What Is a Metameme?

A metameme is a collection of interconnected, mutual dependent, non-arbitrary memes. “Metameme” is thus an overarching term for groups of other memes that helps us understanding the relation of one meme to another. (With “meme”, I’m not referring to the illustrated jokes kids pass around on social media these days, but rather the original idea proposed by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene from 1976.) One of my major theses in The 6 Hidden Patterns of History: A Metamodern Guide to World History is that memes come bundled in non-randomly ordered collections of developmentally determined “umbrella” memes constituting overarching stages. It’s these umbrella memes that I have chosen to dub “metamemes”.

The following is work-in-progress and is based on a few loose notes from Hanzi Freinacht’s work on his upcoming book ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’. This is the third book in Hanzi’s metamodern guides series. It takes on a developmental approach to world history and does so through the lens of six overarching developmentally derived patterns that Hanzi refers to as “metamemes”. Thanks to our monthly donators we can buy time to work on the book, so if you have a couple of bucks to spare each month, we would be very grateful if you could donate to Hanzi: https://donorbox.org/metamoderna.

Many memes often come bundled together so as to make up larger and more complex memes such as industrialism or Christianity. Both contain minor constituents, for instance the “corporation-meme” or the “God-meme” (which again can be torn apart into even smaller constituent memes if one wishes). But neither capitalism nor Christianity, vast and complex as they are, make up the most comprehensive collections of memes imaginable. On a higher level of abstraction, industrialism together with other memes such as capitalism (in its state- or free-market variant) and human rights are part of what has been known as “modernity”, or in my language, “the modern metameme”; and Christianity, or any other similar traditional religion, together with memes such as divine law (in one form or another) and the notion of a holy text are mere constituents of the “pre-modern”, or postfaustian, metameme. A “metameme”, such as modernity, is thus one of the largest collections of memes conceptually possible—it is the final step before ordering all memes into some vague undifferentiated notion of the “human mega-meme”.

For example, democracy and the scientific method are two memes that show up under the umbrella of the modern metameme; they walk hand in hand, just as other memes such as queer-feminism and environmentalism do within the postmodern metameme. The workings of this will be explained in detail in The 6 Hidden Patterns of History. The subject of this book is ultimately the emergence and development of these metamemes: large collections of complex hierarchical ordered memes that manifest themselves in human consciousness as cultural, scientific and political expressions throughout history.

Modernity and postmodernity are well-known examples of meta­memes that have been described in academic literature. But if we go further back in history, we’ll see that there have been several other metamemes, that it does not suffice to put everything before the modern era under the concept of “pre-modernity”—and, that in today’s supposedly modern world, the older metamemes are still alive and kicking.

It’s crucial to understand that a metameme is not a temporal entity, but a qualitative one. Modernity is, as pointed out by Adorno, not just a historical period. We may in the historical sciences say that the world entered the modern era about 250 years ago, but that doesn’t mean that the world back then became modern in the qualitative meaning of the word. Many parts of the world are yet to become modern, and many issues in the world today revolve around the troubles of putting the pre-modern way of living and thinking behind us and embracing modernity. At the same time, some of the so-called modern societies are struggling with a painful transition from a modern to a postmodern way of thinking and behaving. Consequently, when we dispose of our temporal notions of pre-modernity, modernity and postmodernity, a much clearer and nuanced picture appears that takes the ambiguity and messy reality of the present world into account. It makes us capable of differentiating between the many aspects of society, the various memes, which tend to be aligned with different and opposing metamemes.

It is important to stress that memes do not arbitrarily appear throughout history. The sequence of which memes emerge is developmentally determined. For technical reasons, it’s obvious that the meme of a functional automobile doesn’t emerge in a culture that hasn’t invented the wheel yet. Likewise, for societal reasons, the meme “queer-feminism” doesn’t appear in a traditional agrarian culture. Even though women and gay people may have thought one thing or the other about the apparent oppression they experienced in 13th century Romania, no one ever started to question the heteronormative and male chauvinistic discourses of society. Contrary to the technical difficulties of assembling an automobile in a pre-industrial society, nothing physically stopped anyone from developing a message about how women and gay people should be given equal status and how the dominant norms of society are skewed in favor of male, heterosexual privilege.[i] Yet no one uttered anything with a mere resemblance to these words until the modern era. How come? It didn’t appear because a meme like this requires other memes in order to be conceptually and culturally possible. To explain feminism to an oppressed farmer’s wife in ancient Egypt would have been a daunting task—to expect that meme to spontaneously emerge anywhere in a strictly religious agrarian and authoritarian society: impossible, not in a thousand years, literally. Not even Cleopatra, with all the privilege and time endowed to a woman of her status, came remotely close to developing a few lines of feminist scholarship.[ii]

Similarly, you don’t see the functional meme of an “airplane” emerge in a context that lacks the memes “combustion engine” and “aero-dynamics”, and the latter two memes won’t show up in a culture that hasn’t got the meme “scientific method”, which won’t emerge without the meme “nature is governed by universal laws or principles”, something that requires the notion of an almighty “god” or “universal force”, which again depends on the idea of a “spirit world” etc. ad infinitum. Likewise, feminism won’t emerge without memes such as “equal rights”, which won’t appear before the “rule of law” meme and so on.

