For want of a meme

by Chris Struble
September 2001

Daniel Quinn’s Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure is a thought-provoking book that uses arguments humanists may find familiar to arrive in new and largely unexplored cultural territory.

Quinn examines the question of whether the hierarchical culture we call “civilization” is a final, unsurpassable invention and why we refuse to abandon it even though it is not sustainable and is clearly carrying us to our own extinction.

Quinn borrows the concept of the meme, first described in Richard Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene to tackle this problem. Just as genes are the chemical bits that make up the blueprints for our bodies, memes are the cultural bits that make up the blueprints for our beliefs and assumptions about the world. Like genes, memes pass from person to person, in a sense using humans to perpetuate themselves. And like genes, memes can be benign early on but become lethal later.

His story goes roughly like this: about ten thousand years ago, a group of humans living in Mesopotamia adopted a new meme, the idea that agriculture was the only right way for humans to live, and that humans should not be subject to the limits of nature. They then set about clearing, planting, multiplying, building pyramids and monuments, and exporting their meme by example and conquest, never giving it up, to the point where today only a handful of tribal cultures live differently.

Such a meme must exist, Quinn reasons, because agriculture is initially a much harder way of life than a hunter-gatherer existence, and also because many New World cultures that experimented with civilization later gave it up, returning to a simpler existence. In particular, the Olmec, Maya, and the people of Teotihaucan in central Mexico, all built great cities only to abandon or destroy them, and the Anasazi in the American southwest adopted an intensive agricultural life only to walk away from it. But Old World cultures almost never returned to a hunter-gatherer existence once they adopted agriculture, because they also adopted the idea that agriculture was the only way to live. In his books, Quinn refers to this meme as the “Taker” culture.

Modern people may recoil at the idea that they are aggressive agriculturalists. After all, only a small percentage of the population actually engages in farming today. But no one questions that the only way to get food is to buy it from someone else who grew it. We tend to view hunter-gatherer peoples as savages, and even modern recreational hunters as some kind of throwback. When we want to test someone’s mettle (think of the TV show Survivor) we don’t hand them a sack of grain, a pair of oxen, and a wooden plow and tell them to farm to feed themselves (which would almost certainly kill them). We tell them to adopt a hunter gatherer existence, because our culture has taught us that is a miserable way for humans to live, despite the fact that it has sustained humans on this planet for over three million years and could continue to do so, if only there weren’t so many of us.

While Quinn recognizes that we can’t go back to a hunter-gatherer existence, he suggests that we can “walk away from the pyramid” and go forward to adopt new sustainable ways of making a living based on the tribal model. He then sets out to describe what such a new model might look like, as well as what it isn’t, and how we might go about making it happen.

Quinn would be the first to admit that he struggles at this. Just as the people of the Middle Ages couldn’t imagine the Renaissance, those of us who are alive today cannot completely imagine how people will think in the future or what kind of societies will enable humans to survive sustainably on this planet. In the end, he leaves this problem as an exercise to the reader. But he leaves some guideposts by making it clear that he isn’t talking about revolution, passing new laws, going off and starting a commune, or any of the other ways that people typically think about changing the world.

This is a book that one may have to read several times to “get it”. In particular, Quinn makes frequent and rather casual reference to ideas in his earlier books, including Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael. Some of the terms he uses (such as the “Taker” culture) are defined in his other books, and may seem odd if you haven’t read his other books.

Some may also find Quinn’s style pedantic and argumentative. I realized after reading Beyond Civilization and Ishmael that he reminds a lot of Ayn Rand. Though their politics are of course radically different, in a way they are advocating the same thing, that people should refuse to be a part of a culture that is exploiting them and destroying the world. Of course, definitions are everything. Rand was opposed to socialism that she perceived as being bent on exploiting the talented and destroying the human world. Quinn is opposed to consumerism that he percieves as being bent on exploiting everyone and destroying the natural world. I must admit I find Quinn’s message far more compelling.

Quinn’s message is different in another important way, in that he advocates living in the Taker world as we go about changing it and distancing ourselves from it incrementally, at the individual level. We don’t have to wait until the “culture of maximum harm” crashes, and we certainly don’t want it to, because we have to go on living here. We can begin to make a difference right now.

Despite its flaws, Beyond Civilization, together with Quinn’s other books, has changed my thinking. If you are looking for a book that challenges your assumptions about the world and offers hope for a better way, this is one.

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