Body Snatchers

Every evening, the ant would leave the colony and climb to the top of a blade of grass. Then, the ant would pierce the top of the grass with its strong jaws and wait there. At dawn, it would return to the colony and continue to perform its daily routine. Yet, night after night, the same ritual would be repeated until one evening, a passing sheep ate the blade with the ant on it and, inadvertently, gave a successful conclusion to the complex process behind this apparently unremarkable scenario.

One obvious question to ask would be: what benefit could possibly accrue to the ant from a behavior that caused its death? However, the question that can point us in the right direction to solve the mystery is “Cui bono”. In other words, “who benefits?” On closer examination, the real beneficiary is a parasite called “Lancet fluke” (Dicrocoelium dendriticum) which needs to reach the intestines of grazing mammals in order to reproduce. A group of them will start their lives in the digestive tract of a snail and after being excreted, will invade the body of an ant. At that point, one of them will take control of the ant’s nerve cells. That will enable them to direct the ant every evening to the top of a blade of grass until a sheep eats both the ant and the grass. Afterwards, the parasites will live their adult lives inside the sheep and reproduce. When the new parasites (in a larval state) are excreted by the sheep, a passing snail will give a new beginning to the reproductive cycle.
This extraordinary adaptive strategy illustrates perfectly a type of behavior that is driven to benefit someone other than the being actually displaying the behavior. This has been one of the examples used by Daniel Dennett to explore the concept of “meme”. Originally introduced by Richard Dawkins in his book the “Selfish Gene”, Dennett has defined a “meme” as “an information-packet with attitude–with some phenotypic clothing that has differential effects in the world that thereby influence its chances of getting replicated. What is a meme made of? It is made of information, which can be carried in any physical medium”. They are remarkably similar to parasites like the “Lancet fluke” in that they will drive the behavior of their hosts to their own replicating benefit even if it is, in certain cases, at the cost of the host’s life. Those memes can be the result of sheer chance but once generated, they may be replicated again and again, even if the agents that contribute to their replication derive no benefit at all, or are actually harmed, by doing so. Dennett has explained brilliantly how the use of this point of view can provide deep insights into many aspects of the evolution of items as diverse as languages, political ideas, ceremonies, edifices, tools, myths, music, art, etc. There is a huge spectrum of intensity and reach for all sorts of memes, from powerful ones like “capitalism “or “communism” that have led to wars and define large societies, to small ones that may produce effects like a certain way of greeting other group members or how to indicate social approval.
It seems that being affected by memes is just a natural consequence of being human. In fact, some of them have proven to be beneficial (“mutalist”) like the meme of a certain type of fishhook that may enhance the ability of a community to fish more efficiently and feed its members. However, as Dennett has pointed out, it is not always easy to detect which memes actually have a really positive effect on us. One of the main obstacles is that some of them may have a positive effect in the short run but may harm us in the long run. We humans rely on rules of thumb like “if it feels good, keep it” in order to decide what to preserve. Consider the widespread use of sugar and the endless development of products, practices, recipes, patterns of agriculture, trade routes that have been derived from the appreciation of sugars. They all are the result of a strong human preference, even if in the long run, those same products may ruin the health of their consumers. This type of development is remarkably powerful because unlike the development of viruses or genes, it is not constrained by obvious physical limitations.
Despite the subtle arguments put forward by Dennett, there seems to be a logical consequence of the existence of memes that remains to be addressed. How can we identify those that may harm us? And even if we do so, how can we block their influence on our behaviour? Sadly, there is not anything that an ant can do once invaded by the “Lancet fluke”.  Can our fate be any different? I believe that it is crucially important to develop more refined detection mechanisms that will help us identify, as early as possible, those memes that might be able to harm us. That seems particularly challenging given that some of them could be aided by other fellow humans in the hope that they will profit from our tragedy. Perhaps a stronger dose of scepticism and a sharper focus on long-term benefits (rather than immediate gratification) would go a long way to protect us from harmful “body snatchers”. Alas, I guess those are “memes” no longer in fashion…What do you think?

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