Not only does this line of thinking assist us in explaining the logic of the chronological order in which different memes have appeared over time, why some memes emerge before others; it also helps us understand why some memes tend to be “allied” with other memes (i.e. democracy with human rights), while others tend to contradict, be opposed to or even right out hostile towards each other (i.e. divine right vs. science). This is because memes are also non-randomly ordered. They do not only emerge in developmentally dependent ordered sequences, but in equally developmentally dependent ordered sequences of sets; in short consistent and logical coherent groups of—you guessed it—metamemes!

What defines a metameme is that the memes within it together make up a coherent functional whole, one in which the various memes don’t contradict each other—too much that is. Any line of thought is incom­plete, and there are always minor inconsistencies that don’t add up to the whole picture. Usually, such disturbances are swept under the carpet in order to keep everything tidy. This is often appropriate when work is to be focused on completing the larger framework and a single incongruity here and there is of little concern. But, as Kuhn pointed out in his theory on paradigms, the many inconsistencies eventually come together and wreck the whole endeavor.

Initially, the contradiction between the idea of a free will, divine law and the prevailing political situation in feudal Europe was of little concern to medieval thinkers. In an agrarian economy, the political freedom of illiterate serfs was not an issue, and a social order in which kings determined the fate of their subjects didn’t appear to be in conflict with neither free will nor divine law. But as the economic conditions of non-nobles improved and thinkers started to explore the ultimate consequences of these ideas further, people began to question why free will didn’t entail political freedom and whether the kings ruled in accordance with any divine law at all. And if humans were given a free will, why didn’t that also entail the freedom to use one’s own reason to deduct the universal laws bestowed onto humankind?

Suddenly, the many contradictions of the old regime began to add up, and many of the new memes that emerged from this situation increasingly departed from the coherent structure of the existing metameme. A new metameme thus emerged from the logical contradictions of the former, but in accordance to its own logics. If no one stood above the divine law, why did only certain individuals have the right to interpret it? And if a divine law was supposed to be universal, why didn’t it apply everywhere, and how come it didn’t correspond to even more universal principles than the prevailing ones? The pre-modern metameme suddenly started to slip and fall on its own arguments when exposed to modernity’s more logical consistent principles. Yet, only because the pre-modern metameme consisted of memes such as “universality” and “equality before God” could even more universal principles such as “scientific truth” and “equality before the law” be deducted. That means that the political consequences deducted from the notion that “all men are created equal” (inherent in i.e. Christianity and Islam), such as democracy and human rights, could never have emerged in, say ancient Egypt, which explicitly had at its core that all men are not created equal, but that the rulers of society are gods, and that everyone else are their subjects. Only in a culture subscribing to the religious idea that all humans, including the rulers, are subject to God’s will, or any other divine principle, could an idea of political equality emerge. Similarly, only in a culture declaring that all men (and later women) are legally equal does the idea emerge that everyone should have the right to define their own gender and sexual orientation, and that hidden discourses discriminating against minorities, despite their legally equal status, were inherently unfair and had to be changed.

Hence, in a way, social justice is just a further-development of the established ideas in liberal democracies that anyone should have the freedom to live their lives the way they want (as long as they don’t hurt others) and everyone should be given equal legal status. However, the contes­tants of queer-feminism are in their critique of society simultaneously questioning the very core of modernity such as the belief that equal legal status automatically fosters equal social status, and the idea that gender is a cultural and social constant. As such: From the logic of one metameme, taken to its full conclusion, a new metameme emerges to expose the inconsistencies and inadequacies of its predecessor.

So as to return to the previous example of why feminism never took root in ancient Egypt: The main reason is not that people didn’t suffer from gender inequality and oppression, or that a fully feminist society would have been very difficult to achieve in an agrarian economy (we thus far have been unable to achieve one in an industrial economy), but that all the things feminism teaches, from equality to gender discourses, contradict everything the farmer’s wife—and her husband—knew and was capable of understanding.[iii] In fact, you might as well have asked her to develop a jet-engine.

