Chapter Fifteen – The Evolution of Culture

In chapter fifteen David Deutsch takes no prisoners. The Beginning of Infinity is certainly a non-PC book, and probably no chapter is less PC than this one. Deutsch gives no quarter to any society on Earth that is not Western. The best he says is that the golden ages of Athens and Florence were dynamic societies that failed, and that there may have been many other dynamic societies (all of which failed) that we don’t know about.

As for the rest, what Deutsch calls static societies, they all are “catastrophically harmful. Every static society must leave its members chronically baulked in their attempts to create anything positive for themselves . . . It can perpetuate itself only by suppressing its members’ self-expression and breaking their spirits . . .” (p 344) And he was just getting warmed up.

The chapter focuses on memes, of which I have only the vaguest notion. They are not nearly so rigid as genes, but unlike genes they must be expressed in order to replicate. Rational memes are those that move toward objective truth, while anti-rational memes disable their carriers’ ability to see the truth. And in our society, the West, we’re in a transition. There are still lots and lots of irrational memes out there (I’m looking at you, Pat Robertson) and they do everything they can to suppress criticism. “Because I say so,” is the classic anti-rational meme argument, sometimes with the threat of physical violence behind the words.

This chapter has some deeply interesting moments that could spawn decades-long discussions. When talking about Western culture’s affect on the other cultures of the world, Deutsch says, “Their cultures . . . cannot become static again. They must either become ‘Western’ in their mode of operation or lose all their knowledge and thus cease to exist . . .” (p 348)

As I said, this is not the book to read to a gathered group of multiculturalists. Or maybe it is.

Another interesting moment happens early in the chapter, when Deutsch makes the provocative claim that most evolution happens in our heads. We are able to conjecture ideas, then criticize and improve them, so rapidly that we far outstrip the ability of biological evolution to keep pace. “The whole of biological evolution,” Deutsch says, “was but a preface to the main story of evolution, the story of memes.” ( p 338)

And then finally, as he often does, Deutsch delivers his best insight at the end of the chapter. Static societies are known quantities. We know what they are, because virtually every society that has ever existed on Earth has been static. Dynamic societies have been rare, and all but one (so far) has failed. This is not reason for pessimism, but it is something to keep in mind. “(W)hat we are attempting – the sustained creation of knowledge – has never worked before. Indeed, everything that we shall ever try to achieve from now on will never have worked before.” (p 352). The Post-Enlightenment West is unique in its ongoing ability to keep advancing. We’ve successfully solved our problems – and in the process, inevitably created new ones. And, as we will learn later, that is precisely why we must keep moving.