Why do we act the way we act and believe the things we believe? The obvious answer is culture, that waxy soup of human experience into which we are all perpetually dipped. Culture lends a malleable overarching substance to our otherwise individually isolated existences.
Despite scientific efforts to slice away our subjective cultural identities from data analysis we are all subject to the culture we are immersed in. To become alienated from our culture is to dance with madness. Many cerebral science fiction concepts, from the original 1970’s Russian film Solaris to the very recent Sam Rockwell vehicle Moon, deal with individuals that are sliced away from their previous cultural environment. Deep schizophrenic madness inevitably follows. If you were to become isolated on an exploratory trip to Jupiter, how would you occupy your mind and body so that you would not become insanely depressed or psychotic? To be severed from our culture and then be expected to perform meaningful analysis or to function normally is unreasonable.
Which brings us to the scientific split of the gene and the meme. The gene is our personal biological culture; it sets us up with probable biological reactions. The meme is the external cultural counterpart to the gene hypothesized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 publication The Selfish Gene. Theoretically genes and memes influence each other like the double helix dynamic of DNA. Dawkins proposes that memes, like genes, desire to replicate themselves to prevent their obsolescence. It matters not, to the gene or the meme, whether the material is pertinent to viable success within the greater cosmic experience.
My favorite example of a meme that I have studied extensively is the – Bless You – meme. Sneezes are genetic responses. Research on the origins of why people say bless you, or anything at all, in response to a sneeze reveals that there is no authentic reason. Yet, throughout the world with documentation going back to at least 2,000 years ago, it is some kind of cultural blasphemy to let a sneeze go ignored. Why? There is no reason whatsoever, other than that it’s been culturally conditioned. This activity is its own form of madness called rational irrationality by the economist Bryon Caplan in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter. When culturally conditioned behavioral response overrides functional real world application we have dangerously set our independent minds on cultural cruise control.
The task of the scientist in the new millennium will be to find the balance between the dangerous insanities of cultural hyper-alienation and pre-programmed irrationalities. Meanwhile, if I don’t acknowledge a sneeze it is because I am conducting important research. Gesundheit.
Gunnison Valley Observatory houses the largest community telescope in Colorado. Regularly scheduled open viewings begin May 12, 2010. Please contact the GVO at (970) 642-1111 or www.gunnisonobservatory.org for more information and scheduling.