This is because memes are developmentally determined, and that goes for all memes from the pure technical to the more ideological. That means that not any kind of meme can emerge, or take root, at a given time and place, but that the possible memes that can emerge and prosper are limited by which other memes currently exist. More specifically, the kinds of memes that may emerge in a given context depend on the overall developmental level of that cultural context’s other memes. In short, modern memes only emerge in modern societies, or, societies approaching modernity. Or to turn it around, the memes that do emerge only do so because they are in alignment with the overall structure and logic of all the other memes currently available, or, as a response to the current limitations and contradictions of that overall logic and structure. This is how we identify a specific meme as belonging to one metameme or another. And the memes that can emerge and function within a given metameme are only a limited type of memes that correspond with the overall developmental level of the metameme as a whole.

A metameme is thus a non-randomly ordered collection of memes in which the memes that don’t fit in with the other memes simply cannot emerge or co-exist without breaking the very logic of what holds the metameme together. Each metameme builds on its predecessor, but it is by definition not merely a further development of it. Not only is a metameme the overall context in which all other memes are ordered, non-randomly, but also the basis of which they are rejected if they don’t fit the overall logic and structure. So what differentiates one metameme from another is that they are always in direct opposition to one another. Just like modernity was in direct opposition to the ancien régime that came before, the postmodern metameme is in direct opposition to modernity. And with that opposition follows the threat of replacing its predecessor. Scary stuff. This dynamic explains much more of history than what it’s usually given credit to.

Why It’s Useful to Know about Metamemes

Different metamemes sure don’t like each other. The idea of a universal god initially didn’t fare well as it directly challenged and opposed the notion that the ruler was God; the idea that “nature is governed by universal laws or principles” which can be deducted via the scientific method wasn’t very welcome among conservative Christian thinkers as it challenged the very authority of God (and their own); and in our day, good-ol’ fashioned material-reductionist scientists are rarely too enthusiastic about fuzzy postmodern notions about the illusions of objectivity.

Have you ever wondered why intelligent and capable people, just like yourself, tend to be stuck in old thought patterns and don’t seem to accept the facts when presented to them? Why some people, despite being kind and outstanding citizens, have a hard time understanding basic science, or accept that it’s ok for gay people to live together? Why whole societies at one time or the other, despite the many advantages of implementing democracy and equality before the law, reject such ideas completely, or, when they accept them hardly seem to comprehend what the terms imply.

Power relations and the interests of those in charge tend to play an important role, but too often it’s the people of such nations who actually prefer authoritarian and religious ideas. It’s obvious that the population of Russia, for instance, has chosen a more traditional path. Pre-modern memes like tsar-like leadership and the Orthodox Church seem closer to the average Russian’s heart than modern ones like liberal democracy and pluralism. But even among the populaces of democratic Western nations, pre-modern notions remain widespread today. Although the meme “democracy” is well-rooted in this part of the world, many don’t seem to fully comprehend what it actually entails. Basic modern democratic memes such as the Montesquieuan principle of power division, respect of the individual and religious freedom seems rather absent in many people’s line of thinking, or if valued, often contradicted by other illiberal ideas.

It always seems to be a question of either or. You rarely have people who think abortion should be legal—because it’s every woman’s free choice—but who simultaneously believe homosexuality is a mortal sin. Never met a person like that. Likewise, you rarely find a person who’s concerned about global-warming, who also think evolution is a scam and that creationism should be taught in school. People tend to subscribe to the “whole package”. Feminists are usually also environmentalists and anti-capitalists; libertarians usually tend to put their faith in objective hard science and material progress; and conservative religious people are usually more romantically nationalistic inclined and staunch supporters of “traditional family values”.

So why is that? The former are all different kinds of memes, but not any kind of memes. Memes tend to be neatly packaged into larger overarching structures in which an entire coherent worldview rest. These are metamemes. Individuals usually tend to subscribe to one metameme or another, but also entire societies tend to subscribe to a single one, or more accurately, has one metameme as its memetic center of gravity; that is, has the ideas, norms and structures inherent to a metameme as its societal foundation. Most societies though have multiple centers of memetic gravity at the same time, pulling society in different directions, and when more than one center has a strong enough pull it appears as society is torn apart. Today we are living in a particularly multi-centered time where the gravitational shredding of society is particular noticeable. Somehow the old conflict between left and right (in economic terms) has diminished in importance compared to the rifts felt by the conflict between the pre-modern, modern and postmodern metamemes—something that has been amplified by today’s globalized and multicultural society.

