Jul 11, 2009

Seeds of the Future

source: National Geographic Magazine
Between 1700 and 1845, driven by a system of absentee land ownership organised to generate maximum export profit, the potato gradually replaced replaced other staple food crops in Ireland. In particular, a genetic variety of potato that thrived in poorer soils predominated. This reliance on a monoculture left the nation vulnerable, however, and in 1850, an infestation of potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) led to the Great Potato Famine, in which 20% of the Irish population died. Greater genetic diversity would have averted this tragedy.

The growth and spread of ideas is similar to that of genes. The field of memetics is based on the insight that memes -- which can be understood as ways of understanding -- behave like genes. Memes are to social systems and culture what genes are to ecosystems and agriculture. Different cultures carry different memes. Like genes, memes can mingle, intertwine, and evolve into become superior versions of themselves. Like genes, different environments support different memes.

With memes, as with genes, dependence on a single culture presents a mortal risk. How else can we explain events like the Holocaust, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Slavery in the United States, the current Financial Crisis...? Surely, if alternative ways of understanding -- alternative memes -- had been available and nurtured at the time, these infections of thought would not have bloomed into epidemics.

The threat of modern global culture to genetic diversity is being addressed by more than 1400 seed banks established around the world to secure plant breeds and crops -- including varieties of potato -- from extinction. Genetic varieties of crops that have little commercial value today may yet emerge to become staple crops in a changing environment. If these varieties are not preserved, the risk is famine.

Modern global culture poses an equal risk to memetic diversity -- the diversity of ideas and cultures. As with the threat to genetic diversity, the appropriate response is to collect, preserve, and nurture as much of the diversity as possible. In particular, we must preserve the ways of thinking of threatened cultures, for these ways may yet contain the salvation of the world.

How to preserve the memetic diversity of indigenous cultures? One approach is to preserve an appreciation of indigenous art. For the the seeds of ideas and culture are found in Art. Art attempts to communicate, at the most fundamental, human level, ways of seeing -- and living in the world. In experiencing and appreciating the art of marginalised cultures, we preserve highly evolved memetic structures -- ways of living that may be the key to survival in a future, changed, environment.

Consider that when leaders at the recent G8 meeting agreed on a 2 degree cap to global warming, they were, for the first time, placing priority on the environment on the economy. This was a signal shift in position, gaining headlines around the world. And yet traditional elders have been trying to tell the world for years: money is worthless without a hospitable environment; we must live in sustainable harmony with the earth. What else do they know? And what has already been lost?

Post Script

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