simply the Physical (pre-organic) and Biological.  These realms were necessary before the later two could appear.  A critical aspect of the Biological realm is that it depends utterly on the Physical.  A physical environment cannot be eliminated, or even significantly altered, without destroying the biological community that exists within it.  The Biological realm can be characterized pretty accurately as maximizing a single value: Life.  Biological entities act as if they wanted More Life.  Most biological organisms do not support memes, but for simplicity they can be characterized this way, when we don’t want to deal with the real physical details involved in how they accomplish this apparent miracle.

The third realm arose out of the Biological, and Pirsig calls it the Social realm.  As with the Biological before it, it depends utterly on the preceding realm.  And as the Biological must control the Physical, the Social must control the Biological.  It is not coincidence that memes and the Social realm go together.  The interaction of social entities is necessary for the spread and evolution of memes.  Societies from pre-human to the present could be characterized by the (enormous) sets of memes their members possess.  Most of the memes (actually meme complexes) that exist today are those which have proved their survival value.  Some of the top-level ones are: protect the family, follow the direction of the leader, work hard for the good of our group, don’t let another group take advantage of our group.  These are based on innumerable others concerned with lower-level details: put dung on the seeds, fishhooks need barbs, a manager can effectively control five to nine subordinates.  In reality, memes don’t form a hierarchy, but the meme for hierarchy has proved valuable in the Social realm, and it has been pressed into many inappropriate uses.

Pirsig calls the fourth realm the Intellectual, but I prefer the term Reflective.  Much of the tremendous material progress achieved by the Social realm is based on memes which are concerned with the Biological and Physical realms.  At some point, memes arose which were concerned with the Social realm.  Since the Social realm itself is intimately tied up with memes, I call these memes about memes, or reflective memes.  The Reflective realm clearly is dependent on the Social realm.  The Social realm provides the supporting environment in which certain people could create and propagate reflective memes, even though some of these memes turned out to be destructive of parts of the Social realm.  As the Social realm must control the Biological, the Reflective must control the Social; this has not yet occurred, although it is a dominant theme of the Twentieth century.

An early recorded purveyor of reflective memes was Socrates.  His memes created a conflict with the other memes of Athenian society; they cost him his life, but they outlasted that society.  Some of the other reflective memes that have created conflict with the societies in which they propagated can be summed up in slogans (in fact this is an important aspect of their propagation), such as “Taxation without representation is tyranny.”  It has been said that all of American history can be seen as the working out of the consequences of five words: All men are created equal.

While the Social realm’s meme complex has been growing for at least a hundred thousand years, the Reflective realm has been growing for probably three thousand.  The Social realm has been using tools it developed to control the Biological realm against the Reflective realm, where they have been less effective.  The result has been increasingly harsh measures, and an increasing self-awareness within the Reflective realm of the danger it faces.

Barbara Tuchman (about whose work I have many reservations) wrote The Proud Tower, about the period from 1890 to 1914.  This has many examples of the memes that were prevalent in different parts of Western society, from Anarchists to English patricians.  Pirsig also characterized the attitudes of this period.  One way of looking at it is to see a preponderance of memes supporting social order, and a diminution of the memes that support individual liberty.

The progress of the Industrial or Victorian age was achieved by the work of many, controlled by few, in a classic display of the working of the Social realm.  One aspect of this realm is hierarchical organization, and the uneven distribution of the material fruits of society, and power, among the layers of the hierarchy.  Since the world supports a multitude of distinct societies, such as those in Europe, the Social realm fosters techniques to preserve and expand a society relative to its neighbors.  Part of this body of technique is to treat neighboring societies not as equals, but as parts of the Biological realm which every society must control; this same technique allows members at the top of a hierarchy to treat those near the bottom in the same way.  The meme for equality of all humans undermines this aspect of the Social realm.

The ability of a nation’s leaders, and its generals and other officers to order millions of members of the bottom of the hierarchy to their death is a pretty clear manifestation of these ideas about the realms and their memes.  Perhaps the saddest part is that so many men at the bottom subscribed sufficiently to their societies’ memes that they followed those orders.

The aftermath of the Great War was a reaction against the memes that dominated the pre-war Social realm.  Without much analysis, many members reacted in ways that denied the authority of the Social realm, and since this authority was primarily directed to the control of the Biological realm, the Twentieth century has seen an increase in tolerance of behavior originating in the pursuit of biological pleasure, and deterioration in the ability of societies to control this activity.  This has been most obvious in Western and Western-influenced cultures, and less so in non-Western cultures, such as the Islamic world and China.  The antipathy of these societies to the Western world is a natural reaction of their Social realm to the apparently rising Biological realm of the Western societies; they must see us as practically animals.

To the extent that this reaction weakens the Social realm, it also weakens the Reflective realm.  The notion of equality of humans cannot stand for long in a jungle, where only the strongest survive.  Gordon’s optimism seems to be based on a turning back of the clock to acceptance of the ideas of the age that enabled the Great War, but that is wishful thinking.  Instead what is needed, and will be difficult to achieve, is the integration of the stability provided by the Social realm with the individual liberty of the Reflective realm.  This will require the recognition that individual liberty has limits, and that limits are necessary to preserve the society against raw biology.  And of course, a workable combination of limits must be found.

This raises the question of who does the finding and who spreads the memes, and also how the memes are spread.  The finding will be done by reflective people, like Pirsig and Gordon and perhaps a million other people in the United States.  The spreading will take place by exposure, and demonstration.  It takes place in small ways by children observing their parents, and in larger ways by adults observing prominent adults.  These may be political leaders or movie stars, and the exposure takes place in newspapers, magazines, films and, especially, television.  Pirsig has pointed out the efficacy of celebrity in spreading ideas.  This is simply because celebrity is what we call the ability of one person to expose many others to his or her physical or verbal actions, which are the expression of his or her memes.  The difficulty arises from the fact that most people, including celebrities and script-writers, are not Reflective, in the sense I am using it, and don’t consciously select the memes that determine their actions.

In order for Gordon’s optimism to be vindicated, either appropriate memes, once found, must be adopted by one or more celebrities, or people who possess appropriate memes must become celebrities.  Since most Reflective people would decline to make the sacrifices involved with celebrity, the first approach will probably be more effective.


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