The modern metameme, which has reigned superior since at least the end of the second world war, has started to crumble because of its inherent developmental limits. The many problems that have arisen from this has resulted in a situation where some of its legitimacy has been brought into question and a choice has emerged whether society should return to more “traditional” values and ideas, or embrace a more progressive postmodern path.

It may hurt a lot of feelings when confronted with the idea that this choice is not one between “equals”; that any choice isn’t as good as the other and simply a matter of preference. But the different metamemes have a highly developmental dimension. One metameme is simply, develop­mentally speaking, more in tune with contemporary society than another. One path is more correct than the other. One causes more suffering than another. One is more “developed” than the other. Ouch.

The conservatively inclined may not like that they are considered less “developed” than others. Neither of course is the modern main­stream person, who’d prefer everything to stay the same more or less. But the world doesn’t revolve around what you “feel”. What’s important is not what you like, but what is “right”. In The 6 Hidden Patterns of History I will argue that development is an obvious fact of history—and that it matters if we want to make the world a better place to live in, for all of us.

The developmental importance of metamemes is not to be neglected; in fact, it’s at the very core of this book. With a developmental understanding of metamemes, we not only get to understand why no tribal culture ever produced empirical science, we’ll also with clarity see why democratic organization doesn’t work very well in traditional societies or why notions of gender equality never occurred to people before the industrial era. Metamemes will help us understand why some societies don’t succeed in adopting obvious superior ways of organizing themselves, despite having all the necessary information available to them, and why some people rigorously, and sometimes even violently, oppose novel ideas that if put into effect would benefit their lives. Metamemes will help us understand why “progress” is never a straight path forward, but always a bumpy mess of a ride littered with casualties.

We need to note, however, that a metameme is not a spirit with a will or purpose of its own. Memes are rightfully agents of change, but there is no overarching intelligence that governs their actions, only blind logic—Darwinian logic to be more precise.

You might think that all this sounds rather uncontroversial, common sense that doesn’t need to be elaborated further. That history evolves through different stages as society changes and new opportunities and problems emerge. The educated reader might also point out that the whole story on modernity, postmodernity and what came before has already been discussed ad nauseam (and that it’s an altogether way too simple way of putting history together). But behold dear reader, there is much you have missed.

Firstly, the matter has not been thoroughly elaborated despite the hotly debated discourse in academia. Secondly, the various metamemes have not been adequately differentiated, and most of them haven’t even been identified. This is likely the result of metamemes being rather difficult to spot and keep apart. Because they are much more abstract and generalized phenomena than epochs, archeological remains, geographical regions, state formations, events, ideologies and religious traditions, to with they are usually mixed up, they tend to overlap and make the proper identification harder to conduct. Usually, discussions on modernity and postmodernity are clouded by the sheer fact that modern and postmodern features, or memes to be more precise, are present simultaneously along with all the remains and residuals of pre-modernity. Again, even if Adorno was wise enough to inform us that modernity is not a temporal entity, people have had a hard time taking the full consequences of this insight into consideration. When talking about these large overarching entities, you need to know exactly what you are dealing with in order to understand them properly. You need to see the logic of each metameme and filter out all the noise surrounding them in our everchanging, fuzzy reality.

In The 6 Hidden Patterns of History we will tease out the different aspects of these metamemes so that you will know how to recognize them. As history “progresses” through these metamemes, human life becomes increasingly memetic. It becomes ruled by, and saturated by memes. In our day and age, we are approaching the memetic reorganization of biology, the eco-systems and genetics itself. Memes have governed genes for some time, now the memes will become creators of genes.

Dawkins had it all wrong: It’s not the “selfish gene” that rules our actions, it’s the memes stupid! The memes are in charge now—have been for a while—ultimately deciding the fate of genes by changing, tweaking and selecting the most desirable traits whether it’s immunity to disease, fat sprouts in grains, docileness in animals, and soon, probably also human intelligence.

It’s gonna be one hell of a ride.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.

[i] A message like this may have encountered a very physical response in the form of violence, as it sometimes is today, but it’s highly unlikely that the mere fear of violence alone made people reluctant throughout all of pre-modernity in articulating a queer-feministic program, evident by the fact that history is full of other dangerous ideas and political demands that could be expected to be forcefully dealt with.

[ii] And no, being a powerful woman doesn’t make you a feminist, as it is sometimes mistaken by powerful bourgeois business women in the West.

[iii] The farmer wife, as many farmer wives in pre-modern cultures today, would probably agree that her husband should stop beating her and that she should be allowed more freedom, but feminism (as a scientific discipline and political agenda) is much more than the teaching that men should stop being dicks. For further information on feminism, please look it up, google (or any other comparable search engine) is your friend.